On January 12, 2013, a large crowd gathered at Dominican University of California to participate in the first Building Bridges of Understanding event of 2013. Exploring the theme of tolerance, and the ways we can learn to honor diversity more fully, the event brought together representatives of numerous faith traditions, who led attendees in reflection and conversation about faith and understanding through the lenses of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Beginning with the Breath
With the brilliant sunlight of a clear winter’s day streaming into the Creekside Room, Reverend Charles P. Gibbs, the Founding Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative and an Episcopal priest, led the group in an opening meditation. He invited all in attendance to begin by returning to their breath and embracing the sacredness of all life:
“With each breath we take, we’re connected with all life on this planet, not only all life present now, but in each breath we take, there are molecules of the air Moses breathed; there are molecules of the air the Buddha breathed, that Jesus breathed, that Mohammad breathed. Let us in breathing feel our connection with all life that has been, and particularly with these bright lights that have shone a spiritual wisdom into the world, and who call us to our best selves. Breath and feel a part of the oneness that is, now and throughout all time.”
As a deep stillness settled over the room, Bob Reynolds introduced the program on behalf of the Building Bridges of Understanding Committee, an interfaith group comprised of men and women of multiple generations and numerous faith backgrounds. In addition to his welcome, Bob highlighted the history of the Building Bridges, which has offered similar programs for over ten years as the result of collaboration between the International Association of Sufism (IAS) and Dominican University, and through the support of the Marin Community Foundation.
Rabbi Litman Offers a Look at Judaism in History
Seeding conversation for the afternoon, each of the three speakers was invited to share their perspective on the theme of tolerance, beginning with Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman. Rabbi Litman is Director of the Western Region of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. She has served Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and Gay Outreach congregations for twenty years, and has taught at CSU, Northridge, American Jewish University and Loyola Marymount. Taking participants through a sweeping history of the Jewish peoples’ relationship to the experience of tolerance and intolerance, she commented:
Judaism does not make a claim that one has to be a Jew to get to the world to come, or to have any wonderful thing happen to you. Judaism says that as a religious doctrine, the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come…However, Judaism does make some particularistic claims, including the claim of chosenness – the belief that the Jewish people were singularly chosen to enter a covenant with God.
The Rabbi went on to explain how the understanding of a particular relationship between Jews and God has impacted the worldviews and actions of different sects of Judaism over thousands of years, and spoke of current trends toward healing old wounds and embracing new perspectives on the equality of all beings.
Reverend Gibbs Calls for a Reexamination of “Tolerance”
Reverend Gibbs followed Rabbi Litman, beginning his own reflections with an examination of the word tolerance itself. He shared that since the thirteenth century, the word has held definitions like “to bear and endure,” and often has been associated with withstanding pain. The Reverend invited participants to reclaim older ideas of tolerance as an ethos of social justice, and a commitment to creating a world that honors the dignity of every being, suggesting the example of Jesus as someone who “was so radically tolerant that he got into huge trouble.” He explained:
“Jesus was accused of breaking bread with outcasts and sinners. He reached out to the marginalized, the oppressed, and people who were considered unclean. His community was so broadly inclusive that it was scandalous…How does that original ethos be reclaimed – that’s something that challenges progressive Christians to this day.”
Reexamining Notions of Identity
Following these comments, Reverend Gibbs acknowledged that some sects of Christianity that have tended to practice intolerance toward anyone who does not share their beliefs. At the same time, he also recalled the way that Christians, in alignment with the teachings of Christ, have also been intolerant in significant ways: “intolerant of bigotry, of poverty, of oppression, of small-mindedness that enforced rules over the deep spiritual connection of people with the Divine.” In contrast to the attitudes of some who pronounce superiority over others, the Reverend pronounced this later kind of intolerance to injustice “a good thing.” Speaking to the relations between tolerance and identity, the Reverend stated:
“I would put forward that the identity I feel we’re called to claim at this point in human history is a primary identity that we all come from the same source, however you understand that, however you name it, whether you’re a person of religion or a secularist. I don’t think people would argue that there is a source, and we all derive from that. We are also all citizens of this earth, and you can’t deny that. If you take those two things – that we come from the same source and are citizens of the Earth community – there’s the fundamental unity of all that is. In that consciousness, there is no other, we are all one, purely and simply.”
Concluding on a note of hope and inspiration, Reverend Gibbs suggested: “If we can appropriate that consciousness, we can begin to see our diversity not as something that needs to be tolerated only, but as an invitation to explore the magnificent variations of the way people have communicated with the source of life over the millennium.” Incorporating images of communities all over the world, the Reverend ended with a video presentation intended to emphasize the potential for the realization of the kind of global family he spoke of in his remarks.
Dr. Ali Kianfar Speaks on Being a “Trustee of Breath”
Shah Nazar Seyed Ali Kianfar, the co-director and co-founder of IAS was the third speaker of the event. A disciple of Moulana Shah Maghsoud of the Uwqiysi tariqat, Dr. Kianfar has taught Sufism and Islamic Philosophy for over 40 years. Circling back to the opening meditation by Reverend Gibbs and the discussion of breath, Dr. Kianfar began:
“With the breath we take and continue our life, we are actually a trustee of this breath, and everything – faith, religion, tolerance, humanity, all the quality of human being and humanity – is wrapped within this breath. At the same time, there is responsibility, which comes with this trust. This is for a period of time in which we have this breath, and after that, our continuation, our journey, depends on how we use this breath, this responsibility; how we acknowledge it within our self, and how we share it with others. That’s the uniqueness of every human being, and every being. That’s the majesty of the Creator, whomever he is. That’s the point – we have to be focused on this uniqueness and respect it.”
Beginning with Primary Relationships
Dr. Kianfar went on to say that when we talk about tolerance, it is “related to the conduct, and relationship, and behavior of human beings.” Further, he said, “When we talk about the relationship, this relationship begins first with the relationship with our self, and then we extend and reflect our relationship with our self to the society.” Guiding participants “back a few pages in the human book to understand the source of tolerance and toleration,” he spoke of the moment of conception when “two cells, two chips, come together.” Drawing upon the analogy of the human body, Dr. Kianfar explained:
“These chips contain information. They are coming into a kind of communication and agreement, and when they agree that allows them to unite and become one cell. These two cells are quite open-minded to each other. They share their information to become united. And after these cells make one cell, then the cell begins to divide. Before they divide, they make a copy, and hold it, keep it inside, and at that point, they all become one. This point is the point of the heart of every human being. After the division, this is the beginning of the society – these two cells create a society that begins to grow and grow and create different parts of the human body. Each part has its own responsibility, but all parts are working together, just for one goal. That goal is to provide life, and for human beings to survive.”
Returning to the Heart
Continuing his comments, Dr. Kianfar instructed: “Never forget, if you look carefully at the movement of cells coming together for development, everything is under the rule of the intelligence. The universal intelligence, the almighty intelligence, the condition of the womb – all these processes are under one rule, and that is the rule which has governed over every movement we have.” According to Dr. Kianfar, “if religion can cause and be the reason of differences and toleration, that religion is not really practicing its duty exactly, because all religion invites us to peace and understanding, and respecting and honoring the one thing which they call God.”
Dr. Kianfar stated that “When we come more close and focused on our own self, that solves all the problems, and will be the answer to anything…As long as religion is practiced within the domain of the mind, the reality of God will remain unknown to human beings. Practicing religion is not the job of the mind, it is the quality of the heart.” In further comment on the pathway to healing, Dr. Kianfar said:
“The more we get close to all religion, with no differences, inside the religion, they invite human being to that essence, to that self sense. But when we get into the mind of the people and the form of the society, then it creates all the cause of the subject of tolerance and toleration. If the substance of religion is wrapped within one breath, how can we name this religion…In your meditation do you remember the name of your religion, or are you trying to forget? It’s not the time to create another form of argument within the mind of different religions, it’s the time that invites the people to just one core, and that is the substance of humanity, and now we have it. This is the great gift of the universe. And we don’t know how long and how much time we have. Time is short, so let’s take advantage of this time and return to our own self, and establish a good relationship with our self.”
In conclusion he stated that “When the mind is removed from our own way, we can see the illuminate of the Divine within our heart. When one heart is illuminated by the light of the Divine, then all perspective will change. We won’t need to obey and follow rules that tell us ‘don’t bother him or don’t do that.’” Dr. Kianfar assured all in attendance: “Find that light. It is there, I promise you. It takes practice, but find it. When we find that light, it is beyond all this conversation and argument. There is no argument after that, it’s the source of knowledge…When you purify yourself from whatever is not you, that essence is God.”
Finding Pathways Forward Together
Following Dr. Kianfar’s remarks, participants enjoyed lunch together, and had an opportunity to speak to one another about their experience of the morning’s speakers. Lunch was followed by a conversation in which attendees had an opportunity to ask questions of the presenters, and to share their own ideas on the subject of tolerance. Many of the questions and comments related to the idea of self-knowledge as the access to a more tolerance society. Attendees also recognized and discussed actions they could take individually and collectively to bring a greater spirit of cooperation and understanding to their families and communities. The day finished with sacred music from the Sufi ensemble, Taneen.
The upcoming Building Bridges of Understanding events will feature a series of programs exploring the theme of women and faith.
The Building Bridges of Understanding Series is a cooperative program of the International Association of Sufism and the Dominican University of California Humanities and Cultural Studies Department. Sponsored by and cooperation with Marin faith communities. Partial funding from Marin Community Foundation.