Hymns to an unknown god

Text: Acts 17:22-31 (“an altar to an unknown god”)

Why are there so many different religions? If there is only one God, why are there are so many different paths to the Divine?

In today’s reading, Paul tackles the profusion of gods and goddesses in Athens. In the face of the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods worshipped in that city almost 2,000 years ago, Paul declares that God is One.

Over the next centuries, Christians like Paul convince many people in the Roman world to abandon idol worship in favour of the One God. Then in 380 CE, the Roman Empire adopts Christianity as its only legal religion. This act turns the Empire away from polytheism — where many gods are worshipped — to monotheism where only the Christian God — known as Source, Saviour, and Spirit — is worshipped.

But today only one in three people in the world today are Christian, and the church has divided into many denominations. Other world religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are also divided into different denominations.

There may only be one God — variously known as Creator, Spirit, Abba, Allah, or Brahman. But there are many religious paths to the Holy One.

On Thursday, I attended a meeting of Mill Woods’ pastors. This was the second such meeting organized by The Mustard Seed, a downtown Christian mission. Our group has clergy from Anglican, Baptist, Moravian, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and United churches. We shared information about outreach efforts. But despite the similarities in our work, a lot of our worship and teaching is different.

The issue of religious diversity was addressed by one of the speakers at the “Embrace Festival” that I attended in Portland from May 4 to 7. Reba Riley is the author of “Post Traumatic Church Syndrome: a Memoir of Humor and Healing.” It details how in her 30th year she visited 30 different faith communities. She was trying to heal the spiritual wounds she suffered at age 19 when the fundamentalist church of her childhood in Columbus Ohio rejected her.

In 2011 and 2012, Riley attended services of — among others — Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostal, Protestant, Quaker, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Mormon, Muslim, Native American, Scientologist, Seventh Day Adventist, Sikh, Unitarian, and Wicca communities in Ohio. Riley also practiced meditation and underwent a 30-day juice fast. She read, talked, and listened. And in the end, she felt a large measure of healing.

In experiencing 30 different paths, Riley regained an appreciation for the Christian foundation given to her by her childhood church without agreeing with its moralistic teachings. She had mystical experiences that revealed a unity at the depths of many paths. And she came up with the following mantra for her meditation: “Jesus-Rama-Krishna-Christo-Abba-Allah-leluia.”

I appreciated her book and the thoughts it inspired. But before touching on those, I have a few observations about monotheism and polytheism.

The purest monotheism I ever experienced is not that of our Jewish and Muslim brothers who sometimes argue that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is polytheistic. The purest monotheism I ever experienced was during the 30 months I lived in Saskatchewan.

In Saskatchewan, the One most people worship is the Riders football team! Given that professional sports teams are key objects of devotion today and given that Saskatchewan has only one pro sports team, the strength of the attachment of people in the province to the Roughriders is a wonder to behold.

I moved to southern Saskatchewan in 2011 after living in Toronto for 35 years. Torontonians are also devoted to sports, but happily they now have more than one team to choose. The Maple Leaf hockey team still holds pride of place. But since the 1970s, the city has added Blue Jays baseball, Raptors basketball, and FC soccer as other teams the locals can cheer. The worship of sports there is now polytheistic.

I used to fear the day that the Maple Leafs might play again in the Stanley Cup Final because of the frenzy that would result. Fifty years of hockey futility have kept that danger at bay. But even if the Maple Leafs do once again ascend to the heights they last achieved in 1967, the fever that would plague Toronto might be lessened by the presence of the other pro sports teams there.

Worship of sports teams is a form of idolatry, of course, although a relatively innocuous one. And when it comes to idol worship, I prefer polytheism to monotheism. Having more than one idol helps to dilute fanaticism, I believe.

For this reason, I hope that Saskatoon lands a soccer franchise so that Rider fundamentalism can be dialed down a little in Saskatchewan.

Of course, the worship of sports teams, just like the worship of gold and silver idols in Athens long ago, is not the path we try to walk at Mill Woods United Church. But like everyone else, we sometimes struggle to rise above idolatry to a practice and mission that is connected to the Source we call Love.

There are many ways to avoid the traps of fundamentalism and fanaticism, I believe. Staying humble in the face of the findings of science is one. Striving for inclusivity in a diverse society is another. Pursuing equality, freedom and abundance in the face of nationalism, war, and greed is another. There are probably many more. These are just ones that come to my mind today

Whenever fundamentalism and fanaticism are evident, idolatry is also present. Happily, life offers us many opportunities to pursue projects like that of Reba Riley that help us to be humble and grateful in the face of a higher power called Love. When love forms the heart of worship and mission, what might seem polytheistic on the surface can be connected to the Holy One at the depths.

Over the course of history, different peoples have found different paths to the Divine. Sometimes we stumble away from Love and towards self-righteousness and violence. But when we accept the Grace to go deep, fundamentalism and fanaticism dissolve. Mystical union with Source appears. And a mission of solidarity, humility, and Love unfolds in our hands and hearts.

May it be so. Amen.

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