Last week I attended the festive opening of the Guibord Center at St. John's Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. Founded by the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, former Officer of Ecumenical and Interreligious Concerns for The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, the center's mission is "to bring people together, to challenge assumptions, unleash The Holy and affirm the faith that transforms the world."
Now, I have been to lots of interfaith programs that brought people together, challenged assumptions and affirmed faith. What got my attention was "unleash The Holy." That and the tag line that follows the center's name in its literature: "Religion Inside Out." These were hints that an aspect of religion that had been virtually absent in interfaith gatherings -- in Western religion in general, truth be told -- was being affirmed. I refer to the inner experience of the Divine that has, historically, been associated with mysticism but is really the beating heart of every spiritual tradition.
When I'm asked why I became an interfaith minister, I usually say that I have commitment issues. It's only a half joke. As a spiritual pragmatist, I've drawn from the wise ones of every tradition, and also from atheists, humanists and scientists. But I have often been disappointed with the interfaith movement. In the past, many gatherings resembled the setup to a bad joke: a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into the room. A few clerics would expound on some topic from the perspective of their own traditions, usually comparing their beliefs, doctrines and rituals, or their positions regarding social problems. To their credit, the representatives would treat one another with dignity, and they would occasionally combine forces to take a stand on a pressing social issue or roll up their sleeves to tackle a local or national problem. But I would invariably leave feeling that the assembly wasn't wide enough and the probing wasn't deep enough. Where were the Buddhists and Hindus and Sikhs and Toaists? What about the pagans and the Wiccans and the indigenous peoples? And why no discussion of transcendence, let alone the sharing of practices toward that experience?
In short, I hoped to see the day when interfaith grew into something more like trans-faith, where people would come together not just to understand their differences, but to teach each other how to merge in the ultimate unity. As the great Christian mystic Thomas Merton wrote in 1967, "genuine ecumenism requires the communication and sharing, not only of information about doctrines which are totally and irrevocably divergent, but also of religious intuitions and truths which may turn out to have something in common." Instead of just "polite diplomatic interests in other religions and their beliefs," Merton called for us to tap "the inner and ultimate spiritual 'ground' which underlies all articulated differences."
Over the years, I have seen a discernible trend toward that ideal. It was spurred largely by the growth of pluralism and mass communication; religious diversity is not only vastly broader in range than it was just a short time ago, it is also impossible to ignore. And much of that diversity consists of people from Eastern traditions whose attitude toward diversity is best expressed in the now-familiar verse from the Rig Veda: "Truth is One, the wise call it by many names."
It was, therefore, with guarded optimism that I attended the Guibord Center inaugural. After sitting for two hours on a hard wooden pew, I stepped into the brisk, windswept afternoon with a sense of delight and buoyancy. Interfaith is coming of age, I thought. I had heard statements, prayers and invocations from an array of religious leaders, including a couple whose traditions I'd never heard of. And my spirit had been stirred by Buddhist chanters, Hindu bhajan musicians, Sikh singers, the Cathedral choir and a sublime trio consisting of a Jew, a Protestant and a Muslim -- a kind of Three Tenors for the soul. There was even a meditation period, led by someone from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living Foundation. The only thing missing was representation from the "spiritual but not religious" cohort or someone like Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard. But such expansion can't be far off.
That this event was held at the seat of an Episcopal diocese makes it seem especially significant. In truth, such gatherings are increasingly common. The growing depth and widening breadth of American spirituality seems inexorable. But since nothing is really inevitable, we all need to work at it, so it will seem inevitable to future generations when they look back at this period of religious history.