The Genesis Meditations: A Shared Practice of Peace for Christians, Jews and Muslims

An Interview with Dr. Neil Douglas-Klotz About His New Book
The Genesis Meditations: A Shared Practice of Peace For Christians, Jews, and Muslims

(Interviewed by Kamae A Miller).

Q: What are the "Genesis Meditations"?
A: Simply put, they are the meditations on the creation story shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. My research shows that all the original prophets of these traditions including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed focused more on "sacred beginnings" than on "endings." According to them, our destiny as human beings was to return to our original, complete, creative image, which was present at creation. The book celebrates this creation-and creative-tradition by bringing together sacred writings from all three traditions in an illustrated, wisdom anthology.

Q: What difference does all this make? Why is it hopeful?
A: It makes a big difference whether we focus on shared beginnings or on later, distorted interpretations of "endings" that divide one faith from another. The original meditations on creation lay behind the awe and wonder of Christians at the rebirth of Christ child each midwinter. It fuels the intense, heartfelt hope of Jews experienced each fall in the New Year celebrations of Rosh Hashanah. It roots the devotion of Muslims each year during the fast of Ramadan, preparing for the "night of power," when blessing flows freely, just as it did when Muhammad first received the Quran. These are all celebrations of hope, not fear, of love, not hate. By experiencing the creation story as our own personal story, as our ancestors did, we have the same opportunity to recreate and renew ourselves, and to find a deeper connection with the divine in our everyday lives.

Q: What do you mean by "distorted interpretations of endings"? The judgment day, the apocalypse, things like that?
A: Yes, that's exactly what I mean. In this book, I investigate historical evidence that over the past 1500 years Western culture developed a distorted view of the original Hebrew creation story and then used it to divide human beings from nature and from each other. This allowed stronger countries to dominate weaker ones, as well as to colonize and exploit indigenous people who were seen to be "not using" the land on which they were living. At the same time, the contemplatives and mystics of all the traditions continued to emphasize the key to what I call the Original Meditation: the creation story is not a license to exploit others or nature, but is simply the story of each soul's journey through life. It was a meditation. The people who first heard it never understood it as "scientific fact." They did not even have a concept of "scientific fact," since they considered that everything was embedded in God.

Q: But surely, Jesus repeatedly emphasized the judgment day, with all of his warnings about weeping and gnashing of teeth.
A: If we look carefully at his sayings, as well as the way many early Christians probably understood them, he warns what would happen if his listeners did not take to heart his advice to become more compassionate and just towards each other. This "apocalypse" actually occurred a generation after his crucifixion, when the Romans brutally put down a rebellion by the people of Palestine at the time-early Jews, early Christians and early Jewish-Christians alike. According to historical accounts, the Romans succeeded because the indigenous peoples were so divided that they actually committed more violence against each other than against the Romans.

Q: But what about all his sayings like "I go to prepare a place for you" and so forth. Doesn't this mean he was pointing to a "judgment day" after which believers would go to heaven or hell?
A: There is good evidence that many early Christians saw Jesus as an embodiment of Sophia, Holy Wisdom, who was present at the creation of all, according to the book of Proverbs. If we look at all of his sayings in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from the standpoint of his native language, Aramaic, we see something very different from the commonly understood version of "heaven." He was saying that his listeners would, after death, return to face their original divine image, created at the beginning of all time. He was simply saying, "Do it now, rather than later. I've shown you how and if you meditate on the way I've gone, you'll be able to follow me."

Q: I'm getting a bit confused here about beginnings and endings. Are you saying that the "end" would be the "beginning"?
A: Yes. The old Semitic languages of the Middle East, which include Biblical Hebrew, the Aramaic of Jesus and the Arabic of Muhammad, view the past as in front of not behind us. The easiest way to envision this is a caravan: some people have left first and have gone ahead. We follow behind, and our children and children's children come after us. The past is not "over and done," it's moving. So are the present and future. All times move within the heart of the divine. "God" in this Semitic sense is not "outside" anything, but the idealization of the ground of reality. That's why all the main Semitic names of "God"-Elat, Elohim, Alaha, Allah-really mean "Unity" or "Oneness," not a separate being outside of human reality.

Q: This sounds like mysticism to me. How can you be sure that the prophets you're talking about understood things this way?
A: The book shows how, from scriptural and historical evidence, that the Genesis Meditations developed, and how we lost it as a force in Western culture. It also explains how Jesus' main messages of "love your enemy" and "love your neighbor as yourself" became an exception rather than the rule when Christianity came to rule the world after Constantine. It shows how science became divided from religion and how, in short, how "ends" were divided from "means" in Western thinking in general. Both Jewish and Christian mystics through the ages kept the Genesis Meditations alive. The fact that we see them as "mystics," however, that is, exceptions to ordinary religious devotion, shows how "ends" thinking has infected scholarship and religion in general. This is not about believing or not believing a "myth." It's about a whole way of thinking.

Q: But what about Islam? Surely, this trend didn't affect it.
A: As I explain in the book, Islam went through its own evolution with the Genesis Meditations. For most of its history, Islam kept science and religion, humanity and nature united rather than separated in its thinking. But this changed when Western colonization began to confront Islamic and other Middle Eastern peoples, starting about 200 years ago. After this time, we begin to see the start of modern Islamic fundamentalism, which is actually a modern movement, not a return to original Islam. This movement, like both Jewish and Christian fundamentalism, unconsciously takes on the apocalyptic, "ends" approach of the West in attempting to combat it.

Q: All this is very interesting, but is there really anything we can do to bring the three religions into better relations with each other, after so much water under the bridge?
A: I believe there is. My work is a small part of the many attempts to build bridges that are going on all over the world. In each tradition, there are people already working in this direction. Shared beginnings unite us. This is not simply a matter of sharing old, quaint mythological stories. A distorted interpretation of creation and nature as "fallen," imperfect and sinful has infected all of our thinking, even those who call themselves agnostics or atheists. Modern culture tells us that in order to be happy, we always have to have more, acquire more and produce more. The Genesis meditations-our shared original story-tell us that the growth we need to cultivate is in our own human nature, not outside us.

Q: So what do we do now?
A: The first part of the book lays out the case for the original meditation as a practice that the three religions shared in the beginning and can share again. The second part of the book shows one way to begin to do it. It retells the original story in a new way in words and beautiful illustrations, using threads from all three traditions. This is what I'm calling the "full spectrum story." Each tradition has its own uniqueness. We can celebrate this and at the same time hear the differences as harmony rather than dissonance. Then the book gives examples from the sacred writings and mystics of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, along with brief, guided meditations that aim to allow readers to experience the story in a new way.

Q: Is this something that Christians, Jews and Muslims could share together?
A: Yes. All people can share the story, readings and meditations in small groups dedicated to a deeper sense of interfaith peacemaking. It's really an "inter-spiritual" program for understanding. This goes beyond "dialogue" and is based in shared spiritual experiences, which is a radical idea. The more experiences like this that we can create and share with each other, the less fear, suspicion and paranoia we can hold about those who seem different from us. If the creation story teaches anything, it is hope and possibility.

Q: So then who's the "serpent" in the garden?
A: In my reading of the original Hebrew, the "serpent" is the illusion that we-any of us-are separate from the divine or from each other. When we believe this illusion, then we begin to act as if our own personal sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, should rule the world. And that's what we see going on in the world today.


The Genesis Meditations is due in September 2003 from Quest Books. For information on the work of Neil Douglas-Klotz, see
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