Sunday, January 4, 2015

E.J. Dionne, a Rabbi, Pope Francis and Lord Krishna


No, they don’t walk into a bar, but Pope Francis is back in the news by way of a New Year’s Day piece by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. A committed Catholic, Dionne is attracted to Francis’ willingness to question matters of faith and doctrine. But I write that a more effective effort to achieve a connection to the divine goes far beyond questioning, and some of my recent reading has led me beyond Francis to Lord Krishna.

Full Text:

No, they don’t walk into a bar, but the Pope is back in the news. That’s not terribly surprising, considering he is the Pope. However, the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, a devoted Catholic who writes frequently on the subject, had a bit to say about Pope Francis in his column on New Year’s Day 2015. As a Jewish religious humanist, I was flattered by the many Jewish analogues that Dionne used to make his point: Rabbi David Saperstein, for many years director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, now the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom; Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

But it was Dionne’s first Jewish analogue that most attracted my attention and seemed to be the main point of the column. Dionne called his column “Questioning our questions” and quotes the Christian scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, who cites a Jewish joke about a rabbi whose student asks, “Why is it that you rabbis so often put your teaching in the form of a question?” The rabbi replied, “So what’s wrong with a question?” Ha, ha. Get it?!?!

This is why Dionne is so enamored of the Pope, as am I. As I have written in another blog post, the Pope is a religious humanist (“Is the Pope a Religious Humanist?”). He insists on an element of doubt as essential to a genuine spiritual journey. For Dionne, it was Francis’ question about the role of gays and lesbians in the church when he posed the rhetorical question to a group of reporters on his plane, “Who am I to judge?”

However, I don’t believe that Dionne or the Pope take this quite far enough. It goes way beyond questioning. I was browsing the used book shelves of my local library the other day. I spotted Yann Martel’s Life of Pi on sale for fifty cents. I saw the movie, but I have become convinced that the book is always better, so for fifty cents, what the hell? (Notice my sense of questioning.)

Actually, the movie did not come anywhere near capturing the sense of the book, at least not in the first 100 pages that I’ve read so far. It turns out that the book is about religion. It seems that young Pi, raised in a secular, “modern” Hindu family, had decided as a young adolescent that he wanted to be a Hindu Catholic Muslim. He told his father that he wanted to buy a prayer rug and be baptized. His father sent him to his mother, who sent him back to his father. In the end, young Pi got his way.

Pi explains his approach in one of the most profound statements of a quest for the divine that I have read in a long time. It’s made in the course of a denunciation of “fundamentalists and literalists” and involves a story about the Hindu god Lord Krishna. It seems that Krishna the cowherd invites the milkmaids to dance with him.

“…the girls dance and dance and dance with their sweet lord… But the moment the girls become possessive, the moment each one imagines that Krishna is her partner alone, he vanishes. So it is that we should not be jealous with God” (Yann Martel, Life of Pi, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001).

That’s it! The moment we believe we have God, the moment we put God in a box or in a book and insist that we now possess the true knowledge and true understanding of God, the moment we consign God to a doctrine, at that moment, God vanishes, and we are left with an empty box, an arcane book and a shallow doctrine.

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