The youngest member of my family is our one-year-old cat, Margery. She is a most inquisitive creature (my wife thinks she has attention deficit disorder). Curiosity may have killed the proverbial cat, but this feline hasn't been deterred. She gets into everything -- to the point where my wife and I have spray-bottles at strategic locations throughout the house, just to remind our kitty that some locations are off-limits. We've had to put a bit of lemon in the water to make the "punishment" more truly unpleasant to her; getting squirted with plain water just wasn't enough of a deterrent to slow her down.
I write about this like it's a bad thing, and sure, we get annoyed when we find her perched on the dining room table, blissfully drinking out of one of our glasses. But in truth, her eager exploration is rather inspiring to me. I like how every corner of the house represents a new frontier for investigation, learning, and insight. In fact, I think her inquisitive nature is a good model for me -- and for all of us, living in this age where people of different cultures and faiths live as next-door neighbors.
The other day I took a couple of friends out to the Cistercian monastery where I work and receive spiritual guidance. These are friends I met through the Atlanta interfaith community: Br. Shankara is a Vedantist, and Gareth is a Zen Buddhist. At the monastery, we met with a couple of the monks, and participated in mid-day prayer. Of course, during the drive out and back, and as we walked around, our conversation was engaged, wide-ranging, and thoughtful. As you might expect when you get a Buddhist and a Vedantist and a contemplative Christian together, we talked a lot about the nature of meditation, the relationship between religious doctrine/dogma and personal experience, and just how to put the contemplative experience into words. Of course, we occasionally had to do some translating when it became apparent that we sometimes used different words to describe essentially the same thing. At one point, a conversation about the distinctions between "brain," "mind" and "self" got so technical that my eyes began to glaze over.
But never mind the particulars of our conversation. What I found particularly helpful was the way that each one of us would gently ask questions of the other, and how we all took pains to point out that our experience was just that: our experience, not necessarily normative for anyone else. We asked each other questions, and answered them, not to score points on the "Whose religion is best?" meter, but simply to learn, to discover, to gain insight on how different traditions understand experience, interpret it, and explain it, in a way that can help to make sense of the interface between human spirituality and the ultimate mystery. In other words, our conversation was not fueled by the desire to compete, or control, or persuade. Rather, we were all simply inquisitive, seeking in our curiosity and thirst to learn about each other's faith and experience, more light for understanding and making sense of our own.
Because of this, we could find joy in our conversation. We came together in a spirit of celebrating diversity and finding wonder in the mysteries of life and language, without needing to fix or solve anything. And this, I believe, is the model for how interfaith conversation and indeed interfaith spirituality can take place in our world.
It seems that true interfaith encounters require that each party involved do some homework first. I have to be grounded enough, centered enough, at peace enough with my own faith tradition, my own spiritual experience, and my own sense of how "the mystery" ultimately is greater than any human attempt to describe, know, or contain it, before I am able to share myself (and my faith/spirituality) with others -- without trying to convert, persuade, or marginalize their experience and tradition. I'm raising an interesting question here: when people of any faith try to convert or proselytize others, is it a symptom of their own existential insecurity? I have no answer to this question. But what I do know is this: the more at peace I am with myself, and my own spiritual identity and experience, the more I am available to relate to those who differ from me in a respectful and compassionate way.
What's the payoff here? On a micro level, I get to cultivate wonderful friendships with interesting people of other faith traditions. But I also believe more is at stake here. Interfaith friendships stand for hope -- hope for a world that will outgrow sectarian violence and cultural hostility. Every time I relate to a person of another faith with an open and kind heart, rather than any desire to convert or control, I in essence am casting a vote for such a hopeful future. In essence, I am choosing curiosity over competition.
That's something even my cat would love.