Don’t Just Walk in Circles — Sally Quinn’s Encounter in the Labyrinth is a Clue to Better Dialogue

I was taking an early morning cruise around the Internet and decided to check the latest headlines.  I surfed over to CNN.com and found an article entitled, “My Faith: How walking the labyrinth changed my life.”

The author, Sally Quinn, is a Washington Post journalist and EIC of an online religion conversation called “On Faith.”  I was happy to find that conversation, because it’s something to which we here at Nobody’s View aspire!

In her article, Quinn discusses an experience she had walking a labyrinth — a maze-like structure around which one can walk to calm the mind, concentrate, and, as Quinn says, “be found.”  The experience can mean different things to different people, and labyrinths are apparently constructed in all sorts of places — churches, parks, and spas for example.

Out of curiosity, I Googled the phrase “where are labyrinths” and happened upon a very interesting site called labyrinthlocator.com.  This site, sponsored by two groups — Veriditas and The Labyrinth Society, features a search tool called the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator.  I typed in some information about my city and voila!  Up popped a list of local labyrinths.  One was located at a retreat center not far from my home (run by a group of monks) and another was located at a mainstream Christian church.  There were a few others, both public and private.  The information section for each labyrinth features date of creation, size, and construction material.  The pictures were quite beautiful, and they looked quite serene.

For Sally Quinn, the experience of walking the labyrinth helped her come to terms with her son’s struggle with leaning issues.  In fact, when she shared the experience with her son, his life transformed.  He has since written a book about learning issues, started a website, and is now, apparently, doing quite well.  Quinn says she can’t necessarily attribute all of her son’s success to her labyrinth walks, but she believes that whatever the experience was, it has helped her.  To this day she continues to walk labyrinths, enjoying their positive effects in her life.

After reading through Quinn’s article, I scrolled down to the “comments” section.  As a teacher of religion (when budgets allow and the phone rings!) and having produced some manuscripts and articles on the subject of religion, I have an interest in these discussion strings.  What I got was an eyeful of some stark opinions (no surprise!).  Apparently, the broader social dialogue concerning faith vs. reason (or, according to some, religion vs. science) is alive and well in the comment section of blog posts.  There was the obligatory “hateful” comment calling Ms. Quinn all sorts of names.  But then, right on cue, other readers jumped to her defense, and to the defense of spiritual practices in general.  As of my reading, there were 11 pages of back-and-forth, all leading to some flavor of these conclusions:  labyrinths are nonsensical, people who walk them are nonsensical, Ms. Quinn is being duped by “magic,” spiritual people are being duped by spirituality, religion is duping us all, religion is good, spirituality is good, scientists are short-sighted, religion is a con job…and on and on and on.

What exactly is going on here?  Is this all really about Sally Quinn’s labyrinth?  I don’t think so.  Is this really a discussion of science and religion, or is something else at work?  I don’t know where I come out on the whole issue of labyrinths, but what I do know is that any time dialogue can begin around such an issue, it can only be for the good.  Now, I can hear you asking, “How is this good?  Isn’t it just a lot of Internet partisanship masquerading as dialogue?”  Not necessarily.  The discussion is valuable because it thrusts the issues of religion, spirituality, tolerance, and civility into the spotlight.  It forces people to confront their views on something that is central to humans as individuals, life in general, and politics in particular.  Whatever your view on these subjects, you must come to understand that there is someone across from you on the train who may have a diametrically opposed viewpoint.  You think the labyrinth is bunk and he walks one daily on his lunch break at some big corporate campus.  This group finds religion in general distasteful, but that group uses it as an impetus to feed and clothe the hungry.  You meditate and pray to find your heart of relaxation, while that other person looks down on your whole enterprise, insisting what you are experiencing subjectively is objectively not possible.

Now, you might read that and say, “I’m not convinced!  You say dialogue around this is good?”  Well, yes!  Whatever your views on these things, they are your views.  And, like any good views, they must be able to stand up to criticism and opposition.  If you think religion and spirituality are bunk, yet your friend’s life was transformed in an instant at a Christian or Buddhist retreat, then you need to think more about the purpose of religious or spiritual practices, instead of the mere trappings.  If you had a bad go of it in your house of worship years ago, perhaps you need to challenge the enterprise of judging a whole category by one experience.  Is it a distaste for religion you have or a distaste for your unique, one-time involvement?  I don’t know!  I don’t have the answers.  Have that talk with your friend.  If you are a spiritual person, and you meet a psychologist who believes spiritual experiences are the delusive play of the mind, then perhaps you need to sit down to coffee and get into that conversation.  Does it matter whether or not the phenomena can be defined?  Perhaps their value lies in their effects and not their descriptions.  Again, I don’t know.  I’m not an expert in these things.  You are.  They are your experiences and they are yours to examine.

These discussions don’t have to take place, of course, but how are we to know the sturdiness of our convictions, whatever they are, unless we occasionally erect them in the winds of debate?

I seriously doubt anyone is going to read Sally Quinn’s article with one lens, then change views because of the comments section.  Instead, what seems to happen is that people strengthen their views in response to others’ comments.  People get their dander up.  They go on the defensive.  Many of the non-believers insist that because they can’t kick Sally Quinn’s experience, it doesn’t exist.  Others say her experience is genuine because it takes place away from the prying eyes of five-sense scrutiny.  There is some anger.  Some hate.  Some intolerance.  But at least there’s dialogue.

And that’s a start!

Let me say this to you, Nobody Nation: you have a point-of-view.  In fact, we all have points of view.  A viewpoint is what gives us depth and contour.  It’s what makes us more than a bunch of human straight-line stick figures.

Come to think of it, points-of-view are what make us labyrinths.  When we get done walking the mazes of our minds, we must emerge and engage.  In that way, we don’t just walk in circles, but instead, forge more tolerant paths toward the future.

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