09/06/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

A Revolutionary Sermon

It's a Friday morning in August in Chautauqua, perfect weather, and excellent lectures: This week it's all about Turkey and its controversial leadership. At 9 a.m., though, Barbara and I take a break from the Middle East to hear Bishop John Chane deliver the Friday morning service, "Searching for a Common Language in the 21st Century," a philosophical sermon on how Christianity, and other religions, need to find a new, universal language to describe their fundamental wisdom about the central role of compassion in life. This is a man who wears purple to indicate his high rank in the Episcopal Church, one of the world's most influential religious bodies.

John Bryson Chane was the eighth diocesan bishop of Washington in the Episcopal Church and was interim dean of the Washington National Cathedral. He was named by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the 150 most influential leaders in the District of Columbia and recognized by the London Telegraph as one of the 50 most prominent leaders in the Anglican Communion. A leader in global interfaith dialogue and study he has travelled to Iran on numerous occasions as the invited guest of former President Sayyed Mohammad Khatami. In late 2011 he was part of a four-person delegation that travelled to Tehran and was instrumental in freeing the American hikers held prisoner in Evan Prison.

In his sermon, he described two personal encounters with discrimination, half a century ago, which continue to guide him now. In one instance, he attended a birthday party for a Jewish friend, a party where he was the only other child to show up. As the child's mother cut the cake for her son and his only friend, Chane, he asked, as only a child would, why no one else had arrived. "Maybe it's because we are Jewish," she said. Two years later, Chane's mother, a real estate agent, had sold a home to an African-American professor at Tufts University. One night, someone tossed a Molotov cocktail at the house.

Listening to these stories, you realize how far we've come in only half a century. Yet Chane has continued to brood on these events for decades -- and sadly, many more of the same for decades -- and for good reason. The divisive hatred that drove those incidents continues to grow in power throughout the world, in many cases because of religious affiliation. Finally, in 2004, when he saw Mohammad Khatami, Iran's former president, reading Huston Smith, a leading scholar of comparative religion, he had a bit of an epiphany. Here's was a major figure in a religion feared by so many in the Christian west studying the work of a man who sought to illuminate the most original teachings at the core of all the world's major religions.

It opened Chane's eyes. He began to realize that religion requires a new language, a neutral language of the sort that science has found in mathematics. With a new way of expressing its essence and aims, Christianity -- and other religions -- could cease to be a divisive, sectarian set of doctrines and behaviors. The way forward would be to find a new, more inclusive language with which to express its values and activities. He pointed out that many Christians act as if Christianity worships a different God from the one worshipped by Jews and Muslims, when in fact all three religions belong to one continuous monotheistic tradition and ultimately worship the same God.

Thinkers like Karen Armstrong and T.M. Luhrmann are working toward exactly this sort of thing. They point away from sectarian doctrine toward an understanding of Christianity -- and other major religions -- as a complex pattern of behavior that can alter a person's entire way of relating to the world and other people. Religion can be a practice that alters ones nature in a fundamental way, not a set of propositions to be defended or debunked. It shouldn't be about doctrine, or ideology -- the labyrinth of belief that inspires conflict. It's about the coordinated functioning of perception, character, and action, founded on a compassionate and fearless relationship to life. The astonishing recording of the educator who talked a killer into surrendering to police in Georgia recently embodies, word for word, what Christianity is actually about. Not the Nicene Creed or a set of tenets, but a loving response to even the most potentially evil aggressors. For a deeply faithful person, in any major religion, there can be no enemies. This is a radical way of life and it requires a language that can convey its power and relevance even to non-believers.

To find this new language isn't about helping a church or creed expand, but to clarify and deliver a crucial message of sanity to people who need it. We need the help to envision a world where "the other" matters as much as we do. We need help to learn to live with kindness and compassion and tolerance. This is what religion ought to offer. Gandhi and King understood this and showed the way. Yet as Chane points out, a new language common to all the major faiths would enable the church, the mosque, the temple, the synagogue and the sangha to serve us, not the other way around. This strikes me as revolutionary for someone in his position of clerical influence and authority.

As the Bishop put it: "I believe that we are all raised up and sent by the one God. A common language will show us a new reality to life of joy and reconciliation. This new vision of life will be defined by our compassionate care of the other."

I congratulate the bishop on his wisdom and his courage.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.