Tim Shriver: Our religions can unite us if we build them back better
Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Kamala Harris have won the highest offices in the land and been named president- and vice president-elect. Their electoral victory thrilled over 70 million Americans, but an almost equal number suffered disappointment. So while many, myself included, believe that a President Biden will be the best person to heal our country and build a more just and inclusive future, others are likely to resist and feel excluded.
A political figure of either party can only accomplish a partial healing. The pandemic of disease on top of the pandemic of division—which has long been building—is revealing deeper diseases within us. Centuries of racism, inequality and indifference have crested in a moment of national reckoning. Religions and religious practices must play a key role in transforming this moment from one of despair to one of hope.
Religious institutions and religious traditions in the United States have no official role in lawmaking, but they do have a role in shaping our attitudes, beliefs and convictions. Even in a time of declining religious engagement, religions play an outsized role in shaping the conscience of the country, and the vast majority of Americans consider themselves believers. We are living in a crisis of collective meaning and purpose that has led to divisiveness and fear. When we reopen our churches, synagogues and mosques, we need to build back a better version of faith, of shared meaning and of collective purpose. When the Covid-19 pandemic is over, we need to build our relationship with God back better.
Of course, we do not need to change God. But we do need to change how our religious traditions present the many and diverse faces of God. We often look to our religious leaders for moral guidance, for help in sorting out good from bad and right from wrong. But as important as morality is for achieving justice and goodness, it is only part of the work of a healthy religion. It is not audacious to suggest that, in this moment, our society would benefit if religions placed greater emphasis on the particular rituals, teachings and practices that focus on unity. Without ignoring the beliefs that make them unique, religious leaders must urgently cultivate the dimension of their respective faiths that is most likely to heal painful divisions between groups and promote oneness, interdependence and unconditional love. If we are going to be able to unite, we will need religion to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
This should not be difficult. Virtually every religious tradition has within it an invitation to experience both the divine and the human as being “at-one.” The great Jewish tradition of atonement marks the journey from separation to at-one-ment. The great Christian hope “that they might be one” is celebrated in every denomination. The holy names of Allah in Islam include that God is one, all-loving and indivisible.
Virtually every religious tradition has within it an invitation to experience both the divine and the human as being “at-one.”
That lesson of unity often gets lost, but there is a resource for reviving it: the mystics. The mystics of all the great traditions teach that the experience of oneness is not only attainable but also essential. Being “at one” is pursued in practices of silence, stillness and simplicity—practices that are not the everyday fare of most religious gatherings. But when these practices are taught and sustained, believers are invited into a whole new way of seeing where oneness and beauty are not only what we recognize in others but also the lens through which we see.
In the Christian tradition, the mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “Be one so that you may find God,” and we can hear echoes of this same insight in Islam’s great poet, Rumi, in Judaism’s great prayer, the Shema, and in countless teachers of wisdom. We need to encourage everyday believers to follow the mystics in this way, to become people who trust the presence of oneness because they have experienced it themselves.
At a certain level, we seem to know this already. We have all experienced oneness in one way or another. We have felt the hunger to love all things and all people, a desire to heal the wounds of others whom we do not even know, a sense that we are all held and safe in a tender embrace more gentle and powerful than we can imagine. Many young people find these experiences in nature. Others find them in those they love. Still others find them in struggle and solidarity against injustice. In the L’Arche communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together, they remind each member of the community that “you are more beautiful than you dare imagine.” Beyond what we dare imagine lies what we most deeply are: equal in the sight of God.
We need a uniter’s eye to learn slowly and gently to create communities where everyone belongs, without exception.
To welcome these experiences can make all the difference. Oneness does not end the work of seeking moral or ethical justice but it can guide it. By being invited to view life through a lens of unity, we see a larger wholeness where our differences are not erased but rather affirmed and made safe. By seeing from oneness, the choices that lead to justice and the building up of the kingdom of God appear more and more clearly. By seeing from oneness, the arrogance and power games of the ego are exposed and transformed. Perhaps most important, by seeing from oneness, we find ourselves always and endlessly seeking the good of others because we know it is no different from the good of ourselves.
That is what our country needs now. We need a uniter’s eye to learn slowly and gently to create communities where everyone belongs, without exception. We need a uniter’s eye to help ease the tension within our families and communities. And with a uniter’s eye, we do not gloss over pain and complexity but rather welcome it, understand it and ultimately live it with tender honesty. That is where the power of faith is needed—in coming to be able to transform division with love and justice and compassion.
What a difference it would make if ministers, religious leaders and authority figures in the churches, mosques, synagogues and temples of the United States were to make a joint commitment to unite our country with sacred practices of oneness. What a difference it would make if we constructed a new normal after this pandemic where these leaders created common prayers for unity and healing—prayers grounded in each distinct faith tradition but also grounded in the oneness of divinity that binds us together, recognizes our interdependence and delights in the overwhelming goodness of God. We should be able to count on our religious leaders to remind us that in our country, as in the world, we are all neighbors and that this era of division and scapegoating and violence should be met by people of faith with healing, transformation and change.
Decades ago, a Baptist minister transformed the heart and soul of the United States in large part by appealing to the deepest and most profound truths of his Christian tradition and by including all Americans in his vision. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did this by emphasizing the call to unite from his tradition but without separating his faith from his capacity to see each of his fellow Americans as his brothers and sisters. And he made his appeal without violence or demonization or superiority or hatred—the telltale sign of a uniter spirit. Surely his work is unfinished, and surely ours is now more urgent than ever.
When we return to our churches, synagogues and mosques someday soon, I hope we return to a faith that unites us rather than divides us. That would surely be a better vision of God, and therefore, a better version of ourselves, too.
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