Wisdom Newsletter | November 2017

Hermes Forum for the Interreligious Study of the Mystical and Spiritual Life

Elijah’s Hermes Forum for the Interreligious Study of the Mystical and Spiritual Life held its fifth gathering in Jerusalem in October. Alon Goshen-Gottstein chaired a meeting of UNESCO chairs in the field of interreligious and intercultural relations, together with members of the Hermes Forum on the theme of “Mysticism, Identity and Sacred Space.” Here is the challenge: Does re-ligious competition arise from competing needs of identity? Does sacred space and contested sa-cred space become a source of identity conflict? Can a mystical approach to religion help ease tensions resulting from identity needs of religious communities?

Read on for snippets of a discussion that paves the way to the next meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, next November in Spain, where Religion, Mysticism and Identity will be explored by world religious leaders.

The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung sponsored the meeting, together with the University of Bologna.

Papers were presented from the perspective of five religious traditions, from the fields of history of religions as well as from practitioners of the mystic practices of their various faiths.

Participants included:
* Wolfgang Dietrich, Chair for Peace Studies, University of Innsbruck, Austria
* Aviva Doron, Chair for Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue, Haifa University, Israel
* Lidija Georgieva, Chair in Intercultural Studies and Research, the University St Cyril and Methodius, Skopje, Macedonia
* Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Chair in Interfaith Studies, Jerusalem, Israel
* Roger K. Koudé, Chair of Memory, Cultures and Interculturality, Catholic University of Lyon, France
* Alberto Melloni, Chair for Religious Pluralism and Peace University of Bologna, Italy
* Paul Morris, Chair in Inter-Religious Understanding and Relations in New Zealand and the Pacific, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
* Efim Rezvan, Chair for inter-religious dialogue for inter-cultural understanding, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Russia
* Steven Shankman, Chair for Transcultural Studies, Interreligious Dialogue, and Peace at the University of Oregon, U.S.A.
* Emilios A. Solomou, Chair, University of Nicosia, Cyprus
* Priyankar Upadhyaya, Chair for Peace and Intercultural Understanding at the Banaras Hindu University, India

A Christian perspective by Piotr Sikora focused on two texts from the Christian tradition, one of which emphasized the need to set firm borders on religious identity and the other of which illustrated the ability of religions to borrow from one another without losing their essential identity. For texts from the Gospel of John and Gospel of Thomas read more


Gospel of John and Gospel of Thomas

Piotr describes the Gospel of John as “the text which contains most of the material which was used by Christians during the four first centuries of the existence of Christianity in the process of forming the core doctrine which definitively differentiated Christianity from Judaism, namely the dogma of the divinity of Christ.” On the other hand, The Gospel of Thomas, which was probably written in the half of first century CE, was widely read by early Christian communities throughout Syria and Egypt. When some of them developed “a theology which was seen by mainstream Christianity as unorthodox,” the very Gospel of Thomas began to be perceived as “heretical and dangerous. For many reasons, some of them being of political character, communities which used the Gospel of Thomas haven’t survived, and the text of this gospel not only ceased to be copied, but most of existing copies were probably destroyed.” Piotr concludes, “What the history of such texts show us, is the fact that the group identity of a religious tradition is not something ready-made from the beginning, nor something clearly defined, but rather something developing in the course of time and open to many influences stemming from other traditions. What at some point of time lies on the margins of a given tradition, may at the other point of time have become its mainstream and the paradigm of orthodoxy. What is widespread, practiced and believed by many, may come to be regarded as heretical, and even disappear. Moreover, this history shows us that even the boundaries between what we now perceive as different traditions may in fact not be clearly established.”

Paul Fenton brought an example of how one strand of Mediaeval Judaism was able to absorb Muslim ideas and practices. Rabbi Abraham, son of Rabbi Moses Maimonides, was heavily influenced by Sufi ideas, leading to a reform of practices of prayer. Rabbi Abraham justifies these as retrieving the lost Jewish wisdom, thereby making the wisdom of the other one’s own. Read on for an illustration of how Sufi prayer practices are incorporated in a Jewish context. Clearly, a mystical context allows for a broadening of boundaries and revisiting of relations to the religious other.

What is required of every individual when alone in his prayer space (mawda‘ salâtihi) at home. It is required that he have a designated place (maqôm qabu’a), as I have explained, and that this place be in accordance with his [living] conditions and place of residence, whether as part of his home set apart for this purpose, or a corner (zâwiya) of his house reserved [for this] as far as possible. The mat (hasîr) or carpet (bisât) or such objects that he sits upon [for prayer] should be pure and clean, and if it is possible to have them specially set aside for this special purpose, how much the better !

This place or corner should be preserved not only from dirt and filth, but also from dust and the like. And whatever is added to this out of reverence (tawarru‘) is a sign of greater regard for what is due in devotion to [G’d], may He be exalted, and provides for greater preparation (tahayyu’) and sincerity of concentration (ikhlâs kawwânâh) and strengthening of the fear [yir’âh] [of G’d].
Rabbi Abraham Maimonides

Muslim identity in a Sufi context

Efim A. Rezvan (left) and Muzaffar Iqbal (right) both spoke about Islam or, more accurately, Islamic identity. A significant debate resulted concerning the very nature of Muslim identity. Is it dictated by law or by the life of communities, that are in turn impacted by mystical or Sufi practices.

Efim provided multiple illustrations of how Muslims in various places around the world have absorbed and integrated local practices into their Islam, even, in some cases, going so far as to use local sacred sites as substitutes for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Thus spirituality provides a counterpoint to the practices of Muslims in the lived life of Muslim communities across Asia.

Muzaffar was adamant that we need to distinguish between the practices of Muslims and Islam. True Islam is the teaching of the tradition, rather than the practices of the people.

He then proceeded to describe the mystical goal described in the Quran, which he described as the “double-edge concepts of extinction and subsistence on the path of God”

Beginning with two Quranic verses:

Everyone therein (in the worlds of creation) passeth away; and there remaineth the Face of thy Lord in Its Majesty and Bounty. (Q 55:26-27)

He is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days; then He mounted the Throne. He knows all that enters the earth and all that emerges therefrom and all that comes down from the sky and all that ascends therein; and He is with you wheresoever ye may be. And Allah is Seer of what ye do. (Q 57:4)

Muzaffar shared the dilemma of the mystic, whose ultimate goal is annihilation of identity yet who wants to stay in this world and bring a spiritual message to others. One of the texts he brought is in our Sharing Wisdom section below.

Jewish and Buddhist Perspectives

Meir Sendor (left) from the Jewish tradition and Sallie B. King (right), who teaches Buddhism, both long-standing members of the Elijah Academy, each taught texts that continued the subject raised by Muzaffar – the mystical quest for the annihilation of self. Both spoke about the identity of the individual in relationship to the Divine or a broader reality.

Meir taught a text from Hassidic master, Rabbi Yaakov Leiner, who uses the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years as “an allegorical paradigm for the process of mystical effacement of self. He references the Lurianic concept of ‘clarification,’ by which a mystic engages in introspective analysis of personality qualities, ultimately recognizing them as divinely given and purifying them of all self-regard back to their divine root. Rabbi Leiner interprets the ‘release’ of human activities and release of private control on the Sabbatical Release year as a reference to this extensive clarification process, in which one successively analyzed all qualities of the personality and their expression in action and releases them from self-identity, to recognize that what we consider our private self-identity is actually divinely gifted and constructed.”

In similar vein, Sallie spoke of the purpose of spiritual practice in the Buddhist tradition as “largely to break down the seizing on to a self-identity.” She showed that there may be multiple paths to reach such awareness and quoted a passage from the writing of Dogen, who became the greatest master of the Soto Zen, the Shobogenzo:

To study the way of the Buddha is to study your own self. To study your own self is to forget yourself. To forget yourself is to have the objective world prevail in you. To have the objective world prevail in you, is to let go of your “own” body and mind as well as the body and mind of “others.” The enlightenment thus attained may seem to come to an end, but though it appears to have stopped this momentary enlightenment should be prolonged and prolonged. (deBary 371)

Impact of identity on sacred space

Throughout the discussion, participants sought to clarify how the tension between mysticism and identity would play out in relation to conflicting sacred spaces. One particular insight emerged, relating to sacred space and the human person.

The discussion noted various instances in which the very sanctity of space is indebted to the sanctifying presence of the human person (alive or dead). This raises fundamental moral issues regarding space and human person and their axiological relationship. A focus on mystical life has the potential to remind us of the primary value of the human person.


Summary of key points for further discussion

A. Understanding Identity
1. How is identity constructed? One way is adversarial: Constructing as different from the other; to have one identity is not to have another. But the “other” can also participate in the construction of self, when we consider the possibility of borrowing and modeling on another. This has implications for our understanding of otherness, both in relation to God and in relation to the religious other.

2. Identity itself is not fixed. It is shifting. It can shift in the history of a community. It can also shift in its relation to another community. Shifts can include the breakup and split of one religious community from another, so that someone who was part of the community at one time becomes an outsider. The recognition of changing identities raises the question of how to identify a stable core. It also raises the challenge of where religions should meet or engage – in relation to some essence, transcendent dimension, fixed dimension or in relation to the changing dimension.

3. Identities may change according to different typologies of religions (see above.) Question for discussion – Can we assume that issues of identity will be easier/ more open and tolerant/less violent for one model or the other? It may be that regardless of how identity is constructed, concerns for identity and how it relates to the other will have same role for religions that belong to the different models.

B. Understanding mysticism
1. Why should we have mystical experience?
For some it is a value in and of itself. A second option is to effect change in the world.

2. What is the social power of mysticism? Does it only relativize individual identity, or can it also serve as a means of critiquing various social structures.

3. Mysticism and morality – Can a grand mystical view run the risk of moral blindness to the reality of the other? How is a fine moral sense maintained in relation to the other, while upholding a grand mystical scheme?

4. Can mysticism help advance a new form of understanding that bridges religions and can mysticism serve the interreligious quest?

C. Constituting identity in relation to mysticism

1. How is identity constituted in different dimensions of religion?

2. Is the quest to construct identity at odds with the openness necessitated by the spiritual process?

3. Does Mysticism provide us with resources for thinking differently about identity?

4. Do we have the capacity to appreciate the mystical experience of the other? Does it require identity of some kind? Does it assume some commonality?

D. Identity and the Other – Moral Implications

1. One of the outcomes of mystical deconstruction of identity would be opening to the other. Our overall challenge is making room for otherness.

2. One of the challenges is to negotiate negation or transformation of self and moral responsibility. More broadly speaking, it invites to a consideration of the very purpose of mysticism. Is it a goal in and of itself, or is it meant to help transform life, in a return movement to life?

3. The question of identity and morality plays out differently in relation to group identity. Here we notice that identity in a group situation plays out differently with mysticism. Principles that are central to the individual at times operate in the reverse when it comes to group identity and its moral challenges.

E. Sanctity of sacred spaces

1. We recognize multiple factors of sanctification – God (or His attributes’) presence; historical memory of foundational moments; communal consensus; investment and buildup of prayer and other religious activities, offered by the religious community.

A foundational question arises – is identity more closely linked to one or another of these dimensions of sanctifying space? If identity concerns can lead to tension and bloodshed, does it matter what one’s starting point is in terms of understanding of sacred space, or would one kind of understanding make it easier to reduce religious violence?

2. What is the dynamic of sacred space and holy person? Where is the source of sanctification? The relationship of space and person has moral implications, especially when these come to contested sacred space and the implications of bloodshed these may generate.

3. As identity shifts, also attitude to holy places shifts. We need to consider changes in centrality and view of holy places in different periods and not consider it a static.

4. Impact of mysticism on “holy place.” Mysticism can have a relativizing effect. Do secondary pilgrimages to sites other than the main pilgrimage site (see case of hajj and secondary pilgrimages in case of Islam) weaken the tensions associated with competing sacred places. Note of interest – some secondary pilgrimage sites can allow for shared sacred spaces, as seen in Bukhara. It is also worth noting that many of the secondary holy places are actually related to the remains or memory of holy people.

5. What is meaning of universal patrimony of sacred places? Can we move them from place of contest between religions over identity to place of spirituality that allows a more universal approach to sacred places and consequent sharing? How does emphasis on identity to spirituality allow different approach to sacred places recognizing broader commonality for humanity? Alternatively, are there understandings of sacred space, such as humanitarian, that have less of a potential for conflict and competition? For discussion: what are the intrinsic qualities of a holy place that would give them appeal in a universal way? Individual cases show that at times even within a tradition there is no agreement. Can we, therefore, suggest universal traits?

6. Holiness cannot be divorced from moral responsibility. This raises the challenge of what holy sites mean in terms of the moral responsibility and their relationship to the other.

F. Interreligious challenges

1. Can sacred places be sacred to more than one tradition without competition and bloodshed? Is it sanctity or ownership that is at the root of conflict and bloodshed?

2. Where do religions meet each other? Does mysticism open us to dimension that is more universal and therefore shareable, as opposed to particularity of systems such as law that are more specific to each tradition?

3. When a vision of a religion is complete and makes room for the others within a grand view, specifically a mystical view, how do we go about negotiating multiple claims? It is easier to deal with exclusivism or pluralism than inclusivism.


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