Signs of the Spirit: a Pentecost Meditation From the Dean

JUNE 7, 2014

“…the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability…And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked…how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? ... What does this mean?"

from Acts 2:1-21

I have just returned from Iran.

Few Americans – even the many who have spent their lives studying the country or who have been colleagues with Iranian citizens at universities in this country – have had firsthand access to Iran since the Revolution of 1979.

I am not a politician or a diplomat. My invitation was based on being a religious leader in this country and my willingness to engage in dialogue in Europe with Iranian philosophers, scientists, religious leaders and public servants over the last decade.

In the spirit of interreligious dialogue, we endeavored to respect each other. We listened
carefully to how we see and respond to things that matter. We shared respectively deep
concerns about the meaning and value of life. We had common observations about stewardship
of this planet as persons of faith. We addressed the challenges of how faith adapts to modernity,
as it has always been challenged to do, without becoming inauthentic or extreme.

We hear the revelations entrusted to us in our own voices. They are manifested to us in our
contexts, which are different, of course. But the diversity and pluralism in those contexts are not
new dimensions within what it means to build just societies true to our core values. Whether we
separate Church from State or create an Islamic republic to do that, faithful leadership undergirds
society with values that respect the dignity of each person and of creation. That is how God is
glorified and God's people blessed by the abundant life God means for all.

Can we hear across time and culture the voices of Islam which assert the same commitment to
compassion, mercy and justice imbedded in Jewish and Christian faith? Do we appreciate that
the Spirit imbues all of us with the potential to respond to the Divine Call and unfolding Plan in
that way?

That really is the heart and soul of religion, when it seeks to explore and to support the meaning of life. That is how religion prevents or overcomes self-destructive trajectories that lead to extremism and violence. Each of our traditions can be authentic and true to their core values, which are remarkably similar. What we may think we know about Islam, in our ignorance or because of those who do terrible things in its name, bears little resemblance to its scientific, philosophical and scholarly roots and interpretations. I would say that extremists, in using other faith traditions to "bless" their hateful and violent agenda, confuse us about those religions only if we are illiterate, and do not know that their claims are false. I have been as horrified by what people across history and in recent times have done in the name of Christianity as Moslems are when girls are abducted in Nigeria in the name of Islam.

My visit to Iran was framed in hospitality. I encountered intellectual and cultural openness and mutual respect. The Iran and Islam I encountered are not what I know from the media. Of course, the United States and our diverse religious and political traditions are equally misrepresented and misunderstood by many in Iran. Christians - Armenians - in Iran asserted, "We don't like to be called minorities. We are citizens of this country. Islam here not only protects us as Christians, it also encourages us to contribute to this society."

I stated that I'm not a politician or diplomat. You may think me naive or misguided. I am aware of the geo-political conflicts and agenda that have derailed moving forward to repair the rupture between two countries that had known each other. Will progress be made in navigating a new course that protects concerns of national security for each and stabilizes the region? I have heard hopeful comments from many. But building from the ground up - culturally and spiritually - can only help. Frankly, if we don't at least include that dimension in what we do, a society built around religious teachings and values cannot hear whatever else we are saying "in their own language."

The Spirit fills us to be able to speak many languages because it takes that kind of diversity even to begin to approximate the breadth and depth of God's creative Love. One Johannine scholar in Iran - that's right, his field of study has been the Christian Gospel of John - said, "Interfaith dialogue prepares all people of faith to hear the Logos in their faith tradition." I've never heard the function of interfaith dialogue expressed more eloquently. That preparation is not simply for faith leaders to talk theology - especially in a country like Iran, where faith is insinuated into every fabric of their society. Rather, people of faith and of no faith can be inspired and equipped to use their respective "experiments" in government to build more just and vibrant societies. There have been Golden Ages like that in history - will we dare to be part of constructing another in our time?