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Many Fires, One Flame – March 13, 2011

550 years ago, in North West India, in the city of Varnasi, there lived a mystical poet and prophet named Kabir. Most major religious figures are thought of as champions for their particular faith: the prophet Isaiah as a proponent of Judaism for instance, and St. Francis as an exemplar of Christianity. Kabir is notable, however, because during his life and still today he is claimed by at least two different religious groups. For a spiritual poet who lived and wrote in 15th century India, his tone, which mixes insight and insult freely, is far less lofty than you might expect. At times he comes across with less of the transcendent wonder of a saint, and more of the gritty crassness of a modern comedian – a spiritual George Carlin, of sorts. He lived in a place and time that was shaped by the relationships, and often the divisions, between Muslims and Hindus. Kabir won popularity and acclaim in part through the stinging, sarcastic criticism of both groups that he wove into his religious poetry. “Vedas, Puranas” – the holy texts of Hinduism – “why read them?” Kabir asked. “Its like loading a donkey with sandalwood!” Islam, like Judaism, requires circumcision in men, and so Kabir asked the pointed question, “If God wanted me to be a Muslim, why didn’t God make the incision?”

Kabir was a critic, but that criticism came from his passionate, mystical spirituality. He was a weaver by trade, and it is said that he would only occasionally make it to the market to sell the produce of his loom. Often he would give the cloth away to the poor or the destitute before he could sell it for himself. The religion he professed had no name, no text, not even a clear sense of form or practice; just a persistent love for the divine, and a willingness to follow that into acts of kindness for others, even when that might seem foolish or dangerous. In one of his poems he describes his God through the metaphor of his own profession:

That master weaver, whose skills

are beyond our knowing,

has stretched his warp through the world.

He has fastened his loom

between earth and sky,

where the shuttlecocks are the sun and the moon.

He fills the shuttle with the thread

of easy spontaneity,

And weaves and weaves

an endless pattern.

But now, says Kabir, that weaver!

He breaks apart his loom

and tangles the thread

in thread.

The poet’s words speak to a beautiful wholeness underlying existence, its strands woven together perfectly by the motions of the sun and moon, guided by a masterful and unseen hand. But it is also a world that is far more jumbled and knotted and complex than any mortal cloth could be – the loom is broken apart, the threads all tangled together. Somehow, still, the wholeness remains. Kabir’s challenge to unpopular religious conventions, in particular the caste system, and his call for spiritual unity to replace Hindu-Muslim conflict made him a celebrity in his own lifetime. In one of the mythic stories associated with the poet, after Kabir died two groups came to claim his body: one Muslim, and one Hindu. Muslim religious custom dictates that a body should be buried in the first day after death, while Hinduism does not condone burial at all, requiring cremation instead. Disagreement over who should have the right to give this man their preferred sort of funeral led to argument, and argument led to quarrel, and so the two mobs began a bloody brawl. Somewhere in the midst of the fighting, the body of the saint disappeared, leaving behind two piles of fresh flower blossoms in its place. The struggle did not end until Kabir’s disembodied voice spoke up and silenced the crowds. It announced that each of them could now take one of these two piles of flowers: one for the Hindus to burn, and the other for the Muslims to bury.[i]

Kabir was neither the first nor the last religious thinker to emphasize divine unity over sectarian division. It is a strand that has run through human religious thought, perhaps for as long as there have existed formal divisions between religious groups. The impulse for one group to exclude and persecute all others, claiming a monopoly on spiritual truth for themselves is powerful; it has done, and continues to do much harm in the world. But still the spirit of something well past tolerance – a sense of shared sameness, and a curiosity about other groups – manages to endure.

There is a story from Europe’s late Middle Ages which attempts to suggest a framework for mutual understanding between the three major religions known in that place and time: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In this story there is a wise and just king, whose symbol of office is a ring of exceptional beauty. It was given to him by his father, and his father before him, each time with the instruction that the ring was to be passed on to whichever future heir the new king most dearly trusted and loved. The ring was a symbol of benevolent rulership, and all those who had worn it had always governed with mercy and exceeding kindness. Now, on his deathbed, the old king thought of his three beloved children. Each of them was precious to him, each wise enough and kind-hearted enough to deserve to receive this gift. How could he choose?

The king sent for the royal jeweler and instructed him to make two rings that perfectly matched his own, so carefully and flawlessly crafted that not even he would be able to tell the difference between them. Once he had all three rings, he met with each of his three heirs in private, and gave one ring to each of them. Then he died. When the time came for the nobility to appoint a new king, each of the three children came forward, each with their own ring: proof of the birthright their father had passed to them. Perplexed by the problem of there being three rings where once there was one, they sought out a wise judge to resolve the issue. Even he could not find any difference of quality between the three rings; each was unquestionably beautiful. There was no one ring to rule them all, so it was determined that the former king’s three children would have to share the kingdom, for none could be said to deserve it more than the other.[ii]

It is to this same religious intersection, between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, that our Unitarian heritage can be traced. Some of you have heard of the Unitarian movement in Transylvania, what was formerly a region of Hungary and is currently a part of Rumania. The congregations there form the oldest continuous assembly of Unitarians anywhere in the world, dating back to the 1560s. In that part of the world, a little town called Városfalva, there is a town church that our congregation shares a connection with – gifts from Városfalva hang on the back wall of this sanctuary. Our partnership with them has waned in recent years, but it is a connection we hope to rekindle in years to come.

The particular form of Transylvanian Unitarianism grew up in a region that had more intermingling between Jews, Christians and Muslims than was common in much of Europe at that time. Small Jewish communities were allowed to exist in the region, and to trade with Christian towns, and the whole region was then technically under the protection and limited authority of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, a powerful Muslim state. Conversion and intermarriage between the three were common enough that there were laws and religious prohibitions against both. In this pocket of Europe, so often thought of as being exclusively and monolithically Christian, an exchange of ideas and experiences, and in many cases blood, took place between the three historic branches of monotheism. This is where Unitarianism as an organized religious movement emerged. In 1568, history’s one and only Unitarian king, John Sigismund, issued the Edict of Torda, which endorsed and guaranteed religious freedom to an extent never before entertained by a Christian sovereign in Europe. The religion of the king would no longer automatically be the religion of the state. The people would be allowed to choose for themselves, as individuals, which faith to follow, and congregations would likewise be permitted to choose their own preachers. It was a radical step for a Christian nation at that time, but since it officially only allowed people to choose between four brands of Christianity –

the Catholic, the Lutheran, the Calvinist and the Unitarian – it was, if anything, a little less progressive than the approach to religious tolerance that was standard in Muslim countries in that same era.

A new legal framework was forming for religious freedom, as different strands of faith were all present in the same place at the same time. The Unitarians were particularly defined by this moment. Unitarianism emphasized the oneness of God, and so its adherents found more common ground with and interest in Muslims and Jews. After Sigismund died and the political winds shifted away from tolerance and toward persecution, many Unitarians moved to Muslim territory. Some converted. Others began to emulate the practices of Judaism, in an attempt to return to the religion that Jesus would have practiced, and over hundreds of years this group dropped the last vestiges of its Christian origins, and became normalized Jews, blending into the larger Jewish population of Eastern Europe. The three faiths were influencing each other, learning from each other, and shaping each other.[iii]

Our contemporary Unitarian Universalist movement here in North America affirms that there are commonalities between all faiths, and some shared wisdom to be found there – an underlying unity, as in Kabir’s image of the loom and the master weaver. This idea has many other supporters, and it has many detractors as well. In his recent book, God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero – who, incidentally, is a professor at Boston University – takes the position that all this talk of the essential oneness and core similarity of the world’s religions might sound nice, but its basically hogwash.[iv] Prothero breaks down eight major religions into a four part scheme: the problem they see, the solution they offer, the techniques they use, and the exemplars follow. Using this rubric, differences become quickly apparent: Christianity is focused on sin, a concept which is either very different, or simply absent in other faiths. Buddhism’s solution is enlightenment and the attainment of nirvana; that’s clearly distinct from the outlook of, say, Judaism.

I don’t deny any of these major differences in form and structure. But what’s at play is really the question of what constitutes the heart of a religion. When the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel was asked to distill his entire tradition to something he could recite while standing on one foot – that is, a message that could be expressed simply and quickly. He said, (please know that though you can’t see it with the pulpit in the way, I am standing on one foot) “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.”[v] Over a thousand years and a thousand miles apart, Hillel and the poet Kabir could agree on placing compassion at the heart of their respective faiths. Stephen Prothero’s primary stated goal is to get his readers to understand and appreciate the differences between the world’s great faiths, and on that point we do not differ. Instead, the sense of underlying sameness between religions that he is so quick to dismiss, I see as fostering a greater appreciation for their ample differences. Our faith as Unitarian Universalists affirms that no one religious tradition has a monopoly on the truth. In fact, it’s often the case that one faith is holding Atlantic Avenue, and another tradition has Ventnor Avenue, and a third one has Marvin Gardens – so that the only way that anyone’s gonna get to build some houses is by starting to work together. (That was an over-extended board game metaphor, for those of you who missed it.)

Its all a bit like soup. There are many different types of soup in the world: a sharp French onion, a hearty three-bean chili and a chilled gazpacho are all very different eating experiences. Many of us are capable of appreciating the flavor of lots of different soups, and a few of us focus all our culinary pleasures on one particular type, like one characters in the Japanese film Tampopo, who is spiritually devoted to creating the perfect bowl of ramen noodles. But even as we have our preferences, we can still recognize the qualities they share. And we know that any sort of soup is better when it is made from fresh ingredients, and best, of course, when it is made with love.

The differences in religion and in life more generally, are rich and meaningful, they give flavor to existence. It is by understanding and appreciating those differences that we gain insight into the unity that underlies them. There is another story of the scholar Hillel that he once was having a dispute with another scholar about an obscure point of practice, when a voice from heaven intervened in the debate. “Eilu v’eilu divray elohim chaim hen,” it pronounced. “These, and these, are the words of the living God.” When we can believe that both our spiritual beliefs, and those of others have meaning, and power, and a relevance to life on Earth – Not to deny our own deeply held truths or sense of what is right, but to honor and engage some holy curiosity about the spiritual insights residing in those around us – When we can live in that way, then we will be engaged in some of the work that we are called to do as Unitarian Universalists. Despite the broken loom and the tangled threads, we may just spy the beautiful fabric underneath.

[i] Both the excerpts from and the stories about Kabir given here are drawn from John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer’s Songs of the Saints of India.

[ii] A version of this story is recounted in Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, in which it is attributed to Boccaccio’s Cento Novelle.

[iii] I am indebted to the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie’s scholarship in this area, and her work to promote a new and fuller telling of the story of our Transylvanian origins. I cannot recommend strongly enough her 2009 Minns Lecture series, Children of the Same God: Uniarianism in Kinship with Judaism and Islam, all of which is available here:

[iv] Full title: God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.

[v] From the Talmud, Shabbat 31a.


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