The influential philosopher and theologian of the twentieth century Paul Tillich once expressed what he thought was the essence of religion:
Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.
So he thought that religion, and more directly spirituality itself, is what we are ultimately concerned about, that which holds the very meaning of our human lives. The problem that many people encounter is that each of the religions of the world seem to have a different ultimate concern. They each express their doctrines, practices, rituals, scriptures, approaches, and ideas in many different ways, and on first glance they do not appear to have much commonality.
This seems like a tragic problem. If each of the religions reaches toward a different ultimate concern, then how could there be an ultimate concern at all? It seems either they are all wrong, or only one of them is right. If it is truly “ultimate,” then that doesn’t seem to leave room for any other different “ultimate.” An ultimate is ultimate because there is no other; it is the peak, the final, the zenith, the culmination, the supreme, the topmost. Certainly there couldn’t be many different ultimate meanings of human life, could there?
The unfortunate fallout of this throughout history is that the religions have often gone to war with each other to fight over which of them is right, and to convert all others to their way of thinking, to their ultimate concern. And even today we see many instances where differences in religious thinking, sectarian divisions, lead to wars, violence, contentions, disagreements, feuds, boundaries, and separation among humans.
It seems that if there is to be peace in the world then finding some commonality among our spiritual traditions as well as our science, some common ground, some similarity in our approaches to this ultimate reality may be key, otherwise we might continue to fight, disagree, and we will continue to run in different directions. How could we live in harmony with each other if what we consider of ultimate importance is so different from one another. We will always be looking and moving in different directions, pursuing different ultimate ends.
As Wayne Teasdale observed at the turn of the millennium, never again will the religions of the world be isolated from each other. Globalization, transportation, technology, and digital communication have done away with the isolation that afforded groups space to live without contact with others, and so it is becoming increasingly important to see how we can live in a common global community in this third millennium, and it seems that finding commonality in our spirituality is a major piece of that puzzle. So is there a common ultimate concern to all humanity? And how would we know it?
Where Do our Ideas of an “Ultimate” Come From?
I perceive that all of the major religious and spiritual traditions of the world have emerged from original mystical experiences of God or Ultimate Reality, and that ultimate is One. Other thinkers such as David Steindl-Rast have likewise said,
The religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion.
If they all begin from a mystical experience of the Ultimate, then it seems that the closer people are to that mystical Source, the closer will be their perspectives and interpretations of it. I think this is illustrated well by this simple graphic:
The further the religions are from that original mystical insight, the more differentiated and divergent they may become. The closer to the experience they are, the more similarities, convergence, and consonance appears. So if we are to find what may be common in the religious traditions of the world, where there is commonality and overlap in their perspectives, it seems that it may be in their mystical traditions, in their deepest contemplative practitioners, those “schools” which are closest to the experience of God or Ultimate Reality.
Here we may find more commonality in humanity’s approaches to an Ultimate, perhaps even a perennial wisdom hidden within all of the religious traditions of humanity, or which is their common ground, which can also serve as a template for peace and understanding one another more fully. For if we consider that others may not be worshiping a different “God,” but the same “God” by a different name, it makes things much different. In other words, each of the religions of the world may be a different lens or perspective on what they have experienced directly as “ultimate,” as the colors of the rainbow are all different expressions of the same white light.
The Snowmass Conferences
This seems to be partly what Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Keating wanted to discover in 1984. He invited a small group of contemplatives, deep practitioners or mystics, from many of the world’s traditions to gather together to dialogue in what became known as the Snowmass Conferences at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado (as shown in the photo at the top of the article). The participants in these dialogues represented eight different major religions from around the world:
- Native Americans
- Russian Orthodoxy
- Roman Catholicism
After several years of these meetings, discussions, group prayer and meditation, certain agreements seemed to naturally arise among them regarding their spiritual experiences. Keating first compiled a list, and then brought it to the others to edit and revise as a group, and the result is what is known as the Snowmass Conference Eight Points of Agreement, as recorded in Keatings’ book The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue.
I feel that this is a remarkable and beautiful list of common thoughts among modern mystics in the various major religious traditions of the world that many people may not be aware of. I was not aware of it until Richard Rohr shared it in his daily meditation a few weeks ago, quoting the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro in his book The World Wisdom Bible: A New Testament for a Global Spirituality. As Shapiro notes, the agreements that emerged in these conversations were based on these mystics’ personal experiences, and may go beyond the exoteric forms or texts of their respective religious traditions:
We include them here as a way of sharing a contemporary expression of perennial wisdom arising not from ancient texts but from the lived experience of contemporary mystics—women and men who, while coming from specific traditions, dare to step beyond them to see what is on its own terms.
As with any list of perennial wisdom, and particularly dealing with mystical expressions of a metaphysical Absolute, these are not in any way final articulations of the Ultimate. No language can contain or describe that in any definitive way. They are more like hints, intimations, suggestions, considerations, metaphors, possibilities of what the experience of the Ultimate may be “like,” and how that Ultimate may find common expression among the world’s spiritual traditions.
It seems that if we are to find peace in the world of religious thought and spirituality that something like these expressions may be a good place to start to find that common ground. This may be an example what Steve Taylor has called a “perennial experience,” or “perennial phenomenology,” the commonalities which seem to exist across the world of mystical experience.
Philosopher-mystic Ken Wilber expresses in his foreword to The Common Heart:
…every now and then you find profound points of agreement among all of [the religions]. And any time you find something that all of the world’s religions agree on, you may want to pay very, very close attention, yes?
So let’s pay close attention to them, and reflect. I will list each of the eight points of agreement, and then add some commentary after each one, some ideas that I have about each from my own personal experience and study:
1. The world religions bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality, to which they give various names.
Firstly, the world’s religions attest to the experience of an “Ultimate Reality,” that it is, that we can experience it, and that the adherents of the various religions of the world do experience it. This is not just a phantom of the theoretical or speculative or philosophical mind, but many mystics, saints, monks, gurus, swamis, sages, and other contemplatives throughout the history of the world have actually experienced this Ultimate Reality. They have witnessed it personally, directly, intimately, first-hand, immediately. They have participated in it, they’ve seen it, they have known it. They testify of it.
Notably, this does not seem to be many different ultimate realities, but the same Ultimate Reality (singular). It is one (or One). They are experiencing something which is truly ultimate, without a second that is of equal ultimacy. It is absolute. It is the highest. It is at the top of the hierarchy of being, or the foundation of the ground of being, whichever way we look at it. It is the greatest reality that there is. There is nothing higher, or greater, or more absolute than it. It perhaps encompasses all other realities within it. Those who experience the Ultimate are experiencing the same Reality.
And they subsequently give and have given many different names for this Ultimate Reality. Some call it “God,” others call it Brahman, or Dharmakaya, Ein Sof, Allah, Godhead, Tao, Father, Elohim, Jehovah (YHWH), One, Great Spirit, Absolute, the Real, Love, or even the unnamed. There are many different labels, names, words, identifiers, or language that the world’s religions have used to refer to it. The usage of a particular word doesn’t mean that it is pointing at a unique Ultimate Reality different than the other words (as I noted recently on a Facebook post). It is just the way that particular culture has chosen to point to that Ultimate Reality in their language and religion; it is a symbol that refers to it, that is a reference to it.
2. Ultimate Reality cannot be limited by any name or concept.
None of the names or labels that are given for this Ultimate Reality limit it in any way. As I noted above, none of the names specify a particular Ultimate Reality. They don’t confine it, or contain it. They don’t even define it. The word is not the thing. The word is a pointer, nothing more. It is a reference to something beyond itself. It is not that Ultimate Reality itself. The names we give to it are just the many ways we have come to identify it with our tongues and pens.
And neither can any concept limit this Ultimate Reality either. The thoughts that we form in our minds are ways that the human mind tries to grasp it, to say what it is, to put it in some kind of box and then say “that there is what it is.” But none of these concepts can actually box it. None of them contain it. None of them limit it. It always goes beyond them. All of them. The map is never the territory. The menu is not the meal. The thing is far more than any words we may say about it. None of our concepts, ideas, thoughts, doctrines, symbols, dogmas ever fully expresses it, or even comes close. It’s impossible for them to do so. It far transcends them all.
3. Ultimate Reality is the ground of infinite potentiality and actualization.
This Ultimate Reality is the starting place, the foundation, the ground, the origin, the source, the fundamental, the essence, the beginning of all things that are. All potentials arise from this ground, and become realities out of it. Potentiality and actuality are ideas that go back to Aristotle.
What is a “potentiality”? It’s been defined as “the possibility of something happening.” If something has potential, then it is something that may happen, it may become a reality. It is a possibility, and the possibility starts in this Ultimate Reality. There is no end to what may be possible, which is perhaps why it is “infinite.”
What is “actualization”? It is what becomes a reality, the fulfillment of a possibility, the realization of that possibility. It is the energy that brings that potential to be real. It is what is, what is currently happening. And there may be no end to what potentially may be realized, which is why it is also “infinite.” All things that become in a sense “real” emerge from out of this Ultimate Reality, from the potential that began within it, and still remain within it, as expressions of it.
In other words, all things that ever were, are, or are to come, have their common origin in this Ultimate Reality. They begin as a possibility there, and emerge as an actualized reality.
4. Faith is opening, accepting, and responding to Ultimate Reality. Faith in this sense precedes every belief system.
Faith, that most basic activity of the religious or spiritual person, or perhaps even every common person, is the way that we humans open ourselves to the Ultimate Reality. We open our minds and hearts to it. We open our psyches to it. We open our lives to it. We open what we are to it, because it must in some sense be the foundation of what we all are as beings in this reality. We open our deepest inner capacities to it, even our minds and consciousness to it. We don’t resist it, or pretend it isn’t there, but we recognize it as the source of all that is, including ourselves.
Faith is accepting this Ultimate Reality. If it really is the ground of our being, the source of our own reality, rejecting it would seem to be foolish. It would be acting in a way that is counter to our own reality in it. It would be self-contradictory, self-defeating, self-deprecating in a negative way. Such resistance and rejection might only lead to pain and suffering, denying a reality that is, and that we are ourselves. We embrace the reality that is.
Faith is responding to this Ultimate Reality. If we are embedded in this Ultimate Reality, then that means we are part of the potentiality and actualization of it. We are conduits through which the Ultimate Reality may flow, act, become, create, emerge, love. We are one of the means through which Ultimate Reality is in the world, is present here, is acting here, is being here. And we try to become intuitively aware of that action, that flow, that emergence, and how we may participate in it, being how it may flourish, thrive, and grow to greater heights of being.
Faith perhaps precedes every belief system because it flows directly out of the Ultimate Reality itself, as a part of that reality. It is not something that is believed in a conceptual way, but rather something which is, and a posture we take because we also are. It seems to be the natural condition and response of what is to itself, of being to being.
5. The potential for human wholeness—or, in other frames of reference, enlightenment, salvation, transcendence, transformation, blessedness—is present in every human being.
There is in the human condition and human psyche a sense that something is broken, not right, incomplete, unsatisfactory, fallen, in opposition to reality, an alienation, a rift, a problem, a sin. We are always seeking to mend this rift, to be satisfied, to be made whole, complete, fulfilled. But we rarely seem to find it. For when we seem to become satisfied, it is fleeting, temporary, and goes away, and then we begin looking for it again. We are always grasping, yearning, seeking, looking for that which will make us whole again, which will reconcile ourselves to reality, which will bring enduring satisfaction, happiness, joy, and peace.
The mystics of the world’s religions seem to agree that the potential for this wholeness is present in every human being. It is something naturally existent within us even now, and in every moment. It is perhaps something that lay dormant, unrecognized, forgotten, unrealized, unconscious, undetected, unactualized, unknown within the human condition itself. It is within us, in our very nature. It may be part of that potentiality that is in the Ultimate Reality itself, waiting for actualization, to be brought into the fullness of reality, brought into the light, to be made conscious.
This “wholeness” itself may be called by different terms, such as enlightenment, salvation, transcendence, transformation, blessedness, nirvana, awakening, resurrection, etc., but it may be the very same wholeness, or referring to different aspects of that wholeness experience or consciousness. And this wholeness is within the grasp of every human being, being something that is inherently within each one of us, something which we may each find as a part of our own being in Ultimate Reality.
6. Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service to others.
The experience of Ultimate Reality is not confined only to the religious exercises or practices of the various traditions, but may be experienced in other contexts as well, such as in nature, art, human relationships, and service to others.
Nature is often a catalyst for experiences of Ultimate Reality. There is something about being out in nature that allows consciousness to open to this. Perhaps it is because it touches something deeply within us, that connects to the nature that is in us too, that finds resonance with the deepest parts of our own natural being. Perhaps this helps us open to it, and participate in it.
Art is another way that many have experienced the Ultimate Reality, and have tried to express it as well. And there are many different forms of art, including literature, painting, dance, music, drama, sculpture, drawing, making, building, inventing, designing, architecture, photography, etc. These are all ways that we humans have found to not only experience Ultimate Reality directly, but also to express it through our being, through our participation in the Ultimate Reality, to bring potentiality to actualization.
Human relationships are ways that we may see this Ultimate Reality in the “other,” and connect to that Ultimate Reality there. We may establish bonds of friendship, of community, of romantic, familial, and sexual relationships, of work relationships, business relationships, and many other types of relationships with people, and serve them or even other forms of life, animal or otherwise. Through loving service we may feel a connection to that Ultimate Reality that we all share, and may even become more fully aware of it.
7. As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it is subject to ignorance and illusion, weakness and suffering.
I discussed this a bit under #4 above. If Ultimate Reality contains within it all that is, and is the ground of being, then that includes ourselves. And part of the rift or brokenness as noted in #5 may be because we feel or think that we are separate from this Ultimate Reality. We feel like we are an “other,” or that this Ultimate Reality is an “other” from us. It is something that we are not. There is a division between our sense of “self” and this Ultimate Reality.
As long as this sense of division or separation is maintained, we may continue to feel broken, apart, alienated, dissatisfied with our condition in the world. Our psyche will feel incomplete, unfulfilled, and at odds with what is going on in reality. We will feel sinful, fallen, and feel in need of saving and liberation. We will feel the need to be redeemed from our suffering, our pain, our ignorance.
The sense of separation may itself be an illusion, a kind of delusion of the mind, as Einstein expressed so well. We think we are apart from reality, separated from the whole of the world and cosmos, but if we think about this for very long we may quickly see that this can’t be right. We are not separate from the world, but emergent creations of it. We have come out of the world as leaves on a tree. All of the elements that make up our bodies have come from the world that surrounds us, and the energy that animates them comes from the sun, or the energy deep in the Earth.
When we being to see this way, we can see that we are not separate from all things, but are expressions of the Ultimate Reality, manifestations of that whole, and this empowers us to act and do in ways that may seem to transcend our individuality. We see our weaknesses and sufferings in a much bigger picture, in a much larger perspective, and we realize that they may be necessary components of the reality of our human lives, but are not something that determines the worth of our lives or our eternal identity. We see that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.
8. Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment is not the result of one’s own efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness with Ultimate Reality.
If one wants to know what spirituality is all about, if one wants to be a “spiritual” person, if one wants to know the greatest spiritual insights and truths that humans can ever come to know in life, then those are often realized through disciplined spiritual practices, also called contemplative practices. We can read many books about spiritual topics, even holy texts like scriptures, and go to many teachers to hear their teachings, but none of these things can substitute for direct spiritual practice in our lives. Those are all things that come from outside ourselves. But the deepest and truest spiritual insights come from awakening awareness of our own deepest being in Ultimate Reality, which comes from an awareness inside of us, not from outside of us.
What are contemplative practices? These are usually a form of deep prayer or meditation that one establishes a practice of doing every day, usually recommended for an hour or two. Why are they effective? Because they help us to go beyond the habitual, dualistic, repetitive, distracted, ruminating, busy, self-absorbed, depressed, anxious, worried mind, the mind is full of thoughts about the past or future, and is rarely present to life right now. These thoughts form the ego, or the psychological self, which acts as a kind of veil over the deepest nature of our being, and who we really are in Ultimate Reality in the present moment, the Present now of Life, also known as the “true Self,” the Christ Self, the Buddha nature, the Atman, etc.
As noted in the point of agreement, the realization of this true divine Self is paradoxically not the result of our own efforts, even if we are dedicated practitioners of our practice, disciplined in meditation or our preferred form of prayer. We may think we are doing something (performing works), but it is actually more a form of undoing, stripping away, letting go, surrendering our self to the present moment. In the attainment itself it is realized that it was wholly given to us (Grace). We realize a oneness with Ultimate Reality which actually was always there, but we were unaware of it, unconscious of it, we had forgotten it, it was veiled from our consciousness. The various religions of the world call this by many different names too, such as atonement (or at-one-ment), nonduality, union, or simply experiencing the One, and it is what every spiritual seeker seems to want to experience and then live from.
So these are the eight points that mystics from eight of the world’s major religions and spiritual traditions came to agree on is somewhat shared in their spiritual experience of that Ultimate Reality. Is it definitive? No. Is it absolute? No. Is it final? No. But it is something, a starting place, a possibility, a conversation starter, a suggestion of what that Ultimate Reality may be like, viewed through a common language.
The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart famously wrote,
Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.
These eight points are perhaps reflective of that “same language” that the mystics speak, those who are spiritually closest to that deepest of spiritual metaphysical Reality, expressing commonality about their experiences in it.
Undoubtedly, each of the religions will all have their unique interpretations of these points, they will express them in different terms, they will develop them in different ways, they will go far beyond them, they will regard them differently, and officially they may not even agree with them. But Thomas Keating and the contemplatives that came together in those Snowmass meetings in the 80s produced a very insightful document that they thought reflected the character of their deepest spiritual intuitions about humanity’s ultimate concern. It is something that may be very helpful to consider in our interspiritual and interfaith dialogues, helping us to realize a common heart within all of humanity.
What do you think about these eight points of agreement? Do you think they are good, insightful, wrong, insufficient, problematic? Do you think they might help us find common spiritual ground in the world? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.