Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Paradigms of Ecumenism as a Spiritual Practice: Father Thomas Keating and Swami Atmarupananda Discuss the Theory and Practice of Dialogue

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Paradigms of Ecumenism as a Spiritual Practice: Father Thomas Keating and Swami Atmarupananda Discuss the Theory and Practice of Dialogue

Article excerpt

Ecumenism as a Spiritual Practice

I first met Father Thomas Keating and Swami Atmarupananda in the summer of 2002 in Aspen, Colorado. At the time I was working on a short book on meditation in different religious traditions (2) and thus attending an interreligious conference on the same subject at which both men were teaching. (3) Immediately, I was struck by the profound erudition and deep commitment to spiritual practice exhibited by each man; these were living exemplars of Christianity and Hinduism, steeped in the wisdom and cultures of their respective religions, just as they were wrapped in the distinctive garb of their own monastic orders. However, as I began to talk with them further, I discovered something still more interesting to me personally: As committed as each was to his own religious tradition (and concomitant practices), both were equally committed to ecumenism and to dialogue as a kind of spiritual practice.

This fact led me to wonder--is dialogue an option, obligation, or practice on par with, say, reading the Vedas, lectio divina, telling a rosary, or saying japa over a mala? Moreover, is it legitimate to consider dialogue as such within a specific religious tradition such as Christianity or Hinduism? Though neither man speaks directly to this question in the interviews below, I would argue that it is.

Ecumenism exists on the margins of our religious traditions, like a bridge over a chasm connecting two continents. Because the bridge is open-ended, ecumenism in any one tradition will never be so distinctively Hindu as a puja or as Christian as a Mass; (4) nevertheless, on an arch over either side of this "bridge," Hindus and Christians will inscribe their own mantras--"Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names" (Rig Veda I, 164:46) and "In my Father's house are many rooms" (Jn. 14:2). This is to legitimize the activity from both sides, to say, "This endeavor is fully in accord with my tradition. 'In my Father's house are many rooms,' and I may visit them in order that I may truly know the fullness and splendor of 'my Father's house.'" Thus, it is clear that ecumenism is not so much to be identified with the "rooms" as with "doors" between these "rooms."

If ecumenism is not an activity with any characteristics distinct to one religion or another, what then is its value to a particular religious tradition? On a basic level, ecumenism can be seen as a salutary attempt at getting to know one another better, to achieve a measure of understanding and tolerance; it is a means by which one may come to view one's own tradition and spiritual practices from another perspective, to discern the similarities and differences by dialogue and close observation. However, on a deeper level (what Fr. Matthew Fox calls "deep ecumenism"), (5) it is actually an opportunity to learn about oneself while in full engagement with another, opening oneself to change--for in any true listening, there is always the possibility of being changed by the encounter. One might even choose to participate in the practices of another religious tradition, to engage in experiential learning or "participatory epistemology," as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, (6) one of ecumenism's pioneers, likes to say. Such "knowledge," he suggests, can open one up to an understanding of the deep structures, (7) the basic technology beneath the Christian or Hindu exterior, discerning (as both Fr. Keating and Swami Atmarupananda will point out) what is "essential" from what may be considered "accidental" (in the philosophical sense) in our own religious traditions. In many ways, this is what Max Muller (1823-1900) had in mind when he paraphrased Goethe, saying, "He who knows only one religion, knows none." (8)

From this perspective, ecumenism and dialogue might be seen as a kind of "diagnostic" to be run on our spiritual lives as well as our religious traditions--to see how well each is functioning--and to be used as a tool for refining our own understanding of scripture and spiritual experience. …

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