by John-Brian Paprock (c) 1998
About a century or two ago, the Pope decide that all the Jews had to leave Rome. Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community. So the Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, the Jews would stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave.
The Jews realized that they had no choice. They looked around for a champion who could defend their faith, but no one wanted to volunteer. It was too risky. So they finally picked an old man named Moishe who spent his life sweeping up after people to represent them. Being old and poor, he had less to lose, so he agreed. He asked only for one addition to the debate.
Not being used to saying very much as he cleaned up around the settlement, he asked that neither side be allowed to talk. The Pope agreed.
The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back and raised one finger. The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. The Pope stood up and said, "I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay."
An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said: "First, I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all round us. He responded by pointing to the ground, showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?"
Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe, amazed that this old, feeble-minded man had done what all their scholars had insisted was impossible! "What happened," they asked. "Well, said Moishe, "First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here." "And then what happened?" asked a woman. "I don't know," said Moishe, "He took out his lunch and I took out mine."
(from Steven & Susan Garrett over the internet)
The story illustrates, in a wonderfully entertaining manner, how we bring our own interpretation, our own priorities, to every discussion or debate. In these millennial days, it seems that there are many drawing lines in the sand (spiritual and religious lines), but on different beaches. This growing factionalism is not restrained by belief system. On the contrary, it is appearing in nearly all beliefs, spiritual and religious, political and personal. And it is not just between groups, but the trend is also appearing within groups. As a society, we seem to be on the brink of devastating war or incredible peace. Not just between the nations, but within our groups as well.
Leaders (and others, who prefer less patriarchal terms) seem to be shoring up their groups with full scale efforts of exclusivism or selective exclusivism. This level of separation is usually associated with political parties and destructive cults of all ilk. However, it is currently being played out with millennial zeal in religious and semi-religious groups everywhere. This exclusivism is being tauted as religious doctrine, including the "anti-organized religion" doctrine, and spiritual elitism.
There is no longer a group of people gathering anywhere that does not seem to have these problems. Everyone seems quite capable of discerning a political liberal from conservative, as long as the words they use are consistent with what is already accepted as liberal or conservative. This is also true for those involved in Christianity, Buddhism or any other belief system. There is a natural tension between opposites (even if they creations of human intellect alone) and everyone gets to be on a "side" that champions there particular cause and against the "evil" that does not. It seems, however, that the greater the polarization, the more similar the appearance. How many have met the liberal "zealots" who watch people with the same scowl of condemnation as the conservative "militia"?
In spiritual traditions, the divisions have seemed, over the centuries, only to spark the emergence of new factions, new denominations, or even new religions. One could easily see a continuum from conservative preservation of the "ancient ways" to a more liberal theology that allows prayers in languages other than the "ancient tongue" of the tradition. This is true for Islam (although less obvious), Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism (or the Vedic Religion), Sacred Earth Traditions (such as Native American) etc. In fact, there appear to be more "Fundamentalists" and "Traditionalists" than ever before (or, perhaps, they are more vocal). At the same time, there is a real liberalism growing within these same traditions that is tolerant, accepting and even inclusive. What makes this polarization so ominous is that it appears to be mainly within religious and spiritual groups with a real impact felt by other groups and society as a whole. The contemporary religious and spiritual struggle is appearing as an internal struggle, not between light and dark, not between "believers" and "heretics," but rather between liberal and conservative views of the same doctrines, holy writings, traditions and/or beliefs. Even within "orthodox" groups, with deep mystical tradition and ancient ceremony, there is this tension.
In the middle, somewhere, is a growing interfaith effort, that emphasizes true dialogue and cooperative activities between those of different faiths or belief systems (or even those of the same faith or belief system), without the effort to convert or convince. In interfaith activities, one is allowed the complete freedom to be demonstrative of their conviction, knowing that others believe differently.
Not that contemporary society has a choice. The problem of pluralism has only grown throughout the world as global communication and travel has become nearly effortless. In "God and the World Religions," Thomas Hick suggest that there are three religious/spiritual responses to a societal diversity: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Exclusivism says, "We have the Truth. If you don't follow our way (attitudes, practices, etc.), then you will suffer (in one way or another)." Inclusivism says, "We have the Truth and eventually everyone will realize it, even if takes forever." Pluralism says, "We have the Truth and so do they, even if we don't understand how." Before the "best" response can be selected, this is not intended as another weapon to be used in "holier than thou" battles. It is only an intellectual exercise, when applied with honest introspection, to see how easy it is to respond in each manner, regardless of belief system.
"Can't we just all get along?" That remains to be seen. There is a lot of provocative issues and rhetoric. Over the centuries, a lot of lines have been drawn in the sand. And there is the other side. Bede Griffiths, a Catholic priest who was greatly respected throughout the world for his interfaith activity, wrote before his death, "In spite of extraordinary expansion of each religion [over certain regions through the centuries], it is only today that different religious traditions are beginning to mix freely all over the world and are seeking to relate to one another, not in terms of rivalry and conflict, but in terms of dialogue and mutual respect."
Which brings us back to the Pope and Moishe and communication along spiritual and religious lines. What may have happened if they had talked?
John-Brian Paprock is the coordinator for the Madison Area Interfaith Network, publisher of the Guide to Spiritual and Religious Resources for South Central Wisconsin, and a member of the Association of Interfaith Ministers.