I run a progressive faith group that meets once a month. We watch a ten minute video, something relevant to what we have been discussing, then we have a guest speaker, usually a person of a particular faith, to explain the basic tenants of their beliefs. This is followed by Q and A and then a book discussion. Last wednesday our guest speaker was a Buddhist, of the Mahayana Buddhism branch, and he introduced us to a concept within his beautiful faith called Skillful Means, or Upaya.
A succinct description of this concept is "...the ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension." (A Short History of Buddhism). As Raymond, the speaker, explains it, it is perfectly acceptable within his faith to manipulate and deconstruct messages of faith for the individual hearing it. If it allows the individual to achieve an overarching spiritual truth ultimately, then the teacher can use whatever expedient truth best fits to move the pupil towards that ultimate truth. Raymond also pointed out that if Skillful Means can be used in teaching the Dharma, it seems logical to extrapolate that outwards and see all faiths and religions as aspects of Skillful Means. It is a fascinating concept!
Later on in our discussion I was talking about the differences between more progressive Christians and conservative ones. Part of this included talking about a literal approach to the bible. Raymond commented, "Isn't this a prime example of skillful means? You achieve your ultimate spiritual truth in Jesus through a more metaphorical approach, while others need a more literal approach. Your approaches are right for each of you to achieve that truth. Surely then you can both respect each other as having the necessary skillful means?" Another member of the group agreed that this acceptance would be wonderful, and commented further that he always felt that spiritual paths are often chosen because of a personality type, an introvert will choose one path, an extrovert another.
It got me thinking if, perhaps, instead of 'pluralism', Skillful Means is a wonderful label and concept we should use in our approach to inter and intra faith dialogue. Maybe, for that matter, they are one and the same thing! If we accept that we are all seeking the ultimate spiritual truth of achieving a connection with and emulating the mystery that is the limitless Divine, then each faith, belief system, religion or even philosophy is a manifestation of the Divine teacher giving his pupil 'expedient messages' which are "...adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension." If each of us genuinely allowed that notion to pervade the world, and allowed each person their expedient truth in freedom and with the utmost respect, perhaps we would, ironically, all be moving towards a unity in the ultimate spiritual truth!
Would welcome any thoughts.