By Karen Armstrong
In ancient India, the priests used to hold a contest called the Brahmodya to find a verbal formula that expressed the mystery of the Brahman, the ultimate reality. Each contestant would ask an enigmatic question, and his opponent answered in an equally elusive manner.
The match continued until one of the contestants was unable to respond and was reduced to silence ~ and in that moment of silence, the Brahman was present. It was only when the competitors understood that their words or concepts could never express the ultimate reality that they were able to apprehend the sacred.
The reality that we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or the sacred is transcendent. That is, it goes beyond our mundane experience. Nobody can have the last word on God. That should be the principle that underlies religious dialogue. Throughout history, Jews, Christians and Muslims have all insisted that the ideas we have about the divine can never measure up to the reality itself. The Greek Orthodox believed that every statement about the divine should have two qualities. It should be paradoxical, reminding us that the idea of God cannot fit neatly into a human system of thought; and it should be apophatic ~ it should reduce us to silence, in the same way as a great poem or piece of music. Sometimes at the end of a symphony, there is a beat of silence in the concert hall before applause starts. That is what every theological statement should do. In the modern West, we have lost sight of this apophatic vision, and imagine that our statements about God and the ultimate are accurate expressions of this transcendence, whereas in reality, they must point beyond the limitations of our human minds.
So when we are engaged in religious dialogue, we should remember that the realities we are addressing are truly transcendent. If we make our limited ideas about God absolute, we are creating an idol --a human expression of the divine that is raised to an inappropriately high level. The Qur’an calls this type of dogmatism zannah, self- indulgent guess work about matters that nobody can prove, one way or the other, but which make people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.
Worse, if we imprison ourselves in our dogmatic ideas, we are closing our minds to the divine. The Taoists used to say that it was nonsense to argue about religious truth, insisting aggressively that this could not mean that. What holds us back from an experience of God or the Sacred is our egotism. When we interject ourselves too much into our opinions, we are simply imprisoning ourselves in the ego we are supposed to transcend and making it impossible to have a truly transcendent experience.
Finally, here is a wise remark by Ibn al-Arabi, a 13th-century Muslim mystic and philosopher:
“Do not praise your own faith exclusively so that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will miss the truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omniscient, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says: Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah. Everybody praises what he knows. His God is his own creature and in praising it, he praises himself, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”