All posts by jacamar_celtic444

Holding Common Space

Common Space Interfaith Initiative’s first interfaith gathering was held at St Scholastica Monastery in Boerne, Texas in 2008. The idea was, and remains to this day, to share contemplative practices between faith traditions, and this particular retreat was a sharing of Christian and Buddhist meditation practices. We had 24 Christians and one Buddhist show up–my co-presentor. We were no doubt asking for that by hosting it at a Christian monastery, go figure!

Times haven’t changed at all in terms of our ability to predict the balance of attendees from different faiths at particular events, although it strikes me that Christians may be the most existentially curious group and perhaps the most open to learning about other traditions. It’s extremely hard to find out what will call some people to want to share space with strangers from different paths, but for me it’s about creating peaceful understanding in a complicated world. As far my role as facilitator goes, I’ve stopped altogether trying to identify individual needs and now just see my role as “one who holds space.”

There seem to be three key ingredients to holding common space between faiths: the first, finding a neutral location; another, the need to co-opt a capable co-presentor from the other traditions; and lastly, the need to present a form of “safe” practice, not one potentially at odds with the belief systems of your colleagues in circle. 

Thankfully, Common Space here in San Antonio no longer needs to borrow space from churches and monasteries, although I was extremely grateful for the early help. The neutral ground we have found for ourselves is in a community center which houses different non-profits, a local theater, and some other small businesses. Our meeting rooms are attached to a church, so we have the benefit of access to larger space if we need it, for presentations, visiting speakers, and so on, but the automatic association is not with Christian space. We have our own entrance and there is no religious symbolism to be seen on our route in or out.

Finding the co-presentor who is considered an authority by his or her faith colleagues in circle can be a challenge, and may take some time to finesse. However, once the right person comes your way, you stand a much better chance of gaining group members from that faith. With many potential attendees, the question is one of tradition and having the authority to speak. For instance, in a Sufi environment, Muslim attendees usually want to know the lineage of the prayer leader, to be sure they are properly authorized to lead.

Once the pragmatics of the space have been negotiated, “safe” practice become the key to having people return. The space has to be a place of comfort where attendees do not feel any risk of spiritual dissonance, including the risk of participating in a manner that  goes against their belief system. Here, I’ve found the silent meditative practice of Centering Prayer particularly useful: those in circle can choose a sacred word for their practice in keeping with  their tradition and we can alternate the texts used to open and close the circle between traditions.

There is so much more to say here, but I’ll follow up on these themes in later posts. Suffice to say that it is an honor to hold space between faiths, to provide that fertile liminal ground where peaceful miracles can happen. This liminal space between, however, is a fragile, delicate thing that needs to be nurtured like a wild rose: the petals can fall very fast without proper care.

 

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Notes from the Audience: Dawkins vs. Williams (Feb 2012)

(Note: I wrote this back in March 2012. Sharing to save…)

DAWKINS VS. WILLIAMS: A PUT UP JOB? OR MORE COMMON GROUND THAN WE THOUGHT?

On 23 February 2012, I attended the debate at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Arch-New Atheist, Richard Dawkins. The topic up for discussion was the “The Nature of Human Beings and the question of their Ultimate Origin.” Fifty tickets were made available to non-Oxford students and I made it up at 3am in Texas on the only day of online sale to get my two.

The rise and rise of atheist public commentary, spearheaded by Dawkins and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, marks a sea change in British cultural and intellectual thought. Dawkins is giving name and form to decades of British religious apathy and disinterest, discretely veiled all the while in positively British good manners, and a broad appreciation for religion’s role in providing social order and its work for charitable causes. The elephant in the room for so many for so long, however, has been quiet discomfort with the notion of a creator god. Dawkins is fed up what he sees as this distracting and irrational notion, along with the obfuscations he thinks creationists bring into education, and is resoundingly prepared to say so.  But ever since reading a hatchet job by Martin Seymour-Smith’s on the “the archdunce Dawkins,” I have been intrigued by the level of animosity engendered by this apparently reasonable, and obviously intelligent man.

Much has been said in the press since the debate about Dawkins’ apparent concession to agnosticism in his statement that he is “6.9 out of seven” certain of the absence of God but that “the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very, very low.” This statement has gained remarkable traction, and most especially in the copy of media hacks who were not present to hear it. I hazard that few in the Sheldonian audience were in any doubt that Dawkins’ concession of 0.1 point out of seven to the possible existence of a god was anything other than a logical acknowledgement of that which cannot be proved. What is surprising, however, about this commentary from these absent parties is not only the puerility of the reaction, but the intellectual laziness of the commentators who speak inadequately, if at all, to the rhetorical context of the debate. One of the reasons Tim Stanley (a historian) of the Daily Telegraph goes to church, apparently, is that is that he doesn’t want “to run the risk of spending eternity in Hell with Richard Dawkins.” Funny, but basically, cheap schtick at the cost of any useful insight, historical or otherwise – and good luck to his fellow parishioners, by the way.  Al Webb, in the Huffington Post, describes Dawkins as “the controversial Oxford University professor billed by many as the world’s “most famous atheist” (who) now says he is not 100 percent sure that God doesn’t exist — but just barely.” Barely stifling a laugh himself, Webb then goes on to recount “the amusement of the Archbishop and others” at Dawkins’ dialectical naïveté.

The feeling that Dawkins is not taken seriously was so palpable during the Sheldonian debate that it skewed from the outset a potentially fruitful discussion.  Another source of cognitive dissonance for the audience was the shifting contextual basis for this meeting which seemed to lead to divergent approaches by the speakers.  The meeting itself was publicized and ticketed as a “conversation” between Dawkins and Williams; however, almost all the subsequent publicity promoted the meeting as a debate. Sometimes the audience seemed to be genuinely uncomfortable when Dawkins appeared to be thinking aloud, rather than offering a formal strategic response to a question.  At other times, the same audience could be heard to shuffle and snicker when Dawkins appeared – and in fact claimed openly — to misunderstand a the term “epistemic”; very certain ground for the philosopher Kenny and, doubtless, for Williams, but not usually part of Dawkin’s working register as a scientist. There certainly was a good deal of snickering going on, usually garnered by a comment by Dawkins, both on the part of those with whom he shared the stage–the moderator, the philosopher, Sir Antony Kenny, and the Archbishop, who referred to the former as “Tony”—and on the part of the audience.

Dawkins held closely to a conversational style throughout, but it seems clear that his approach wrong-footed his audience, who were expecting the more familiar cut-and-thrust of formal debate.  Rowan Williams, however, was to play it both ways. He joined in with the advertised conversational character of the event, but also employed rhetorical strategies associated with the debate form, including his frequent questioning of Dawkins, which came across both as a strategic deflection of attention onto his opposition and as a play for time. His use of self-deprecating wit was a crowd-pleaser, as was his cloaking of a critical retorts with the phrase “I find this very interesting.” Indeed, Williams was the more engaging speaker and, I suspect, the better-prepared debater.  Could it be that Richard Dawkins was himself wrong-footed by the Archbishop on contextual grounds? Or did he just not fully appreciate his rhetorical situation? He was certainly too busy trying to deal with Williams’ many questions to be able to mount anything that resembled a considered offensive. The terms offense, defense, antagonist, opposition—all seemed to have fallen away from Dawkins’ rules of engagement manual for the duration of the meeting.  Also, and I leave this as an aside because I know nothing of the relationship between Kenny and Williams, it was clear from the benches that the moderator’s allegiance was to Williams.  I say this for a number of reasons, but primarily for the time Kenny allocated to personally questioning Dawkins, where at once, unfitting for one supposed to be moderate, he seemed to be doing much of the Archbishop’s work for him. None of this is to say that Dawkins needs an apologist in the realm of public debate; he has amply demonstrated his abilities as a speaker, writer, and thinker. The overriding impression I came away with, however, was that Kenny and the Archbishop had been let in on the joke, whatever it was, and that Dawkins had not.  It was also disappointing that, while Kenny and Williams stood shoulder to shoulder as philosophers during the first three sections of the debate, the Archbishop only truly emerged as a theologian in the last component, “On the Origin of the Universe.”

I listened closely for areas of common ground between Williams and Dawkins, and found some, such as a general acceptance of evolutionary theory (just a difference as to who’s in charge of it), and a general appreciation for the remarkable complexities of nature revealed by science. It would have been fruitful to explore more of these points of convergence. Although it would be naïve to suggest that either side of the debate would necessarily want to find common ground as such, it may be that somewhere between the Faith/Reason polarities is our next evolutionary step.  The Christian humanist position (sometimes called Yeshuan Humanism)–where a rational humanist position is allied with a Christian moral framework shorn of the supernatural—seems a feasible melding of the Dawkins/Williams strands, and could be useful to the rational progress of religious form. There is already a quiet coexistence of Christian believers with atheists in British and American Christian circles, amongst both clerical and lay communities (see On Faith, the Newsweek/Washington Post website on religion, http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith//2010/03/disbelief_in_the_pulpit/all.html). It may be time to acknowledge these differences, express them, and find ways to move forward, together. The practice of “interfaith dialogue” is could assist here: both positions, one of faith and one of no faith, require a leap beyond what is known, and are positions founded on belief. Back we come to the 0.1 point out of seven. Identifying a convergent stance in his book, Between the Monster and the Saint, Richard Holloway describes the After-Religionist, one who views God as a mythological construct and religion as possibly the greatest human work of art we have. Respect and appreciation for religious forms combine here with science, reason, and the acknowledgement of the importance of the teachings of the man, Jesus Christ.

Dawkins, then, far from being a dunce, is not alone in thinking that somewhere in the convergence of humanism and faith, lies the beginning of the rise of our species to its full, autonomous height, encouraged so assiduously by Dawkins’ fellow Horseman, Christopher Hitchens; the arrival at a point in human history when we finally may utter a resounding “yes!” to the unmiraged view of humanity and its place within the natural order.  And, with any luck, we can get enough of a move on for this to happen some time before we are all dusted by Andromeda.  I leave you with one last foray by Dawkins into this common territory in potentia which reads thus: “perhaps the oxymoronic impact of “Atheists for Jesus” might just be what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right–could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?” (”Atheists for Jesus,” 2004).  To borrow from the language of evolution, I think this one has legs.

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After Borough Market

It is one day after the killings in Borough Market, London, by ISIL extremists, and nine days into the holy month of Ramadan. Seven people are dead and 21 remain critically injured. Londoners will continue, as Londoners always do, about their daily tasks, with glancing echoes of half-remembered Churchillian rhetoric in mind. And rightly so.

We make a terrible mistake, and I see it in news media daily, of referring to the terrorists as Islamist or Muslimist extremists. Teresa May did it again today, when she decried the tolerant attitude of Britain towards Islamist extremism. Politicians have, of late, experimented with terms like Daesh and ISIL but we seem to have settled on “Islamist extremism,” for reasons unclear. This phrase only fuels intolerance towards our peace-loving Muslim neighbors, particularly from right-wing groups, ready like powder-kegs in a drought. The only justifiable case for it is as a way to pressure good Muslims to deal with their bad Muslims. We must, though, be disciplined in our word choices—truly, the devil is in the detail–because loose language causes our friends fear and pain, subjecting them to prejudice and injustice, day after day after day.

I’ve been trying hard to understand how extremist violence can fit at all with the beautifully interwoven spiritual and material realities of this sacred time of Ramadan. The solid, material fact is that it doesn’t, and we need to put distance between our ideas of ISIL terrorism and the fragrant, sacred beauty at the heart of Islam. “Ramadan Kareem” to all our peace-full and Spirit-full Muslim brothers and sisters at this holy time. Salaam aleikum all.

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Rumi: On Nature and the Horse

RUMI & NATURE

I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, ‘To Him we shall return.’

“Is the sweetness of the cane sweeter
than the one who made the canefield?
Behind the beauty of the moon is the moonmaker.
There is intelligence inside the ocean’s
intelligence
feeding our love like an invisible waterwheel.
There is a skill to making cooking oil from animal fat.
Consider now the knack that makes eyesight
from the shining jelly of your eyes.
Dawn comes up like a beautiful meal being served.
We are hungry and distracted, so in love with the cook.
Don’t just be proud of your mustache
as you drive three donkeys down the road.
Instead of gemstones, love the jeweler.
Enough of these exhaling sounds.
Let the darling finish this
who turns listening into seeing.”

“Be like the sun for grace and mercy.
Be like the night to cover others’ faults.
Be like running water for generosity.
Be like death for rage and anger.
Be like the Earth for modesty.
Appear as you are.
Be as you appear.”

“Are you jealous of the ocean’s generosity?
Why would you refuse to give
this joy to anyone?

Fish don’t hold the sacred liquid in cups!
They swim the huge fluid freedom.”

RUMI & THE HORSE

“The mind is an ocean…I and so many worlds
are rolling there, mysterious, dimly seen!
And our bodies? Our body is a cup, floating
on the ocean; soon it will fill, and sink…
Not even one bubble will show where it went down.
The spirit is so near that you can’t see it!
But reach for it…don’t be a jar
full of water, whose rim is always dry.
Don’t be the rider who gallops all night
and never sees the horse that is beneath him.”

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Come here

Come here, and let me trace

The lines of love and anger in your face.

And let me touch the heat

Of hurt and friendship in the beat

Of life that courses there,

And tease the passion frosting in your hair.

Come, share those thoughts and, there so, sound

My heart; in you its fullness found.

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Et adorent te

Et adorent te

I will adore you.
I will love creation, with gratitude and dark wonder.
It will go out from me, with no expectation,
No watchful love.
My gift will be to know my grain of sand, my star, my salt breeze.

I had a mother once
Who sought loyalty in a threat, a steel look.
She had a prowling husband.
He looked past the child,
Watching, dark-browed, for the rising woman.
Days in avoidance (never a late show);
Nights, a tilted chair against the door.

I will adore you.
What does this mean?
An endless love for creation, full of gratitude and dark wonder,
For a grain of sand, a star, the salt breeze.

(July 2016)

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Bruce

A very good man died today,
Was gone on a breath of light.
He could not stay: it seems
There were other pressing tasks
Beyond our sight, souls to serve,
Somewhere we might, one day, know.

He will lower his head to those souls too,
And soothe hearts, sharing grace;
His hand at a shoulder, sharing care,
Facing with them, too, the question of how we live.
He, so rare, knew how.

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Contemplation (from ‘Seven Days at the Shore”)

Contemplation

 

My version of sitting quietly with God

Is no kind Eden.

Sounds, thoughts heckle,

Like skinheads in a bar,

Hating my couth look.

Stillpoint

Is a faraway shade moving in slow,

Ominous.

I dread the possession,

Yet seek it;

Eyeballs strain further within,

Socket flesh tight.

Like a dark whale rising

He comes.

And there’s no, no, no room for me.

I slap and flash and flail,

Occipital urgency

To get out, get out

Now.

Tendrils of dream climb my spine,

Like interweaving snakes,

Selfish helix, hemlock rising fast.

Did twin snakes coil Eve’s tree,

Not one?

I watch them come.

And plead for Him to find me

When they’re done.

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Storm Rising (From “Seven Days at the Shore”)

Storm Rising

 

There’s a wildness in nature tonight

I cannot answer.

They say a storm is coming,

But I think these surging trees,

Beckon only to eternity.

You and I have known

The glistering cosmic draw

That counters with the urge

For peace, in careless complacency.

How better would it be to have left these things unknown, as before?

There’s a wildness in nature tonight

I cannot answer.

 

 

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