Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Cathedral of the World: One Light Many Windows

During our recent visit to Transylvania Carolyn and myself were shown around Tirgu Mures. It is a beautiful city, with wonderful architecture, in stark contrast to some of the poorer villages we had visited the day before. Tamas (our host and my colleague) showed us around the Cultural Palace, wow what an incredible place!

In the palace were some beautiful stained glass windows, Carolyn was fascinated by them. She has a love for them, how they are made and the skill and beauty required to craft them; whereas I’m probably more interested in the light and what that light shines on, that pours through these and all the windows of the world.

Inside the cultural palace is an auditorium where beautiful works of creative art are performed, as they are in every major city. I loved sitting there and taking in the atmosphere, while somewhere in the background I could faintly hear rehearsals for the next concert. On the ceiling was a masterpiece of light. I spent several minutes staring directly at the intricate patterns and fell into a trance like state. I was greatly moved by the whole experience and chatted with Carolyn about it afterwards. We saw and experienced the encounter very differently; we are not alike, we see and experience life differently. I believe that this complimented our trip together as we learnt from one another's perspectives.

While we may well not have thought alike about our experiences together, we both loved them equally. As the father of Transylvanian Unitarianism Francis David is reported to have said “We need not think alike to love alike” This saying seems just a relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 16th century.

I recently attended the Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation in Chorlton, with the Altrincham Interfaith Group. It was a warm, friendly and interesting evening. There is much of Buddhism that I like, but I know I am not a Buddhist. When I speak and listen to Buddhists, I know I am not a Buddhist. I feel the same way when I speak to people of many faith traditions, the true believers I mean. By the way I feel the same way when I speak to atheists, agnostics and humanists too. I experience the Divine in my life, I’m personally quite happy calling this God but I have not once found anywhere that offers me an absolute truth that I can follow 100%. I found a happy home amongst Unitarians, because here I found space to explore, to ask and to live the questions, to seek in community and of course to serve. By the way this is by no means the easier softer way, quite the opposite in fact.

Forrest Church put so beautifully into words exactly what I mean in his final Masterpiece “The Cathedral of the World” Here he asks us to imagine the whole of humanity standing under the ceiling of the cathedral of the world. Around this cathedral are millions of stained glass windows. There is a light outside of the cathedral shinning through all of the windows; this is the light of truth, the light of God. No one inside is able to stare at the light directly, we all see it passing through a painted window. Each of the windows distorts the light in some way; they only allow some of the light to pass through. Sometimes the light is refracted, by the tinted windows and occasionally it is blocked by the opaque aspects of each window. In some places the light is almost completely obscured.

This metaphor is an attempt to describe a 21st century Universalist theology, one that speaks powerfully to me. There is one light outside of the cathedral but there are many windows through which we can get a glimpse of the light. Each window is unique in its own way; each window is different; but none gives us a perfect image of the light. Each window is representing different religions, different ideologies, different philosophies, different dogmas, different views about life, the universe, everything. The key is to understand that each window has been fashioned by human hands, often with great skill, imagination, beauty, intelligence and artfulness that said through no one window is the light seen perfectly.

It is important to remember that we are also part of the reality, we are creating it too; we are not passive we are participators. The light is also shinning through us too. So not only are we receivers of the light, we are creators of it too, whether we realise this or not.

From where we view our particular perspective on the light we can begin to believe that what we see is the absolute truth and that the light only shines through our window; that only our window offers the true representation of the light; that what others see through their window is false, even stupid and irrational.  Forrest Church’s Universalism is saying something very different though. He is saying that each window conveys part of the truth and that no one window has a monopoly on the truth. He is echoing the words of the great twentieth century liberal theologian Paul Tillich who said “That which reveals also hides”.

I think it is important to accept that none of us ever glimpses the whole truth, no matter which window we are looking through and as my trip to Transylvania proved two people can look at the same thing and see something entirely different.

As Forrest has taught many times what is required is humility; genuine humility that teaches that we humans cannot know and understand everything. This is a good thing, because by genuinely accepting this we are opened up to a myriad of possibility that we probably believed were way beyond our capacity to experience.

The epistle Paul hints at this in his letter to the Corinthians (1ch 13), those beautiful words on love and charity. Here Paul gets to the very nature of humility when he says, “for now we see through a glass darkly”. He is making the point that even when our knowledge and understanding is not perfect, which I suspect it never can be, we cannot go wrong if we follow love and charity as a guide. Love and charity are universal principles shinning through virtually every one of the windows that the light is pouring through, it seems that the only ones not preaching it are the ones who are trying to throw rocks through the windows that others experience the light through.

I have learnt a lot from Forrest Church, he has articulated what the light through my window seems to reveal. The Universalism that he eloquently articulated and other liberal approaches to religion are not an easier softer way, in many ways its probably more challenging than absolutist approaches to belief and disbelief. This is though the way of openness of truth seeking and love experiencing. That said it is not perfect and it only glimpses at that light "darkly". Can any of us glimpse the light perfectly?

What’s the light like, that shines through your window?

Below his Forrest delivering his concept of "The Cathedral of the World" just a few months before he died.

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