INTERFAITH PANDEMIC LESSONS

INTERFAITH LESSONS FROM A PANDEMIC

    In Falling Upward Richard Rohr talks about the “spirituality of subtraction,” the value of letting go. The first half of life is about gaining: an education, job, home, marriage, and children. The second half is about subtraction: the kids move out, we downsize our housing, retire, start to lose our health, friends or spouses die, etc. 

    In a spirituality of subtraction, we learn four main spiritual values: humility, gratitude, simplicity/poverty and solidarity/community. A number of spiritual leaders from various traditions have noted that a crisis can speed up this process. 

    Humility. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated in a talk in our city a year ago, that we all tend to be “cultural snobs,” that is, we think our culture is superior to all others. There may have been famines, wars and plagues throughout history, but this couldn’t possibly happen to us because we are so scientifically superior. 

    The point was to not get too self-assured. My priest in Winnipeg, Fr. Firmin Michiels, similarly told the congregation “Don’t pray for success, pray for strength when everything falls apart.” This is a frequent theme in every religion. “When people say ‘peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them” (I Thessalonians 5:3). COVID-19 has subtracted the illusion of our cultural-scientific omnipotence.

    Gratitude. Omar Ricci, an imam at the Islamic Center of Southern California, gave a talk titled “Thank God for the coronavirus.” Not that God caused the virus, but we should thank God for this reminder we are not in control and always depend on God. Thank God for this reminder to be grateful for all things, particularly things we take for granted like groceries and good health. Thank God for reminding us life is fragile and “we had best appreciate the miracle of life God has given us.”

    A rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic community in Bozeman, Montana, noted that “Jews have always said that for every breath we take, we should thank God.” In light of the respiratory problems caused by COVID-19, “it’s become very real.”

    The Buddhist attitude of gratitude towards any crisis has been summed up in four words by the well-known monk Thich Nhat Hanh “No mud, no lotus.”

    Simplicity/Poverty. In Hinduism, the goal at the end of life is to become a “sannyasin,” a holy man or woman who renounces all the trappings of society and chooses to be reduced to nothing but his or her relationship with God. 

    All this stripping away is mirrored in Christianity in people who take religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Jesus himself emptied and “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

    The spirituality of subtraction is about emptying the ego of self-centered pride so that God can fill you. In general, a good day for the ego (a day of gain) is a bad day for the soul, and a bad day for the ego (loss) is a good day for the soul. Subtraction is meant by God to edge the ego out, reversing Wayne Dyer’s definition of “ego:” “edging God out.”

    Solidarity/Community. Churches are experiencing what they have always given intellectual assent to – that the church is not buildings but the “ecclesia” – the community. They are reaching out online far beyond their normal congregations. Adam Ericksen, a United Church of Christ minister in Milwaukie, Oregon has noted that “the role of the church in this moment is to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”

    Beyond churches, mosques and synagogues, God’s work is going on everywhere, in every single person who makes the decision to love their neighbor as themselves: health care and grocery workers and everyone sacrificing themselves in inconvenient self-isolation in order to keep others healthy.

    This time of subtraction will hopefully continue to be a time of great spiritual growth.

Bruce Tallman is a London spiritual director, marriage preparation specialist and religious educator of adults. brucetallman.com

HOW THINGS WORK

HOW GOD, THE UNIVERSE, AND YOUR LIFE WORKS

    Order, disorder, reorder. You can detect this universal pattern on a macro, micro, and personal level.

    If there was only order, there would never be any change, creativity and growth. If there was only disorder, things would be total chaos. 

    The universe goes through periods of order, followed by disorder, and then reorders everything at a new level over vast time periods. There was God (order) before the Big Bang (disorder) and then giant stars eventually formed (reorder). This new order had limited chemical elements, but the giant stars exploded (disorder) and seeded the universe with all the elements of the periodic table in new smaller, more stable stars (reorder). 

    God created natural laws and then let nature obey those laws. Rather than controlling everything, God wanted to see all the creative new things nature would produce on its own: butterflies, jaguars, whales, etc.

    Theologically, this theory is called “deism” which, although appealing, is  problematic because God is reduced to a kind of detached observer of the universe. The opposite problem, if God is too dictatorial, reduces God to ‘tyrantism.” Then destructive volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, and floods become acts of (a cruel) God.

    The same problem occurs at the human level. If God is not involved, God does not care, and if God is too controlling, we become robots. If there is no human freedom, there is no love. The solution is for God to allow us to be free and also for God to be involved in the form of persuasive love. That desire for greater fulfillment all humans have is God’s persuasive love constantly calling us to new levels of integration.

    According to “process theology,” nature as a whole moves inexorably towards greater consciousness and love because God constantly lures it to new levels of fulfillment.

    Most of the time nature is orderly, but some of the time, in obeying its own laws, nature creates disorder. Sometimes forests burn down but new plants and animals emerge. A giant meteor collided with Earth, ending the dinosaurs but allowing mammals such as humans to eventually exist. 

    Religions also go through order, disorder, and reordering. Conservatives can get stuck at the first stage – they want too much order and fear change and creativity. Religious liberals can get trapped in deconstructing religion and not be able to put their faith back together again, so they end up in chaos or virtual atheism. However, there are always people who seek to reorder their religion at a higher level. Examples in Christianity are Thomas Berry, Marcus Borg, and Brian McLaren.

    In your own life you might experience order for a while. You seem to have it all together and then disorder happens through divorce, illness or unemployment. If you are resilient and follow God’s inner calling, you may be able to reorder your life and make sense of it in a new way. 

    Disorder and suffering are caused by the freedom of nature and humans, not by God. God only allows them so new growth may occur. For example, you might learn to appreciate being single or happily remarry, learn better health care or to cope with your disability, or find more fulfilling work. 

    Hopefully, whatever happens, you can reorder your life with more compassion, gratitude and wisdom. This is God’s desire for you as God’s persuasive love calls forth the best that is in you in each new year.

Bruce Tallman is a London spiritual director, marriage coach and religious educator of adults. brucetallman.com