This post first appeared at Contemplative Journal in June 2014.
Earlier this month the Christian liturgical year made its annual upswing (or perhaps I should say descent) into the mysteries of Pentecost. Pentecost follows right on the heels of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and commemorates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on his early disciples—essentially their empowerment to go out and transform the world. The roots of Pentecost are in the Jewish celebration of Shavuot, which falls fifty days after Passover.
While Pentecost doesn’t fill up the church pews—or shopping malls—like Christmas and Easter, it’s my firm belief that this is the Christian festival that most needs to be recognized and celebrated today. In a world characterized by diversity on every front—language, ethnicity, culture, religion—Pentecost offers us precisely a vision of the Spirit creating unity-in-diversity. It is also the feast day dedicated to God as Holy Spirit—that most immediate, mysterious, feminine, and fluid of the members of the Christian Trinity—a far cry from the rigid, patriarchal God-images that many of us have inherited.
For those of you who don’t know the story (recorded in the first two chapters of The Acts of the Apostles), it goes something like this: Jesus is gone—he has mysteriously appeared to his followers after his death, and now those appearances have come to an end. Gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus’ mother Mary and a group of the women and men who followed him wait in prayer. The atmosphere is a mix of celebration and mourning, joy and confusion. Jesus has promised that he “will not leave them orphans”—that he will send them the Spirit of Truth to lead them into all truth. And so, riding in the thin-time between his departure and the fulfillment of his promise, deep in prayer, they wait.
Contemporary interspiritual author Mirabai Starr says that she imagines Mary, after the crucifixion, taking on Jesus’ rag-tag band of followers as her adopted children, patiently teaching them the mystical practices of contemplative prayer.[i] It’s the perfect image for the ten days that fall between Christ’s ascension and Pentecost, as the disciples learn to let go of the form of Christ that they have known, and begin to open themselves to the formless Christ who fills all things (Eph. 4:10). It is the work that makes way for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
And suddenly, “all with one accord and in one place,” they reach a new collective threshold and the Spirit charges through their circle “like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” They see “tongues of fire” resting on one another’s heads. Empowered, they go out to the crowds gathered for Shavuot—“Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs”—the whole known world. And amazingly, as they speak, everyone understands them in their own native language.
It is essentially the reversal of the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, when all of humankind, originally possessing a common tongue, begins to speak in many languages and is fanned out around the globe to initiate the unfolding of human diversity. Here, on Pentecost, the many languages are reunited. But note what doesn’t happen: they do not all begin speaking the same language. Rather, everyone understands in their own language. The diversity is not erased, but rather caught up into a new and deeper unity-in-diversity.
Today we are experiencing a second—or better, a continued—Pentecost. It is seen everywhere in the global movement towards unity-in-diversity, and particularly in the fledgling interspiritual movement. Interspirituality is a word coined by the late Roman Catholic monk Br. Wayne Teasdale to designate “the increasingly familiar phenomenon of cross-religious sharing of interior resources, the spiritual treasures of each tradition”[ii] and “a willingness and determination to taste the depth of mystical life in other traditions.”[iii]
Interspirituality takes traditional interfaith dialogue to a new and much more vulnerable level: moving beyond social and intellectual engagement, one opens herself to the actual inner experience of another tradition. As we increasingly experience the fruits of interspiritual engagement and practice, the members of our various households of faith are for the first time seeing the tongues of fire resting on one another’s heads and understanding each other’s previously unknown tongues. Interspirituality is the birth of a global, interreligious Pentecost.
It may come as a surprise to those who have only known fundamentalist expressions of Christianity that most of the early pioneers in the interspiritual unfolding emerged from a deep grounding in the Christian household. The superiority complex and exclusivist theology that have plagued Christianity throughout its history, however, are actually the shadow side of its early linking with Empire—and the power and domination models that go hand in hand with it—and sit quite uncomfortably alongside the original teachings of Jesus.
Rather, Christianity is a natural matrix for interspiritual emergence because the mystery of Christ is inherently a reconciling mystery—ever-driving toward the unification of seeming opposites and contraries. From St. Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28); an echo of Jesus’ own prayer in John’s gospel: “May they all be one.”
And sit for a moment with the driving energy behind these New Testament passages:
“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us […] so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” (Eph. 2:14-15).
“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to God through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-19).
The energy flowing through the Christ-mystery calls for a loosening of rigid identities (our “dividing walls”), an opening to a deeper unity, and a working towards the reconciliation, unification, and integration of “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20).
With this in mind, it is easy enough to imagine St. Paul writing today, in the context of our global, interspiritual Pentecost: “There is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, neither Christian nor Hindu, nor is there gay and straight, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” This drive toward global integration is the Pentecostal fire at the heart of the Christ-mystery; when one has lived their life in its burning, it is no wonder they become a Thomas Merton or Sara Grant, a Bede Griffiths or Beatrice Bruteau. These interspiritual pioneers are not flukes within a tradition alien to their integrating impulse; they are tapping into and living from its basic drive.
Early attempts at Christian interfaith theology proposed “fulfillment theology” as a means of honoring the fullness of the Christian mystery while admitting the truth present in other traditions. Rather than demonizing other religions as leading away from the truth, they were seen as partial glimmers of the truth, all pointing towards Jesus, in whom they were “fulfilled.” It was more gracious than the alternative, but at its roots still lay the superiority complex of imperial theology. A simple flip of the image solves the problem: the other religions are not fulfilled in Jesus; rather, the mystery of Christ finds its fullness in and through the other religions. The end-goal of the unfolding Christ-mystery is not the propagation of the identity marker “Christian” or the subjugation of all religions to one—it is the reconciliation of all spiritual currents into the longed-for “one new humanity” (Eph. 2:15).
In that light, I offer this Pentecostal prayer: May you see the tongue of fire that rests on every holy human head. May you understand the truth expressed in sacred languages that are unknown to you. And may the fire of the ongoing Pentecost burn away all divisions, until we all are one, and only the intricate and beautiful patterns of our unity-in-diversity remain. Amen.
[i] Mirabai Starr, Mother of God, Similar to Fire (Orbis Books, 2010), p. 16.
[ii] Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1999), 10.
[iii] Wayne Teasdale, A Monk in the World (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002), 63.