Saturday, April 2, 2011

There is no Them

After I quoted the entire Serenity Prayer recently, a commenter observed that the overtly Christian language in the latter part of the prayer would be off-putting to “nonbelievers.” I felt sad when I read this because the sentiment behind the prayer is lovely, at least to me, and has value beyond the limiting vocabulary of a particular faith.

Recently a minister in Florida burned a Koran as a statement of judgment against Islam. That, in turn, sparked retaliatory protests and killings in Afghanistan. All because we separate ourselves with different labels, different names for what we hold sacred. This is just my opinion, of course, but I don’t think the universal essence, for obvious lack of better words, is so easily described, explained, or contained.

I read in Wayne Dyer’s book Inspiration about an ancient Hindu saying that “the name of God is truth.” Truth, I think, is beyond labels. The Tao Te Ching says, “The way that can be told is not the eternal Way. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things.” Perhaps the labels are the mother of ten thousand beliefs, each of which distinguishes us from them.

It’s like speaking different languages. We can say the same thing in English, Arabic, and Chinese, but in each language, the meaning might be different because of different cultures, vocabulary, and syntax. As long as we need words to communicate, communication will be limited by those words. Communication with words will always be imperfect. We have the choice to see this imperfection as creating barriers, or we can see this imperfection as an invitation to look beyond the differences and transcend the barriers.

When this same Florida minister threatened to burn the Koran last year, my church bought 100 Korans and placed them in a local bookstore to give away free to anyone who wanted one. We thought that reading the Koran might lead to better understanding and communication than burning it. I’m just sayin’....

For myself, my spiritual life is enriched and deepened by embracing truth as I find it, wherever I find it. When asked one time to identify three people who influenced my faith, I named three people who, I believe, were true people of God. One was the minister of my church. One was a Buddhist monk I met in Thailand. The third was the Muslim guard who watched over my home in West Africa.

My faith community is Christian, and I have worshiped in Thai temples. I am an ordained Stephen Minister, and I am training as a Shambhala warrior. I follow Jesus, and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. I have lit incense at a Hindu shrine, and I smiled as my young son bowed to Allah alongside the Muslim guard he loved.

I pray to God, Kuan Yin, Mary (when I need to talk mom to mom), the creek by my cabin (which sometimes talks back), and occasionally my dog Sam who died years ago. When my mother died, I prayed Jewish prayers of mourning. I believe that my prayers all go to the same destination no matter how they are addressed.

My point is not to shock or alienate anyone, and I’m sorry if I have. My point is that I hope we don’t close our minds to beauty because of a label. I hope we don’t let language hold us back when we try to communicate about our deepest selves. If we speak our truth to one another with an open heart, and if we hold the words we hear with sacred respect, then we will surely meet in that place where there is no them, there is only us.



  1. Thank you Galen. This is the most sensible piece of writing I have read in a long time.

    If only, if only all peoples followed these precepts.

    Peace and happiness to you

  2. " if we hold the words we hear with sacred respect, then we will surely meet in that place where there is no them, there is only us." I could not agree more my friend! The "Serenity Prayer" is such a beautiful prayer, I find it difficult to believe that anyone could get offended by it. Thanks for this post, it reminds me of something I want to write about and I will be certain to link to your post as well because it ties in with it. Hugs...Happy Sunday!

  3. I feel the same as you. For me religions are just different languages for the same truth. I was once told that there are thousands of ways in buddhism, because every person has to find their own way to achieve enlightment. In the novel "Life of Pi", there is a scene that is very cute to me, where Pi as a child wants to be a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu. When told that he must make a choice, he asks how many nations there are in the sky. He is told that there is only one nation. He then says: "If there's only one nation in the sky, shouldn't all passports be valid for it?"
    The truth comes from the mouths of the children, as the French say :)

  4. It is my belief that we are all following the same God just with a different name and "story' behind Him/Her. We follow what we need to in our family right now. We tend to lean more towards Buddhist beliefs but with Sammy being ill, we have talked a lot about God and Heaven too.
    I often feel saddened by the way religion has historically led to more war and death than peace and harmony. I don't blame religion, however, just human nature. I am not deeply religious and my husband thinks it is all a crock (pardon my words), but there is so much that can come from understanding, tolerance, and love. The words you used brought a sense of inner peace to me, I was not offended in any way...thank you for sharing them, Galen.

  5. Amen. I only wished that more people felt and thought the same!

  6. Alexia--Thank you for your comment. I think people have a hard time because of fear. We experience fear when we are separated from others and thus separated from God. Doing exactly the opposite of what fear commands by connecting with others will defeat the fear, I believe.

    Mitzi--I don't know if it offends as much as alienates. People who limit themselves to one vocabulary for truth, whether as "believers" or "nonbelievers" (I have trouble with those very terms which only separate us), are quick to dismiss beauty and truth that manifests in a different vocabulary. I look forward to your post!

    Beliza--I read that book last year. I remember the passage you mentioned. How true. Thanks.

    JackSamMum--I know what you mean. Back to the believer/nonbeliever division, one can't help but notice that some of the most vicious battles have been among "believers" of different faiths, or even factions in the same faith. Your description of your family is the perfect example of faith harmony. Buddhism can offer certain things and the languange of God/heaven offers something else. Why can't we use whatever vocabulary/concept that seems helpful to us?

    darlin--Thank you for your comment. As I said earlier, when we reach out in spite of our fear, then fear will fade and we'll all see each other...well, we'll all SEE each other.

  7. Nice words and strong message - Thank you...never want to close the eye or mind to the beauty of truth...

    words sometimes do not say it all - labels are finite

  8. Hi Galen,
    I love the serenity prayer. Sometimes people judge others religion without really understanding it. I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and if someone else doesn't, I shall listen to them and hope maybe they will listen to my reasoning. If not at least I have learned about them and have a better understanding of them.
    Thank you Galen for talking about something that people try to run from, because of lack of understanding. It can be easier to judge rather then take the time to understand.
    Have a wonderful day and many blessing to you.

  9. I am a follow of Jesus Christ and a Stephen Minister like you, Galen. My faith teaches there is one path to God. I am pretty sure that path doesn't include burning religious books or labeling others. I am pretty sure it does include something about "love thy neighbor" and God created all men (not just those in America) in his image.

    Arrogance and intolerance are a fearful combination.

  10. Beautifully written. Sometimes people choose to be offended or put off by mere words because their heart is simply not ready to hear them. I do this often and have to remind myself to revisit things in a day or two.
    Sometimes people use words as a way to advance their cause and their beliefs. But as your post alludes to today, our spiritual selves rise above words. Sometimes I find I can.
    As you know, the Serenity prayer is also used by people recovering from addiction. We often just use the short form....

  11. Galen,
    I know a soul is a soul. Some may be misguided and others are not. I don't like to burn anything. But back in the dinasaur times, i burned my bra for feminism and I certainly don't consider myself a feminist today. Especially at the price of bras, I wouldn't burn mine now. My favorite TV show is DWTS (Dancing With The Stars). The one who is sent home each week burns their dance shoes on the Jimmy Kimmel show right after.
    Thank you Galen for commenting on the Bata de cola flamenco dress.
    Love and peace.

  12. Patricia--"labels are finite"--I like that. So true. Thanks for your comment.

    Debbie--It's easier to judge, I think, because we don't have to deal with our fear then. We don't have to be vulnerable.

    Bob--Christianity at its heart is a faith of love and acceptance. It's so easy to forget that.

    PAMO--I like the lesson in A Course in Miracles that we separate ourselves from God when we separate ourselves from others. Yes, I did know about the connection between the prayer and 12 step groups, more evidence of the power of this simple prayer! Thanks for commenting.

  13. Galen, this is a wonderfully crafted post. Very well said.

  14. Hi Galen,

    Yeah I just read about the burning of the Koran in Florida and the chain of protests that it sparked as a result. It is such a sad state of affairs in the world that some people venerate their own beliefs and think nothing of desecrating the beliefs of others. I have long wanted to write an article on disunity of the human race, maybe I might get down to it later this week.

    I agree with you that we should focus on finding the truth wherever we can find it. It is arrogant to think that one point of view is greater than another. The world is constantly changing. What may be true today may not be true tomorrow. If that is the case, is it not foolish to hold on so tightly and rigidly to one way of thinking? I too was brought up Christian and initially I believed that Christianity was the one and true religion. But it was only when I embarked on my own journey of self-discovery and concluding what to believe for myself that I gained a deeper appreciation for the many views that make up this world. Without an appreciation of the larger scheme of things, it is easy for the people today to fall into a senseless repetition of the past, causing atrocities like the crusades in the name of religion. When people are disunited, we only leave ourselves open to destruction by a host of other problems because we have no time to deal with them.

    I love your open view of religion that does not adhere to any one way of thinking. I admit that I have my biases, but I never disrespect religions even if they are not my cup of tea. I believe that there are different strokes for different folks and that we must all find a way that works for us. But one way is not better than another way. Given my upbringing in Singapore, it is not too surprising that I would be drawn towards the Tao, Zen and Eastern religions. But at the same time, I have a healthy respect for Orthodox Christianity and Islam because of my love for the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire and the Islamic Caliphates.

    Most religions have not been around as long as mankind. Religions like empires have also risen and fallen. How many religions are lost to the pages of history? In the end, the only thing that has existed since the dawn of Man is Truth. It is this truth that we should seek, not the labels of religion or right and wrong.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  15. Golly, I hope I did not dismay you when I pointed out the exclusive syntax in the latter part of the Serenity Prayer. I grew up as sexist and racist as most Americans do, though I had great difficulty facing it. I know you've moved beyond that. It's hard for traditional Christians to see that the party line excludes people who belong in heaven, like Gandhi and Buddha. I also have seen people who were once addicted to alcohol become addicted to meetings, coffee and cigarettes. It's a hard subject to navigate.

  16. Yes, we need to open our heart and mind more for God, people, truth ...

  17. ib--Thank you for the kind words.

    Irving--I hope you will write that article. Your comment is a good start. I would be very interested in hearing more of your thoughts on this issue.

    Mikey--No, you did not dismay me. The truth of your comment did. I almost did not include the entire prayer for just that reason. Christians have given Christ a bad reputation. The shortest verse in the Bible is "Jesus wept." I think Jesus must surely weep bitter tears over the use of his name to divide and condemn. I came to appreciate Jesus as a way show-er pretty late in life after rejecting the us/them, we're saved/you're not, theology of many Christians. I realized that I was also rejecting much that was beautiful because of these other associations. I appreciate your comment because it made me take a close look at this, especially in the aftermath of the Koran burning. It is indeed a hard subject to navigate.

    Qin--Exactly. Opening our hearts connects us. Closing them by judging and condemning separates us from each other and from God.

  18. Well said, or rather written again Galen. for that comment....I would think that if a non-believer was offened they would just stop reading..their can't and won't ever please everyone, and all you can do is speak from your heart and soul....and we'll be there....have a peace filled lovely week ahead!

  19. Karen--Please let me correct a misperception due to my lack of clarity. The person who left the comment was not offended by the Christian language in the prayer. His point, which was valid and appreciated, was that some nonbelievers are alienated by language like that. I thought his observation was important to think about and address. The comment was in no way an attack or a criticism. My apologies for any confusion I caused. I welcome open discussion and a variety of views. That can only help us understand each other.

  20. "My point is that I hope we don’t close our minds to beauty because of a label. I hope we don’t let language hold us back when we try to communicate about our deepest selves." Lovely way to put it. Thank you for sharing your experience with this- it's such a stick type of situation but you handled it gracefully

  21. Thank you for writing this! Lately, it seems the only opinions that are given a voice are those of extremism and intolerance. Your views of and those of the commenters give me hope.

  22. Michelle--Yes, it is a difficult topic, but I hope this will open the door for further discussion. Thanks for your comment.

    Kara--It's easy to feel dismayed. I'm glad this gave you some encouragement. Thanks for your comment.

  23. Galen, this is the most beautiful post I read so far - You can be proud of it. You are right there is no them. We are all one and we are all brothers and sisters.
    It's wonderful to have people think like you because it is what the world needs. Thank you thank you so much.

  24. Marie--Thank you so much for the kind words. I'm pleased that you like this post so much.


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