Princeton Weekly Bulletin April 26, 1999
Mind, Faith and Spirit
On April 8, the University Center for Human Values sponsored a roundtable discussion in Richardson Auditorium moderated by broadcast journalist Bill Moyers. Participants included William F. Buckley, Roman Catholic author and journalist; Rev. Dr. James Forbes, senior minister at the interdenominational Riverside Church, New York City; Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, Calif.; Joan Halifax, Buddhist, founder of Upaya in Santa Fe, NM; Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University; and Tu Weiming, professor of Chinese philosophy at Harvard. Amy Gutmann, director of the center, introduced the speakers and welcomed Laurance Rockefeller '32, whose "generous spirit and vision" helped create the center nine years ago. Following are excerpts from the discussion.
Moyers: For most of our history, this country's religious discourse was dominated by white male Protestants of a culturally conservative European heritage -- people like me. But it's different now. If you travel the country, you see an America dotted with mosques in Toledo, Phoenix, Atlanta. We have huge Hindu temples in Pittsburgh, Albany, California. There are Sikh communities in Stockton [Mass.] and Queens [N.Y.], and Buddhist retreat centers in the mountains of Vermont and West Virginia. What does [religion] mean for us as we contend with the never-ending work of our society -- the tedious, hard, perplexing, messy and seemingly endless task of working through what kind of people we're going to be and what kind of communities we're going to live in.
(photos by Rita Nannini)
But here we meet the paradox [that] the civilization in which this religious activity is taking place is in essence a deeply atheistic one, a civilization that has renounced any kind of metaphysics and no longer bothers even to inquire into the meaning of existence.
The major faiths can help us. In its own way, each points to the possibility that we're not just freaks of nature, but rather part of that mysterious yet integral act of creation that we sense intuitively it is our purpose to further. But how do I hold my truth to be the truth when everyone else sees truth differently? I put that question recently to the renowned comparative religionist of America, Huston Smith. He answered, "We listen. We listen as alertly to other peoples' description of reality as we hope they listen to us." That's what we want to do this afternoon.
Is there any one of you who does not have faith in God?
Weiming: If God is understood from monotheistic traditions, it could be problematical for me. If God is understood as creativity itself, as a generative force, as a transformative power, as the source of all values, all our truths, all our ideas of human selfrealization, then I certainly have faith in God.
Nasr: A word such as "God" in any language becomes impregnated with the religious and cultural values of the civilization or society which happens to use that language. All [the] words and names used in different religions will have to come into the usage of the word "God" as the word "God" expands in a culture in which those different religions now find an expression.
Geller: We do it within our own traditions as well. As a rabbi, I'm in the unfortunate situation of people coming up to me at all kinds of inappropriate times, saying, "You know, Rabbi, I don't believe in God." It happens in the supermarket; it happens in the synagogue; it happens in the health club. And I've learned over the years to stop and to say, "Tell me exactly what kind of God you don't believe in, and I bet you that I don't believe in that God either." I think for many sophisticated people, we understand the God we once believed in when we were six years old, and as we grow up, that notion of God no longer makes sense to us, but we haven't continued our own intellectual and theological development to find other ways of understanding God.
Forbes: Coming from the South and also growing up in a Pentecostal background, I should say yes, I believe in God But I do not believe in the adequacy of my conceptualization of that God. I do not believe in the limitations that my theological framework has placed around that God. ...
Buckley: I may be a little bit of an imposter in this distinguished panel, because I'm sort of ridden with belief. I'm a Catholic. I believe that it is through grace that I profit from belief, and I am persuaded by reason and by history that Christ was divine and was a redeemer. it seems to me that a Christian is devoted to the knowledge that we know what God divulged in the Bible, and all the rest is exegesis.
Geller: I think one can have a pluralist position that says my faith commitments are my truths. They're not necessarily someone else's truth, and I can learn from someone else's truth.
Nasr: I think there is yet a third position. We do not only have a lot of narratives; we have one story with many languages in which it is narrated, which is a very different matter. I give the example of astronomy. For us in the solar system, this sun, which is now shining over our heads, is also the sun, but from the point of view of the galaxies, it is a sun. And the second statement does not contradict the first statement. ...
Moyers: Are you saying that from a different perspective there is not God but a God?
Nasr: No, I never said that. I'm saying that only the absolute truth is the absolute truth. Everything that descends from the absolute truth enters a domain of relativity but participates somehow in the nature of that absoluteness within the world in which it manifests itself.
Halifax: I think my concern is not so much what you believe in or what you have faith in, but are you harming others? Are you helping others? Are you watering the seeds of wellbeing or peace on the earth? Are you creating a context for more freedom? If our beliefs and faiths conduce to that, then that is something wholesome, something healthy. If our beliefs and faiths conduce to war, to murder, to starvation, to social injustice, then we have to turn and look deeply at what our beliefs and faiths are about.
Moyers: I would like to shift the focus slightly. Tu Weiming, what does it mean to you -- to your day -- to be a Confucianist?
Weiming: I'm a committed humanist. That which is best for me may not be the best for my neighbor. Therefore, I have to allow the possibility that for someone who is committed to a path -- let's say the Christian path, the Muslim path, the Buddhist path -- [that path] is not only valuable but may be much more valuable to each of these people than my Confucian way My commitment to my way as a Confucian, which means learning to be human, is predicated on my ability to appreciate many different paths. It's not good enough simply to listen
Forbes: I think that Martin Luther King helps us when he speaks of the "world house." He said that we are required to learn how to live together in one house with many different religious traditions. I believe that the one God, called by many names, is one, and that we are all God's children, and that Mama Eternal is desperately eager to see us kids get along. I think God buries truth that I need as a Christian in what I call "dark corners." And the Lord says, "The truth you're looking for, even as a Christian -- just to get you all together I have buried some of it in a tradition that you have tended not to want to be engaged with."
Buckley: The Ten Commandments say, "Thou shalt not place other gods in my house," and the Lord's prayer has in it the phrase, "lead us not into temptation." Could you understand by asking that you not be led into temptation that you be spared the seductiveness of other gods?
Geller: We're not talking about other gods. We're talking about other paths to the one God. That's the distinction.
Moyers: How does your religion affect your practice?
Halifax: One of the reasons I began to practice Buddhism was that I needed silence in my life. [Now] every day I stop for several hours, and I sit still in silence. That has helped me quite a bit with my life. It also has brought me, as a daily practice, very much in touch with the transitory nature of existence. Someone asked me recently, "What is your north star? What is the unmovable piece in your life?" And I couldn't say God. I said death. I realized that my pole star was not death in the physiological sense but change, coming to terms with how precious this existence is, that this is it right now.
Weiming: I think an intriguing phenomenon of the 21st century is the possibility of dual, even multiple, membership in religious practices and religious traditions. I find the word Confucian can be used as an adjective -- a Confucian Catholic, a Confucian Buddhist, a Confucian Muslim. What does that mean? It means a person who is politically concerned, socially engaged and culturally sensitive and informed interested not simply in the kingdom of God yet to come, but in the perennial problems of the world today: ecological issues, distributive justice You have to respond to some of the very powerful -- and I would say spiritual -- challenges of the 21st century -- the question of ecology, the question of disintegration of community, the question of distributive justice, the question of coexistence of many different faiths, many different paths. The complexity of the modern world is such that no religion would have all the resources to be able to deal with that problem alone.