As a liberal Episcopalian, I have always maintained, almost as an unquestioned tenet of faith, that there are many roads to the top of the mountain and that no one religion has an exclusive highway to God. Therefore I found myself challenged by an article in The Boston Globe (a tip to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish for alerting me to it) that accuses such thinking as being “untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.”
The article has the merit of getting me to examine my views. It’s also getting me to rethink a poem that I have always found both powerful and problematic, Henry Vaughan’s “The World.” More on that in a moment.
The author of the article is Stephen Prothero, whose God Is One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter has just been published by HarperOne. In the article he takes shots at everyone from Oprah Winfred to the Dalai Lama. Here’s how he opens:
At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are true. This claim, which reaches back to “All Religions Are One” (1795) by the English poet, printmaker, and prophet William Blake, is as odd as it is intriguing. No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so self-evidently at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, both essentially the same and basically good.
This view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture, not least on the Oprah Winfrey Show and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, “Eat Pray Love,” where the world’s religions are described as rivers emptying into the ocean of God. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God,” has made a career out of emphasizing the commonalities of religion while eliding their differences. Even the Dalai Lama, who should know better, has gotten into the act, claiming that “all major religious traditions carry basically the same message.”
Prothero’s argument, as I understand it, is that while all the religions may start from the same place—that the world is broken—they travel up very different mountains. In fact, comparing them is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Some believe in sin, others don’t, some believe in a God, other’s don’t, and so on. When Houston Smith says that it is a mistake “to claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion,” he himself is mistaken to think that all religions are in fact interested in salvation. Some are, some are not.
Prothero says that any attempts to merge the world’s religions is to be guilty of universalist pabulum. He considers people who think this way to be dangerous because, say, they might underestimate the difference between Sunnis and Shias and therefore misunderstand the Middle East conflict.
I haven’t read Prothero’s book so I don’t know whether he is really touching the heart of religion. He may, as a reviewer on Amazon.com claims, be confusing religion with God. Does he distinguish true Islam or true Christianity from what happens to those faiths when they get contorted by fanatical followers?
For instance, I do not hear the love of Jesus in the words of evangelist Franklin Graham when he says, “We’re not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion.” I don’t hear a man in search of the divine but a man striking out in fear and using words meant to wound.
When I think of the God of the Christian faith, I think of something closer to the Dalai Lama’s idea of compassion than Graham’s righteous judgmentalism. Likewise, I feel like I have found a fellow traveler in the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. So does this means that Episcopalians (or this one at least) are closer to Tibetan Buddhism and mystic Islam than they are to Southern Baptists? Or would Prothero call me an impure believer? In Prothero’s eyes, do only religious purists get to define a faith tradition?
Graham says, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. [The quote continues, “No one comes to the Father but through me.”] I do not believe that there is any other way to God except through Him.” I too believe this. When Graham talks of Jesus, however, he is talking (I think) of a certain set of prescribed rituals, rituals that include (for all I know) full immersion adult baptism. Whereas I hear Jesus talking, not about Southern Baptist practice, but being at one with the divine. Jesus is “the way” in a deep sense that could also include, depending on the spiritual practices, mystic chanting, ritual dancing, transcendental meditation and the like.
I’m no religion expert and am out of my depth here. But I suspect that, if one were to look at almost any religious person, one would find more cafeteria practice than many would admit. We take what seems be true to us and pass over that which doesn’t. American Catholics are famous for doing this but so, I think, are most other people. In fact, humans have been mixing and matching belief systems since the dawn of time. It’s called syncretism.
Which brings me back (at last!) to Henry Vaughan. “The World” has amazing images of mystic vision. But no sooner does the poet describe such a vision than he focuses on all the people who don’t get it. Then, after talking about all the ways they mess around and calling them fools for their blindness, he has a sudden insight: they don’t get it because God reserves insight for “his bride”—which is to say, a select few.
Almost all of my students balk at this conclusion, as do I. Democrats that we are, we don’t like this notion of some being included and everyone else excluded.
But if I were to read this poem through Prothero’s eyes, maybe we would say, “Okay, in Vaughan’s terms, only the few get in because only a few see salvation in this way. In his own terms Vaughan is right, but in our own belief system, we believe something else. So he can go to his heaven with his elect and we’ll go to our own religious goal, whatever it is, and hang out with our own elect. In fact, maybe there are a whole bunch of different heavens and non-heavens and different groups are hanging out in different ones.”
Humor aside, I seem to have talked myself back into believing what I thought I believed—which is that the divine is beyond any of us and that we latch on to different symbol systems in an (always imperfect) attempt to get in touch with it. Religion is one such system, poetry another. Vaughan strives to get close with his wondrous images such as a mystic circle of light. Some of the things he critiques do, in fact, block us from that light.
But while I believe Vaughan as a poet, I don’t believe him when he turns theologian. We all, I think, have the potential to see this light—I think all religions are trying, each with its own metaphors and through its own practices—to touch it. (Some might not use the metaphor of light.) Jesus and other spiritual leaders have used what they had at hand to help the rest of us. But even if Jesus is an example of a man who became fully divine, the rest of us stumble along trying to find God with our rituals and our poems.
Here’s Vaughan’s poem. Because parts are difficult, I interrupt it periodically to guide you. If you want to read it without my comments, you can go here:
The poem begins with a fabulous image of “pure and endless light.” Then it moves into a contrasting image, the shadow of time into which we are all hurled:
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
The poem then proceeds to detail this dark shadow. First of all, there is the lover, who thinks his love will take him to transcendence. But instead he is trapped by his love songs (wit’s sour delights) and tokens of love (the silly snares of pleasure):
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter’d lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow’r.
If love can’t lead us to transcendence, how about political power? We encounter the statesman or politician in the next stanza. He is hung down with “weights and woe,” however, so it is as though he moves slowly through a thick midnight fog. He perjures himself, steals from the church, cuts backroom deals (“workd underground”), and commits bloodshed:
The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov’d there so slow,
He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg’d the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work’d under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but one did see
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rain’d about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.
Next there is the miser who thinks that money will bring him happiness (but he lives on a heap of rust in fear of thieves); the epicure who thinks that sensual enjoyment is the answer (he “plac’d heav’n in sense”); and others who have their own obsessions:
The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves;
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg’d each one his pelf;
The downright epicure plac’d heav’n in sense,
And scorn’d pretence,
While others, slipp’d into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
Gazing at “the world,” Vaughan shakes his head in pity and disgust (he must see himself as “poor despised Truth”) before soaring once again to magnificent imagery. If we choose, he says, we can be brighter than the sun:
Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
And then “one” (God?) explains what’s going on: if the others don’t see what Vaughan sees, it is because he has been specially selected:
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper’d thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride.”
There is much I agree with. For instance, I believe that many of the obsessions Vaughan mentions do keep us from focusing on the divine—and for that matter, on other matters of importance. But not all of them.
If Vaughan sees the world as a “dead and dark abode,” for instance, then he can’t see God’s hand in creation. He is not the only one with this blindness. There are a number of fundamentalist Christians who are uninterested in the environment and are willing to sacrifice it, quoting Genesis where God gives man “dominion” over nature. In fact, Christianity historically has had problems with the sensual world.
But (how would Prothero handle this?) there are also fundamentalist Christians who are environmentalists. Not all see the world as a dead and dark abode. For that matter (going back to the people who reside in the poem’s dark shadow), there are selfless lovers as well as narcissistic lovers; statesmen who put country above themselves; epicures who regard the world of sense with deep gratitude rather than as an occasion for materialist self-indulgence. Rejecting the world in its entirety isn’t any healthier than twisting it to serve one’s own egotistical ends.
So parts of the poem assist me in my spiritual journey, others less so. At its best, “The World” helps us penetrate the veils of the world and see deeper truths. In that way Vaughan, like all great authors, is a kind of prophet, sharing his vision with us so that we can get our priorities straight. Whether or not we believe in his doctrine, we can use his poem as a wake-up call and as inspiration to focus on what is truly important.