A Gentler Side of Religion: Interview with Ori Soltes

That said, focusing on the Israelis and Palestinians, as an optimist I would hope that eventually there will arise a set of leaders who recognize the common humanity shared by both these communities.

In today’s world of increasing religious intolerance and even violence, Dr. Ori Z. Soltes, a scholar of Jewish and religious studies, is busy in exploring common strands in world religions, especially the three Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. As an eloquent speaker, writer and curator, he is currently teaching theology, philosophy and art history at Georgetown University in the United States.

With over 200 publications, books and essays, two of his theology books include “Our Sacred Sings: How Jewish, Christian and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Sources “ and “Searching for Oneness: Mysticism in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Traditions.

I met him last year, when I invited him for a presentation at my university as part of a symposium on “Mysticism and Peace. ” Besides his reputation as a fine scholar and speaker, he is also a modern day mystic or Sufi who believes in a simplistic life style. To my surprise, he does not have TV at home and he never used electronic gadgets like cell phone throughout his life.

In interviewing him, I focused on the issues of interfaith dialogue, mysticism and Sufism, and the relevance of religion toady:

Religion in the contemporary world has different meanings in different societies. In secular Western societies it has become a cultural form rather than a dynamic system of faith. In several Eastern societies, however, it still remains as a strong belief system. How relevant is religion today?

Religion today has surged in importance for at least two reasons. It has become interwoven in an increasingly overt manner with politics in the United States (it always was and always has been throughout history, but not as overtly in the United States as in the last 35 years. As the next round of presidential elections gears up, this becomes more and more obvious. Religion is increasingly relevant to growing numbers of Americans, and by extension, to any and every country affected by American foreign policies. On the other hand, there has been a precipitous rise in religious fundamentalism and religious extremism—or at least the intensified communication and transportation systems across the planet have made religious fundamentalism not only more accessible to all of us, but in the case when extremists are inclined to violence, more potentially dangerous to more people than ever before. We see this virtually every month, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia—and on a less frequent schedule, in South America, North America and the Far East.

The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, besides their similarities, have been hostile to each other for centuries. Can mysticism, being the common denominator in all three religions, offer possibilities of collaboration? How?

Mysticism can offer possibilities for collaboration in that mystics seem, by paradox, as they focus more intensely on God than do everyday practitioners of religion, to be able more readily to recognize the legitimacy of different paths to God. Moreover, the successful mystic by definition becomes drained of ego—if not, the mystic’s goal of being filled with God cannot be achieved. As such, mystics should be able to avoid allowing the politics of ego to intrude into their sense of God and of religion. Since it is the politics of ego that has accounted, for the most part, for the hostility in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, the elimination of the ego in the pursuit of oneness with God can and should and historically most often has made such collative, interdenominational thought and action possible.

How the Jewish mystic tradition of Kabbalah differs from Christian mysticism and the Muslim tradition of Sufism?

The most obvious differences among the three Abrahamic mystical traditions are these: The Jewish mystical tradition, particularly in its Kabbalistic phases, focuses obsessively on the text of the Torah to the point of deconstructing words into their constituent letters, the numerical values of those letters and eventually even the shapes of the letters—and the spaces between them—to find hidden meanings. Sufism seems to express itself most frequently by a combination of intense prose that explores the paradox of God’s diverse array of Names, and poetry that expresses the intense love relationship between the mystic and God in which the two become indistinguishable from each other; it is profoundly textual, but not as deconstructive as is Kabbalah. Christian mysticism places more emphasis than do Jewish and Muslim mysticism on accessing God through physical processes—a logical outcome of Christianity’s understanding of God as having a physical, and specifically male form. Thus both the sort of ecstasy experienced by a Christian mystic such as St Francis, where he ends up marked by the wounds corresponding to those in Christ’s crucified body; and the sort of ecstasy described by a mystic such as St Teresa of Avila, with its powerfully sensual overtones; are almost inconceivable in Jewish and Muslim mysticism.

In one of your books “Our Sacred Signs” you have argued that visual traditions in the three Abrahamic religions are related to each other. What do you mean when you say Jewish, Muslim and Christian art draw from the same sources?

The three traditions draw from the same sources in two ways. The vocabulary that they use to express the inexpressible through the oblique means of visual symbols for the most part pre-exist all three of them; they absorb these symbols, adopt and adapt them in accordance with their needs. And they often share the same visual images or ideas, but interpret them differently. Thus for instance, the number five, which may be expressed in the form of a pentagon or a five-pointed star or an outstretched hand would most likely symbolize the five books of the Torah in Jewish art. In Christian art it would allude to the five wounds in Christ’s body; in Muslim art it would refer to the Five Pillars of Islam. Many other instances, in terms of number, geometric and vegetal forms, colors and even figurative representations connect and disconnect the three visual traditions.

In one of your articles, “The Paradox of Co-Existence,” by comparing known mystics in world religions, including Rumi, Kabir, Isaac, and Merton, you concluded that Sufism is the most universal and tolerant of all. Could you elaborate further how did you reach this conclusion?

I’m not certain that I stated so categorically that “Sufism is the most universal and tolerant” of all three traditions. What I more likely said is that the writings of Sufis like Rumi and Kabir are more emphatically universalist than the writings of universalistically inclined mystical writers in the Jewish and Christian traditions, such as Abraham Abulafia and Thomas Merton (but Saint Francis’ engagement of nature makes it hard to exceed his universalism)—or perhaps that there is a greater number of obviously universalist thinkers in the Sufi tradition than in the other two traditions.

All of them have inherent limitations—can I be a Jewish mystic without a profound knowledge of the Hebrew language as a key to a profound understanding of the Torah? Can I be Christian mystic without a profound belief in the divine nature of Jesus? Can I be a Sufi without a profound knowledge of Arabic as a key to a profound understanding of the Qur’an?—but many mystics in all three traditions have, by paradox (appropriately, since mysticism is fraught with paradox), turned from an inward focus in an outward, universal direction.

Mysticism, as a subjective and individualistic system, teaches isolation from the real world. What does it offer to the 21st century young men and women struggling with sociopolitical issues of this age?

Although mysticism has as a necessary starting point some sort of isolation from the world, each of these mystical traditions (late Kabbalah and its successor, early Hassidism, may be the most emphatic about this) teaches that the goal of the mystic is not to find oneness with God, but to find oneness so that, returning from that ecstatic experience, one can improve the community—the world—around him/her. Not to have goals of broad sociopolitical improvement, rather than mere personal enlightenment, is by definition to fail to be divested of ego and therefore to doom the mystical enterprise. So mysticism can offer to young people struggling with these issues a means of reshaping themselves in a manner that will make them more effective instruments in winning the struggle to make the world a better place.

They say Middle East is the most volatile region in today’s world and when you analyze the situation it all boils down to one issue: Israel’s concerns for security and the Palestinian struggle for their basic human rights and sovereignty. As an optimist who believes in cultural and religious harmony, how do you analyze the issue?

I am not sure that the problematic of the Middle East simply boils down to the Israel-Palestine issue, although I agree that this is an extremely important issue and without solving it, the Middle East won’t be solved (but I mean that even if it were solved tomorrow, there would still be complications in that region—just consider Egypt or Syria or Iran right now, to give three simple examples). That said, focusing on the Israelis and Palestinians, as an optimist I would hope that eventually there will arise a set of leaders who recognize the common humanity shared by both these communities (and all communities) and that, for the sake of everybody’s children and grandchildren, each side needs to listen to the other’s concerns and not merely expound on its own fears and sense of victimization, past or present. The current leadership on both sides of this wall are profoundly lacking in that ability. At some point one can only hope for another set of leaders prepared to listen, prepared to empathize with the other, prepared to risk, prepared to lead. At some point one hopes that a critical mass of inhabitants of the region pushes its leaders toward that condition. Humans are both enormously creative and generous and enormously destructive and selfish, as history repeatedly shows—but as often as not, good eventually prevails over evil and I hope that the ego-driven, immature and irrational leadership that currently holds sway in these communities will be overwhelmed by a leadership more concerned about the community, more grown-up and more capable of reason.

(From Viewpoint Online)

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  1 comment for “A Gentler Side of Religion: Interview with Ori Soltes

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