Gifts from Star Island | July 10, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake
Religion, like poetry, is not a mere idea, it is expression. The self-expression of God is in the endless variety of creation and our attitude toward the Infinite Being must also in its expression have a variety of individuality ceaseless and unending. Those sects which jealously build their boundaries with too rigid creeds excluding all spontaneous movement of the living spirit may hoard their theology but they kill religion. – Tagore
I express my gratitude to Dr. Martin Todd Allen, Dr. Carl Blake, Michael Brown, Clara Allen Dr. Karen Melander-Magoon, Courtney Brown, and Bryan Caston for their leadership during last Sunday’s powerful worship service.
Dr. Benton was in Boston as her mother transitioned from this earthly plane. I had the pleasure of meeting her mother and give thanks for her wonderful life and her birthing and nurturing our incredible Co-Minister, Dr. Kathryn L. Benton. Please let us keep the Benton family in our prayers as we send a special measure of love.
I was at Star Island, NH, leading chapel each morning for the 67th Conference of The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS), June 26-July3. The theme for this year’s conference was: “We” & “They”: Cross-Cultural Conversations on Identity. It resulted from the highly creative work and leadership of Dr. Anindita N. Balslev, founder of the Forum CCC (Cross Cultural Conversation). The Forum focuses on dialogue between science and religion, the meeting of cultures, and encounters between world-religions. One of the other coordinators of the conference was Jennifer Whitten a former student of mine at Starr King School for the Ministry and Dr. Carolyn “C.J.” Love, Vice President of Summer Conferences, Star Island.
The parsonage where I stayed had no internet connection. The main building had spotty connection. It was challenging to communicate with the outside. Yet, that spectacular island of beauty, tranquility, and cosmic caressing communicated with the depths of my soul.
On the day I left the island, July 3, I realized that there was also no television on Star Island. Apparently, I had not noted its absence. After returning to Oakland and going to bed about 1:45 AM, I awakened and while eating breakfast turned on the television. The first news item was about the mass shooting at the July Fourth parade in Highland Park, IL. That was followed by a brief statement about the murder of Jayland Walker. My body physically responded being fully awakened by such life denying brutality. While still holding Star Island in my body, it was now being violated by news difficult to believe. A recent article stated that his body was riddled ninety times with bullets fired from eight supposedly “peace officers.” I still hold this wound in my body. So, difficult it is for me to fathom such unmitigated horror.
What goes into creating a consciousness that sees another human being as less than target practice?
The rise of science certainly brought with it much controversy about its relationship to religion and basic ideas about living. In the late 1940’s the American Academy of Arts and Sciences organized a Committee on Science and Values to address topics relating the scientific world to contemporary issues, traditions, understandings, moral values, and ways of being in the world. These concerns were summarized in the statement by the academy that “we believe that . . . the survival of human society depends on the reformulation of man’s world view and ethics, by grounding them in the revelations of modern science as well as on tradition and intuition.”
An interfaith committee was formed whose work eventuated in a conference in 1954 held at Star Island on science, values, and religion.
IRAS is a multidisciplinary society of persons who seek to understand and reformulate the theory and practice of religion in the light of contemporary scientific knowledge, and to provide a forum for discussing issues relevant to that goal. The IRAS Constitution states the formal purpose as follows:
(1) to promote creative efforts leading to the formulation, in the light of contemporary knowledge, of effective doctrines and practices for human welfare;
(2) to formulate dynamic and positive relationships between the concepts developed by and the goals and hopes of humanity expressed through religion; and
(3) to state human values in such universal and valid terms that they may be understood by all peoples, whatever their cultural background or experience, in such a way as to provide a basis for worldwide cooperation.
Basically, the primary question was what is needed to fulfill these goals. One answer was clear: the need for cross cultural conversations on identity. We need to understand the multiple identities we each have such as race, gender, nationality, and faith expressions. We also need to understand the fluidity of boundaries, by transgressing the human-made boundaries that not only separate but often lead to “othering,” to creating enemies, to developing the “we they” complex.
This allows for movement beyond the tribalization of our own identities that foment others as “targets” of hostilities. Jayland Walker was a target of hostilities for the Akron police officers who callously murdered him.
Dr. Balslev states “Cross-Cultural Conversation (CCC) is not speaking among “us” about the “otherness” of others, it is not merely speaking to others who are supposed to remain silent. It is speaking with each other, while gradually learning to perceive ourselves as a part of a larger whole.”
I could not ignore being a part of the larger whole. Star Island is isolated. To reach it I boarded a flight from San Francisco to Boston, a bus from Boston to Portsmouth, NH, followed by a ferry from Portsmouth to Star Island. In the hotel in Portsmouth, I met Dr. Balslev and Swami Sarvapriyanda, Minister and spiritual leader of the Vedanta Society of New York. Dr. Balslev divides her time between living in her birth country India and her deceased husband’s country of birth, Denmark. She and I shared our love of Tagore and so much more. Swami’s love of life was contagious, his curiosity boundless. While Dr. Balslev and I decided to sit for an hour while waiting for the ferry, he decided to explore the area and delighted in the ice cream he found during the exploration. Swami had spoken at the last session of the Parliament of World Religions and encouraged me to attend the one scheduled for next year in Chicago. Religions have played major roles in dividing and conquering people in numerous ways. The World Parliament has provided important forums for conversations and respect for various religions of the world. It also stands in candidacy for even greater engagement.
The two were joined by Mahjabeen Dhala (who has spoken at Fellowship Church), Lama Losang Samten (who studied over 20 years in the Namgyal Monastery of His Holiness the Dalal Lama), Pastor Amy Butler (the first woman to serve as Senior Pastor of The Riverside Church), and Rabbi David Rosen (a member of the Advisory Committee of the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis and of the World Economic Forum’s C-100) on a Panel: Cross Cultural Conversations.
Among others attending the conference were a young scholar from Lithuania, Timofej Murasov, and the editor of Zygone: Journal of Religion and Science, the primary voice internationally for the scholarly community in science and religion, Arthur Petersen.
My role as chaplain for the entire week was greatly appreciated. Services were held at 8:30 AM and were scheduled to last about forty-five minutes. Each morning I asked for a volunteer to lead a responsive reading. They each read with sensitivity. An immense joy in terms of developing the chapel services was working bass Martin Hargrove, who has performed in Opera, Musical Theater, Recitals and Concerts throughout the US, Europe, and Canada. His amazingly rich voice and ability to speak so intimately to listeners was profound. He led you into deep reaches of your spirit and held you in sacredness. One person asked us how long he and I had worked together and was astounded when we answered that we had just met. I missed a sizable portion of the conference because I retired to the parsonage after chapel each day to massage and oxygenate the message for the following day. To attempt to provide religious insights that would cause conversation within and among us was a demanding and rewarding challenge.
As I look back on the conference, it was a gift. A gift that articulates a grand way forward as we look to change how we love each other. We shall continue to have mass killings. People will continue to be seen and acted upon as objects to be destroyed unless we implement the infrastructure necessary to move beyond “we they” categories. Dr. King explicitly stated that one of the realities that causes so many problems is that we do not know each other, and we do not know each other because we do not converse in-depth with each other. But we must if we are to live under the big tent that science and faith communities have created for us. Dr. Thurman reminds us that we can only flourish when boundaries give way to unknown and undiscovered sisters and brothers. This world does not have to be the final expression of humanity effort to build a global society. We were created so that it would not be.
"I thought of the time the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson confided to a friend that he would gladly walk a hundred miles through a snowstorm for one good conversation, and I remember the incisive comment by the sociologist Peter Berger, who wrote that civilization advances by way of conversation." — Huston Smith
The social world in the global context can indeed be transformed, but only if we genuinely dare to converse by “crossing” those man-made “hard” boundaries that create the divide between “Us and Them.” – Anindita Balslev