On September 8-10, La Casa de Maria, the wooded retreat center of Montecito, will host an interfaith program in collaboration with the Spiritual Paths Institute. The program, entitled “Wisdom and Spiritual Practice: The Sacred Traditions and the Development of Inner Knowing: Sophia, Hikmah, Hokhmah, Gnosis, Prajna,” will bring together teachers from Christianity, Hinduism, Islamic Sufism, Native American religions and Buddhism.

Organizers of the weekend gathering see it as an opportunity for participants to explore the theme of wisdom and accessing it through spiritual practice. Teachers will share the teachings and contemplative practices of their respective traditions in a process of mutual inquiry. The program will include presentations, experiential sessions, group discussions, an inter-spiritual service and panel discussion.

I recently interviewed Ed Bastian, PhD, founder and director of the Spiritual Paths Institute, who will act as moderator for the retreat.

Q. How does Spiritual Paths fit into this weekend event?

Spiritual Paths helps people of many traditions to come together in the presence of that which the word “God” points. Together, we explore ways of engaging the world in this unifying perspective and applying this to the challenging issues of our time.

La Casa de Maria is a superb retreat environment to bring together folks from many religions. It is a gem in the midst of Montecito and we are so fortunate to be able to join them in this profound inter-spiritual work. La Casa de Maria is a place from which to heal, to become strong, and to infuse the world with the contemplative wisdom of the world’s great religions.

The program unites a variety of faiths and religions that throughout history have sometimes clashed based on differing views of what’s right and wrong. Isn’t it true that the deeper “wisdom traditions” of each religion stress “unknowing” rather than “knowing”? How does Spiritual Paths deal with the problem of religious certainty?

My wisest teachers say that absolute knowledge and total certainty is impossible. This “truth” has been illustrated in many ways in many scientific and spiritual traditions. Examples can be found in Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle,’ Buddhist theories of karma and interdependence, John of the Cross’s Cloud of Unknowing, Moses’s humility before the burning bush, Lao Tzu’s non-conceptual merging into the Tao, and Christ’s trials in the desert.

Yet all of us yearn for certainty as a kind of armor to shield us from the emotional pains of change and loss. It is natural for us to grasp onto the symbols of truth like a cross, a menorah, a trident, a mantra or a prayer. Although there might be a mysterious “intelligent design” in the universe, we can’t fully comprehend it or even see it played out in trials of everyday life, or the tragedies we see daily on our television screens.

How do your program’s teachers deal with their differences in beliefs and values?

Our Spiritual Paths teachers come from many spiritual traditions. They carry a lineage of contemplative teachings from within Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Native American traditions. They share an uncertain knowingness based on the depths of their “mystical” experiences. They transmit a palpable sense of tranquility, peace and wisdom that emerges from their respective meditations, prayers and rituals. We are joined together in the deep peace of inter-spiritual contemplation in which we are of one heart and mind.

Our teachers are also great scholars and authenticated teachers of their religious traditions. They know the limits of what can and cannot be known. They know that the arrogance of fundamentalist certainty is merely a mask hiding inner fear and insecurity. We are trying to help our students and participants to find the strength that emerges from an inner contemplative, compassionate unknowingness.

Do you think that Christians, Jews and Muslims are philosophically equipped to live harmoniously and intelligently, or do they need to amend their respective theologies?

Christians, Jews and Muslims are all the children of Abraham who left us the legacy of one God. But, he also left it up to us to come to know God in our own ways according to our own life experience and level of spiritual insight. Abraham’s spiritual heirs include people of most of the world’s races, ethnic groups, languages, natural environments and cultures. So, it is natural that each individual Christian, Jew and Muslim has his or her own knowledge and relationship with God.

It is also natural for each of us to want to appeal to the highest authority for help and protection. And, as we compete with one another we naturally want God to be on our side. The trouble begins when any individual or group thinks their knowledge and relationship is right and all others are wrong – or, when we appeal to God to support us and defeat others.

So, the good news about monotheism is that it can provide a principle that it can unite all of humanity in a shared sense of the divine and the sacred. The bad news is that people interpret this single unifying principle in their own way in support of their own selfish purposes. When religious institutions do this, the problem is exacerbated. And when political groups and governments align with religious institutions the results are often tragic.

Yet, Abraham’s progeny also includes people who have plumbed the contemplative depths of their traditions and have come to use the word God as an imperfect verbal pointer to the divinity of love and compassion that resides in the hearts of all beings. For them, spiritual practice is a process of uncovering and revealing the divine principle that connects us all; seeing God in all creatures.

More on the Program

The weekend retreat begins on September 8 at 7 pm and ends on September 10 at 1 pm at La Casa de Maria, 800 El Bosque Road. Entry is $395, which buys a two-night stay (shared lodging), five meals and tuition. The Commuter rate of $280 includes three meals (two lunches and the Saturday dinner) and tuition. For more info call 969-5031 or visit