The One and the Many

Perennial Tradition

The One and the Many
Sunday, July 29, 2018

The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. —Simone Weil [1]

Much of our life we are trying to connect the dots, to pierce the heart of reality to see what is good, true, and beautiful for us. We want something lasting and transcendent.

How we search, however, will determine what we find or even want to find. I suggest that we should be searching primarily in the universal and wise depths of recurring symbols, metaphors, and sacred stories, which is where humans can find deep and lasting meaning—or personal truth. That is what we mean by the Perennial Tradition and why George Bernard Shaw wrote, “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” [2] The best religious metaphors assert not just a truth held by one religion, but a universal truth.

Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery. The underlying messages that different religions and denominations use are often in strong agreement, but they use different metaphors to communicate their own experience of union with God. Jesus says, for example, “There are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well. They too listen to my voice” (John 10:16a). He is quite obviously talking metaphorically by calling people sheep. He is also saying that sometimes the outsider of the “flock” hears as well as the insider. Furthermore, he says that he cares about and respects the “other sheep,” which means that we should too. These are crucial points, and those who refuse to mine the metaphors will miss them.

Jesus’ intention here that there be “only one flock” (John 10:16b), and his later prayer “that all may be one” (John 17:21-23), can be achieved only by overcoming all otherness—so Jesus speaks of the “other sheep.” The goal is never to overcome all differences, since God clearly created us different in limitless ways. Differences are not the same as otherness, or at least they need not be. Through clever metaphors such as sheep and flocks, unity and yet differentiation, Jesus resolves what is sometimes called “the first philosophical problem” of the one and the many. How does one reconcile diversity with any underlying unity? To do this, Jesus, himself, uses many metaphors, so it is difficult to say that even he has only one and completely consistent image of God—beyond love itself!

We must never be too tied to our own metaphors as the only possible way to speak the truth. Rather, we must approach all metaphors and symbols humbly and respectfully, keeping all the inner spaces of mind, heart, and body open at the same time. I would call such respectful and non-egocentric attention “prayer.”

References:
[1] Simone Weil, “Love of the Order of the World,” Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (G. P. Putnam’s Sons: 1951), 164-165.

[2] George Bernard Shaw, Preface (1898) to Plays Pleasant (Penguin Classics: 2003), 8.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 67-71.

Image credit: Broken Obelisk (detail), by Barnett Newman. A permanent installation in the reflecting pool on the grounds of the Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas, United States.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Awakening the essential Self is one reason that the Center for Action and Contemplation is dedicated to reinvigorating the teaching of Christian contemplation. The consistent practice of contemplation helps to uncover our essential Self, our connected Self, our True Self. —Richard Rohr

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