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I was asked to give a talk this afternoon, October 3, at the Interfaith Center at the Presidio chapel in San Francisco. This was an annual gathering celebrating its founding, and this year’s topic was “Reclaiming the First Amendment,” a subject dear to my heart. I spoke alomg with members of the Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Mormon, and Baha’i communities. There was supposed to be a Muslim speaker as well, but last minute difficulties prevented his coming. Another Muslim participant contributed some very good improptu remarks in his stead.
Amendment is one of the crowning achievements of the American Revolution, and
became a beacon of hope for millions who saw that a people could become strong,
wealthy, and creative while acknowledging that universal agreement is neither
necessary nor even desirable.
Even so, becoming
Pagan led me to a deeper appreciation of the First Amendment, especially its
significance for today’s gathering: Its spiritual meaning.
toleration is under attack from many directions, even here in the US, long its
most secure home. I think a Pagan perspective has something important to offer
us all by emphasizing the difference between toleration and celebration.
Toleration can be
grudging. There is a dog next door
that likes to bark much too much. I
tolerate him. But I wish he were
silent or gone. I do not celebrate that dog when he barks. But I tolerate him.
toleration began in the West when contending sides realized they could never
prevail over one another. People
eventually tired of killing, and toleration began. Memories of that time added strength to the arguments for
the First Amendment.
But if we really
understand it, the First Amendment carries us far beyond religious toleration,
to the celebration of religious differences.
involved in Interfaith work often report a new sympathy and even admiration for
other faith traditions, all the while acquiring a deeper appreciation of their
own. We gather not to seek a
common denominator, a single religion acceptable to all, but to celebrate
humankind’s spiritual mosaic. This gathering today goes beyond toleration to
celebrate spiritual diversity.
We learn that
religious differences no more imply a hierarchy of superior and inferior than
the color red is superior to the color blue, an oak is superior to a redwood,
blue eyes superior to brown.
For myself and for
many Pagans, a central insight is that our path is not intrinsically better
than other paths. It is our path
and we love it. But there are
others, equally loved by those who walk them.
This insight goes
beyond toleration in the same way as when a culture shifts from family loyalty
being interpreted as my family is better than others to saying my family is MY
family. I love them as other people love their own families. This second approach can celebrate
diversity in families because no single family is a complete expression of how
we relate lovingly between and within generations.
The same is true
in religion. The Sacred is
superior to us all and we can never adequately encompass it. Each faith tradition represents one way
in which some people come together to honor and relate with it. The sum total of all traditions does a
better job than any single one because they honor more dimensions in more ways,
and so we celebrate diversity.
This is the deep
meaning of the First Amendment.
Those with only a superficial understanding think it means better
toleration than annihilation. But
we cannot build a lasting society on that ground. Sooner or later someone will decide to dispense with
toleration because they think they are strong enough to get away with it. Once
they do a fatal logic ensues.
Today our Muslim
brothers and sisters are experiencing hateful discrimination, and worse. We Pagans know well what happened
in our past. Native American
religion was suppressed despite the First Amendment. Some of us now living have experienced serious religious
discriminarion. But Dominionists,
be they Christian or Muslim or something else, enter on to a fatal path when
they act this way. Their
traditions are also diverse. No
single interpretation of their founding teachings has proven acceptable to
everyone. And so once the most
visible diversity is annihilated, attention turns to making sure there are only
the “right kinds” of Christians or Muslims. And we will return to the Wars of religion or the deadening
note of a single drum beat, a boot stamping monotonously on the spiritual face
A lasting society,
a “New Order for the Ages” such as our Founders hoped would arise here grows
when we see that we are all threads in a wonderful tapestry of faith that far
exceeds in beauty and profundity the capacities of any of us singly. But each of us weaves an important
thread that adds to that beauty.
May we see that what we celebrate is not just what we inherited from the
wisest of our forefathers, it is also to fulfill the promises and potentials
their wisdom made possible.
While I had written out my talk in advance, the talks were a perfect illustration of my point. They all shared a respect for one another, but each speaker used very different emphases to make a complementary point. The whole was indeed greater than the sum of its parts.