8 March 2002

Sweet Home Chicago

Well, it’s Evanston, to be precise, but it’s home and Robert Johnson never wrote about Evanston. Uneventful travel, except I’m exhausted and a couple of days behind.

My talk in St. Louis went very well. I was acquainted with a number of people from the Church of St. Michael and St. George from when I preached there last year at the Easter Vigil, and from when I preached at Church of the Atonement, Fish Creek, Wisconsin last summer (at the invitation of Jean Pennington and her daughter Tracy, from CSMSG). What’s more, my uncle-in-law Roy Pennington (no relation to Jean) came over from Kirkwood, and Alyssa Cornell (who was a friend of Margaret’s back in school days) is a member of the congregation—so in all, it felt surprisingly like home away from home.

The talk itself went well, so far as I can tell. People seemed to be listening well, the questions were good, and Phoebe Pettingill (Communications Director) said they received some positive phone calls the next morning.

But it’s good to get back home, to be with Margaret and Pippa again, to receive reports from Si and Nate, and to confront the backlog of mail, teaching, and administrative tasks. Come to think of it, maybe I should just have brought Margaret and Pip down to St. Louis.


A lot of talking about faith and spirituality online this week, and of course I welcome that. The topic presents tremendous challenges, since it seems to represent one of the top two or three most heartfelt topics for the people who write about it. If I (or anyone) were to question an online compadre about her or his spirituality, we would risk giving the impression of passing judgment on that correspondent’s whole identity.

That being the case, I wonder whether my online friends would suggest that one cannot wrong about spirituality, or whether some things are quite out. The Taliban gets lots of bad press, but they clearly represent a vigorous, popular spiritual ideology; can we say that Wahhabi Muslims are spiritually wrong? On my limited understanding of Wahhabi Islam—the prevalent form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and the basis for the Taliban’s and Osama’s theology—adherents are at least nominally committed to the elimination of other forms of Islam, but few Muslims seem inclined to act on that premise. On what basis would we assess the legitimacy of Wahhabism, or (to choose an even less ambiguous phenomenon) the People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate groups? If all paths are one, or all lead to the same goal, do these count as “all-one” paths?

Many people operate with an intuitive criterion of “all faiths that I see as more-or-less benign” counting as legitimate, while faiths or ideologies that explicitly, deliberately aim at destruction or oppression don’t count as “faiths” or as “pointing toward the One goal.” But I’m curious about whether we can give a more robust criterion for accounting for which count as benign and which don’t. If we can, it would help everyone, I think, to find out about it. If not, isn’t our talk about “all one” or “all the same” or “different paths, same goal” conceptually confused to a dangerous degree, inasmuch as such rhetoric allows us to claim that we are talking about “all” paths without accounting for the ones we may be excluding?

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