Today, on reading on Facebook how the BBC had interviewed a 'Muslim Quaker', I posed a question in the comments section asking how two distinct traditions can be integrated on equal terms.
I do hold a long-term belief that whatever your religious affiliation, you should remain open to the insights of other traditions. However, it seems a much trickier proposition, on both personal and communal levels, to declare yourself to be a Jewish Buddhist, a Sikh Christian and so on.
In terms of small 'u' universalism, I submitted the following personal reflection to a Unitarian Christian publication last year about what I consider to be the benefits and limits of the approach:
"For me the universalist mindset – the modern meaning of the word rather than the older Christian-specific meaning - is not necessarily about embracing all religions and trying to follow all paths at once. Nor is it that which C. S. Lewis described as ‘amiable agnosticism’.
Rather, it is firstly borne out of a recognition that as the world becomes smaller – and in turn as the materially-richer societies in which we live become increasingly globalised - we can no longer hide within tribes, fencing ourselves according to rigid definitions of ethnicity, nationality, religion and so on. Instead we have to recognise we have reached a point in human history where we cannot escape diversity, and must therefore seek ways to live peacefully with difference. To achieve this we must find new affinities with our ever nearer neighbours. We must agree they are not damned, we must acknowledge they too may well be saved without turning to our Jesus and our God. We must prepare for humanity’s gradual evolution towards a borderless society.
For faiths that have long declared each other heretics and infidels, this represents a potentially radical departure. For citizens under political and media powers that continue to fall periodically - and opportunistically - into jingoism, this potentially represents a radical act of dissent.
But this radical yet ultimately pragmatic approach could describe any adherent who passionately acts to further what we term as ‘ecumenism’, ‘interfaith dialogue’ etc. What turns this into universalism, from my point of view at least, is a commitment to go further and learn from those we regard as ‘other’. To not simply tolerate difference, but to actively seek challenge and enrichment from differing views and ways of living. To approach them with open mind and open heart as well as open arms. For me over the years this has meant an exploration firstly of different Christian paths, as a ‘Free Range Christian’, both in terms of theology and worship. It has led to me being christened in an Anglican Church, brought up around Methodists, matured in a Unitarian church and currently finding home in a Quaker Meeting House.
Over the years this mindset has also led me towards non-Christian faith traditions, first engaging in Buddhist practice following discussions with a friend who had spent time in Japan, and more recently, exploring Taoist thinking and mindfulness following a trip to China.
This has not been simply about intellectual curiosity or drawing small comfort from noble sayings. I feel deeply shaped by these explorations. To leave your church community out of conscience, to test your faith to the point you may have to abandon it for another - or none, these are signs of a burning commitment to discover Truth, to connect with the one God, to becoming a better person.
With Buddhism, I spent time experiencing the discipline and benefits of purist zazen – seated, silent meditation. However, I also eventually realised what I naturally sought from this practice varied to that of the community, what Rufus M. Jones calls affirmation mysticism rather than negation mysticism – bringing me full circle back to Christianity.
More recently with Taoism, this has helped broaden my understanding of God, growing beyond the false dichotomy that Western society now holds to – Sky God versus No God. The Tao of Taoism is generally translated as ‘The Way’ but we could also think of it as meaning ‘the flow of the universe’, ‘the way of nature’, ‘the source of all things’ - or simply, and beautifully, as ‘expression’. The Tao is also always described with the disclaimer that it is ultimately indescribable, yet nonetheless tangible. To rebalance my vision of the one God in this way has strengthened my Christian faith.
Interestingly enough also, is the view of the ‘founder’ of Taoism compared to the ‘founder’ of Christianity, the man known as Jesus. Lao Tzu is termed poetically by many Taoists as the ‘First God of Taoism’, as a personal manifestation of the Tao. So for all the transcendence and transpersonality of the Tao, we see that for a connection to be made with the Tao, Taoist disciples first connect with a human figure. Again, this we can also see in the beliefs and approaches of Christianity, from Jesus and his disciples to the Catholic saints to the myriad of Protestant greats.
For me this is a reminder that the path of a more aware, more appreciative, more giving, more lived life is not a solitary abstract pursuit but rather is found primarily by opening ourselves up to the insights and examples set by those who came before us - and more importantly, to those who travel alongside us now. It also comes from within ourselves - the still, small voice within. It is fascinating to think there are 6 billion possible gateways to God out there at any one moment - and you too are one of them. All this from Taoism again returns me to my ‘starting point’ tradition, renewed and refocused.
The Quakers speak of being ‘rooted in Christianity, open to new light’. I think this is a good enough way (for there is no perfect way) of describing my universalism and that of similar seekers on the Christian end of the Unitarian spectrum."