”I am a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian, and a Jew— and so are all of you” – MAHATMA GANDHI. ”I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Zoroastrian, nor Muslim. I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea; My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless; ’Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved. I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one; I know none other except God.” — RUMI
Gandhi belongs to every religion. Rumi belongs to no religion. So it is with all those who belong to God. This article attempts to articulate the essence of divine love, as revealed through the scriptures, mystics, and practices of three major spiritual traditions, and their relationship to the science of divine love. The spiritual path of divine love is found in one form or another within all the major religious and spiritual traditions, and exists beyond them as well. It is the hidden path of the heart to God, entered through an invisible doorway deep within the heart. Like Rumi and Gandhi, those who tread the path of divine love belong to all religions— and in a sense they belong to no religion, because they have given themselves utterly and exclusively to the Infinite Supreme Reality, which is often called “God.”
Hence they belong to this Supreme Reality, aka God, and to nothing else. The path of divine love is thus a kind of universal religion that leads to mystical mergence into the very essence of God (or Brahman, Allah, Yahweh, Nirvana, Tao; there are many names for the Supreme Reality). After delving into the scriptures and practices of multiple faith traditions for thirty-five years, I have come to the view that the essence of divine love can be distilled into a few key principles and practices that are remarkably consistent across the theistic religions. This foundational path is easily obscured and can be difficult to discern against the backdrop of the rich spectrum of faith traditions— given their diverse scriptures and voluminous commentaries and exegeses; their seemingly disparate and sometimes contradictory theologies; and their broad variety of practices of prayer, meditation, liturgies, institutional structures, and forms of worship. Nevertheless, a universal path of the heart to God can be discerned, and the following pages are an attempt to elucidate the nature and essence of this path, and to offer a glimpse of why it is basically the same across the faith traditions.
Differences between religions are widely publicized today, often to the point of proclaiming that the religions are mutually contradictory and fundamentally incompatible. Common ground and similarities across the faith traditions are far less emphasized. Yet the path of divine love suggests that the religions share a universal core. This article seeks to articulate that core, in terms of theology and essential practice, and to offer a scientific perspective on how this Oneness functions at the foundation of spiritual consciousness. “Beware of being bound up by a particular religion and rejecting others as unbelief,” cautions the Sufi saint Ibn Arabi, “for you will fail to obtain the true knowledge of reality. God is greater and wider than to be confined to one particular religion to the exclusion of others.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu emphasizes this same point, “God is not a Christian”— nor a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Buddhist for that matter. God includes and transcends all religions. Every major religion offers a unique pathway to the infinite and eternal Supreme Reality that dwells within and beyond all beings.
Who is GOD?
Some people may object immediately to the use of God language, which is understandable for a multitude of reasons. First is the oppressive conception of God depicted in certain religious texts as a punishing, vindictive, warlike tyrant. Second is the false attribution of the masculine gender to God, and the associated patriarchal oppression that afflicts all major religions. Third is the absence of objective proof that God exists. Fourth is the tragic reality of violence, terrorism, and unjust wars that have been carried out “in the name of God.” Fifth is the naive image of God as a wise old man with a white beard floating in the sky. Sixth is that God as Creator or theistic being has little or no meaning for adherents of nontheistic spiritual traditions. Beyond these objections, in the context of interreligious dialogue, there are many different conceptions of God and levels of God experience, so the use of a single word to refer to them all could be seen as creating more confusion than clarity. Notwithstanding these legitimate concerns, the fact remains that the word “God” is the primary linguistic category and conceptual symbol we have for referring to the ultimate source of existence and all life, regardless of how God is conceived or defined. You are encouraged to invoke your own concept of God, and, at the same time, not to take any fixed notion of God too literally, including your own. All concepts of God are inadequate, and fall far short of the living truth or reality or being to which they point.
The question still remains, who or what is God? Any attempt to define God seems fraught with peril, but one approach to this inquiry is to draw upon the collective wisdom of a remarkable gathering of religious and spiritual leaders, from all the major world religions, who have been meeting annually for more than thirty years. The Snowmass Interreligious Conference, convened by Cistercian monk Thomas Keating, includes leaders from diverse faiths, including Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Islamic, Sufi, Jewish, Native American, Hindu (Vedanta), Buddhist (including Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan), Taoist, and no tradition. In the course of their extensive dialogues, this group generated a list of eight points of agreement, as follows:
- 1. The world religions bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality, to which they gave various names.
- 2. Ultimate Reality cannot be limited by any name or concept.
- 3. Ultimate Reality is the ground of infinite potentiality and actualization.
- 4. Faith is opening, accepting, and responding to Ultimate Reality. Faith in this sense precedes every belief system.
- 5. The potential for human wholeness— or, in other frames of reference, enlightenment, salvation, transcendence, transformation, blessedness— is present in every human being.
- 6. Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices,but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service to others.
- 7. As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it is subject to ignorance and illusion, weakness and suffering.
- 8. Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment is not the result of one’s own efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness with Ultimate Reality.
These points are not presented as ultimate, definitive, or carved in stone. On the contrary, “We were surprised and delighted to find so many points of similarity and convergence in our respective paths,” explains Keating, “and so we present these ‘Points of Agreement’ as a gift to all who will welcome them, to all who will use them to promote understanding.” Receiving this gift in this spirit, these points comprise a possible conceptual description of God: simply replace “Ultimate Reality” with “God” in the above eight principles. This offers a way of thinking about God that is inclusive across many religions and is consistent with the spirit of this book. Some might object that describing God in this way is too impersonal, because God is a living “theistic” cosmic Being, with whom intimate relationship is possible, whereas the term “Ultimate Reality” does not seem to carry this implication. Others might question whether Ultimate Reality (or God) even exists. Still others may wish to explicitly include the feminine aspect of the Divine, or some other aspect. For all such questions and concerns, I encourage you to formulate your own conceptions of God. Whatever is responsible for existence, regardless of how it came about, we humans require a way to refer to it, and for this purpose the label of “God” is longstanding and understood by all, regardless of how it is conceived. Of course, we know that every conception of God is woefully inadequate to the Supreme Reality itself. Therefore, in some sense, all conceptions of God are equally valid, and inherently inadequate, as ways to refer to That Which Has No Name, yet which comes into the depths of the heart by whatever name we invoke. As you invoke your own connection or concept of God, you are encouraged to also release attachment to any fixed concept of God, perhaps cultivating the provocative insight of fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart that our ultimate task is to free ourselves of God altogether.
Judaism is the parent tradition of Christianity and bears close resemblance to Islam in many respects. The Jewish mystical process of devakut (God realization), the teachings of the Kabbalah and the Zohar, and leading mystics such as the Ba’al Shem Tov and Shimon bar Yochai all correspond closely to what is presented in this book. A wealth of excellent works on mystical and contemplative Judaism is available by authors such as Ted Falcon, Yoel Glick, Arthur Green, Daniel Matt, and Rami Shapiro. Other traditions, including Sikhism, Shinto, Baha’i, and various indigenous shamanistic traditions, also include a mystical tradition of the heart that is broadly similar to what is presented here. In the case of Buddhism, the path of divine love may seem less applicable at first blush, largely because Buddhism is deemed a “nontheistic” tradition. Although the Buddha remained purposefully silent on speculative issues such as God’s existence (because he was focused instead on practical teachings to end suffering), this reticence gave rise over the centuries to a seeming denial of God in Buddhism, which has often been regarded as a serious obstacle to meaningful dialogue between practitioners of Buddhism and theistic religions.
Yet remarkable exchanges between Buddhism and Christianity over the past few decades have led to breakthroughs in mutual understanding and discovery of both common ground and differences. Examples include the Gethsemane Encounter series of dialogues between Buddhist and Christian monastics, and dialogues between the Dalai Lama and leading Christian contemplatives, including Father Laurence Freeman, Brother David Steindl-Rast, Father Thomas Keating, and others. Recent interfaith scholarship is even narrowing the theistic/ nontheistic gap. “While Buddhism is deemed nontheistic,” writes scholar B. Alan Wallace, “the cosmogonies of Vajrayana Buddhism, Vedanta, and Neoplatonic Christianity have so much in common that they could almost be regarded as varying interpretations of a single theory.” Wallace further demonstrates that Buddhist Dzogchen and Christian apophatic mystical practice have a great deal in common, and Christian theologian Paul Knitter proclaims that “without Buddha I could not be a Christian.” After decades of interfaith monastic dialogue, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “I do not think there is that much difference between Christians and Buddhists. Most of the boundaries we have created between our two traditions are artificial. Truth has no boundaries. Our differences may be mostly differences in emphasis.”
Meanwhile, Islamic scholar Reza Shah-Kazemi demonstrates remarkable common ground between Islam and Buddhism, in his recent book by that title with an enthusiastic foreword by the Dalai Lama. Shah-Kazemi provides a wealth of compelling scriptural and metaphysical support for his groundbreaking thesis that “the ultimate Reality affirmed by Buddhism is nothing other than what the monotheists refer to as God; or more precisely … the Essence of God.” Finally, core Buddhist meditation practices, the central importance of bodhicitta (heart wisdom), the mysticism of Pure Land and Tibetan schools of Buddhism, and Dzogchen in particular, all suggest that Buddhist mysticism accords closely with the transformative path of the heart presented in this book.
Exclusivism & Patriarchy
The optimistic approach taken here does not deny the negative elements of religion, which I address briefly when necessary, but my primary focus is on the positive aspects of religion— for two key reasons. First, plenty of ink has been spilled and cyberspace is overfilled with the problems and the shadow side of religion. Every religion has its negative side, and the religions do share certain systemic patterns of deep darkness, including religious violence, exclusivism, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, intolerance, and the like. I acknowledge all of this, but there is already much information available on these matters. Second, and more importantly, I emphasize the high ground of religions because they call the human soul to a profound path of love that leads to union with God. Despite their problems and failings, religions offer profound potential for human transformation. Consistent with this approach, I also choose not to dwell on the problematic aspects of scripture here. Again, I do not deny the challenging portions of scripture, as well as various passages of scripture that seem less inspired, if not altogether misleading, irrelevant, or mistaken. Such difficulties are found in all scriptures, as well as religious institutions. Other contemporary writers address these challenges skillfully and their critical work enables us to choose a different tack here. If you are interested in learning about these challenging dimensions of religion for the three major Abrahamic faith traditions, an excellent recent book is Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith.
There is another even more compelling reason for setting aside the negative and contradictory aspects of scripture. The spiritual similarities between the scriptures and mystics of the religions are deep, and these parallels are far more profound and illuminating than the religious differences. Taken together, these religious parallels point to something universal and uplifting that the faith traditions share in common.The true purpose of religion is not only to show the pathway to God, and in God, but also to guide and empower human beings to actually walk the path of radical spiritual transformation. Failing this, religion fails its true purpose. As Father Thomas Keating puts it, “the sole purpose of Christianity is transformation into Christ— nothing else.” Similarly, we can say that the sole purpose of Buddhism is transformation into Buddha, the sole purpose of (Vaishnavite) Hinduism is transformation into Krishna, and so forth. Tragically, many religious institutions, churches, congregations, and fellowships seem to have failed utterly in this primary purpose. This is unconscionable, but it is certainly not a new phenomenon. Jesus chastised the Pharisees for posing as wise spiritual leaders, parading their vestments and rituals, yet failing to enter the kingdom of heaven themselves and not allowing others to enter. The Buddha chastised the Brahmanic priests of his time for similar corruption of the true heart and purpose of religion, for masquerading as wise elders yet proffering only empty ritualism. The situation has changed little over the centuries.
Those who, in the depths of the heart, stand on love for God stand on something that existed before the universe was ever born. Love and truth predate and permeate every religion, and are therefore independent of all religions; “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4: 18). Let us therefore take our stand on, in, and for love. The path of divine love leads to the highest levels of supreme spiritual realization, including nondual realization of the Absolute (that is, the spiritual realization that the human being and the Absolute are a single reality, not dual entities). There are multiple pathways to spiritual realization, including the path of love (bhakti) and the path of spiritual awareness or wisdom (jnana)— both of which lead to the same supreme goal. The path of love is a gradual path that works with the mystic power of love in the heart as the fuel that propels the disciple into radical transformation and full spiritual realization. In some contemporary and historical Hindu (Advaita Vedanta) and Buddhist schools as well as certain nondual schools of spirituality, the path of divine love and devotion is mistakenly considered to be limited or inferior. The assumption is that the path of love is inherently dualistic and inclined toward theistic devotion or religiosity. It is therefore deemed less advanced than the nondual paths of spiritual realization. This bias is nothing new; Sri Aurobindo describes the attitude clearly in his wry observation that seekers on the path of knowledge “seem often, if not to despise, yet to look downward from their dizzy eminence on the path of the devotee as if it were a thing inferior, ignorant, good only for souls that are not ready for the heights of the Truth.”
God has been constructed as male in most religions, coupled with male domination and strong patriarchal norms in religious institutions. This has wrought profound damage, particularly to women and non– hetero-conforming people, but also to men. Even religions that uphold a balance of masculine and feminine deities in their theologies (such as Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism) remain male dominated in their customs and institutions. As Buddhist teacher Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo observes, “Patriarchy is entrenched in all religious traditions, where one might have hoped that more wisdom, compassion and sheer empathy would have manifested over the ages. But alas …” This pervasive form of gender injustice is beginning to receive far more attention than ever before, and transformative changes are slowly beginning to emerge. God is inherently beyond gender, or rather God contains and transcends all possible genders. In the book of Genesis, as humanity is first created, God says, “Let us create humanity in our image … male and female …” (Gen. 1: 26– 27). At the very outset of the Bible, God identifies as male and female, but this androgynous nature of Divinity seems to have quickly disappeared as the tradition developed (although St. Paul intimates that there is neither male nor female in Christ [Gal. 3: 28]).
The world religions are all afflicted by gender injustice. Women have been systematically regarded as intrinsically inferior, leading to gender-based oppression and exploitation in religious communities. The female prophetic voice has been repressed in all religions, and a strong masculine bias has marginalized women’s spiritual experience, which differs markedly from men’s in certain ways. A plethora of sex scandals involving religious leadership in recent decades has afflicted many faith traditions, and underscores theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s observation that “the truth about God, the human dignity of women, and the transformation of institutional structures are profoundly interconnected.”
The Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an did much to alleviate horrific oppression of women in seventh-century Arabia, but the Islamic tradition nevertheless adopted pre-Islamic patriarchal customs and tribal attitudes, many of which persist to this day. A similar process took place in other religions, which replicated the crippling patriarchal structures of the societies in which they emerged. Even in religions such as Sikhism and Baha’i, laudable for their noble proclamations of gender equality in their founding scriptures, realities on the ground have fallen far short. On the positive side, profound change is afoot. Women are ordained in twelve out of the seventeen largest Christian faith traditions in the United States. There are sixteen hundred female Hindu priests in India today, 33 and interfaith projects in India to support destitute women and bridge religious and caste divisions are emerging, such as the inspiring Maher project. Islamic feminist scholarship has highlighted sharp discrepancies between Qur’anic support for women and gender equality with the entrenched patriarchal injustice in Islamic law and societies. More recent scholarship suggests that feminist conceptions of justice are not as fully reconcilable with the Qur’an as originally envisioned, but a thriving school of feminist tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis) is rapidly growing and changing the face of Islam in ways unthinkable just two decades ago.
Theologian Beverly Lanzetta has developed a new pathway of feminine spirituality called via feminina. In traditional Christian mysticism, via positiva and via negativa refer to the kataphatic and apophatic mystical paths, first articulated by the sixth-century monk Dionysius. The kataphatic path entails affirmation of God and spiritual presence (Divine Word), whereas the apophatic path entails the negation of all concepts of God (Divine Silence). Lanzetta proposes a third way, via feminina, that “extends the apophatic process not only to language and conceptual ideas about God, but also to the gender disparity codified within its spiritual practices and contemplative paths.” Lanzetta analyzes the spiritual suppression of women in religion, and the need for women to pass through a “dark night of the feminine” stage in their spiritual development “in order to ‘un-say’ and ‘un-become’ the internalized inferiority that oppresses or denigrates her soul.” The via feminina thus heals and restores women’s dignity and worth, and “maps out a spiritual path to women’s divine humanity.”
First I must find the Goddess; Then I must find the Goddess within me.
- This article is a short excerpt from the book: Belonging to God: Science, Spirituality & a Universal Path of Divine Love