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Why Author Tom Lemberg Joins Parliament Board, and How [Inter]Faith Values Can Heal Democracy

Tom Lemberg recently began his term as a board trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. His book “Difficult Times” is available on Amazon.com.

Attorney Thomas Lemberg of Boston, MA joins the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions at a gripping moment for the movement of interfaith. As  advocates within the interfaith sphere work to both strengthen and finesse relationships to the wheels-that-turn our world (like faith houses, governments, and the titans of corporate America), the need for interfaith to clearly communicate the messages of compassion and coexistence to those holding the most influence is a compelling one.

In his new book, Lemberg eagerly endeavors to make sense of challenges facing American democracy with a sage sense of urgency about making the many faiths positive factors in overcoming societal ugliness. After identifying three qualities about modern America Lemberg considers most harmful, the role of faith becomes a towering consideration, and one that can and will enlighten the work of interfaith activism and relationships within the Parliament and beyond.

After relishing Difficult Times, the page-turner Lemberg authored, Parliament Executive Director and co-Trustee Dr. Mary Nelson  says “we’re delighted to have Tom on the board with his breadth of corporate legal experience, his own wide-ranging interests, experiences and thoughts, and his down-to-earth practicality in helping us work toward solutions.”

We recently conducted a Q &A with Thomas Lemberg over e-mail to share his spirit as a new Trustee, goals for the Parliament, views of interfaith work, and what his book says about the role of spirituality in healing the cracks he identifies in our modern American democracy.

1) Congratulations on your election to the Parliament Board of Trustees! How have you found your experience with the Parliament, and what attracted you to join an interfaith board? 

I was attracted to the Parliament because I believe that its interfaith work is essential to making a better world. We need people of all faiths to understand each other and to tolerate their differences, to see their common ground, especially commonality in values and ethics, and to work together to advance the those values and ethics around the world. So far, I have found my experience on the Board exhilarating. It is a splendid group of good, dedicated, able, wise men and women.

2. You share in your biography that you were raised Jewish, and now consider yourself a pluralist. While this is a buzzword, what does it mean to you, to hold this belief or practice personally? 

I had never been particularly spiritual until 15-20 years ago. I am spiritual but not through Judaism (which I much admire and which I am pleased that my children and their families practice). I find the world imbued with spirit without going through any organized religion. While I relate, in different ways, to Judaism and other faiths (hence pluralism), for me, I find my spirituality outside any faith.

3) What goals do you bring to becoming a member of the Parliament Board? 

I hope to bring to the Board the value of my legal and business experience as a lawyer and executive in the business world, my perspective as an unaffiliated person of spirituality (I guess we are called “nones”) and whatever good judgment I might be able to offer on the affairs of the Parliament.

4) What would you like to see the Parliament achieve in the next year? 

I would like to see the Parliament schedule and plan a Parliament for 2015 or 2016 if possible. I would like to see the Parliament get on sound financial footing (big steps were taken in 2013) and line up donors able to support an enhanced mission. My vision is that the Parliament become the leading interfaith movement in the world to become: (1) the/a leading place where faith leaders would gather for dialogue, advocacy and community action to promote harmony among faiths and faith-based social action and (2) with their imprimatur would engage people around the world to embrace the values of interfaith (tolerance, respect, love, community, etc.) and to advocate for policies to implement the values common to our respective faiths. I hope that we can begin this journey this year.

Front Cover5) Your book entitled Difficult Times looks at contemporary American democracy with sharp analysis of the religious sphere in the U.S. What have you noticed about the interfaith movement that relates to the three main themes in the book: Secular materialism, extreme individualism, and free market ideology? 

I see the interfaith movement as a most important part of helping us to overcome secular materialism, extreme individualism and our worship of the free market in at least two ways: (1) the values of faith serve as antidotes to each of these unhappy sets of ideas; and (2) the experience of tolerance, compassion and cooperation among faiths is one important foundation stone for our moving from angry hatred to productive dialogue and action.

6) Your book uses a lot of song references in our modern pop culture to explain our modern society. Which is your favorite, and why? 

I am a Dylan and Beatles man. Of the many great songs I love, my favorites are “My Back Pages” by Bob Dylan and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

7) Who do you consider your heroes? 

Top two: Abraham Lincoln and Bobby Kennedy. Also Martin Luther King, Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela.

8) Beyond being an author and scholar, you are also a lawyer. How would you argue the case for interfaith? 

I try not to argue like a lawyer any more. (I practiced law for years but now I’m in recovery.) But, to be unlawyer-like brief, interfaith has the principles (tolerance, compassion and other central aspects of most, perhaps all, faiths) and it has the facts: it’s a lot better to get along and cooperate rather than to be physically and verbally violent against people who don’t share one’s particular form of faith (or don;t have any faith at all).

ORDER ‘DIFFICULT TIMES’ on Amazon.com

Tom Lemberg is an attorney and author. He has been general counsel of several technology-oriented companies, including Lotus Development, Polaroid and UGS Software. At Lotus, he led the creation and growth of the Business Software Alliance, the principal trade association of the software industry. Before that work, he was partner in two Washington law firms. He is now an author and is about to publish Difficult Times: A Fresh Look at Democracy in Modern America, a book on why America is so distressed, angry and divided and why our politics are so badly broken. A Jew by tradition and upbringing, Tom now identifies himself as a religious pluralist who greatly appreciates and seeks to learn from multiple faith traditions.

How Should Baptists Relate to Persons of Other Faiths?

by Robert Sellers

How should Baptists relate to persons of other faiths?  “Where am I going to meet someone like that?” might be the question of many Baptists, especially in the “Bible Belt” of the deep South.  Well, we no longer need to travel internationally to encounter them.  Here in this country they are our office colleagues, university classmates, town merchants and healthcare workers, active-duty soldiers, or local firefighters and police officers.  They congregate in community centers and shopping districts of our large cities, establishing an ethnic, cultural quarter that is distinct and well-defined.  They lobby city councils and zoning boards for permission to build mosques, temples, gurdwaras, or synagogues on quiet, tree-lined streets.  They manage play groups and summer camps, participate in science fairs and musical competitions, and conduct food and craft bazaars.  Most importantly, such families are living in our suburban neighborhoods, where we meet them at backyard barbecues and pool parties.  At school their youngsters become our children’s and grandchildren’s friends and competitors and may one day become our daughters- and sons-in law.  None of these new realities should surprise anyone, for this growing segment of our population belongs here, for they too are Americans.

Yet, the increasing cultural and religious plurality in the United States, coupled with recent world events, makes it difficult for many Americans to know just how to relate to minority religious and ethnic groups.  My immediate concern here, however, is how Baptist Americans—those of my own religious heritage—think about and treat our neighbors of other faiths.

CERTAINLY NOT WITH FEAR AND STEREOTYPING

There are several ways of relating to religious others.  One approach that is totally unproductive and damaging is to react with fear and stereotyping.  There is evidence of this negativity all around us.  Books that claim to know the “truth” about other religions line the shelves of popular Christian bookstores.  Internet “you-won’t-believe-it!” stories about religions and their practitioners are forwarded, perhaps by millions of church members, without regard for whether the accounts are factual or kind—or simply constitute urban legends, political propaganda, or hate-mongering.  Regrettably, Baptist leaders—the most recent being Robert Jeffress—make public statements that draw critical reactions and portray an intolerant spirit.

According to Harvard professor Diana Eck: “Without question, some Americans are afraid of the changing face of our country.  After all, the first response to difference is often suspicion and fear.”#  This nebulous fearfulness expresses itself in stereotypical thinking and unkind generalizations.  Reacting with fear and stereotyping, however, is uncivil and unchristian, yet Baptists have not been guiltless in this regard.  One particularly harsh judgment, for example, was made by Baptist Franklin Graham, who in the aftermath of 9-11 called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.”#  Speaking to NBC News in 2001, he remarked: “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, and it wasn’t Lutherans.  It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.”#  Graham’s generalization circled the globe via the internet and painted Baptists worldwide in harsh shades of black and white.  As an institution dedicated to proselytism, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board has produced Prayer Guides that direct members of the denomination, especially during the high holy days of individual religions, to pray for “lost” Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims who are bound by “confusing and mistaken belief[s]” and who practice “meaningless rituals.”#

Fomenting fear of followers of other faiths by making grossly stereotypical observations and patently untrue accusations—or uncritically passing along such inflammatory material—will not encourage peace or cooperation.  May Baptists never build walls when we ought to construct bridges.

NOT EVEN WITH INDIFFERENCE OR TOLERATION

A second possible approach to religious others is to act with indifference or toleration.  Perhaps we believe that tolerating differences is the best way, because it is a moral solution with impressive historical roots.  The Greek moralist Plato considered the crowning human virtue to be “harmonious action [that] forges a link between [an] individual and [others within society].”#  Immannuel Kant, the German Enlightenment rationalist, argued that people should act in such a way that they could be satisfied were their action the universal behavioral norm.#  These lofty European ideals were preceded by parallel sentiments from Asia.   Confucius taught his followers to cultivate loyalty, humanity, integrity, mutual respect, personal self-restraint, and harmonious family and social relationships.#  Similarly, the ancient Buddhist philosopher Shantideva taught that “[i]f you can cultivate the right attitude, your enemies are your best spiritual teachers because their presence provides you with the opportunity to enhance and develop tolerance, patience, and understanding.”#  So, tolerating others is certainly better than not tolerating them!

The problem with toleration, however, is that it may just be a polite word for “indifference.”   Diana Eck acknowledges that “[a]lthough tolerance is no doubt a step forward from intolerance, it does not require new neighbors to know anything about one another.  Tolerance can create a climate of restraint but not one of understanding.”#  Tolerance becomes indifference if its mantra morphs from “we all have a right to be ourselves” to “let them just be whoever they want.”  Whenever our language turns from talk of “we” to references to “they,” a dichotomy, a chasm, a rift has formed between us and them, between ourselves and the “Other.”

As America becomes more religiously and culturally pluralistic, some Baptists regrettably practice only toleration, mistaking the philosophical moral norm for the ethic of Jesus Christ, which is much more demanding.  May we never merely tolerate our multi-religious neighbors, much less treat them with indifference, as if they are not important to God.

BUT WITH COMPASSION AND FRIENDSHIP

How, then, should Baptists relate to religious others?  We need to respond with compassion and friendship.  Jesus is our model for approaching others.  He crossed multiple barriers that separated respectable religious folk of his day from the foreigners, disenfranchised, and marginalized of Palestinian society.  Toward a host of persons whom most merely tolerated, and others who were feared, stereotyped, and even violently oppressed, Jesus was inclusive, attentive, helpful, and befriending.

Of course, genuine friendships require honest communication, which necessitates both talking and listening—dialogue instead of monologue.  Also, friendships are always more successful where there is mutual esteem and a genuine interest in the other.  Such connections require both time and great patience.  This kind of relationship that stretches across cultural and religious barriers may be more difficult, but it is adventuresome and hugely rewarding.

CONCLUSION

Genesis 18, in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament, records the occasion when Abraham was sitting outside his tent at Mamre, seeking a breeze on a stiflingly hot Middle Eastern day.  Three strangers appeared in the hazy distance—perhaps enemies, clearly not a part of Abraham’s clan.  But, interestingly, Abraham eagerly went to greet the strangers, first falling down before them in an extravagant gesture of welcome, later offering a warm meal and place to rest in his personal tent.  British historian, comparative religionist, and author Karen Armstrong astutely notes that “during the ensuing conversation, it transpires quite naturally that one of these strangers is Abraham’s God.  The act of practical compassion led directly to a divine encounter.”#

It is my conviction, one I passionately hold, that most of the people who follow other faiths—like most Baptists—are good people who would like to tear down the walls of separation and build bridges of connection.  But in order for us to do our part, we must not react to them with fear and stereotyping.  We have to go beyond mere indifference or toleration.  The way forward, the way of Jesus, is to respond with compassion and friendship.  And, when we risk forging new friendships with our multi-religious neighbors, they will no longer be as strangers to us. Such a bonding can provide an experience of real transcendence, for in acting toward them in a godly fashion, we will be enriched by the evidences of God in them.

Robert P. Sellers is professor of missions and theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and represents Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA.  He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Adieu Raimon, A Dieu

Raimon Panikkar, known to many in this society of Hindu-Christian Studies as a teacher, scholar, mentor, or friend, died at his home in Tavertet, near Barcelona, on August 26, 2010.  He was ninety-one and had been in poor health for some time, but he did live to see the day when his Gifford Lectures, originally delivered in Edinburgh in 1989, and over which he had agonized ever since [he produced some nineteen different versions of parts of the texts], finally saw the light of day in June of this year as The Rhythm of Being (Orbis Books).

Panikkar taught and lived in the United States from 1966-1987 and was known to generations of students here and around the world through both his lectures and his many books.  What they heard and read were the arresting reflections of a multi-dimensional person, who was simultaneously a philosopher, theologian, mystic, priest and poet.

It was also that combination of personae that made him at times difficult to understand.  He was a formidable scholar with doctorates in philosophy, theology, and chemistry and an acquaintance with the worlds of learning and religious reflection in more than a dozen languages.  But at heart he was a mystic and a contemplative, who chose at the end of his academic career in 1987 to live in the small mountain village of Tavertet (population 75) in a remote part of the Pyrenees north of Barcelona.  Even there he was not easily accessible because he would shut off his phone for half the week.  The prayer and meditation room in his house was right next to his study, and he would drift imperceptibly between the two spaces both literally and in consciousness.  He once wrote

“Writing, to me, is meditation—that is medicine—and also moderation,

order for this world.  Writing, to me, is intellectual life and that in turn

is spiritual existence.  The climax of life is, in my opinion, to participate

in the life of the universe, in both the cosmic and divine symphonies to

which even we mortals are invited.  It is not only a matter of living but

also of letting life be—this life, offered to us as a gift so that we may

sustain and deepen it.” (A Dwelling Place for Wisdom, 79)

He was born the son of an Indian Hindu father and a Spanish Catholic mother on November 3, 1918.  He received a conventional Catholic education at a Jesuit high school in Barcelona before launching on his university studies in the natural sciences, philosophy, and theology, first in Barcelona and then in Madrid.  Shortly thereafter, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Panikkar was able to take advantage of his status as the son of a father who was a British citizen to go to the University of Bonn in Germany to continue his studies.  When World War II started in 1939, Panikkar returned to Spain and completed the first of his three doctorates, this one in philosophy, at the University of Madrid in 1946.

In late 1954 when he was already 36 Panikkar visited India, the land of his father, for the first time.  It proved to be a watershed, a decisive reorientation of his interests and of his theology.  He had entered a dramatically new world, religious and cultural, from the Catholic Europe of his youth.  The transformation was aided by his meetings and close friendship with three monks, who like him were attempting to live and to incarnate the Christian life in Indian, predominantly Hindu and Buddhist, forms:  Jules Monchanin (1895-1957), Henri Le Saux, also known as Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973), and Bede Griffiths, the English Benedictine monk (1906-1993).  All four of them, in different ways, discovered and cherished the riches and the deep spiritual wisdom of the Indic traditions, and attempted to live out and express their core Christian convictions in Hindu and Buddhist forms.  To some extent this multiple belonging was made possible by their embrace of Advaita, the Indic idea of non-dualism, which sees the deep, often hidden, connections between traditions without in any way minimizing the differences between them.

One of Panikkar’s many striking sentences looking back on his life’s journey asserts:  “I left Europe (for India) as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be a Christian.”  A wealth of meaning lies in that assertion.  Christianity in its historical evolution began as a Jewish tradition and then spread to the Greco-Roman world, acquiring along the way Greek and Roman cultural expressions which have given it a certain form and character.  Panikkar, having grown up and having been trained in a traditional Catholic and neo-Thomist environment, had a profound knowledge of, and respect for, that tradition.  This knowledge prepared him for discussions with some of the great minds of twentieth-century Catholicism:  Jean Danielou, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthazar, and others.  He was also invited to take part in the Synod of Rome and the Second Vatican Council.  But Panikkar did not confuse or conflate historical contingency with spiritual truth.  In Hinduism and Buddhism Panikkar found other languages, in addition to Biblical Hebrew, Greek philosophy, and Latin Christianity, to express the core convictions (the kerygma) of the Christian tradition.

That was the main thesis of The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, which Panikkar originally presented as a doctoral thesis to the Lateran University in Rome in 1961, based as it was on a close textual comparison between Thomas Aquinas and Sankara’s interpretation of a canonical Hindu scripture, the Brahma-Sutras.  Christ and his teaching are not, so Panikkar argues, the monopoly or exclusive property of Christianity seen as a historical religion.  Rather, Christ is the universal symbol of divine-human unity, the human face of God.  Christianity approaches Christ in a particular and unique way, informed by its own history and spiritual evolution.  But Christ vastly transcends Christianity.  Panikkar calls the name “Christ” the “Supername,” in line with St. Paul’s “name above every name” (Phil 2:9), because it is a name that can and must assume other names, like Rama or Krishna or Ishvara.

This theological insight was crucial for Panikkar because it provided the basis of the inter-religious dialogue that he and Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths were both advocating and practicing themselves.  Far from diluting or in any way watering down core Christian beliefs and practices, such dialogue, in addition to fostering inter-religious understanding and harmony, provided an indispensable medium for deepening the Christian faith.  Such dialogue provides an insight and entry point into other, non-Christian names and manifestations of Christ.  This was particularly important for Panikkar because together with other Asian theologians he saw how historical Christianity had attempted, especially during its colonial periods, to convert Christ into an imperial God, with a license to conquer and triumph over other Gods.  This for Panikkar is the challenge of the post-colonial period inaugurated in the mid-to-late twentieth century and continuing into our present and the future.  In his words,  “To the third Christian millennium is reserved the task of overcoming a tribal Christology by a Christophany which allows Christians to see the work of Christ everywhere, without assuming that they have a better grasp or a monopoly of that Mystery, which has been revealed to them in a unique way.”

Needless-to-say, such striking ideas carefully and rigorously argued and dramatically expressed got the attention of religious thinkers and secular institutions around the world.  Panikkar was invited to teach in Rome and then at Harvard (1966-1971) and the University of California, Santa Barbara (1971-1987).  He was now, as Leonard Swidler, occupant of the Chair of Catholic Thought at Temple University, called him, “the apostle of inter-faith dialogue and inter-cultural understanding.”

In true apostolic fashion, he traveled tirelessly around the world, lecturing, writing, preaching, and conducting retreats.  His famous Easter service in his Santa Barbara days would attract visitors from all corners of the globe.  Well before dawn they would climb up the mountain near his home in Montecito, meditate quietly in the darkness once they reached the top, and then salute the sun as it arose over the horizon.  Panikkar would bless the elements—air, earth, water, and fire—and all the surrounding forms of life—plant, animal, and human—and then celebrate Mass and the Eucharist.  It was a profound “cosmotheandric” celebration with the human, cosmic, and divine dimensions of life being affirmed, reverenced, and brought into a deep harmony.  The celebration after the formal service at Panikkar’s home resembled in some respects the feast of Pentecost as described in the New Testament, where peoples of many tongues engaged in animated conversation.

At the center of these celebrations, retreats, and lectures stood Panikkar himself and his arresting personality.  People who heard or encountered him could not help but be struck by this physically small man who in his earlier days was like a cluster of fireworks exploding in an array of shapes and colors.  Here is what the great Mexico poet Octavio Paz, who was his country’s ambassador to India from 1962-1968, had to say about him:

It is impossible not to recall a Catalan Hindu, both a  theologian and

a migratory bird in all climates from Benares to Santa Barbara,

California:  Raimundo Panikkar.  A man of electric intelligence,

with whom I would spend hours discussing some controversial point

in the Gita or Buddhist sutra—I have never heard anyone attack

the heresy of Buddhism with such furious dialectics as Panikkar

(In Light of India 209).

In later life, his persona managed to combine the dignity of a sage, the profundity of a scholar, the depth of a contemplative, and the warmth and charm of a friend in his effervescent personality.  An Australian friend of his, Dr. Meath Conlan, mentions having dinner with him at his home when the phone rang.  It was the Pope calling from the Vatican, seeking Panikkar’s advice on how best to handle the aftermath caused by his ill-advised remarks about the Prophet Mohammed in his Regensburg Address of 2006.

He is well known to readers of this journal as a great scholar of both the Hindu and Christian traditions and the dialogue between them.  The 940 page translation and commentary of the Vedas and the Upanishads, published as The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari, is a sensitive hermeneutical study that attempts to bring the ancient Vedic world alive as a resource for contemporary celebration.  Likewise, his account of Hindu myths in Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics tries to bring out their deeper cross-cultural philosophical resonance.

Critics, of course, charged him with proffering a Christian interpretation of Hinduism to which his wry response often was that he had a Hindu interpretation of Christianity.  The point for Panikkar as a thinker was to move beyond labels and the conventional ideas they carry to deeper spiritual truth.  Indeed, one of the main purposes of inter-religious dialogue for Panikkar is the intra-religious dialogue it should spark and the discovery of often hidden treasures in one’s own tradition.

Perhaps the most daring of Panikkar’s attempts at charting a Hindu-Buddhist-Christian spirituality within a still Christian self-understanding came in his early and path-breaking little book first published in 1970 as The Trinity and World Religions.  Here he imposed a Trinitarian structure on Hinduism and an advaitic structure on Christianity, both “trinity and “advaita” being alternative symbols for the cosmotheandric Mystery.  Drawing on traditional and unacknowledged, submerged dimensions of the Christian trinity, Panikkar attempted to connect Buddhism with the silent, self-emptying dimension of the Father; Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as religions of the word, with the Son, the incarnate Word; and advaitic Hinduism with the immanent, radically inner dimension of the Spirit.  In doing so it was not his purpose imperialistically to provide a Christian grid onto which other traditions could be forced.  Rather, taking Christianity as his point of departure, he wanted to show that Christianity has no monopoly on Trinitarian understanding and that such understanding enriched by the contributions of different traditions can in fact deepen and transform all of them.

It is important, however, to balance this account of Panikkar as thinker with the stress he placed on living an authentic life.  “My aspiration,” he would often say, “does not consist so much in defending my truth, but rather in living it out.”  As one of his students speaking for many put it, “He integrated intellect, commitment, and practice in a very important and inspirational way for so many of us.  Many of our lives and paths have benefitted from his touch.”

To cite just one example of that commitment, in September 1994 at the age of 76 Panikkar made a pilgrimage of almost a month to Mount Kailash.  He had a weak heart, and the doctors were against it, but Panikkar was determined.  Anyone who has been on such a pilgrimage can vouch for its hazards—there are no resources for rescue and hardly any medical amenities.  It was in part a fulfillment of a promise to his Hindu, Saivite father.  As Panikkar wrote after the expedition

I have always been more inclined to the spiritual pilgrimage.  And

yet that memory of a hindu father telling his teen-age son

about Kailasa reverberated in him when the occasion arose to join the

last batch of sadhus the Chinese would allow in 1959.  He had then

to renounce by virtue of ‘holy’ (christian) obedience, and later on

due to other reasons, not the least his heart not supporting high altitudes.

By an inexplicable synchronicity of events he found himself this time

almost led to undertake the pilgrimage which for him was likely to

be not only ultimate but final (Setu ed. Bettina Baeumer, January 1996, 8)

Sixteen years later, Panikkar did indeed embark on a pilgrimage both ultimate and final.  May God and the gods grant him rest in the Great Source which he sought with such intensity and single-mindedness during his earthly sojourn.

Joseph Prabhu

Philosophy Department

California State University, Los Angeles

September 20, 2010