Institute on Religion and Democracy
August 15, 2000
Over 1300 people gathered for the Trinity's Institute's 31st national conference, "God at 2000." Although intended to foster "theological renewal" for Episcopal Church clergy, the cavalcade of liberal speakers envisioned a new religious world in which syncretistic consensus would replace Christian orthodoxy.
The luminaries at the conference, held earlier this year at Oregon State University, included Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jesus Seminar leader Marcus Borg, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, Harvard professor Diana Eck, Jewish rabbi and author Lawrence Kushner, writer/broadcaster and former nun Karen Armstrong and Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
The Trinity Institute is an arm of Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street in New York. Its large endowment makes it one of America's wealthiest congregations and facilitates the organization of conferences such as "God at 2000."
One of the most celebrated speakers was Borg, who is Episcopalian, but who advocates a brand of "panentheism" that rejects notions of a personal God in favor of a broader universal spirit.
"I grew up in a time and place where it was taken for granted that Christianity was the only true religion and Jesus the only way of salvation," Borg distastefully recalled. "That's why we had missionaries. I find it literally incredible to think that the God of the whole universe has chosen to be known in only one religious tradition, which just fortunately happens to be our own."
Borg warned that if Christianity claims to be the only true religion it loses credibility. He insisted that Christians must strive for the "enthusiastic and grateful affirmation of religious pluralism. Of course this means accepting a relative status for Christianity, but a relative status that is one of the magnificent first stars in the constellation of the world's religions."
Diana Eck heartily agreed. She is director of the Pluralism Project, which analyzes and advocates religious diversity in America. Eck and her female companion are also the first lesbian dorm parents at Harvard University, where she teaches comparative religion. Eck, who is United Methodist, has served as a consultant to the World and National Councils of Churches. And she has received the National Humanities Medal for her work from President Clinton.
"Today if we open our eyes and our ears, there are many ways of theological conception other than the ones we have known as Christians," Eck said. "It is our task, and our joy, to re-imagine what we know about God." She is convinced that "it is time for all of our theisms to be held in a context of global mutli-theism." This new theism, she hopes, will embrace a multitude of understandings about God, which each admitting that "none of our understandings can be complete." She recommended a concept of God that is constantly "dynamic" and evolving to adapt to new situations.
Catholic nun and activist Joan Chittister came to a similar conclusion as she examined the "parochial" repression of her Catholic upbringing. Spiritual globalism has since replaced her traditional Catholic faith. "The melting of national boundaries, the free flow of peoples and ideas across the globe introduced for me a new kind of cognitive dissonance. The white, male, Catholic, American god was suddenly suspect. Were all these others - nearly four-fifths of the world - really godless?" For Chittister, the answer is no. For her, the "greatest of all truths" is that God has many faces and names not limited to Christianity.
Chittister said the Bible, like "any Scripture," is a sacrament and "one of the bridges" where the divine can be found. But she warned there are problems with the Bible. "We should see it more as a place to encounter the divine than a book we look at for logos-style information."
Karen Armstrong is a former nun who shares Chittister's rejection of Christian orthodoxy. Her new faith draws equally upon Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism and Islam, which prompts her to describe himself as a "freelance monotheist." But she admitted even this description does not quite capture her, as she is also "amazed by Buddha's insights." Armstrong told that audience that she draws upon all these religions and "cannot see any one of them as better or superior. All of them have given me so much."
She advocated a religion that focused on asking questions rather than providing answers. Armstrong rejected using the Bible as a "holy encyclopedia," suggesting instead that the Bible "reflects the immense struggle for meaning rather than clear-cut answers."
Rabbi Kushiner seemed to adopt a similarly expansive and syncretistic view of God. He likened fellowship with God as being atop a mountain that sprawls across several time zones. People from different climates begin their climb up the mountain clad in skimpy or warm clothing. But as they ascend they either shed some of their clothing or put on new layers. When they reach the top they are wearing roughly the same things. But at the mountain's base, people "still argue about how to dress."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu stressed the perseverance of religion's influence in the world. "At the end of the 20th century and the second millennium, God has shown that God possesses extraordinary survival powers and resilience, and that religion in some form or another, and belief in and worship of God, however conceived or described, are just facts of life, denied only by the willfully blind or the perverse."
Tutu celebrated that God's love is available to all "The divine can erupt anywhere, and be mediated by anyone or anything. Each person indeed is a God-carrier." He proclaimed that God's family includes all people, including "gay, lesbian, [and] straight."
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor, at George Washington University, explained his Islamic faith. He was perhaps the most reluctant among the speakers to accept that all religions are equally true and valid. Unlike the other speakers, he mentioned that Asian religions are indeed different from monotheistic religions since they do not subscribe to a personal God.
He nodded towards syncretism by saying, "Every religion is a face that God has turned to a particular humanity." But he still pointed to God as the "absolute," and warned against "falling down and relativizing everything."
"If you only accept that your religion is relative, you will not follow it," Nasr said. "There must be something of absoluteness within eligion. .Otherwise, there will just be languages that don't mean anything."
But Diana Eck responded, "It would seem to be that making religion absolute is a form of idolatry. I don't think anyone wants that." Marcus Borg also added that many Christians must switch to another religious tradition because the traditions of their own faith have required years of "therapy" from which to recover. Switching religions may therefore be therapeutic, but the switch should not imply that one religion is more truthful than another, he stressed.
It was indeed paradoxical that a Christian-sponsored conference, intended for Christian clergy, and featuring a majority of speakers who are affiliated with Christian churches, had to rely almost exclusively on an Islamic speaker to imply there are still some theological and ethical absolutes. The speakers who professed to be Christians were, in contrast, nearly all eager to embrace a new global and relativistic spirituality that consigns traditional Christianity to irrelevance.
Joan Chittister concluded: "Surely there is no one participating in this conference who really believes that this conference is about 'God at 2000.' This conference is about us at 2000."
She was undoubtedly correct.