A writer once said in an interview, “if your theme survives the telling of the tale, then you effed up bad.”
He was talking about fiction and the importance of being ruthless even with yourself about your own cherished beliefs. Otherwise, the work’s truth won’t be able to grow out of that pain you feel in challenging your own assumptions.
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine sister and the inspirational drive behind Benetvision. She has a curious habit of making her book titles lengthy and intriguing. And even though she has put together a wonderful walkabout in world spirituality and she has gathered international, accessible meditations on the spiritual process, she hasn’t challenged her own assumptions or her own themes. And today, that’s bad.
This is a book about the big questions in life, and the spiritual journey involved in both asking and thinking about those questions. Welcome to the Wisdom of the World is a short book (about 190 pages) that examines the spiritual contribution of five of the world’s religious traditions – Hindu Wisdom, Buddhist Enlightenment, Jewish Community, Christian Love and Islamic Submission (links are to my earlier summaries of world religions). Chittister strikes a point in staying away from the sacred texts of each tradition. Instead, this is about anecdotes, about little stories of people in each faith or tradition and how we can apply their insights today in our daily lives.
Each religion is given five chapters. For example, Chittister asks the question “How Can I Learn to Let Go of the Past?” in chapter 4. She compares two women she knows, a middle-aged professional that couldn’t get past a rough divorce and a retired woman unwilling to start up any new romances. Chittister then tells a Hindu story about the birth of Ganesh and how he got his elephant-head as a replacement for his original.
In chapter 7, “How Do I know the Right Thing to Do? ” there is a story of a Buddhist Monk named Shoun. Shoun never seems to be doing the right thing and never at the right time. But everything he did was in the loving service of some other. Chittister uses this illustration to distinguish between obeying the ‘laws‘ or ‘shoulds‘ in life, and seeing the world as it is so as to serve the growth of spirituality.
The Jewish tradition is used to tackle such questions as “Where Did I Lose My Idealism?” and “Why was I born?” In this section, Chittister uses several stories about rabbis. Rarely do the rabbis agree on how to serve their communities but in each action or direction they see God’s will.
Little vignettes of abbeys and monks are the focal points for the section on Christian Love. The chapters in this section deal with questions such as “How Will I Know the Truth When I See It?” and “What is the Purpose of Life?”
Chittister stays pretty close to the Sufis to explore the Islamic contribution to world spirituality. “What is Happiness?” and “Why Do I Feel That Something Is Missing in My Life?” are examples of the questions put to the Islamic tradition.
Welcome to the Wisdom of the World is a great little book for the spiritual student. Its focus is on people, real individuals curious about that elusive quest and willing to work on that task of being human. Through the use of these anecdotes, Chittister demonstrates how ancient stories can still be relevant as long as you are willing to engage the story on a literary level rather than a literal level.
But here’s the thing — each worldly tradition seems to confirm Chittister’s trust in and reliance on God. Behind each little tale she tells, no matter where it comes from, Chittister finds a place for God and puts God there. And as a result, Chittister does not seem to challenge her own assumptions or examine her own cherished beliefs. She has found all this inspiration from the accepted world religions, but it is not inspiration for dramatic change in herself. This book could be taken as a call to take up only the institutional (or institutionalized) spirituality the world offers.
If Chittister wanted to really examine her own theme she could have immersed herself in the atheist perspective for at least one extra section of her book. There are resources available. There is a growing non-God-centered spirituality. Emmanuel Levinas has been quoted as saying, “Scientific knowledge can push the possessor toward a sense of responsibility. It is a signal of transcendence.” If Chittister had knuckled-down and taken on the hard task of learning some things so far outside of her realm of comfort, I would be singing the highest praises for her.
Also, she seems to have little time or little exposure to the marginalized spiritualities and traditions the world has offered us. There is wisdom in Dreamtime, in the Peacemaker and the Tree of Peace, and in the male-female Enkai, even if the underlying cultures were not empirically successful.
I will continue with Welcome to the Wisdom of the World later this week with some quotations, recommendations and a final wrap-up.