July 11, 2009

Where does God dwell?

Our day began with many cups of coffee as our whole group gathered for breakfast. Flying in at different times--and from different directions--we are all finally together in Bangkok. Tomorrow is the big celebration at the Maitrichit Chinese Baptist Church; however, today we had the opportunity to visit one of the most interesting religious shrines in all of Thailand, the Grand Palace and the Temple of Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace complex was established in 1782, and it houses not only the royal residence and throne halls, but also a number of government offices as well as the renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Intricate in its architecture and ornate building material, it is a favorite destination of tourists, religious seekers, and the practicing faithful. As we walked through the extensive complex, we frequently encountered the saffron-robed monks coming there for prayer or to leave offerings of flowers before the elevated figure of the Buddha. [I did notice one of the young men had some rather un-monk-like tattoos; perhaps he had sowed his "wild rice" prior to taking his vows.]
One of the values of the Luce Foundation, which is generously funding our partnership with Myanmar Institute of Theology, is for persons to grow in "respect for the lived religion of others." We had a significant opportunity for that this morning. Each of us strained to understand all that our guide, herself a faithful Buddhist, was explaining to us. As we entered the large Monastery which houses the Emerald Buddha, we took off our shoes as a sign of respect and refrained from picture taking and boisterous conversation. The walls of the hall are decorated with mural paintings depicting selected events in the life of the spiritual master. It became quite clear to us how integrated Thai culture and this ancient religion are.
Entering this sacred space, the first thing that came to my biblically schooled mind was the reminder that "God does not dwell in structures created by human hands"--either Buddhist or Christian. These remarkable buildings, which seek to venerate and point toward the one we worship, do not capture the Divine. The artistry of temples, cathedrals, churches, etc., bear witness to the human response and quest for the holy. Indeed, the longing for beauty is a testimony to our holy longing for God. Entering the sacred space of a very different tradition allows constructive reflection and criticism of our own practices which are born out of revelation and cultural accretions.
Important to Christian witness is the belief that "Word become flesh" does not end with the death of Jesus. It must be the story of all who follow him as we are his continuing embodiment in the world. In our day the Spirit is prompting Christians to engage with respect those whose spiritual pathway begins from a different place. The authenticity of one's faith must always be tested by the religious claims of others, or there is no dialogue and no learning. God's presence is both elusive and palpable for all who seek, yet God provides vestiges of grace all around and continues to seek those who long for truth. Truly, God's dwelling is with humankind, yet to be fully revealed.
Molly T. Marshall, Ph.D.

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