Breakthrough in Bridging the World Religions
By William Keepin and Cynthia Brix
William and Cynthia were featured in Summer of Peace 2012
For the past 30 years a revolutionary spiritual experiment has been quietly taking place in the high mountains of Colorado. Beyond the clamor of the world and cameras of the media, senior leaders from all the major world religions have been gathering to pray and meditate together, explore areas of common ground, and share their personal stories of spiritual transformation. Over time they were startled to discover that religious diversity can be a source of mutual enrichment and inspiration rather than conflict, and that key characteristics of the spiritual journey are universally shared across all religions.
Gathering at St. Benedict’s Monastery, nestled in a pristine mountain valley near Snowmass, Colorado, this remarkable convocation of diverse religious leaders has met for a week or more every year since 1984. They came from at least ten major religions including: Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, Tibetan Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Native American, and “no-tradition” (spiritual but not affiliated with a specific religion). These interspiritual summit meetings—convened in various configurations with more than 100 participants over the years—led to some remarkable breakthroughs that remain as yet too little known.
The “Snowmass Interspiritual Dialogue” was founded and convened by the Cistercian monk Fr. Thomas Keating, who is widely known for rediscovering silent contemplative practice at the heart of the Christian tradition. Keating introduced ‘Centering Prayer’ to hundreds of thousands through his many books and organization known as Contemplative Outreach. His book Open Mind, Open Heart has sold over half a million copies.
Far less well known yet no less profound are the Snowmass dialogues convened by Keating. Having previously attended many ‘interfaith’ conferences, Keating found them to be generally unsatisfactory “except for the meals and the breaks” when he could connect meaningfully with other religious leaders. So Keating convened the Snowmass dialogues without any formal presentations—to allow ample time for personal sharing, silent prayer and meditation, and deep inquiry. The result has been one of the most successful, longest-running inter-religious experiments ever conducted.
The Snowmass dialogues developed eight ‘Points of Common Agreement’ that form the basis for a kind of universal spirituality, although they did not name it as such. These points of agreement articulate the essence of the human spiritual journey found in all traditions. The first point is that “The world religions bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality, to which they give various names: Brahman, Allah, Absolute, God, Great Spirit, etc.” The remaining seven points elucidate the infinite, unfathomable nature of Ultimate Reality, and the potential that exists in every human being to realize this Ultimate Reality directly through disciplined spiritual practices.
Having established this remarkable common ground, and becoming good friends in the process, these leaders ventured further to explore their religious differences. They embarked upon this task gingerly at first, mindful of certain theological disparities and contradictions between their scriptures, and not wishing to disturb the unity and camaraderie they had already established.
Yet to their surprise and immense delight, they discovered over time that they bonded as a group even more over their differences than they had over their points of commonality. The diversity of their respective traditions turned out to be a source of rich insight and profound inquiry. Each participant found a deeper appreciation and engagement with his or her own tradition, based on the deep encounter with others practicing in different faith traditions.
In short, the Snowmass Interspiritual Dialogue achieved two key breakthroughs:
- It revealed an essential oneness inherent in all religions, and the universal nature of the spiritual journey.
- It demonstrated that differences between the world religions can be a source of mutual inspiration and illumination, rather than discord and conflict.
These breakthroughs suggest that the world religions, far from being polarized in a hopeless conflict from which they can never recover, are actually mutually complementary aspects of a larger, unified spiritual reality. This insight and other key perspectives are rapidly emerging today in the burgeoning field of “interspirituality,” a term coined by Brother Wayne Teasdale to depict the dynamic metamorphosis that is taking place at the intersections of the world religions. Rather than seeking a lowest common denominator, interspirituality focuses on the highest common unity among the world’s religions. This transcendent unity of religions neither denies nor belittles their very real differences, nor does it produce quick or easy answers for resolving long-standing conflicts. What it does demonstrate is that outer differences between religions are dwarfed by larger commonalities at the core of all religions. Just as the trees of the forest exhibit myriad differences—some are tall and thin, others round and full, some have leaves, others have needles—all trees are rooted in the selfsame ground; they all drink from the same hidden waters below, stretch upwards to the same sky, and shine by the one light of the sun above. So too with religions.
Dawn of Interspirituality
For the first time ever, all participants from the Snowmass dialogues over the past three decades are invited to gather together for a grand reunion in late September. They will meet at the Cascadian Center, a retreat center north of Seattle that was founded by a rabbi and a priest for the purpose of promoting harmony and collaboration across the world religions. The founding priest, Fr. William Treacy, still leads the center today.
The Snowmass reunion is part of a larger international conference entitled Dawn of Interspirituality, which will also feature many other religious and spiritual leaders from across North America and overseas—all of whom are inspired by the groundbreaking Snowmass initiative and are looking for ways to build on this pioneering work in the future. Senior religious leaders from Denmark, Ireland, India, South Africa, France, and Colombia are joining the conference.
The format of the Dawn of Interspirituality conference will be largely experiential, following the Snowmass example. Presentations will be limited so as to allow plenty of “open space” for meaningful interactions, deep inquiry into questions of shared interest, and several periods daily of contemplative practices from diverse traditions. A number of inspiring young religious leaders will be presenting, as well as several authors recently featured in the Huffington Post including Rory McEntee, Adam Bucko, Mirabai Starr, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Lama Surya Das, and the three ‘Interfaith Amigos.‘ The conference is open to seekers of all faiths who are eager to learn and share in this remarkable convergence of world religions. People who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’ are also welcome, as they constitute a major component of the emerging interspirituality movement.
What the Snowmass dialogues achieved on a small scale now begs to be replicated on a much larger scale. “Now the time has come,” proclaimed the Dalai Lama during his recent U.S. tour, “Now! This is the period [in history]: we must make every effort to promote religious harmony." In dialogue with Sufis at the University of Maryland, he went on to stress the need not only for scholarly exchanges, but also for meetings that bring deep practitioners together from different religions; people with "real experience, deeper experience.” “This is very, very important," he said.
Religion divided is spirituality vanquished. Religion united is spirituality exalted. “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also” applies not only to individuals, but also to entire sacred traditions. Never has inter-religious harmony been more important than it is today. The Dalai Lama’s plea is precisely the purpose for which the Dawn of Interspirituality conference and Snowmass dialogues are convened. These and other interspiritual initiatives portend an auspicious, long-awaited breakthrough beyond religious division and strife toward unprecedented reconciliation and harmony among the world religions. The one heart of humanity cries out for this across the globe.
Dawn of Interspirituality, international conference, Sep 29 - Oct 4, 2013, Cascadian Center, Mt. Vernon, WA. Please visit www.satyana.org.
William Keepin, Ph.D. and Rev. Cynthia Brix direct the Satyana Institute (www.satyana.org) which organizes retreats and conferences in interspirituality and contemplative practice in South Africa, India, and the United States. They are cofounders of Gender Reconciliation International (www.GRworld.org), which collaborates with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation to promote gender healing and reconciliation between women and men in South Africa and beyond. Will is a mathematical physicist with 30 scientific publications on sustainable energy and global warming. He is co-editor of Song of the Earth: A Synthesis of Scientific and Spiritual Worldviews (2012). Cynthia is an ordained interfaith minister, co-founder of the Women’s Spiritual Mastery project, and former campus minister at the University of Colorado. Will and Cynthia are authors of Divine Duality (2007) and Women Healing Women (2009).