By TIO Staff
AN INTERSPIRITUAL APPROACH TO THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM
Mirabai Starr’s new book, God of Love – A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, will be disconcerting to many in an arena that seems sometimes to have been written to death – the complexities of the Abrahamic faiths. The interconnections Starr explores seem novel but obvious at first. As the interconnections accumulate, though, familiar sacred texts become powerful and compelling in new ways, a source of hope for those who’ve concluded that violence among the followers of these three faiths is forever intractable.
Professor Starr, who has taught philosophy and world religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos for 20 years, is known for her well-received translations of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Her secular Jewish family found her preoccupation with 16th century Spanish Catholic mystics strange, to say the least. It is no surprise now as she jumps with both feet into interfaith dialogue in God of Love and, she hopes, into new interspiritual ways of understanding sacred texts and communities.
Along with the following interview with Mirabai, TIO is featuring three responses to God of Love, by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimerof the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Rev. Nancy McKay, a Christian spiritual director and author; and Laleh Bakhtiar, a Muslim feminist and the first woman to translate the Quran.
TIO: It is startling to discover God of Love after the libraries of material on Abrahamic culture and conflict we already have, along with additional news every day. If love is truly the heart of spirituality, and truly a core value in Abrahamic traditions, why do you think it has taken so long for someone to do what you do in this book?
Mirabai Starr: While the world seems to be gathering (thankfully) around some kind of interspiritual tipping point, the momentum has been building for decades. I’m not really doing anything new, but rather sharing the transmission I have been blessed to receive from a vast array of teachers and traditions over the years. When I was fourteen I moved to the Lama Foundation, the intentional community in the mountains of northern New Mexico where Ram Dass wrote his iconic book, Be Here Now. At Lama, I was exposed to prayers, rituals, religious texts, and contemplative practices in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, mystical Judaism, Christian mysticism, and Native American traditions.
The primary teachers who brought their wisdom to Lama were themselves champions of interfaith understanding: Murshid Samuel Lewis, Ram Dass (and, through Ram Dass, his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, who we call Maharaji), Pir Valayat Khan (who carried the legacy of his father, Hazrat Inayat Khan), Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Father Thomas Keating, and many other lesser known but no less powerful women and men who presented multiple paths and practices as having equal value. So, I was “formed” as an interspiritual being. For a long time, I thought everyone was. Discovering that this was not the case was part of what inspired me to write this book.
TIO: You’ve said that the Abrahamic traditions all focus on the love of God but in deliciously different ways. Could you elaborate a bit about these delicious differences?
Mirabai: It is important to me to celebrate the diversity among different religious traditions at the same time that I affirm their essential interconnectedness. I am not trying to claim that all religions are mere reflections of an identical truth, or trying to homogenize the rich distinctions into some kind of bland gruel. That would be neither delicious nor nourishing. My hope is to present the unique flavors of various wisdom ways and show that they are all offering unifying teachings. If there is a common message that I (and many others) have found in my explorations, it is that All beings are interconnected in the boundless love of the Divine, and so we are both beholden to and responsible for one another.
For me, there is no difference between the mystical and the political. Our longing for God is intertwined with our thirst for peace and justice. The Torah uses one kind of language to speak about this unifying truth; the Gospels of Jesus use another; and the Quran yet another. Each is equally powerful and poetic; and equally fraught with troubling implications. I do not minimize the human element in scriptural revelation, nor the atrocities that have been committed by nearly every society in the name of religion. Yet, like one of my mentors, Huston Smith, I choose to focus on the love that unites them, and leave the shadow side to the social historians to speak about.
TIO: Traditionally students of ultimate reality like theologians, philosophers, and mathematicians have sought to be analytic, highly abstract, distrustful of the experiential, and rarely personal. By contrast your quest depends on narrative, personal and communal experience, and the lived reality of the notions and images that you are exploring. Can you talk about why your choices are so different, and how that influences the conclusions you draw.
Mirabai: Perhaps in keeping with my iconoclastic upbringing, and in spite of my vocation as a college professor, I am inclined toward the poetic, rather than the scholarly. The aesthetics of ideas draw me much more deeply than their conceptual content. This is what I love about the Interspiritual Movement as a possible evolution beyond interfaith dialogue: it’s less about cultivating an intellectual orientation toward other religions with the hope of building “tolerance” and more about dropping down into the heart of multiple traditions, engaging the spiritual practices at their core, and allowing that experience to transform us.
I hope that my writing may do the same thing. Through an encounter with the beauty of language, plus a glimpse into another pilgrim’s life journey, other seekers may find inspiration (or at least entertainment) in navigating their own way through the wilderness of the spiritual life, and follow their inclinations to care for each other and for the earth that sustains us.