“Behold the One in all things; it’s the two that throws you off.” –An Islamic Mystic
I have gone back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth about whether to use the term ‘Perennialist’ as a noun or as an adjective. For example, am I a “Catholic Perennialist” or a “Perennialist Catholic”? Or “Perennialist-Catholic,” the double-noun, which still presents the problem of whether to place the ‘Perennialist’ designation first or last. I recognize the power and importance of words, and so this discussion doesn’t come down to merely a matter of style or aesthetics, but to the different meanings these arrangements of words represent, however subtle those differences may be.
When a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Humanist, Yoruba, Aborigine, or other person decides to add the word ‘Perennialist’ to her description of herself, does she consider herself to belong primarily to the group of “Perennialists,” with her traditional religion being secondary? If so, she might prefer the term “Jewish Perennialist,” for example. Or does she consider herself to be primarily a member of her religion, but with the qualification that she understands all valid paths to truth to be valid paths to truth? In that case, she might prefer to be called a “Perennialist Jew.” So which should it be? Or, should it depend on the person and her relationship to her religion and to Perennialism?
I am completely in favor of leaving the nomenclature up to the individual person. But having thought through this a bit, I thought I might share with you my reasoning for choosing the designation “Perennialist Catholic.” First of all, there is the fact that Perennialism is a meta-religious idea, an idea that strives to see all religions and philosophies from some bird’s-eye view. Now this perspective may not be possible for a human being to attain, but it is certainly approachable for the learned human being who possesses reason, imagination, and inspiration. (It may also be possible through a mystical seeing, but that is a conversation for another time and place; despite the fact that such mystical experiences are responsible for my forays into Perennialsim!) As Perennialism is a meta-religious idea, rather than another religion among religions, I did not think it proper to use it as a noun. “I am a Catholic Perennialist, and I hope you will someday become a Perennialist, too” sounds too much like I am trying to start my own church. This is not another movement among movements. It is a movement beyond any one religion. It seeks to transcend the problems of religion while retaining all of their wisdom and truth. It would be a tragedy to throw-out tens of thousands of years of collected wisdom, not to mention all the good institutions and communities that arose with it. So, I place ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective, a particular way in which I belong to the community of Catholic Christians.
Secondly, and following from that, I do not think Perennialism is a way to truth, at least not by itself. Perennialism does not provide religious practices and myths that will guide a person to truth, not unless you recognize all the valid rituals and myths of all the religions of the world to be Perennialism’s myths and rituals. Instead, the myriad religious and philosophical traditions are ways to truth that can be better understood and deepened through a Perennialist interpretation. I say “interpretation” because I do not think there is one ultimate Perennial philosophy. I think it is the work of trying to be a Perennialist that is important, not whether we succeed at it. All of this points to a better use of ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective.
Finally, I want to sincerely recognize and honor the truth and beauty of the diversity of religions and philosophies, not to mention the benefit gained by the fact of their multiplicity. There is a multiplicity of religious and philosophical traditions, and within each of these is a multiplicity of viewpoints, beliefs, practices, and myths. Using ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective seems an appropriate way to unite all of the members of these various traditions while still acknowledging each person as being grounded in his “Roman Catholic Christian-ness,” “Lutheran Christian-ness,” “Baptist Christian-ness,” Zen Buddhist-ness,” “Pure Land Buddhist-ness,” “Orthodox Jewish-ness,” “Reform Jewish-ness,” etcetera.
Further, without this diversity, the comparative work that led to the Perennial Philosophy would not have been possible or necessary. And what a beautiful idea it is! More importantly, what a wonderful and transformative journey it is. Without diversity, this transformative process would not be available for all of us. Perhaps someday it will not be necessary, but from my limited, year-2012 human perspective, it is a beautiful and worthwhile process of development for all of us to engage.
So, for now anyway, I use the term ‘Perennialist’ as an adjective, ultimately recognizing the truth of Gandhi’s insight that there are as many religions as there are men and women. I cannot name even two Roman Catholic Saints whose paths to God or even whose prayers were exactly the same. If we are as unique as snowflakes, with ourselves—our very lives—being our deepest prayers, it follows that there are no two prayers that are alike, nor two paths to God. I guess, in the end, we are all Perennialists, but to claim so would be too dangerous. I would be wary of anyone who did. From our human perspective, it would be safer to leave “Perennialist” as a secondary term, quietly doing its job of letting others know how we strive to see the world, not demanding any kind of allegiance to itself, letting us be and letting us become, giving as only God can give.
“You” is a story you and others tell yourself.
Imagine That: A More-than-Christian Faith
Justin C. Maaia
Washington National Cathedral Baccalaureate Mass
To the National Cathedral School Class of 2011
Look around you; to the sides of you; in front of you; in back of you. Do you trust those people enough to be able to close your eyes for about one minute? How about thirty seconds? Okay. Now I want you to close your eyes—close ‘em—and I want you to picture in your mind your greatest fantasy. Imagine your deepest desire. Got it? Okay, now open your eyes. Now, I am going to read your minds. Ready? Is this what you were imagining? (Hold up peace sign.)
It wasn’t? Why not? Why don’t we spend time imagining world peace? And yet we wonder everyday why the world is the way it is! What are we fantasizing about anyway? I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Kinsey Institute’s famous study on sexuality, which found that men definitely DO NOT have world peace on their minds at least several times a day. (I’m sensing a St. Alban’s joke somewhere in there, but I won’t go there.) Why don’t we use our imaginations? I remember Deepak Chopra telling the story of one of his visits to India. There was an ascetic on the side of the road, sitting on a bed of nails or something, and he asked Chopra, “What do you want?” “What do you mean ‘what do I want’,” Chopra replied. “What do you want right now?” the ascetic asked again. “I don’t know…I guess I could go for a piece of chocolate.” The ascetic opened his hand and there was a piece of chocolate. You can imagine how Chopra chastised himself for not using his imagination more wisely. We are all guilty of the same misuse. Here is another story about imagination: Those of you who are familiar with the Tonight Show might know that the theme song was written by Paul Anka. They offered Anka something like $100,000 for the rights to that song. Anka said, “You know what? Just give me $200 every time you play it.” Anka made millions of dollars off of that one song. That’s some imagination.
Imagination is one of the things we share with God. Using our imagination allows us to take part in the creative process that began when God first imagined the universe. And if we don’t take advantage of this, well…
What if John Lennon had never imagined? What if Martin Luther King jr. had never dared to dream? What if Alice Paul had never envisioned a woman’s right to vote? What if the Beatles had sung “All you need is a 401k”? (I don’t think that would have helped me through our most recent recession.) What if Jesus had said, “Amen, amen I say to you: Tolerate one another, as I have tolerated you”?
I mention these famous people, but the fact is that there are no insignificant uses of imagination. There are no insignificant uses of imagination. I used to give my students a huge final exam, with 200 vocabulary words, most of them in foreign languages. Students used to ask me, “Mr. Maaia, why do we have to memorize all of these words, if you yourself said that they are not what is important about religion?” And I used to say, “Because, if you memorize these words you will do well on the test, and if you do well on the test you will make me happy, and if you make me happy then I will bring happiness to all of my students, and if all of my students are happy, then they will bring happiness to all of their families, and so on until the whole world is happy.” So there are no insignificant uses of imagination.
All of you use your imaginations for great things. A singer first hears the note she has to sing in her imagination, and then she produces the note, bringing beauty into the world. An athlete visualizes the way she will react to this or that move as she prepares for her next match. She does well, and she brings a sense of accomplishment into the world. A writer has a vision—a vision that may be contained in one small detail or turn-of-phrase, or rhythm—and she turns it into a masterpiece, bringing awareness into the world. An NCS student sees an AIDS patient in the Dominican Republic, imagines how she can heal that person, and starts a non-profit, bringing health and happiness and hope into the world. That is imagination.
I want to talk to you about the imaginations of two people in today’s gospel, Jesus and Thomas. Jesus is full of it. Imagination, that is. He is so full of it that he even imagines that death is not the end for him. On the other hand, Thomas appears to be lacking in imagination. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I think Thomas had imagination, too, but we need to do some work to see it.
What is Thomas known for? What’s his nickname? “Doubting Thomas.” He is known for his flaw. We know him as the doubter. We have all heard the story the way it is written in John chapter 20: After Jesus comes back from the dead he appears to his friends, but Thomas doesn’t believe it’s really him. He doesn’t believe anyone could come back from the dead like that. He says, “Not until I put my fingers into Jesus’ wounds will I believe it.” It is unfortunate that this is all we remember about Thomas. Not because it’s a bad story—in fact, it’s a great story about faith. But the thing about this story is that if you read it in the context of the story we heard today (John 11:1-45), we learn something else about Thomas. Thomas is not the apostle who lacks faith. Rather, he is the apostle with the most faith.
Today’s story is about Jesus’ cousin Lazarus, who has died and whom Jesus wants to go and bring back from the dead. The apostles are scared and they warn Jesus that the people who live near Lazarus are hostile toward Jesus and that it would be dangerous for them to go back to that village. Jesus is, of course, undaunted by those types of fears that you and I take into consideration when we make a decision: You know, considerations like, “Could this somehow result in bodily injury or death?” Most of the apostles share those fears. Thomas is different. This is where we learn something new about him. We learn that Thomas is ready to follow Jesus right to the very end. Thomas says, “Come, let us follow Jesus so that we can die with him.”
Does that sound like the voice of doubting Thomas? Not at all. This sounds like a person with great faith. Does this make Thomas special? Well, not exactly. This unwavering commitment to follow one’s leader is an admirable quality, but it’s not uncommon among disciples, saints, martyrs, or other crazy people. However, if we look at this commitment after considering the other story, the story of “Doubting Thomas,” we will see that Thomas is special. He’s special and he is the most exemplary apostle for us and for our time.
When we read these two stories together – the story of Thomas being willing to follow Jesus into death and the more infamous story of doubting Thomas—we see that Thomas was willing to follow Jesus into death even though he didn’t believe in the resurrection. He didn’t believe in the resurrection, and yet he was ready to follow Jesus into death anyway. How many of us would be willing to walk THAT path? How many Christians would do that? How many? The answer is “none.” Christians are willing to follow Christ into death because they believe in resurrection. What Thomas does is more than Christian. It’s more than religious. Religions do not even ask this of their followers. Most religions ask their followers to follow them into death, but that death is followed by heaven or God or resurrection or reincarnation. Thomas’ faith is a more than Christian faith. It’s even a more than religious faith.
Because he is more than a Christian, Thomas is the perfect example of faith for our day. Like Thomas, we do not believe in God. Am I wrong? Don’t we doubt God all the time? We doubt whether God can work miracles in our lives. We doubt whether God cares about us. We doubt the possibility of God so much that we even sometimes doubt God’s very existence. We become atheists. And yet, even in the face of our disbelief, we continue to walk, to live, to breathe, to love. Like Thomas, we are willing to follow the way of God, even to the end.
What do I mean by “the way of God”? How can I claim that an atheist follows “the way of God”? What I mean is the way of Life. None of us really knows whether there is a heaven, or a hell, or a resurrection, or reincarnation. None of us really knows if there is a God who can make all things right in the end. And yet we get up, and put a smile in our faces, and walk, run, jump, skip, or drag ourselves through each and every day. In spite of our varying levels of disbelief, we act as if we believe. We act with hope. Whether it is by bringing a child into the world, going to college, getting a job, starting a non-profit, singing a note, playing a game, or simply by being kind to someone, we all live lives of hope. I see it every day in all of you. Each of you has been a religious inspiration to me. And you are not all Catholics. You are not all Christians. You are not even all religious. Some of you are humanists. Some of you are even atheists. Like Thomas. And yet you are willing to follow “the way” right up until death.
You are all stepping into a great unknown, like Thomas following Jesus to death. In fact, you are all on the threshold of death, the death of your NCS selves. When you die, you will become a greater self, a self that includes your NCS self but that goes beyond it. You don’t know how this is going to happen. But you have imagined it. And you will continue to imagine this future, until you find the image you really want. And then you will make it real.
So let me end with a story about you and me. There once was a man named Jesus who had a friend named Thomas. Jesus said to Thomas, “Follow me. We are going to die, but then we will be resurrected.” And Thomas said, “Look: I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. I don’t believe in resurrection, but I will follow you anyway.”
That is you and me. To one extent or another, we don’t believe in God. But we imagine the way and we follow it. And, somewhere along the way, we realize that we don’t need to believe, because we feel that God is real, and we see that God is present, among us and inside of us. Imagine That. Amen.