Unity not Uniformity

The following is the text of my presentation to the November 11th G20 Summit in South Korea on “Dialogues among Civilizations, Cultures & Religion.

Dialogues Summit: Seoul

Unity not Uniformity
I would echo what each panelist has said about the amazing new directions in interfaith relations over the recent decades.  Since my first involvement in interfaith dialogue in the 1970’s as chair of the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council I have seen a tremendous growth in the number and extent of multi-faith programs, service projects, films, events, councils, academic studies and more.  These are very encouraging signs.  Even so, I believe they are external manifestations of an internal human development — none other than, on a large scale, the much-needed process of human spiritual maturation.   It is my belief/hope/prayer that we are rounding the bend toward a spiritual “coming of age” for humanity.

Over the centuries humanity has seen radical changes, revolutions in technology, the advancement in the sciences, global communications, travel and the arts, all manner of material growth but has not seen an equivalent growth spurt spiritually.   This spiritual “catching up” is a matter of the utmost importance, a question of survival at the most basic level for us and for the entire planet.  I consider this process of human spiritual maturation one of the most significant hopes of the 21st century. Without it I am not sure how we will survive the changes we face.  And at the heart of this spiritual maturing process is the question of our grasp (and practice) of unity without uniformity.

The transitions that we all face in the modern era are coming at a rapid pace and they are confusing. I have some sympathy for those who are suspicious of modernity and seek a return to tradition if they can find a valid functional one.  But we cannot retreat into a world of deeper divisions.  There are those who fear the concept of unity.  For them unity translates as a mandate of uniformity.  They have little experience in multi-faith community.  For some the words translate into “one world religion” and other concepts of forced religious and political/social uniformity.

It is up to us who have positive experience in living and working together to make clear that the unity we seek is not at the price of uniformity, to reassure our fellows. It is on us to be clear about how we talk about what we do and to provide real and positive experiences.   Interfaith work, multi faith work, cooperation is not at the expense of  our individual identity.  Those of us who understand that unity can be had while maintaining our individual faiths and cultures need to make this clear.  In fact unity can not ever be achieved by attempting to enforce uniformity because every attempt at uniformity fails and causes further divisions.  This is not a struggle for my truth over yours.  It is a common discovery of what binds us together and the ways we can assist each other and understand one another.

It is for these reasons that I challenge each of you to rethink and relearn the language we use to talk about interfaith and multi-faith work.  In each generation we must revise and redefine how we express core values so that they do not simply become platitudes or worse, empty meaningless jargon, an in-group language that shuts out meaning for all others.

If we can, as a human species, communicate and understand this key concept of spiritual unity and not fear it, we will make tremendous strides.  We will come to understand our world as a human family with all that a good family entails –a protection of our common home, the earth; mutual affection and support for each other; and a respect for individual differences as we each endeavor to find and know truth.  We will indeed have come of age.

I am proud that The North American Interfaith Network has accumulated real experience in dialogue over these last decades but equally important we also have learned to listen to each other in our quest for unity.  In listening to each other carefully and with depth we learn our differences and avoid the attempts to manipulate toward uniformity while we find where we can work together and mutually support each other.  As I mentioned yesterday, the late Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, a leading light in interfaith dialogue frequently said, “You don’t know me until you know what hurts me.”   This deep listening is the start of our growth toward unity.

Bettina Gray, November 11, 2010

Bettina Gray at Womens Leadership Summit

More information about the G20 related summits, hosted by the Korean Won-Buddhists and attended by interfaith leaders from around the world can be found at: http://www.g20moralpolitics.org/

4 Comments
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  2. My dear Bettina,
    Thank you for sending this. The pure and yet profound simplicity of your call to “rethink and relearn our language….” surely touched the minds and hearts of those listening.

    LOve,
    Sara

  3. Great article! I was reading the published proceedings of the World parliament of Religions held in 1893, and enjoying very much the closing remarks by Swami Vivekananda: “The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the others and yet preserve its individuality and grow according to its own law of growth.” Interestingly, the editor made this remark after recording Vivekananda’s Speech:
    ” Swami Vivekananda was always heard with interest by the Parliament, but very little approval was shown to some of the sentiments expressed in his closing address.”

    The interfaith movement, in its infancy in 1893, was not ready for “Unity Not Uniformity.” Now it is, and kudos, to you, Bettina for articulating it so well!
    Blessings,
    Francyl

    • Thanks. Yes I do hope we are ready for this next step.