I really didn’t just go to Divinity School on a whim, as my mother suspected. Despite my parents’ hostility to the church, I’d been interested in religion all of my life. I’d shifted from being a Unitarian Universalist to an active member of a United Church of Christ. I’d taught comparative religion for twenty-five years and come to discover I was jealous of students who went on to study religion in college. I’d completed a two-year School for Spirituality at the nearby Mercy Center and worked with a spiritual director. I’d even had an Emmaus moment driving along the winding back roads to Munson, Maine when I’d known with profound certainty that I was being called to enroll in seminary. I just didn’t know why.
Part of the problem was that I was pulled in different directions by my Christian faith, my love for all the world’s religious traditions, my Unitarian past, and the atheism of my family of origin. I just wasn’t sure I was Christian enough to be going to Divinity School. Plagued by self-doubt, I went to see Peg Stearn a former minister and mentor. Over lunch and many cups of tea she listened to my agonized ramblings and finally responded, “Linda, you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not whether you’re ‘Christian enough’ but ‘What kind of Christian are you?’”
I didn’t know the answer, but the next fall I headed off to Bangor Theological Seminary in the hope of finding out. I arranged my classes for three consecutive days in Bangor and spent the rest of my week secluded in a log cabin on a island off the Maine coast. It was on a blustery afternoon in March that I came to know my answer to Peg’s question. It happened like this.
That second semester I was taking not only the requisite classes in Biblical criticism and church history, I was doing an independent study on the Christian response to the world religions. I’d spent the morning wrestling with the three most common responses to the problem. The first is the one that claims that Christians have an exclusive claim to truth and/or salvation. Although there is the most Biblical support for the exclusivist approach, I found it anathema. I was too attuned to the sacred truths of all the world’s religions to believe God wanted the world to all be Christian.
The next approach is often referred to as the inclusivist one. It suggests that those of other religions have access to God’s truth/and or salvation to the extent that their religions resemble Christian teachings. The theologian who popularized this approach is Karl Rahner, who wrote of “anonymous Christians” who are saved through Christ by virtue of living according to Christian values. Leaning on Romans 2:14 and Matthew 25, he wrote that those of other religions could have “in [their] basic orientation and fundamental decision accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation.” I appreciated Rahner’s efforts to reconcile his belief in salvation through Christ alone with his appreciation for the goodness in all humanity. But his strategy struck me as essentially patronizing and dismissive of other religious traditions. I couldn’t help but wonder if rather than looking at others as “anonymous Christians” we should be thinking of ourselves as anonymous Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists instead.
That left the final approach described as religious pluralism. It’s the one that insists there are may paths up the mountain and many lenses that allow us to focus our sight on God. I believe that and look to Jesus’s assurance in John 14:2 that “in my father’s house there are many mansions” to support my sense that there is a place in God’s Kingdom for all people. Still, there was a problem. I wasn’t prepared to say that all religious teachings are equally valid, to give the same credence to Osama bin Laden as to the Dali lama. The “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach to the world religions left no room for discernment.
By mid-afternoon my head was spinning with unresolved questions and I decided to shift gears. After a frigid walk on the beach, I took out my church history readings from Hildegard de Bingen’s Scivias. In them she not only described the visions she had received since she was a young girl, she illustrated them. As I delved into her writings and entered into her mandalas, I suddenly had a vision of my own, a visual response to my theological quandary. I pulled out my watercolors and painted what I’d seen.
I saw the three strands of the Trinity woven together around a blazing circle of light: God the transcendent, God the incarnate, and God the spiritual presence. Within the circle the threads formed the shaped of the Tao and connected to the central truths of all the world’s religions. The transcendent thread of God the Father connected to the yang where the words Allah and Yahweh are written. The thread of the Spirit connected to the yin and the Om of Brahmin. And there at the center of it all, connected to the incarnate thread, was the cross.
William James wrote about three varieties of religious experience: the sacramental, the prophetic and the mystical. The sacramental experience acknowledges the transcendent element of Reality; the prophetic, its presence in human history, and the mystical, its spiritual element. Most all religions incorporate these elements. Some do so explicitly, as in the Christian Trinity or the Hindu triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Others do not, but followers seem to reincorporate all three elements in their expressions of their faith. Buddhism rejects any notion of transcendent divinity, and yet reverent offerings and intercessory prayers are made at temples around the world. Islam is adamant in its monotheistic focus on Allah as One, and yet Sufis have emerged as a profoundly mystical expression and Muslims’ allegiance to Muhammed can provide a fierce prophetic expression. It seems to me that when the sacramental, prophetic and mystical elements of religion are balanced, they are all held within the Light of the rule of three.
But of course, the world’s religions do not always maintain a balance between their sacramental, prophetic and mystical expressions. This vision also provided a stark reminder of what happens when religious expression unravels outside its trinitarian bounds. Outside the circle, the transcendent strand becomes a warrior god, symbolized by the crossing swords of a bellicose god. The prophetic strand becomes worship of a human leader or institution as occurred in Nazi Germany. And the mystical strand devolves in one of two directions: into a dark and sometimes bloody passion or into the empty void of disconnected “bliss.” In any of these scenarios, religion becomes a force for evil.
After painting my vision, I had an answer to the question, “What kind of Christian are you?” was clear. I am a trinitarian universalist. I hold that God transcends the dualism of human thought through the interplay of three forces. It doesn’t matter whether we call them Mind/Body/Spirit or Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer or Father/Son/Holy Ghost or, as Anselm did in the 12th century, “Lover/Beloved/Love Itself. The mandala of the trinity holds all in the Oneness of Light.