Interspiritual Dialogue

The Mystic Heartby Wayne TeasdaleNew World Library. 308p $23.95

The Mystic Heart is as an excellent survey and overview of the present state of interfaith or multifaith spirituality at the end of the 20th century. Wayne Teasdale, the author of several books and many articles on interreligious topics, and co-editor with George F. Cairns of the recent The Community of Religions: Voices and Images of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, has put together a truly thought-provoking bookone that should prosper as a useful primer in the field of interreligious dialogue. A helpful glossary, ranging from atma to Zen, provides capsule summaries of terms Teasdale has coinedsuch as book of creation and, most importantly, interspirituality. The book includes a good bibliography and index as well.

Teasdale’s approach here is one that is more than merely intra-Christian. Getting to the heart of interspiritual dialogue is the book’s chief premise. He takes an approach that is partly visionary, partly prescriptiveand wholly ecumenical in the widest sense of the term. Buddhist and Hindu thought particularly engage him. The author strongly promotes the benefits of what he calls interspirituality, which he defines as the mystical quest for the ultimate that he thinks is at the heart, root and core of the dialogue among the world’s religions. Teasdale’s interspirituality embraces the "new science" of Frijof Kapra and the transpersonal psychology and consciousness studies of Ken Wilber. He echoes his spiritual mentor, Bede Griffiths, as he shows how the new science complements the mystical aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sufi Islam and Kabbalah Judaism.

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Teasale says there is a definite need for a new spiritual synthesis that will help propel a holistic transformation of humanity. Meditation, service, nonviolence and a new level of environmentalism that seek to engender a sacred respect for the earth are some of the key components of interspirituality. He believes that this holistic approach will afford a new compass, direction and as yet not fully realized depth in the interreligious dialogue.

Looking at his own Roman Catholic tradition, the author seeks a significant new renewal of the Church of Rome. A Catholic from birth, he remains faithful and rooted in Catholicism. But he does not draw back from taking the church to task for its sinswhat he describes as predominantly sins of omission. Teasdale’s salient critique of the 21-year papacy of John Paul II provides most of the interreligious fireworks in the book. Will the pope and the Vatican finally speak out about the serious plight of Tibet and its long-suffering people? Under their Chinese Communist colonial overlords since 1950, the Tibetans have experienced a severe and repressive and bloody rule, with upwards of 1.5 million Tibetans killed.

The church’s historical tragic flaw, as Teasdale sees it, is not, however, a primarily personal one. It is rather, at its root, institutional. Teasdale argues that Pope Pius XII’s nearly 20-year papacy (1939-1958) utterly failed even to address, let alone condemn, the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust’s Final Solution directed against European Jewry (but not limited to the Jews) in the 1930’s and 40’s. Now, today, Teasdale says the church has a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of the world, and more crucially, as the agent of Jesus Christ in the world. This redemption and renaissance in the church, he says, will occur only if the Vatican’s policy of public silence and diplomatic stonewalling in the face of China’s ever more repressive policies toward the Tibetan people gives way to a more outspoken defense of religious and cultural freedom for Tibet. Teasdale does, however, give the church credit where it is due. He applauds the church’s role in the rise of Solidarity in Poland in 1981, and in the subsequent fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. He notes that events there were significantly inspired, if not actually orchestrated, by the powerful example of John Paul.

The unique and singular achievement of The Mystic Heart is, however, the author’s willingness and indeed eagerness to take the reader beyond the normal political and sports metaphors, and the obsessions indulged in by too many religious writers and journalists today. And, too, the author’s intellectual vigor preserves the book from the all too common "New-Age-speak" currently in fashion. The book ably surveys such influential figures in the East-West dialogue as Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths and Raimundo Pannikkar, among others.

Teasdale is quite open about his gratitude to the Cistercian Thomas Keating, one of the pioneers of the centering prayer movement who was a very early influence. And he extols his spiritual mentor, Dom Bede Griffithsthe English Benedictine who shepherded Shantivanam, a Christian ashram in South India, until his death in 1993. Teasdale’s long association with Bede Griffiths, including extended stays at the ashram in India, sparked a deep spiritual transformation in his own life that culminated in his receiving initiation from Bede, in 1989, into Christian sannyasa. Christian Sannyasa is a Christ-centered variation on Hinduism’s age-old path of renunciation in the quest for Absolute Reality (or Brahman, or God).

In one of the book’s strongest and most engaging passages, the author looks at what he calls "nature mysticism," wherein he discusses the profound, and profoundly underappreciated, art of the visionary early 20th-century Russian painter Nicholas Roerichsome of which can be easily seen at the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York. Roerich was an artist and mystic who left his native Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover, moved to New York, traveled widely in Central Asia and Tibet, and later settled in India, where he died in 1947. He was a genuine embodiment of the interspirituality ideal that Teasdale espouses throughout the book. (A minor caveat is in order here: One wishes the author had gone even further than he has in charting his own personal journey as an interspiritual mystic and teacher.)

Teasdale concludes the book with his visionary proposal for a "universal order of sannyasa" that would be open to all who seek to cultivate interspirituality in their lives. As such, it would be made available to married and single people, as well as religious and monastics, of all faiths. On this grace note, The Mystic Heart leaves us with the reasonable hope that the world of the 21st century will indeed be positively marked by the influence of many so-called ordinary mystics, men and women who live in the world, not in the cloister. While, as Teasdale observes, the religious and clergy have until now predominated the interreligious dialogue, he envisions that a newly interspiritualized laity will have an expanded role in future dialogue. They will constitute a significant presence and help shape the direction of the essential, ongoing interspiritual conversation.

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