American Unitarian Conference

Promoting Monotheism in the American Unitarian Tradition

Back to the American Unitarian page

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Walter J. Geldart, M.Div., M.Eng.

 

The Question

The question "Who is my neighbor?" is at the heart of all authentic religious traditions. In the wake of the September 11 attack on United States by international terrorists, the question and answer today is just as important as it was almost two thousand years ago when it was given by Jesus. The wrong answer set the stage for intolerance that can snowball into violence against those who fall outside the boundary lines of group, neighborhood, city, state, nation and our common world - through which we are linked by international travel, trade, and communications. The right answer is found in the spirit of love towards God and our neighbors as ourself. This can be found in authentic interpretations of Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy scriptures that share a common historical origin in the Middle East - through the tradition of Abraham. The right answer can also be found farther east in the ancient Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religious traditions.

We can do no better than follow the timeless teachings of Jesus. But traditionally, Christians have considered the teachings from other religious traditions to be inferior, and vice-versa. Only this year, the Roman Catholic church announced the respectful theological position that "the Jews do not wait in vain for a Messiah". In this day and age it is necessary to have respect for wisdom in the great world religions because our interfaith neighbors in American communities come from several religious traditions with their own truths and values and how they practice them. It is harder today than 100 years ago to be an authentic member of your faith community and truly follow the commandments of scripture - because loyalty to your own group is in a tension with what is not known or not understood about the other group that you do not belong to. Anxiety and fear about group belonging and personal identity can isolate one neighbor from another neighbor in another faith tradition.

But the solution is neither to abandon your tradition and its language and concepts, nor to embrace an empty relativeness, and follow popular fads and opinions. The American community of neighbors can be a model for interfaith dialog because our democratic constitutional form of government guarantees religious freedom for all its peoples. It is necessary for people who talk God talk, to walk the walk with their neighbors that their Scriptures prescribe. But religious conversations are more difficult than philosophical or scientific conversations. The American philosopher Mortimer Adler tells why this is so.

Religious truth is that which is revealed to a community of faith who carry the revelation forward in history. Scientific truth and the scientific method is based on observations from experiments to find underlying natural laws. In principle, a law of physics is disproven if any observations can be found that cannot be logically accounted for by current theory. Philosophical truth and its dialectical method involves armchair thinking about things that may be real physically, or about ideas that may be logical consistent concepts but cannot be represented as physical entities.

Religious truth cannot and does not use the scientific method because a revelation is a one time event, while scientific truth requires events to occur over and over again and in the same predictable way. The religious method is based on faith and trust - in a shared belief held by the community. The philosophical method supports science. Philosophy also supports religion through theology (faith seeking understanding). But there are limits to what can be known by rational means of the limited mind alone as British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell found to his dismay. He tried to do the impossible and establish a purely axiomatic and complete theory of math. After his book was written, he found that Godel had proven his attempt wrong. The important result for the 20th and 21st century rationalists is that a system of thought cannot be critiqued from within itself. This is not just a case of shooting the messenger - but of not seeing the truth that a messenger or prophet can see. The independent critic must step outside the box of assumptions. The Jewish tradition is renowned for its prophets who stood as critics without authorization from the ruling institutions of power and privilege - and its official language of allowable ways to speak the truth.

Now let us consider the teachings of Jesus - Jesus, a messenger, a prophet - fully human and yet fully divine in the Christian understanding of his nature - as he answered the timely questions What is the Greatest Commandment? and Who Is My Neighbor?

The Answer to - What is the Greatest Commandment?"

In the Gospel of Matthew and Mark we find establishment scribes questioning Jesus about what is the Greatest Commandment.

"When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Matthew 22: 34-40

Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples again to make the distinction between talking the talk and walking the walk:

"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do for they do not practice what they teach." Matthew 23: 1-4

In the Gospel of Mark, we find a scribe asking the same question:
"Which commandment is the first of all? Jesus answered: "The first is, hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."

Then the scribe said to him, "You are right Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and besides him there is no other; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself - this is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, you are not far from the Kingdom of God. After that no one dared to ask of any question." Mark 12: 28-34

The Answer to - Who is Your Neighbor?

In the Gospel of Luke we find a similar question being posed by a lawyer, who questions Jesus further to spell out exactly who is our neighbor - in the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans were untouchables who lived on the fringes of Jewish society.

"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher, he said, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this and you will live."

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And Who Is My neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, and leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, "Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend." Which of these three do you think, was a better neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." Luke 10:25-37.

In the Gospel of John we find another encounter with an outcast Samaritan. Only this time Jesus is the person in need. Jesus tired and thirsty from a journey asks a Samaritan woman at a well for a drink of water. "So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out from his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me a woman of Samaria. Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, "Give me a drink," you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him. "Sir you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water. Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"

Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."

.... The woman said to him. "Sir I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming and is now
here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is a spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming." When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." John 4:1-16.

Interfaith Dialog

The Christian Bible includes the New Testament which contains the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and the acts of the Apostles, plus the Old Testament which contain the Hebrew Scriptures. The widely used New Revised Standard Version of the Bible contains 1009 pages of which 78 percent are Old Testament and 22 percent are New Testament.

Jews and Christians are quite familiar with each others' Scriptures - but generally unfamiliar with the Koran. The Koran contains the Holy Scriptures of Islam that were revealed to Mohammed (born 571 A.D.) by the same angel Gabriel who announced the future birth of John the Baptist to his mother Elizabeth, and Jesus to his mother Mary. It is ironic and sad these three religions who share a common religious connection from Abraham - find themselves in a state of misunderstanding and unneighborliness towards each other - and often with Eastern religions as well.

There is much opportunity for interfaith dialog in America because our democratic constitutional form of government guarantees religious freedom for all its peoples. It is necessary for people who talk God talk, to walk the walk with their neighbors that their Holy Scriptures prescribe. The American Unitarian Conference is in a good position to encourage this dialog because of their classical religious heritage.

The spirit in which interfaith dialog can proceed in mutual respect is illustrated by the modern Buddhist monk, Bhante Dharmara,* who brought the message of Buddhism from Thailand to France, Britain and the United States in the 20th century. Bhante taught meditation at Christian retreat houses to mixed audiences - and opened his 1995 meditation retreat at a Franciscan Center in Missouri with these remarks.

* From "Bhante's Blessing" - a transcription of his retreat teachings - by Walter Geldart. Mr. Geldart accompanied Bhante as his helper at the Dalai Lama's 60th birthday party in India in 1965.

"I'll tell you about how I first met a Christian priest. As a Buddhist monk, I can say that I am the best friend of the Christian. Early Christianity and Buddhism were almost one and the same, like when Christ says "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Anyway, I wanted to go to Tibet, so I walked alone. On the way I met a Christian priest. He walked alone. I said "Good Morning" to him and he replied "Good Morning." I said, "Brother are you just a visitor like myself or do you have a church here? "I have my church here; do you want to see it?" I said "Yes, I want to see it; that is why I asked." And so he took me; on the way we talked about many subjects but mostly he talked.

On the way he asked me whether I believe in Christ or not. I said, "I do, if I don't believe I wouldn't come with you." "So come then, let us pray together", he said. So I went with him and prayed with him at his church.

After praying and in the prayer too, he prayed for my soul all the time very loudly, and I was thinking "What was wrong with my soul?" After praying I said, "Brother you asked me if I believed in Christ or not, and I told you that I believed. You asked me to pray with you and I did. Now I want to ask you if you believe in the Buddha or not." And he couldn't find a word, mumbling for some time, and then said "I believe in him as a teacher but not as a savior." And do you know what I told him? I said, "Well, Brother, in that case you only have one savior, but I have two." So we ended there and I left.

Let me close with this prayer:

Let there be peace on earth, let this be the moment now,
With every step I take let this be my solemn vow,
To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally,
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me! Amen.

 


2002 American Unitarian Conference