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Roman Catholic theologian, American Muslim explore reconciliation at Trinity Institute

By Daphne Mack

Photo: Trinity Institute, Trinity Wall Street
Top: Roman Catholic author-theologian James Alison; Bottom: American Muslim Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, an assistant professor of religion and affiliated faculty in the Women's Studies Department of the University of Florida   (Photo: Trinity Institute, Trinity Wall Street)

[Episcopal News Service]  The search for reconciliation will fall short of the mark if it is not undertaken from within "the sensation of sheer luck and spaciousness," author-theologian James Alison told those gathered for the morning session at Trinity Institute on January 31.

"Faced with the various extremely painful and distressing circumstances in our lives and in our world where reconciliation is needed," he said, "we run the great danger, I think, of falling into the trap of seriousness, and even worse, of talking morals."

Alison, a Roman Catholic theologian, priest and author, advocates a vision of non-violence based on an understanding of a theology of resurrection and the transformation of human desire. He lived with the Dominican Order between 1981 and 1995, and is a self-described itinerant preacher, lecturer, and retreat giver. His books include: "Knowing Jesus, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination," "The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes," "Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay" and most recently, "On Being Liked."

In his address, entitled "Blindsided by God," Alison used the scene of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is celebrated on February 2, to "help make clear" his meaning of good luck and spaciousness.

He asked participants to imagine themselves as ordinary inhabitants of Jerusalem "hanging around for evening prayer" in the crowded and imposing Temple, with a variety of sacrifices in progress, "priests doing their stuff with impressive seriousness," and money changing hands amid clouds of incense, cattle, caged birds and people in prayer in groups and alone, "making deals with the Almighty with much bobbing and bowing." All this is going on, he said, with "some, but not too much reference to the apparently indifferent gaze of the One who dwells there." God's arrival on the scene was barely noticed, "not even enough for us to talk about the temple authorities having been blindsided by God, since they remained unaware of what had happened."

"My fear is the necessary seriousness of our ethical and political searches may lead us to miss out on the extraordinary sensation of being in luck, of having fallen despite ourselves on our feet in the midst of a piece of ridiculously good fortune," Alison said.

"For us, the first and root meaning of reconciliation is not an ethical demand," he explained. "In the understanding of the Christian faith, it is first of all something which has triumphantly happened in a sphere more real than ours and which is tilting our universe on a new axis, whether or not we understand it."

This means that what we think of as being real, as stable and as ordered, he said "is not so." And [that] what is real, and true, and ordered, and stable is not what is behind us "but what we can become as we learn to undergo being set free from our imprisonment in what we might call 'social order lived defensively.'"

Alison contended that our starting place in reconciliation is not "of good people who are going to do something good" but of people who are undergoing the process of being forgiven.

"Forgiveness is not something which is in the first instance a moral imperative," he said. "Forgiveness is the shape of being inducted into the real. In the case of all of us human creatures, who basically are good, we find ourselves being caught up in an addiction to being less than ourselves."

Alison concluded by asking the conferees "not to forget the spaciousness...and discovering that our reception of an enflamed heart passes unashamedly through the quest for reconciliation."

To create a world of justice

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, the afternoon's featured speaker, is an assistant professor of religion and affiliated faculty in the Women's Studies Department of the University of Florida who served on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee for 23 years. She was a disciple of the Islamic mystic tradition known as Sufism from 1971-1986, and now describes herself as an American Muslim.

Speaking on "Communal Reconciliation and Healing through Fundamental Social and Individual Personal Change," Simmons said she was fortunate to have been an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s. Participating in sit-ins as a freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta, traveling to Mississippi with thousands of other college students to be a part of the Mississippi Summer Project (an initiative that exposed the unethical treatment of Black people in that state) and working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were all part of her experience.

"Our nation, that shining beacon of democracy, had some dirty little secrets that the project exposed to the world," she said.

Those secrets she said included the "denial of the franchise to Black Americans, the literal entrapment of thousands of Blacks in a sharecropping system which was just a bit better than slavery, and the daily fear and terror under which Blacks lived caused by lynching, beatings, cross burnings, and false arrests."

It was during this period, Simmons said, she and several others joined the Nation of Islam under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

"I did so out of my growing rage with white America, and my evolving belief that white America would never give the African-American justice or equality, no matter how much we marched and protested," she said.

She admitted that her disillusionment led her to believe that the only solution was the separation of the races and for America to give African-Americans economic reparations, as called for by the Nation of Islam.

But her post-Civil Rights experiences have led her back to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., as the "only way out of the cycles of violence and revenge and feeling so much of the turmoil in our world today."

"I don't want to suggest that we've reached a racial nirvana in the South or anywhere else here in the US," she said. "I just want to acknowledge that there are positives."

Simmons said the conference theme was "evidence of the organizers desiring for us to engage honestly and openly with these problems and to share possible solutions" to issues of sexuality, personal and cultural values, the war on terror and in Iraq, and the dichotomy between wealthy and poor nations.

Simmons spent 17 years spent with the Sufi teacher Bawa (Father) Muhaiyadeen, who she said helped her with the internal changes she needed to address.

"Bawa and Sufism teach that the human being comes to this world as a spotlessly pure ray directly from God to learn right from wrong, truth from falsehood and to return to God at the end of our time on earth as that spotlessly pure radiant ray that we were when we came," she explained. "To do this, we must die 'the death before death.' The I, ego, mind, and desire must be subdued so [that] only the divine qualities within us manifests in our thinking."

Simmons said part of the struggle people of faith encounter "is to create a world where people are judged by their deeds, not by their ethnic, religious or sexual labels--in brief, a world of justice."

[NOTE: To listen to Alison and Simmon's addresses, visit Trinity Institute's website at: