Thursday, July 30, 2009

Polarities

As I continue to slowly digest my way through the theopoetic stylings of Jalal-a'din Rumi, I'm reminded of a strange paradox that occurs in our faith traditions.

That paradox occurs at the outer edge of the world's belief systems, where radically disparate theologies end up looking pretty much identical in practice. Islamic fundamentalists are really not all that different from Christian fundamentalists, who share many characteristics with ultra-Orthodox Jews, who aren't all that different from Hindu fundamentalists. Within all of these movements, the "other" is viewed with suspicion and/or outright hostility. Different traditions are a threat to the integrity of faith. Faith itself is radically dependent on tradition, whether that be in a sacred text or forms of ritual practice. That faith is viewed in radically binary terms, which is often framed by the language of conflict. Though the ultra-orthodox in every tradition would deny any meaningful spiritual ties with the others, they are, in terms of how the rubber meets the road, functionally the same.

On the other polarity of the world's faith traditions, there is an opposite but very similar phenomenon. As I've studied the mystical traditions in Christianity, what I find is that there is very little difference between someone like Meister Eckhardt or Jacob Boehme and someone like Martin Buber or Jalal-a'din Rumi. For the mystics, the divine is radically unifying, even outside of the bounds of their tradition. Their radical love for and yearning for God shatters not just the boundaries of the self, but also shatters the ways they categorically define "us" and "them." More striking, the experience of God that the mystics articulate is essentially the same. It is flavored by the language and concepts of the tradition from which the mystic comes, true, but the underlying experience appears to be something that transcends culture and language. Mysticism steers away from conflict, which is typically seen as a sign of spiritual failure. Instead, mystical faith finds that in seeking union with God, union is found with others. It is suffused with gentleness and grace towards the other.

It would appear, then, that among our many paths of faith there are two poles towards which we can be drawn. Both articulate, in their own way, an absolute. But one leads one way. Another leads the other.

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