Both the chosen texts talk about the importance of faith in our social lives. The two authors, Jim Wallis and Sharon Salzberg, do not strictly equate faith with religion. While basing their arguments on Christian and Buddhist doctrines respectively, they attempt to portray faith as a communal activity. Moreover, they both suggest that, though religious faith is a subjective experience and springs from one’s heart, it is crucial to shaping politics and culture of a society.
Jim Wallis’ Get out of the House More Often is an invocation to be a social being. Too often, too many of us are so accustomed to living in our comfort zones, that we lose out on growing our spiritual selves. Based on his first-hand observations and experiences as a priest, as well as drawing from numerous anecdotes of his peers and friends, Wallis constructs a powerful essay on community service. But instead of serving our own interests and inclinations, he argues, it is only when we serve the underprivileged and the disenfranchised of our society that true spiritual awakening occurs. Wallis also skilfully explains the socio-political issues within a religious community. Though all Christians claim an equal access to God’s grace, their socio-economic status and gender play a crucial role in determining their quality of life. In the story of his Franciscan priest friend Joe Nangle, for example, it was not until he saw the suffering of poor Peruvians firsthand, that he discovered his own humanity. The picture of the poor Peruvian woman Olga, who could not even afford to bury her dead nine-year-old son, is typical of the plight of the poor. It is in empathising with their lot and by sharing their grief that we would act to alleviate their suffering.
Sharon Salzberg’s tract titled Faith is similar in spirit to that of Wallis’. Talking from her experiences as a practitioner of Buddhism, Salzberg asks readers to discover God through practical means. Instead of dogmatically adhering to any particular sectarian Buddhist belief, Salzberg reckons it is best to discover the ‘truth’ through one’s own devices. The role of teachers is to provide guidance and a framework of understanding. But learning or attaining profound wisdom is seldom achieved through instruction. So it is the responsibility of the spiritual seeker to discover the ‘truth’ by herself. There will be trials, errors and tribulations in this path. But these challenges are as much part of the process of acquiring wisdom. Indeed, it is these challenges which make knowledge concrete, pulling away from its conceptual abstractions. In her own case, she encountered confusion whether to follow the Burmese or the Tibetan tradition of spiritual contemplation. Both methodologies held some appeal to her. As she was musing over which one to continue with, it occurred to her that these confusions or ‘doubts’ are an integral part of the spiritual seeker’s life.
So what is common between the two texts is their similar implorations to the reader. They both explain to the reader the value of taking certain risks and letting go of preconceived beliefs. Both Salzberg and Wallis propose keeping faith in faith. It is not until we tread the unknown path through trust that new vistas of wisdom are opened up. In the case of Salzberg it is her spiritual path through the practice of Vipassana meditation. She had to negotiate various challenges and moments of doubt before seeing for herself the universal truth that Vipassana unveils. Likewise, speaking from the experiences of a Christian cleric, Wallis urges readers to reach God through community service. His pitch is that if we are not fully functional social beings then we cannot aspire for God’s grace. In their own fashion, both Salzberg and Wallis make powerful cases for self-development by way of connection with community.
To conclude, I would admit that I concur with both authors. Their propositions might vary in terms of their nuts and bolts, but the essence remains the same. Despite the fact that I am neither Christian nor Buddhist, I can see the universal appeal of their arguments. In effect, what they say is that, for individuals to mature and expand their consciousness, it is necessary that they break the mould. We have to shed those roles, habits and activities that we are comfortable with. In their stead we have to participate in community activity. In the case of Salzberg it is through the method of compassion meditation. In fact, inspired by Salzberg’s example, I am mulling the idea of practicing meditation myself. Likewise, Wallis’ examples are those of alleviating the problems of the meek among us. Again, as a measure of respect for the author’s imploration, I am making conscious efforts to participate in community activities in the coming months.
Jim Wallis, Faith Works, Lesson 2: Get out of the House More Often, Published by PageMill Press, 2001.
Sharon Salzberg, Faith, Chapters 1-4, Published by Riverhead Trade, 2003