Ten thousand people are gathered under one roof. Some are barefoot, others in sandals, others in tennis shoes or heels. Heads are covered by scarves, wrapped in turbans, shaved smooth, or natural hair flows free. Some are wrapped in shawls, others are wearing jeans, and still others are draped in simple robes. Many languages are spoken, many accents of many languages, many tones of many accents of many languages.
Can you imagine it?
This was the scene for several days at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto over a crisp autumn week in November 2018. Hundreds of different religious groups gathered together not only to build relationships and understanding, but also to create interfaith dialogue around some of the world’s most heart-wrenching problems. And so, together, regardless of religion, we will work on these issues, crossing boundaries that have yet to be explored. This experience has given me great hope that many religions can come together as one to transform the world, and it has drastically altered my definition of what it means to be part of a religion.
Throughout the conference, there were many opportunities to share in a tradition or experience different from my own; from meditation to music, walking and stillness, the spiritual components of these religions were tangible throughout the entire conference center. By far, the Langar meal, hosted by the Sikh community, was one of my absolute favorite practices. When we entered the hall, we were asked to remove our shoes and to cover our heads. We were seated on the floor in rows facing each other, that we might lift our heads and see the face of humanity before us. Silver pails of delicious vegetarian and vegan food were carried down the line, and we held our trays up to receive from a common source. We were sustained by prayerfully prepared meals, and we could easily feel the spiritual oneness sweep over the room.
It seems that there is a current running through American society that one can claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” and following my experience at the Parliament of World Religions, I have to ask if the two can be separated? Are the people I encountered spiritual or are they religious? Can I be religious without being spiritual? Can I be spiritual without being religious? The overall beauty of the Parliament affirmed that the two are one in the same, but upon further reflection, I believe I need to refine my definitions of religion and spirituality as well as their intersection into what I understand as holistic being.
Because of the depth of common dialogue among and within the faiths we encountered, I’ve come to realize that spirituality is intrinsic to daily life, that which is essential to life and well-being of an individual and community. I would argue that this form of spirituality is, in fact, the most pure form of religion, that which has not been carried away in corrupt systems. It is here that I offer another option to “spiritual but not religious”: holistic being. In this sense, holistic being is spirituality (a common seeking for truth in community) that is free from structural, human-made constraints to limit the power of the Divine among humanity, but still contains organization that arises organically, one that is held together in love, above all else.
The experiences I shared with ten thousand others at the Parliament of World Religions tells me that such holistic being is possible. The removal of shoes and the covering of heads are practices within particular religions, but the reasons for such behavior are firstly predicated by love – love of humanity, of the Divine, of creation. Through such love, a practice became spiritually infused, and in that moment, I experienced holistic being. With this new beautiful vantage point, how do I identify?
One of my favorite moments of recognizing this holistic being brings me back to October 2015 when I attended my first Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah. In a spontaneous rush of adrenaline, myself and a friend that I had met at the conference decided to road trip back instead of following our intended plans. I rebooked my flight to leave from Cleveland five days later than scheduled, and he and I rented a car to drive from Salt Lake City to Cleveland. He is a physicist and, at the time identified as an atheist. As we dialogued for 30+ hours on the road, we realized that our core values and beliefs were so much closer to oneness than we could have ever imagined. For him, his concept of existence began to resonate so loudly within me that it shook the religious structures to which I had once clung. I watched the pillars of indoctrinated belief crack, dust falling from the crevices. If God is everywhere and within all creation, then why should the institutional Church create channels through which humanity can commune with God? How is it that sacred texts have been idolized as the end-all-be-all and defined by human minds in religious structures? And an even deeper and more timely question, why has doctrine and man-made church law been translated into laws by which God works?
My friend further explained his physics-centered worldview that all things are held together through invisible forces, which is defined to be gravity. But that invisible force, for me, is love. And it was here that I realized religion cannot contain all that I feel for the Divine; it is too limiting, and God is not defined in human language. If God is the I AM, then God simply exists, and there is a divine infusion in everything we can see, feel, touch, and sense. And if love is that which holds all things together, then count me in. I can sense this ambient love as energy, vibrating in all, through all, among all. It was through this experience that I began to understand how my religiosity has been transformed into spirituality, and hopefully will fall into the sweet spot of holistic being. It’s no longer the institution to which I hold, but instead it’s the Divine breathed into everyday life, ushered in with love in community.
Three years later, my friend and I met for breakfast in Toronto, and over the table, we caught up on our lives, in all that had changed, and in all that had stayed the same. He’s currently roadtripping out to the West Coast to begin his PhD program in physics, and I’m diving deeper into my own spirituality by pursuing ordination and exploring theological food systems. Our common meal has held us together, just as gravity and love holds all of us together in everlasting community, in intertwined realities that say: