- At the Desert Retreat House -
As I sat in our local Starbucks yesterday I noticed that there was some type of commotion on the sidewalk outside. A group of “Christian fundamentalists” had assembled there in an attempt to “convert”” the heathens who were coming from and going into the coffee shop. They were loudly shouting at all who passed them by while holding up graphic posters depicting people burning in the flames of “hell” with a caption that read: “This is what will happen to you unless you accept Jesus as your savior.”
Normally I tend to ignore this kind of fundamentalist display, but yesterday these folks crossed a boundary for me and I just couldn’t contain myself. Even though I knew I wouldn’t be heard, I went outside and confronted these co-called Christians, telling them that I thought they were doing great harm to the Christian faith and distorting the teaching of Jesus. I also told them that their heinous judgment condemning people to “hell” was exactly the kind of nonsense that atheists and agnostics point to when they explain why it is that they do not believe in God.
What struck me most about my encounter yesterday was how absolutely sure and certain the folks holding those posters were about who was right and who was wrong. Their certitude turned into brutality and belligerence as they shouted their threats against all the people who passed by them. I suppose that religious fundamentalism of any stripe (Christian or Islamic or Jewish or whatever) exhibits these same characteristics.
Paradoxically, most religious “fundamentalists” are sure and certain they are “right” in their ideas about a “God” who can never be understood by human logic. They are positive that they understand a great mystery that is ultimately unknowable and can only be experienced at some deep level of the heart.
Over the ages, the renowned mystics, teachers and sages of all religious traditions have essentially agreed that words and ideas about God can never define or explain “God.” The Sufi poets, Hebrew mystics, great Christian saints like John of the Cross, well-respected theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have essentially asserted that the only thing about “God” that is sure and certain is that those who claim to be sure and certain that they know who God is, don’t know who God is - and the more sure you are, the less you really know.
Yesterday as I viewed the arrogant and vulgar display of those “Christians” outside Starbucks, so certain about the “God” they professed, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from a book of theological essays that I keep on my shelves:
Over the years religions of various sorts
have argued endlessly and disgracefully with one another.
But what if a Christian sat down and said,
‘Well actually I do not know much about God,
and everything I do say is so inadequate as to be false.’
Then a Jew or a Muslim might also say,
‘It’s funny you should say that,
I do not know much about God either.’
How could they then have an argument?
And if they did have an argument, the winner might be the one
who proved that he knew less about God than his opponent.
This morning as I basked in the mystical silence of the desert where I live, I embraced the emptiness of the Great Unknowable Mystery I call “God,” and I uttered this ancient Sufi prayer:
You are the All – without beginning or end.
You are the One – incomparable, without measure.
You are without limit and beyond understanding.
You are everywhere and in everything.
You are GOD - beyond the beyond.