What is the benefit of featuring voices of different religions alongside one another? In what way does the resultant message differ from teachings that each religion or religious teacher might offer to his or her own community?
In the “Coronaspection” project, 39 religious leaders worldwide share wisdom on how to respond to the spiritual challenges and opportunities brought about by COVID-19. A collection of more than 150 video clips, short and long form of the interviews, seeks to convey wisdom and to share it across religions. (The Times of Israel published a feature on the project by Marissa Newman, for which I am grateful.)
While each interview offers myriad valuable insights, viewed together, I am struck by how teachings across religions enhance and complement each other. They allow us to articulate the fullness of a spiritual worldview that may not find full articulation, though it is surely present, in the distinct teachings of any one religion. In the process, mutual understanding is enhanced and the deeper commonality and common spiritual foundations emerge.
Consider, for example, three interviews in the series, one Jewish, one Muslim and one Baha’i. The Jewish teaching is offered in Hebrew (with English subtitles) by the head of the Breslav community in Safed, Rabbi Ephraim Kenig. The Muslim teaching is offered by Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, one of the greatest Muslim scholars alive, who is also head of an international Sufi order. The Baha’i teaching is offered by Prof. Nader Saeidi, a world authority and member of the Baha’i community, who is chair of Baha’i Studies at UCLA.
These three clips, viewed together, convey a clear sense of the complementarity of the spiritual worldview of the three contributors. To me, the three voices seem to grow out of the same spiritual matrix, and I am sure the speakers themselves would agree.
I would characterize this matrix as mystical, contemplative, God-centered, with a strong sense of how everything in life and history contributes to spiritual evolution and to a God-centered reality. It is a matrix from which a view of the human person grows, one that ultimately privileges soul and conscious spiritual processes over intellect. It marshals humility in the presence of God over human technological and scientific achievements, even if these are carried out under a mandate from God.
It is one in which spiritual experience is central, hence the need for meditation, contemplation and the integration of mysticism and a spiritual-philosophical understanding into an understanding of religion and its purposes. Profiling these three interviews together, then, creates a conversation between three mystics, each growing from similar spiritual ground on different religious terrains – Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i.
A sign of the deep commonality can be found even in the fact that similar statements are made by speakers, unaware of each other’s contribution. Rabbi Kenig and Prof. Nasr both quote the notion of fleeing from God to God as a characteristic of the spiritual life and a way of addressing fear that arises in the face of challenges such as that presented by COVID-19. Both of them also quote a similar saying – “the good is in what occurs” (Nasr) or “If things don’t go the way you want, you must learn to want them the way they go” (Kenig).
This similar sense of acceptance of purpose and intentionality of events as they unfold is another small sign of fundamentally similar spiritual approaches. Prof. Nasr and Prof. Saeidi, in turn, highlight an anthropology that seeks to go beyond human mind and effort. Consequently, COVID-19 is a moment of taking stock of the false trust we have placed in science. Humility emerges as a core virtue that we must acquire and it is necessary for bringing God back to the center-stage of our awareness and for making such a quest for divine reality the goal of our lives.
These three distinct contributions are expressive of one fundamental spiritual approach. While there are certainly important theological differences, the contours of a common spiritual view emerges from the three contributions. Each of the speakers in his own way and within the parameters of his tradition articulates these elements.
Divine intentionality and purpose are important common features of how this worldview addresses the Corona crisis. It is not simply something that has happened, nor is it a punishment, though it may be a call to spiritual awakening. It is a spiritual opportunity and it requires us to take stock of our most fundamental positioning as humans and as a society, in relation to God. Prior to the outbreak, balances had shifted and we had lost proper perspective. The loss that is brought about through the virus is an opportunity to remember what matters most and to return to spiritual basics. The forced interiority is an occasion for spiritual reflection and, once again, for taking stock of how we are positioned in relation to God and to true reality. Divine purposefulness is therefore appreciated in cognitive and educational terms. The pandemic forces us to think, reassess and reconsider our priorities and where we place our hope and trust. It also forces us to consider what is essential and how loss leads us back to the basics of the life and of the spirit. Our human reality is one of forgetfulness and, as Saeidi states, we forget our true identity. The message is that we must turn suffering into an opportunity to recall what we have forgotten.
The understanding that suffering is transformed into teaching conveys more than pedagogy. It also expresses a developmental and evolutionary view of life and history. All three contributors would subscribe to a spiritual evolutionary process whereby events unfold as part of a design to help humanity advance on its spiritual course. Even moments of loss are stages of potential growth. Nasr provides us with an example of this in how following the Mongolian decimation of Persian population there was a flourishing of spirituality. This leads us to reflect on what might be born from the present pandemic. Particularly, with the awareness of our interconnectedness, a fact brought home starkly by the spread of the pandemic, what might this spell out regarding growth in understanding between religions?
This leads to a view of the new consciousness that can emerge from the moment of crisis. It is one of humility, appreciation for others and one that affirms our own interconnectedness. This has strong consequences for the interreligious situation. Rabbi Kenig speaks of God waiting for a very long time for a time that people can share spiritually, in peace, across their religious differences, in a way that will produce spiritual growth for all. Prof. Nasr shares his perennial philosophy, that recognizes the fundamental similarity in religions and views them as parallel paths up a mountaintop. Prof. Saeidi shares with us Baha’u’llah’s understanding of glory. Glory is not in loving your own group; glory is in loving humankind. Honor used to be connected with hatred of others but, claims Baha’u’llah, we need to redefine honor. Action based on this attitude is true freedom and places service at its center, leading us to true distinction.
A God-centered perspective redefines relations between groups and religions, and places them in a context defined by God, even as entry into the depths of the Self leads to the discovery of God, which is also a discovery of the fundamental identity of all humans. This vision of ultimate unity, purpose and evolution must translate itself into a vision of hope and optimism. All three contributors share in the fundamental vision, but it is Prof. Saeidi who articulates most clearly how all this spells out hope. If all hardships are lessons, if we are in the course of constant evolution and growth and if God is the source and goal of the entire process, then this composite spiritual worldview is perforce one characterized by hope and optimism. Saeidi’s grounding of hope in an entire worldview rings true not only for his presentation, but for all three contributors featured here, as well as for many others featured in the “Coronaspection” series.