Thursday, December 11, 2008


Key Note Address on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of UN Declaration of Human Rights ~ 10th Anniversary of Interfaith Awareness Week in Wisconsin ~ 7th Annual Interfaith Celebration at the Capitol
December 10, 2008 ~ Wisconsin Capitol, Madison, Wisconsin
by Rev Fr John Brian Paprock

Peace be with you all.

Praise be to the mercy and love of God that has allowed us to gather at this time and in this place. Amen.

The idea of fundamental human rights is not 60 years old. However, we acknowledge and celebrate the 60th anniversary of a universal declaration of human rights that was attested and affirmed by the fledgling United Nations in 1948.

The idea of basic human rights is as old as humanity, from the time of a shared common existence in this world with its equal opportunity problems.

Somewhere in our collective past, something changed. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Chapter 11, there is the story of Babel, when all humanity spoke the same language.

Consider this a moment - everyone being able to understand everyone. No debates about the meanings of words with roots in different languages. Imagine being able to speak with anyone anywhere in the world without translation software.

The story of Babel starts with a gathering on the great plain of Shinar. They - those humans of one language - began to cooperatively build a city and a tower. The scripture says, “A tower whose top may reach to heaven.”

Anyone whose has worked on committees, boards or “work-groups” may be appropriately envious of such a time when a universal language naturally dissolved differences and allowed ease of cooperative action. As Genesis says “They have reasoned to do this thing, and now nothing will prevent them from doing that which they have imagined to do.”

For some reason, not explained in the text, God divided their “tongues,” which is an older way of saying God gave different languages. Then, the people were scattered “across the face of the earth” and could not finish the communal project.

“Therefore they called the name of it Babel.” The name can be literally translated from the Hebrew: God confusion (“Bab” = confusion; El=God). This “God confusion” lingers to this day. We still struggle to understand each other, especially in relation to divinity.

Despite the “God confusion” that has been with humanity for so long, 60 years ago, a declaration of common human rights was affirmed by people from all over the face of the earth; by people speaking different languages, having different cultural and religious traditions. If Babel was a wounding of humanity by breaking up a unified people, perhaps, this declaration is a healing ointment.

After 60 years of such a global declaration; after 10 years of such an awareness week, we still have a long way to go.

Here we are in the present, gathered from all over the world, in a secular common building, still struggling to understand one another. Our focus has shifted. We are not so much interested in building a tower to heaven, but rather in building bridges. Bridges built upon universal human rights connect scattered peoples across chasms of diversity.

I believe every bridge that we build makes a better world for all of us. Maybe we have needed to be separated by languages and cultures and distances, in order to spiritually develop into the divinity for which we have been created. For in the struggles to understand, we learn empathy. In the difficulties to tolerate differences, we learn mercy. In the extra-ordinary encounter with those that are different than ourselves, we encounter a transcendent divinity that is greater than us all.

This isn’t as mystical as it sounds. This is a completely natural process of human experience. In 1892, Dr. J Milton Johnston wrote a comprehensive analytical and medical book about the human eye. In the preface, he wrote about sight and seeing: “When the mind moves logically, it takes in a subject in all its relations; there is a natural unfolding of the theme, a progress of thought and breadth of view combining unity and comprehensiveness. There is the absence of one-sidedness.” [Eye studies: a series of lessons on vision and visual tests - 1892]

So, we all see everything in context, together, all at once – with all the component parts. Look around, take a moment and notice everything. We are surrounded by diversity. Even with all the things, stuff and people we can separate by identification, we notice the continuity, the “absence of one-sidedness.” By the way, did you notice how we separate, distinguish, acknowledge and affirm by identifying, using names and terms in our own language, in our own lingo?

So often, we are led by a “God confusion” and everything is fragmented, identifiable only in its separate pieces. Indeed, our capacity to concentrate and focus on a single element is well documented and very useful. In this way, we are able to ignore telephone poles and power lines when looking at a beautiful sunset – only to wonder if Photoshop can remove the telephone poles and power lines later. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the beauty of the sunset, despite intrusive elements.

This reminds me of the story of a Native American elder who goes to New York City to visit his grandson and, as he is walking around, he stops at one of the large potted trees along 6th Avenue. When his grandson asks why he stopped, he says that he is listening to the cricket. Grandson, being city folk, is quite surprised and says, “You expect me to believe that you heard a cricket with all the traffic and city noises going on around us.”

The elder reaches into the pot and shows the cricket to his grandson. As he is putting it back, his grandson asks, “this is some super-human ability of tribal elders that you can teach me, right?”

“Not at all,” says the elder and reaches into his pocket, pulls out some change and drops it on the ground. Immediately, all the people walking nearby turn around, some even watch the coins roll to their resting next top the elders shoes. “Everyone hears that which is important to them.”

It would be fair to ask, “If we don’t hear the same things, see the same things, how can there be peace? Can there ever be a true understanding of anything as long as we can separate them and us? Can we ever be restored to a whole people?”

Orthodox Christian writer Peter C. Bouteneff wrote about an old seminary professor Serge Verhovskoy who would repeatedly tell his students, "Orthodoxy is the absence of one-sidedness." Obviously, he read Dr. Johnston’s work.

Bouteneff explains “The "gestalt" of Orthodoxy, which is simultaneously relativism and sectarian one-sidedness, is not easy to apprehend. We must spend our lives in it in order to find our way… [the absence of one-sidedness] steers a course between fundamentalism and relativism. Its way is one of freedom and optimism.” [Sweeter Than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth by Peter C. Bouteneff - 2006]

“We must spend our lives in it;” in this path between fundamentalism and relativism, but this is the way of freedom and hope.

Let me put this in another context. It is not that everyone else MUST accept me. No, it is I that must accept them. This attitude frees me waiting for everyone else to do something and it empowers me to do something. It is not us verses them, it is our fragment, our piece of the puzzle, separated from all the other fragments. That is, most of THEM are already in the world I am in – duh! At once, I am struck by the absence of one-sidedness. If I am able to allow the transcendent qualities of encounter pierce through my biases and prejudices, I can almost hear that original language spoken in the plain of Shinar coming from the hearts of people everywhere.

How one goes about doing dealing with the connectedness, and listening to the heart, is the work of religious ritual and spiritual development. It takes time to progress spiritually, but I do not despair. I have encouraged those I have counseled and guided in their spiritual development to accept a simple definition of spiritual progress: “any movement in the right direction.” Miles (Kilometers) in the wrong direction is not progress, but even a millimeter (or fraction of an inch) in the right direction is progress.

Despite horrible stories of religious and ethnic suppression, oppression and genocide (some still being perpetrated as we are gathered here), I can see we are facing the right direction. Once facing the right direction, all we need to do is take the next step in front of us. As small as some of the steps we take seem, as tired and cynical as I get sometimes, I know that we are headed in the right direction – and so I see that we are making progress.

As an example of facing the right direction, I want to quote an American humanist and humorist, who was a self-proclaimed atheist. It might seem strange that an Orthodox Christian priest might quote such a person at such an event as this, but such is the scope of my hope.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died in April of 2007. He wrote a speech in the month before his death, which was delivered posthumously by his son and then published this year. In this speech, so typical of his writing, there is humor and seriousness. Toward the end of his insightful and sometimes cynical reflections, he wrote: “ should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot.” [Armageddon in Retrospect, G. P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 2008]

Here we are, a diverse people, gathered to celebrate and affirm Human Rights, especially the right to believe and have faith; to worship and have religion; to evolve in our understanding and grow in our spirituality.

So, facing the right direction, listening to that common language that is older than all cultures, seeing the absence of one-sidedness, we step forward being unusually kind to one another.

Taking such a step reminds me of a story I heard a while ago:
A priest, an imam and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender said, “Is this a joke?”

May the peace, light and love of God of fill our minds and hearts from this time and forever.

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