Recently I received a long distance telephone call from an embarrassed member of the hospice group of in a prominent community. The group had invited me to lead a two-day seminar comparing the world’s major religious traditions, emphasizing different views on death and dying, which is what the hospice program is all about. The seminar was to be held in one of the local churches.
An officer of that church decided he had better find out what I was going to say. I told him about the material that I would be presenting. He informed me that the congregation recently allowed a speaker to come in who talked about “astrology” and all of that “occult stuff” and they would not allow any kind of that thing in their church.
Then came the call from the hospice member to tell me that the church officers had decided they did not want a “controversial” speaker coming into their church to talk about all of those “foreign” religions and things. (Someone should inform them that Christianity is a “foreign” religion, and the only Native American religion is that of the North American Indians,)
What a church like that needs is obviously all of the fresh air that it can possibly let in. The fact is, you don’t know what you think until you hear someone who thinks differently. Any church that cuts itself off from such dialogue and from mental and spiritual stimulation becomes smug and stupid and completely incapable of defending its own beliefs, except by dogma.
Every church, in order to stay vigorous and spiritually alive, should have a dozen “outside” speakers a year. And the speakers should be as “outside” as they can get — from Zen masters to agnostics, anthropologists and physicists This is a marvelous way to awaken an impotent congregation suffering from sleeping sickness. The rather pathetic commentary on all of this is that the majority of the time the “outside” speaker knows a hundred times more about the Bible, Christianity and religion than those barring the doors to them.
One of the most prestigious awards in America is given annually by the Templeton Foundation for “Progress in Religion.” The recipients have distinguished themselves in spiritual endeavors. One winner was Sir Allister Hardy of Oxford University. He spent a lifetime studying human spiritual experiences. In his acceptance speech, he said that he felt without any question, that human spirituality is evolving into a higher consciousness. But, he continued, “I do not think that there is any future at all for orthodox Christian beliefs and dogma… because they refuse to realize that all of the great religious traditions are part of the same God.”
In a remarkable address to the graduating class of Princeton University theological seminary a few years ago, Dr. Samuel Miller, dean of the theological seminary of Harvard University said: “Orthodox Christianity is very close to death’s door. The churches are addressing themselves in a dead language to situations and issues that no longer exist. The patterns of truth are different. The questions have new terms. Nothing could be more tragic than to find ourselves hugging our own sanctified, false Christian idols, blind and hostile to the living revelation of God’s mystery in our own time. The Christianity that is interested only in its institution and ecclesiastical niceties is worse than vanity… it is incestuous.”
Any Christian church closing its doors and its mind to “outside” speakers is not only impotent, but spiritually bankrupt. I am glad the officers refused to allow the seminar, because it might prove to be a genuine learning experience and a shattering eye opener to some of the more open, enlightened and searching members of that congregation.
Another major church in that same community offered the hospice group their facilities and welcomed the seminar with joy, open doors and open arms.