How Does God Speak in a Pluralistic Society?
(Assigned title and topic)
For The Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma
March 23, 2000
I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this question because it is a question that has been haunting me for about four or five years.
The best answer that I can give is to say that God speaks to everyone through the voice of conscience. The image that comes immediately to my mind is of the Elijah, the Hebrew prophet of the most High God who, almost immediately after single handedly defeating 450 prophets of a lesser god in a contest to demonstrate the power to summon divine fire from the heavens, fled in terror from the wrath of Israelite Queen Jezebel and hid in a cave. While he was in the cave there came a mighty wind and an earthquake and a fire – but the scriptures say the Lord was not in the wind or in the earthquake or in the fire, but rather 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 spectacular things that society calls “acts of God” serve, at best, to attract our attention. God’s normally 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. Our biggest 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 modern pluralistic societies. 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 in particular, my own course, most closely approximates perfect pitch.
How, then, do we distinguish what is truly God’s voice from the voices that speak to us. How do we know whether the voice we associate with conscience is truly God’s 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. I think the best thing 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 voice in a pluralistic society, then we are going to have to start listening again. We need to listen to one another – listening 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. We need to listen most of all 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 God we are striving to hear? Are they seeing anything of the holiness or justice or love of the God 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 were 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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