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Back to Shore

A drift from substance is a recurring pattern in religious life. What will it take to call ourselves back to the essentials?

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

Back to Shore, photo by eqqman

Photo by eqqman.

Imagine for a moment that you have climbed a very high mountain. You are finally at the top. Looking back, you can see the road behind you: You can see back through time all the way to 2000 BCE—the time of Abraham the patriarch. And if we look closely, one of the most vivid patterns we find is that of religions coming into being to contribute to healing—the healing of people, of communities, and of the planet. They are like a glass that holds water: The water is spirituality—that sensibility that bears within it oneness, unconditional love, and compassion. All of these things contribute to healing. Religions, then, are institutions and conveyances for healing substance.

Then why does religion seem to play such a major role in violence?

The pattern that I’m suggesting we recognize looks like this: A religion is formed, but soon the substance starts to leak out. Sometimes we end up with hollow shells—institutions totally emptied of substance. We end up taking care of the glass, and not noticing that the water has evaporated. Becoming aligned with institutions bent on violence instead of healing represents an evaporation of purpose.

Here are some examples of that drift away from our traditions—and one of the most powerful examples may surprise you. The story of the Exodus from Egypt by the Hebrew slaves is one of the great archetypes from this pattern. A famine struck Canaan, where the Hebrew people had been living, and because Egypt was a promised land—there was food in Egypt—the Hebrews migrated there. But over time, Egypt became a place of imprisonment for Hebrew slaves. In the story of their escape, the Exodus, we see the people trying to return to their vocation. Their vocation—their calling—was to be people chosen for the way of what became known as Torah, or teaching. The teachings of Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) became the light for the road ahead. On their journey away from Egypt, the people learned that being recalled to the substance of their tradition had the potential to provide healing.

The tendency to drift will continue, but we can get better at calling ourselves back.

In drifting from purpose, it is possible to get stuck in a place far from home.

Between 1011 and 931 BCE, we find the great king David, struggling to be faithful to his calling as a child of God. His son Solomon, often spoken of as a person of great wisdom, was also the richest person in the known world. Much of his wealth came on the backs of slaves, and in spite of the heroic stature attributed to Solomon, this seems a drifting from purpose.

Some two hundred years after that, both the prophet Amos and the prophet Micah spoke of the emptiness of the practice of sacrifice; it had become an empty institution. Amos and Micah urged people to return to the substance of religion: oneness, love and compassion.

When the people of Judah were taken into exile to Babylon, the return to Jerusalem some 50 years later felt like a return to substance. Upon their return, the priest Ezra read from Torah, and the people—so moved were they to hear those substantive words—fell to tears (Nehemiah 8:9b).

Jesus, too, understood his ministry as a recalling to substance. And after the crucifixion, the third “appearance” to the disciples took place by a lake in the early morning mists. The disciples had gone fishing, returned to the familiar, and drifted. Standing on the shore, Jesus called them back to their ministry.

Called Back to the Essentials Remembering community, compassion, love, and service.

Finally, the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, observed Christians and Jews in pre-Islamic Arabia as having drifted from their own traditions. When he received the revelations that became the Qur’an, he understood them to be guidance for returning to substance.

Patterns. Why has this happened? This is a good place for conversation, and it's our sense that part of the reason why institutions like religion drift from substance is due to leadership from a faulty masculine consciousness—a consciousness that, at its core, has a great fear of being weak. This fear can cause us to concentrate on the more visible and tangible means of security and protection. While this has been mostly true of men, women can also step into that place.

We believe that religious and moral leadership must combine a masculine and feminine consciousness in order to remain faithful to substance. Doubtless, the tendency to drift will continue. But through raising our awareness of this pattern, we can get better at calling ourselves back.


Don Mackenzie bio picPastor Don Mackenzie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. He retired in June of 2008 as Minister and Head of Staff of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.

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