How Does God Speak in Interfaith America?

For the Interfaith Breakfast in Tulsa

October 6, 2007

We live in a world of religious conflict.  There is conflict both between faith traditions and within faith traditions.  Between faith traditions much of the conflict centers on differing claims for the absolute authority of competing religious texts, practices and rituals.  Within the same faith tradition much of the conflict centers on differing interpretations and understandings of texts and practices and rituals that are considered to be authoritative by all within the tradition.  Both within our faith traditions and between faith traditions there is a post-modern legitimacy crisis that makes it essential for all of us to develop and exercise some measure of humility whenever we talk about our faith.

Once we have learned that faith must be discussed in an atmosphere of humility, we still have to find some common ground of shared understanding.  I have become increasingly convinced that conscience comprises that point of contact or common ground between people of different faiths and convictions.  I believe that God speaks to everyone through the voice of conscience.   But what is conscience?

Conscience is a voice from either outside ourselves or from deep within ourselves that calls us to look at ourselves from a perspective other than our own.

Conscience is often spoken of as being the "voice of God."  When I think about the voice of God, the images that come immediately to my mind are associated with the Hebrew prophet Elijah.   After a great contest between Elijah and 450 prophets of a lesser god -- a contest that the Bible says Elijah won singlehandedly -- Elijah ran to a cave in terror.  He was running to escape the wrath of the Israelite Queen Jezebel who was singularly unimpressed by the "shock and awe" of Elijah's power to call fire down from heaven.   The battle that Elijah won against the prophets of Baal utterly failed to accomplish his mission.  All it did was bury 450 leaders of a competing faith.  Elijah still lived in fear.  Then, while he was hiding in the cave there came a mighty wind and then an earthquake and then a fire -- but the scriptures say the Lord was not in these spectacular manifestations of power.  Instead, the Lord spoke to him in "the sound of a gentle blowing" or as the King James Version of the Bible calls it, "a still, small voice."

When I think of the voice of God, I think of that passage.   The spectacles and disasters that society calls "acts of God" are not privileged mediums of communication from the Divine.  God speaks in a voice that is best described as "the sound of a gentle blowing" or a "still, small voice."  It is a voice that I believe is heard within each of us -- no matter what our faith group or religion.  It is a voice from either outside ourselves or from deep within ourselves that calls us to look at ourselves from a perspective other than our own.  Our main problem is learning to distinguish the voice of God from all the other voices that speak to us.

It is a problem that is most acute when people of different faiths come together in pluralistic society like America.  Each faith group and each religious tradition has attuned their ears to hearing God's voice in certain tones and themes.   The volume and clarity and force with which God's voice is perceived to resonate on certain issues probably varies in accord with the emphases of a person's religious tradition.   I do not believe that any faith group hears everything clearly.  None has perfected the art of discerning God's voice.   I do believe that some traditions have a broader range of hearing than others and that one tradition in particular, my own of course, hears most clearly.

How, then, do we distinguish what is truly God's voice from all the other voices that speak to us.  How do we know whether the voice we associate with conscience is truly God's voice and not merely the voice of our imperfect fathers, or mothers, or families, or friends, or teachers, or preachers, or society, or culture?

Here is where I think we need to switch metaphors and analogies.   Very often there are too many voices shouting at us for us to be able to hear the soft and quiet voice of God.   When that happens, I think the best thing for us to do is to stop listening for a while and open our eyes.   First, we need to start looking at things from the perspective of others.   This is simply practicing the golden rule.   Do unto others and you would have them do unto you.   That is all it takes to create the mutual respect and trust on which civil society is based.

Someone popularized this by saying, "Walk a mile in my shoes."   A friend of mine, (Foy Valentine) once told me that doing this had proven to be highly profitable to him.   He said that, whenever he could do that he got a new pair of shoes and was a mile away before the poor guy he took them from knew what was happening.

Seriously, I don't think practicing the golden rule is enough.   It is just the first step toward civil society.   If we truly want to hear God's voice in an interfaith society, then we are going to have to start listening again.   We need to listen to one another.  We need to listen to people from other religious backgrounds and perspectives.   We need to listen to learn what they hear when they are listening for God's voice.    We need to see if they have heard themes and tones and resonances in God's voice that have been neglected by our own religious traditions.    Most of all, we need to listen to how they perceive us -- What are they hearing from us?  What are they seeing in us?  Are they hearing any echo of the voice of the God that we are striving to hear?   Are they seeing anything of the holiness or justice or love of the God that we are striving to serve and worship?

After we have listened to one another we need to find some solitude.   We need to go to someplace like Elijah's cave where we can be alone with God.   And when we are alone, we need to open our eyes once again.  This time we need to look at ourselves through the eyes of others.   Christians need to look at themselves through the eyes of Jews -- particularly, through the eyes of those who were herded into boxcars and slaughtered like cattle in the holocaust.   Jews need to look at themselves through the eyes of Muslims -- particularly, through the eyes of those who have been and still are being displaced from their homes in Palestine.   Muslims need to look at themselves through the eyes of Bahai's.   We all need to look at ourselves through the eyes of the hungry and the homeless, the impoverished and the imprisoned.

If we have the courage to honestly look at ourselves through the eyes of others who are strange and foreign to us or who have been injured and ignored by us, then I believe our hearts will open and the whispering of God's still, small voice will begin to ring loud and clear in our ears.


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