In his book Grassroots Spirituality (2004, Imprint Academic), Robert Forman documents a huge sociological shift in the last generation away from strict barriers between religions and toward a shared spirituality. His metaphor (pp. 89, 98-100) is a village green:
It is as if the residents of the various religious houses have wandered into some huge village green to chat with each other. Then they’ve taken what they’ve learned from each other back to their respective houses, and have taught their followers (in their own respective languages) what they’ve learned. (Parenthetical insertion mine)
That’s a beautiful image, and I hope it is so.
Religions, like any institution, are nothing more than the collective expression of the individuals who comprise them. We project the level of our maturity and development onto these institutions and they become magnified by the power of the collective consciousness they embody. Governments, for instance, can be like the government of Costa Rica, which reflects the collective expression of a people who have decided that an investment in a standing army would compromise investment in things like education and health care. Whereas the people of North Korea have invested to the extreme, it seems, in paranoia and its protection. In the United States, we worship wealth so much that we are willing to give it to a very few, just to dream that someday it might be possible for the rest of us. In each case, collectively, we believe that this is the way things should be.
The unique thing about religions is that they reflect our collective approaches to mystery, to the unknown and to our longing for meaning. In the presence of mystery, many things are contrasted:
- Trust and fear
- Meaning and nihilism
- Pattern and accident
- Time and eternity
- Obligation and freedom
These are scary issues. Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we address them with the gods we make and the religions we construct as their playpens. In essence, we create metaphors for an unnamable mystery. Trouble comes when we begin to believe our metaphors, to make them real and concrete rather than beautiful poetic expressions of our experience with mystery. And when enough of us agree strongly enough that our metaphor is the real deal, we cannot possibly admit that another may have relevance. That is, in fact, the true meaning of idolatry. Our levels of judgment, when we have solidified and latched onto our religious creation – our idol – will vary on a scale from a knowing toleration of the misguided to violent annihilation of the infidel.
Who knows, someday someone may even take this two trees metaphor and build a new religion with which to judge, measure and exclude others. There will be shrines to the trees and people will bring offerings to avoid damnation, the certain consequence of irreverence. And non-believers will be hung daily from the branches.
But true reverence in the face of mystery requires nothing more than silent awareness. There are those in every faith that have gone deep into that silence, who through practice have stripped themselves bare of all the trappings in order to experience whatever touches them. The deeper they go, the closer they approach oneness with the mystery.
Whatever tent they hale from, these beings move freely about the village green. They know that the ground that supports us and the air that enlivens us are the same for all, in all places and all times.
We stake out the shelter of our little communities of faith, fine and good for protection and a sense of family. But the ground and the air are never ours alone and our tent shelters no one if it is less than welcoming to all. Our true home is the earth and the air, the ground of all being and the breath of life. We need not fear it. Nor should we fear the tents that are not ours or their inhabitants.
Let’s enter and engage freely on the village green. Let’s share together the sustenance of the Tree of Life and the river that waters it.
© Two Trees in the Garden. Share what is useful. Please quote the source.