In the aftermath of this weekend’s Progressive Faith Blog Con, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a spiritual creature. Spending a weekend with 30-some spiritually-minded, politically progressive bloggers was naturally a thought-provoking experience since bloggers tend to be unusually verbal creatures, practiced at explaining and articulating their beliefs and convictions. And yet while I can emphatically assert that I learned a lot this weekend about traditions and practices that were previously unfamiliar to me, what I cherish from the weekend isn’t the brain-brimming knowledge I walked away with but the spiritual embodiment I feel I experienced.

It’s common to see religion as a strictly spiritual thing, something that transpires in our heads and perhaps our hearts but seldom in our bodies, Western philosophy still being saddled with a worldview that sees Mind and Body as being forever separate. As I explained during Saturday morning’s Zen meditation session, though, my spiritual practice sees wisdom as dwelling somewhere lower than either head or heart, down in the fistful of belly that nestles several inches below one’s navel. It’s one thing to think something in your mind or believe it in your heart…it’s another to feel it with certainty from the bottom of your gut. Although there are many issues I know other conference participants and I would disagree on intellectually, it was truly transformative to share a deeply serene space in which our bellies breathed the same air as we inhaled and exhaled in co-mingled communion.

I’ve already pointed you toward Rev. Bruce Prescott’s excellent definition of “progressive faith”, and over the past day or so I’ve been thinking that I might add an eleventh item to his list. Progressive faith is an embodied faith. Embodied faith believes that paying intellectual lip-service to spiritual ideas isn’t enough; embodied faith insists that believers get their hands dirty in the real world doing the work of compassionate service. Embodied faith recognizes it’s not enough to save souls or enlighten minds if people are still languishing in sickness, poverty, or injustice, and embodied faith recognizes that physical violence in the name of spiritual truth is the most heinous sort of abomination.

Fundamentalism of all stripes (and I speak as one who used to be a literal-minded Bible-thumper myself) is literally an out-of-body experience where believers become so enamored with a purely spiritual truth, they are willing to withstand and even overlook the bodily ills they inflict on others or themselves. How can enforcers of a particular ideology convince ordinary believers to sacrifice bodily comforts or even indulge in physical mortifications? How can clerics and other spiritual authorities convince otherwise able-bodied souls to become suicide bombers or willing participants in unjust wars? The answer, of course, is other-worldly: if you convince believers that this world and its bodies are insignificant and the rewards of spiritual merit are granted in the Hereafter rather than the Here, you can get spiritually-minded folks to commit all sorts of acts that go against what an honest gut would advise. Rather than asking myself what Jesus would do, or Buddha, or any Jewish or Muslim prophet, at any given moment I’d like to ask myself what my belly would have me do, trusting that a grounded body can’t lead me wrong.

Despite the undeniable theological differences between Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, what I learned from briefly practicing each of these teachings was that we all share both breath and bellies. On Friday night, Rachel encouraged a group of “virtual strangers” to sing and recite words of Jewish worship…and on Saturday afternoon, hours after that same group of no-longer-strangers had chanted strange Buddhist syllables together, Rabbi Arthur Waskow in his panel remarks noted that the Hebrew letters for God’s unutterable name, YHWH, can be spoken only as a sigh: the Breath that inspires and is shared by all living creatures.

Various religious traditions shape this Breath into different words and doctrines, but as long as we conference participants paid close heed to the Breath we shared, our words of difference seemed less important, intellectual argument being a sorry waste of breath. On Saturday night, Islamoyankee led a group of ignorant but willing neophytes in an informal zikr session in which we sat cross-legged on the floor while repeating various sacred phrases. Chanting the undulous syllables of “La illaha illallah” (i.e. “There is no god but God”), I was struck at how the supple melody of this repetitive prayer rolled off my tongue with the same sweetness as the Kwan Seum Bosal chanting I do in my Zen practice. Am I equating the God of Islam with the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion by saying their chants roll similarly off the tongue, the melody of devotion falling into the same surge and ebb? In my mind I know that God and Kwan Seum are Two, but the breath I use to invoke either name is One: which do you prefer?

In his Saturday night remarks, Islamoyankee quoted the Qur’anic verse that asserts God is as close as one’s own jugular vein; I’d agree and add that God is as close as our very own breath. As Islamoyankee demonstrated the prostrating positions of formal Muslim prayer, I again was struck at how two radically different religions–Islam and Zen Buddhism–nevertheless embody many of the same moves, the bows and prostrations of salat feeling remarkably similar to the bowing I do in my Zen practice. As soon as a Muslim and a Buddhist begin to speak about their respective religious practices, they will utter different words, but what their bodies do is remarkably similar, embodied souls of all sorts relying on the same basic choreography of devotion.

Regardless of our faith or lack thereof, we all walk the same earth and breath the same breath. If we remain rigidly attached to what our brains think and our hearts believe, we’ll never see eye to eye across our ideological differences. But when we return to the breath we share, feeling the rise and fall of our own diaphragm while others around us feel the same, communion no longer feels impossible. Ultimately, we’re all spiritual creatures, but first we’re physical, our immortal souls married to vulnerable flesh. We think ourselves separate, but our gut knows we’re all the same, our bodies the precious containers of a breath and spirit we all share.

    These photos show my fellow conference participants Rachel and Emily mingling with the figures of Street Crossing, a sculpture by George Segal which is now installed on the campus of Montclair State University. How grateful I am for all the individuals whose paths I crossed this weekend!