Highest Common Denominator
On Forty-Second Street over by First Avenue, sandwiched between the Capital One Bank on the corner and Theresa's Gourmet Cafe is the Simon Weisenthal Center. The signage is inside the window and curves around the corner - and is repeated on the interior walls. Just one word - TOLERANCE.
Tolerance. A strange word to dominate a storefront. It has a negative whiff to it. Something may be offensive to us, but we learn to tolerate it. Gustav Niebhur puts the definition as, "My fist stopping one inch from your nose." Toleration has a medieval sound. For centuries in Christian Europe Jews had to wear identifying badges and occasionally conical dunce caps, but they were often tolerated. However, from time to time, tolerance broke down and Jews were eliminated. That's the flavor of tolerance - a holding at bay of impending violence.
It isn't so surprising that a People so frequently a target of elimination one way or another, should look for some lowest common denominator of human decency and forbearance. Tolerance. Let us live. Coming on the heels of the fairly recent elimination of half the Jews on the planet, tolerance is an understandable short-term goal. But is this a satisfactory goal for the human race - to tolerate one another? To stop our fists one inch from the other's nose? Is this a satisfactory goal for Christians? You'd think humans - particularly Christians - are capable of more than the lowest common denominator of tolerating anyone who thinks, looks or believes differently than we do.
Niebhur argues we need to move Beyond Tolerance, the title of his most recent book. In discussion, Gustav talks of the fairly recent movement to get to know and begin to understand people of different faith traditions, respecting the differences, as a way of building a sense of community. This is in contrast with simply looking for the lowest common denominator. He explores the search for understanding and respect for the other, finding how we deal differently with the life events we all have in common, weddings, births, deaths, coming of age, etc. as an approach to "interfaith dialogue." And I agree, but to a point. Ultimately, we all want a sense of community with other people, particularly those we come into contact with in our everyday lives. And, ultimately, as Christians, we want a stronger sense of community extending beyond our immediate neighborhoods, and perhaps across the world. To create a deep sense of community, I believe we need more than understanding and respect for the other. Those of course are critical. However, I believe we need to look for what we have in common with the other, not only at the ground level of how we practice and live and work. Those are the low common denominators. But to break through to a higher level of community I believe we need to look for the highest common denominator between others and ourselves.
The Highest Common Denominator is a strange phrase. It's a new way to think about "common denominators." But the genesis for this idea comes from the New Testament. I was born and brought up as an orthodox Jew. Community was and is a powerful concept for Jews. The first New Testament phrase I heard in a church was from Paul's Letter to the Romans. "Conform no longer to the pattern of this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Being in the business of building new products and new systems, this idea of renewing your mind about concepts of religion struck me in mind and heart - and for the first time I seriously thought about the validity of the Gospel. So I read the entire New Testament - and became a believer. I had a "renewing" of my idea of community from the traditional sense of a community of people who followed the same traditional practices, to a new concept - a new idea of a community that believes in a common goal and purpose. Before we get to the idea of highest common denominator, let's think about "community" for a moment.
What do we mean by community? Thousands of years ago the human community defined itself by "we family members who live towards the back of the cave." As time went by, we may have extended our sense of community to everyone who lived in our cave. Later, we may have included people from adjoining caves. And soon, perhaps through intermarriage, let's call it; the larger clan became our community. By biblical times it was the tribe - an extended clan. And in antiquity the town or city was our definition of community. As humanity progressed our sense of community extended first to religion, and then to nation, a sort of "super-tribe" with physical boundaries. In the last few centuries, our definition of community perhaps extended to a mix of religion and nationality, as in Greek Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Irish Catholic, Scots Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, French Huguenots, Polish Roman Catholics, Egyptian Coptics, and even the eponymous Church of England.
There are some current experiments at creating communities of super-states, as in the European Union, where religion is a much-diminished factor. But today, people still think of themselves as Danish or Dutch, rather than European. Much as the early Italians thought of themselves - and many still do - as Abruzzi or Romans or Milanese rather than Italian. However, a different trend is playing out, particularly in the less industrialized sectors of the world. In the Middle East, Pakistan, parts of Indonesia and Africa I believe we are seeing a rejection of the national lines drawn on maps by the colonial powers, and a movement to a pan-religious community which transcends state or nation. Clan, religious sect and tribe rather than city and nation are again becoming the governing and identification units, but this time on a very large scale. This is a threatening change to our western eyes!
The point? Religion is not going away soon as a focus of community.
Our tendency when looking for common ground between positions that are very different, is to look for the lowest or least common denominator. What is it that at the very least is present in both camps and we find easy to agree on? For example, we all agree clean water is important for any society. Another least common denominator is most people in America agree it is not good to kill another human being. Some would make exceptions for certain circumstances, but in general, to not kill another human being is a least common denominator in our culture. Other examples of least common denominators among humans are that we have one of four blood types, have two hemispheres in our brains and no more than two ears. There may be rare exceptions, but these are least common denominators. As you can guess, least common denominators are not particularly useful in building a sense of community. Lowest common denominators usually imply commonalities in building blocks, or steps in common. An example in faith communities might be that we all agree it is good to go to a dedicated building once a week or so to practice our religion - whether we call it a synagogue, church, temple or mosque. This is a low common denominator, but not particularly useful for building a sense of community. We may all have rituals for dealing with births, weddings and deaths in common, but our rituals will be different. Sharing these is a good first step in learning to respect and understand the other, but understanding and respecting differences is not sufficient in itself to build a strong sense of community. Yes, we are beyond tolerance. But we are short of community.
However, there are things that people have in common they don't realize. There are common beliefs that people don't often think about as shared. A higher common denominator is a common value shared among people - even though they may not be aware they share this value. These shared values, or highest common denominators, have to do with purpose and goal, rather than building blocks, steps or processes. Let me jump right to the example I have in mind.
Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, Moslems, Buddhists and Jews all share the idea of a God. This God is the Creator and is itself uncreated. Jews, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians do not name this God, aside from the general concept of God as a Father of sorts, although God is beyond gender. They mean this relationally with his creation. Moslems also share this belief, and although it appears they have named God - Allah - this is not really a name. Allah means "the high one", and many positive and powerful adjectives are used to describe this God. These terms, by the way, are the same terms used by Jews, and Christians - Merciful, Beneficent, Charitable, All Powerful, etc. The Koran makes it clear this God is the same God who spoke to Jews and later Christians, except those People of the Book did not respond to his clear direction.
While Buddhism has many varieties, Tibetan Buddhism is one of the older and more clearly articulated Buddhist traditions - at least to westerners through the Dalhai Lama. The Dalhai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, frequently teaches westerners with great clarity and impact. In the early 1990's the Dalhai Lama made a week-long teaching trip to New York City. I was lucky enough to sit at his feet for a day and hear him teach about God and our relationship to God.
The first words the Dalai Lama spoke were this: "I have not come to convert anyone from their belief to Buddhism. Whatever faith tradition you have learned from your culture, this is good. Stay in it. It works for you and is culturally correct for you. The important thing is not which tradition you follow to arrive at a relationship with God. The important thing is: once you have been introduced to God, to cultivate your relationship with him." I may not have the words exactly, but that is the essence and the meaning of how he framed his teaching to us.
And for me, I found a common value, a high common denominator between my Jewish-Protestant-Catholic self and the Buddhists surrounding this extraordinary teacher - a shared belief in God and a desire to know him better. With this high common denominator in place, I opened my inner as well as outer ears and eyes and listened - and learned. I learned and understood how the faith traditions we follow are wonderful ladders, or frameworks, that prepare us for our introduction to God. God wants us to meet him, and to cultivate a deep relationship with him. He wants us to finally become sons and daughters of His. Exactly as Jesus taught, as Isaiah taught, as Ignatius taught, as Calvin taught, as Mohammed taught, as Siddhattha Guatama, the Buddha taught, as all the great prophets and teachers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and Buddhism have taught and still teach. The highest goal of man is to spiritually grow and become adopted sons and daughters of God the Father - think of it as a spiritual evolution of the species.
Are there differences? Well of course. But I believe with the deepest conviction the differences are not in our religion, but in our faith traditions. I believe all of us who live in awe and trembling and love and desire to be united with the un-nameable God the father are of the same religion. Our differences are in the faith traditions, the building blocks, the steps, the processes we use to prepare these human minds and bodies for our first encounters with the absolute and infinite God. Our highest Common Denominator is knowing we are lost children of God learning and practicing how to submit our will to his will. We are all trying to overcome our own way of looking at the world and to forgive others and be forgiven, to be compassionate and receive compassion, to be merciful and to receive mercy, to understand suffering and to share suffering. The common values are very simple and are pointed to by all faith traditions: (1) forgive others (2) then ask for forgiveness for ourselves, (3) try to stay out of trouble (4) and help others. This highest common denominator is shared by Orthodox and Catholic and Buddhist and Jew and Presbyterian and Baptist and Evangelical.
I believe our concept of religion is defined too narrowly. In one sense, the narrow sense, we have many different religions in America. But, if our religions were really different, if we had truly different ideas of who or what we worshipped and why we worshipped, that could easily be a recipe for social trouble. But we do not worship different gods. We do not worship, for example, a god of death, or a god of power and control over others, or a god of wealth accumulation - at least that last belief is fading. Nor do we worship a pagan pantheon of gods who war among each other, nor do our gods cheer when we kill our enemies and share our human passions and excesses. If we look at our shared concept of God across Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism - and even Hinduism, we see a very common view of the nature of God and God's purpose for us. If we allow our current narrow view of religion to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, we can see we have very few religions in America, but many faith traditions. Certainly Baptists do not worship a different God than Presbyterians, or Catholics - nor is the Methodist God different from the God of Jews and Moslems or Buddhists. We just have somewhat different traditions of how we express our faith in worship of our common God and how God first spoke to us through prophetic and divine intermediaries.
It does begin to develop a sense of community when we understand the steps others go through. When we learn the particulars of how others discipline themselves through different ideas and practices of fasting, penance, prayer, how other traditions deal with death, birth, marriage and what the stories are of the development of their faith tradition. How God first spoke to their culture, how he introduced himself through other humans, how the faith tradition spread and grew. It is useful to understand and respect other faith traditions. But, our community is based on more than respect and understanding. Our highest level of community is based on our shared understanding and desire to be reunited with the unnamed and unnamable God the Father and Creator.
Our highest common denominator is our shared belief in the one Creator God and His injunction to practice forgiveness, compassion, mercy, charity, humility and shared suffering. This is the common purpose and path taught by the teachers of all the faith traditions that make up the fabric of our one shared religion.
As we follow this path, the grace of God the Father, provided in many cases through magnificent divine intermediaries, will draw us closer together in our common human bond. But, this is in the future. We don't seem ready yet.
It isn't easy to develop this sense of shared religion and community. Many practitioners of faith traditions are convinced that following all the prescribed steps of their own tradition is the way to God, the one and only way. These are well-intentioned people. They believe the steps of their particular faith tradition are the only true and valid steps, and violation is heresy or apostasy. Worse, they may see those who follow a different faith tradition as infidels, or non-believers in the one true God.
There is a role for proselytizing. If someone has no faith tradition, or has fallen out of their faith tradition, then the enthusiasm that, "My tradition works for me! Maybe it would work for you." can be helpful and valuable. But, if someone is following their faith tradition and on the road to a deeper relationship with our God, then the better part is encouragement to, "Keep firm and keep on strong." The better part is encouragement and strengthening, not divisiveness and argument.
What we are all trying to do is allow our spiritual selves to emerge and grow through the practice of compassion, mercy, forgiveness, charity, humility and shared suffering.
So, what's the problem? I believe the barrier is that we are too focused on our particular faith tradition rather than God to whom it points. Too often we don't follow our tradition, we worship it! Fasting becomes something we are proud of, an end in itself rather than a quiet curbing of our sensual human nature. We may do social service joylessly and as a burden without love. We may grow forelocks or not cut our beards as a sign of perpetual obedience, rather than understanding this is a pagan practice when in mourning, which we are to avoid, along with gashing the flesh. It becomes more important to follow the letter of the rule, than to grow closer to our God and be transformed by that closeness.
Our broader religious community contains many rich cultural traditions, faith traditions which all point us to God. All our individual faith traditions teach us about our Creator God and give us useful structure and tools to prepare to meet Him. Someday, I hope soon, having learned from our individual faith traditions, we will all be able to sit together in broad community with shared compassion, suffering, mercy, forgiving others and ourselves and expressing and deeply feeling the love of others and all created things. This is the Higher Common Denominator taught by all the teachers of all the great faith traditions that make up our common religion.
Then we will be "Beyond Tolerance," beyond understanding and respect. I can see us sitting in community with our different traditions and humbly asking for admittance to the glorious transcendent presence of our one God and Creator with shared awe, wonder and love. Then God, the Highest Common Denominator, will be pleased. And perhaps He will say, "You are ready now."