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Talk Delivered at an Interfaith Panel with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi

Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon

Talk delivered at an interfaith Panel with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi March 19, 2005 at the Mountain Avenue Theatre

What an incredible privilege it is to be on this panel tonight — with my sisters Lama Pema, Lama Yeshe; Jean Houston; always a joy to be with my rabbi, David Zaslow; and most of all this night to share conversation with Reb Zalman, one of the wisest of earth’s Wise Guys. It is an honor to be included – and really, really scary.

Rabbi David sent us a list of questions posed by Reb Zalman – questions about visioning a new cosmology, a new map of reality, and more life-giving ways to be on this earthly pilgrimage together – ways which would focus not on our differences but on what connects us in our human-ness.

In thinking about these things, I’ve been remembering the work of a British child psychiatrist of the last century, D.W. Winnicott. Besides his theoretical writings, Winnicott also had a radio show during World War II, a show for young mothers, and he reassured them they really did have within themselves the capacity to be, in his wonderful phrase, “good-enough mothers.” Not perfect. Perfection isn’t called for, said Winnicott. You just need to be consistently available to your child while going on being yourself at the same time.

Winnicott was mostly interested in the development of a baby from birth to about age 3. He realized there is something in human nature even more basic than the instinctual drives of sex and aggression, that Freud had identified as apparent in childhood. Winnicott said that what makes human beings human –what is “hard-wired” into us, probably before birth – is “the desire to relate to the Other.” The desire to relate to the Other. And Winnicott capitalized the O in Other.

Now the first Other in most of our lives is our mother. And then our father. And then others come into the developing web of our relational life. As a theologian, I cannot read Winnicott’s phrase – and he leaves a lot of room open for this interpretation – I cannot hear the word “Other” without thinking of God, the Holy One, The Spirit, the Infinite Mystery, whatever word you wish to use for that Power which is far greater than ourselves.

If Winnicott was right – and I believe he was – then humans are made for relationship – we can’t be fully human without it — relationship with other human beings, with other creatures with whom we share this fragile earth, and relationship with the Divine.

Now if we start here — that we have been created to desire to relate to the Other – then perhaps it is not such a far stretch to think that there might be a variety of ways that relationship might play itself out. Do you see where I’m going? And here is where, for me at least, the insights of the new science of chaos and complexity have changed my own personal cosmology, my own map of reality.

In the past dozen years, I have been fascinated – as a non-scientist – with fractals, visual images of underlying systems in nature: clouds, ferns, broccoli, water going down a drain, weather patterns, the movement of water over rocks — all kinds of natural systems rendered into their mathematical iterations, run through computers and voila!

What is revealed is a fractal pattern of infinite variety, open, evolving, beautiful – yet also ordered, unfolding within a framework. What is revealed in fractals is the luminous web of interconnection, in which life forms and re-forms and forms again in ever-changing diversity, free and yet ordered, sacramental, infused the divine purpose and plan.

If we use this image of fractals, and play with it spiritually, we can, perhaps, find in it ways to honor our different human ways of relating to the Other — to God, in a ever-expanding and beautiful variety of spiritual experiences — and of relating to one another. Rather than seeing different religions in competition, we now honor one another in our particularities as we each seek to go deeper in relationship to the divine Mystery on the path that we have chosen – or that has chosen us. And that’s the paradox, of course. The deeper we go in our particularity, the closer we come to the universal.

So now the question is: How do I, as a Christian, take my place in this new understanding? Well, I have learned that the first words for Christians in interfaith dialogue should be ones of repentance. We’ve been in trouble with triumphalism from the moment Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire back in the fourth century. Wars, atrocities, violation of basic human rights, genocide, trampling on the bodies and the souls of others – all have been done in the name of Christ. And it’s not over yet.

So, in the name of the Church as far as I speak for the Church, I believe the place Christians need to begin is with listening, with seeking of forgiveness, and with a very large dose of humility. And while no doubt there are Christians who would not agree, I can also assure you that there are many, many Christians who do agree with what Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “You know, God is a not a Christian. God is Mystery. And God allows us to misunderstand Her. But also to understand Her, as best as we can.”

I would like to think Christians could now live out in new ways what St. Paul called us to: to be “ambassadors of reconciliation.” One of our ancient Christian bishops said: “that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Therefore, what I need to do is to encourage and support my rabbi in being fully alive, in being the best Jew he can be. And I need David to challenge me to be the best Christian I can be.

(A Jesuit theologian says every Christian preacher should run their Good Friday sermon past a rabbi. That’s how this new map of reality, this paradox of particularity and universality and humility might play itself out in very concrete ways.) And I need Lama Pema and Lama Yeshe to be the very best Buddhists they can be.

I need Jean to remind me of the sacredness of all of humanity’s best efforts to relate to the Other and to one another.

And, finally, what might Christianity in our particularity and in our peculiarity bring to the table? Well, may I suggest that those of us who follow Christ contribute to the evolving consciousness our experience, our strength and our hope: our experience in seeing the divine in human flesh, so that all flesh is holy, all blood is sacred; our strength in experiencing how sacrificial, self-giving love transforms and heals; and our hope which we call resurrection – that God can be trusted to continue to bring new life out of situations of death and of despair.