On this Ascension Day (May 9 this year), it so happened that I found myself spending an hour at a local private school as part of an interfaith panel. It was my task to represent the Christian tradition (which, as I explained to the students, is an impossibility given the breadth and complexity of that tradition). I was joined by a rabbi and a Buddhist priest. It is a forum I have participated in before, and the young people (all high school freshmen) have wonderful questions – far more than we could possibly answer in the time provided us.
As the three of us spoke and answered some of their questions, it became quite clear to me how much the three of us — Jew, Christian, and Buddhist — really do have in common. And how we were able to acknowledge that to the students. As the Buddhist priest talked about her meditation practice and why she finds it valuable, for example, she was careful to explain that Buddhism wasn’t the only religious tradition that valued meditation — that it was possible to find a meditative tradition in all the world’s great religions. After I had told the students that I thought a common misconception of Christianity was that it was more about belief than practice, and that I thought it really should be seen as a way of life rather than a set of doctrines, the rabbi was able to say that he felt the same way about Judaism. The three of us represented different traditions, but we were remarkably on the same page with respect to how our religious orientation impacts our lives and the lives of the people we know and serve.
I found it refreshing to occupy a space in which religions were not placed in opposition to each other, and I was pleased to be able to be in that space with these young people. It reminded me about how so much of our public religious conversation is rancorous, how often those appointed to speak for religion in the media do not make an effort to bring out the shared qualities of our traditions, and often, work hard to exacerbate the differences.
There has perhaps been no other time in human history when we are so in need of a raised or ascended consciousness with respect to religion and spirituality. To the degree that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have a negative public image, it is in large part due to the way in which so many people make religion divisive. An ascended consciousness would focus not on our differences but on the very real ways in which the various religious traditions function in similar ways to root people in a sense of sacred connection and open up possibilities of inner transformation that are not only good for individuals, but good for the communities those individuals inhabit.
Traditionally, Ascension Day commemorates the end of the post-Ressurection appearances of Jesus to his followers by telling the story of his ascent, bodily, into heaven (technically, the story does not say he ascends into heaven — it actually says that he rose up off the ground and entered into a cloud, so that he could no longer be seen). But I think the story is meant to have a more profound meaning than that. For me, the Ascension represents the end of a “local” Christ and the beginning of a cosmic Christ. The Ascension marks that last time that anyone saw the Risen Christ appearing in anything like a human form. Ever since, the spirit and consciousness of Christ has been available through prayer, sacraments, and other spiritual practices that do not depend on one being at a particular place at a particular time. In other words, the Ascension means that Christ becomes available to all.
My participation in today’s interfaith conversation reminded me that the Spirit that I experience in Christ is the Spirit of a God who has made God’s self known under many different names, in the context of many different traditions. For me, this particular Ascension Day is a day for remembering that God is available to all, not just to the Christians. If more of us could live in that ascended consciousness, we might be able to do much more to help the religious traditions to be seen for the powerful, transformative paths that they are.