By Marcus Braybrooke
GOING TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER
“A gradual assimilation of religions will in time function as a world faith” was the prophecy that the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan made more than 80 years ago.
He was not alone in suggesting this, as I’ve been reminded while revising my Beacons of Light to make it available as an e-book. It is a dream that may have faded, but writing during World Interfaith Harmony Week, which each year sees prayers for peace being offered by representatives of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Baha’i’, Sikh, Jain, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan Humanist, Amazonian Indigenous communities and more, it is a dream that will not go away.
Often it is related to an unforgettable moment in a person’s life.
For Frithjof Schuon, author of the Transcendent Unity of Religions (1953), the decisive moment was early in his life when he met a Muslim saint from Senegal. The old man drew a circle on the ground with various lines converging at the centre. He said to the young Frithjof, “God is in the centre, all paths lead to him.”
For Black Elk, a Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Native Americans, it was a visionary moment described in his poem “Sunset”:
Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all,
and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world.
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell
and I understood more than I saw;
for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit,
and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.
And I saw the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle,
wide as daylight and as star-light,
and in the centre grew one mighty flowering tree
to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.
And I saw that it is holy.
But anywhere is the centre of the world.
For others, the hope is related to a yearning for world peace. Fr. Bede Griffiths wrote, from his ashram in Southern India:
“This is the destiny of all humanity to realize its essential unity in the Godhead, by whatever name it is known, to be one with the absolute Reality, the absolute Truth, the infinite, the eternal Life and Light. But this unity cannot be known without the pain of self-sacrifice; it demands ‘Nothing less than all.’”
A similar hope was voiced by both Sri Aurobindo and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. As R. C. Zaehner (1913-74), a Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions at Oxford, wrote of them:
“In their separate traditions, they represent something totally new in mystical religion. Both not only accepted the theory of evolution but enthusiastically acclaimed it, indeed were almost obsessed by it … Both were deeply dissatisfied with organised religion and both were vitally concerned not only with individual salvation or “liberation” but also with the collective salvation of mankind.”
Beacons of Light by Marcus Braybrooke describes the life and teaching of one hundred holy people who have shaped the spiritual history of the world, including several mentioned in this essay. The book’s short chapters about major spiritual contributors is a personal, engaging dive into the history of world religions. You can find it at Amazon in paper on on-line.
For me, this dream has recurred most vividly when I have shared in prayer services with people of other faiths or even more so when we have shared a profound silence and felt the loving presence of the Eternal Mystery who transcends all our creeds.
This dream continues in some New Dawn spiritual movements, but at many interfaith meetings I go to, speakers often insist that there is no attempt to create a universal religion and that differences need to be respected. This, of course, has made it easier for mainline faith communities to join in valuable and important practical action together for a better world, without having to question their deeply held beliefs, which as Bede Griffiths said requires the “pain of self-sacrifice.”
For the dreamers, however, there is no suggestion of an interfaith committee designing a new “fit-all” religion, but a sense of a Divine purpose in human history. Radhakrishnan’s prophecy was based on two premises.
First, the witness of mystics of many traditions that there is a point when one goes beyond one’s chosen to path to discover, in Rumi’s words, that “the religion of love is the message of all religions.” Secondly, as religions respond to each other and to an ever changing global community, they grow together. An example of this is the emphasis of most religions today on care for the environment or on gender equality – an emphasis that was lacking 100 years ago.
I find it helpful to picture the spiritual history of humankind as a great river with various springs, sources and tributaries, always changing, sometimes dividing, maybe with backwaters, but moving forwards and enriching the present with what is carried forward from the past and opening up new vistas for the future.
At a time when trying to rescue religion from its hi-jacking by men of violence is the priority, all this may indeed be a dream which is forgotten when one awakes to the harsh realities of life today. Yet, “without vision the people perish,” and the interfaith movement may lose some of its dynamism. Perhaps as the abstract artist Naum Gabo said, when asked why he continued with his work amid the daily horrors of the Second World War, “We need to keep alive the vision of the world of our dreams.”