A New Universal Spirituality in Fargo’s Civic Center Courtyard
One year ago, 2003, during Fargo’s Ten Commandments Monument debate, a local professor supported his argument for removing Fargo’s Ten Commandments Monument with this reasoning, “Try to imagine you have recently escaped persecution in another country and are now a refugee in the United States. You travel to city hall or a courthouse to find a tablet saying, ‘Thou shalt not have other gods before me.’ What if you aren’t Christian? Are you going to feel as though you will get a fair treatment in this country? Your entire life has been one of fear of being hurt or killed for not belonging to the accepted group. And you escape that, only to find an apparent requirement to belong to another group” (Reasons clear why marker should be removed, Forum 9/03/03). His rationale is that emigrants and refugees entering public buildings should not have to pass any such religious monument so remove them all.
I tried putting myself in refugee shoes, walking into Fargo’s Civic Center courtyard for my first civic experience, and thought about what I would like to greet me. Instead of having no references to the center of life, I would prefer to see the Civic Center courtyard displaying monuments to the many ways men and women have found to touch center ground – place monuments to all beliefs and to “no belief”, if no belief is possible. For me the most welcoming reception would be to see all religions openly acknowledged – this would tell me that Fargo’s belief systems are encompassing and accommodating. And this seems to be the issue – are we open and tolerant to all beliefs?
This summer I was working on a Fargo photo collage and when I took a photo of the Civic Center, I saw an opportunity to state my opinion photographically. With a panorama of the Civic Center at the top and the green lawn extended downward, I placed at the poster’s center a photo of the Ten Commandments Monument. I then selected saying from the other religions Houston Smith, author of The Religions of Man, discusses to surround the Ten Commandments Monument photo. These saying may not be the ones others would choose to represent these faiths but they have similar themes.
I had the opportunity while at UND in the 1970s to attend visiting lectures by Houston Smith and in the last chapter of this book he suggests that at the core of man’s religions we find the same underlying truth. In Smith’s final chapter, he asks us to ponder, “how do these religions fit together? In what relation do they stand to one another?” He poses three answers and suggests a direction forward. The first is that one religion is clearer and superior in expressing religious truth. The challenge here is to live to the depths of them all in order to make this judgment. The second is that in “all important respect they are the same” – each contains a version of the Golden Rule, sees man’s self-centeredness as source of his troubles and seeks to help, and acknowledge a universal Divine Ground from which man rose and good is sought. The challenge is again to fully understand them and then decide how to fit them together.
The third answer stands in contrast to the first two, in that, not all religions say the same thing but they do have a similar unity. Nor does it find one tradition to be superior, for if God is a God of love, surely, He would be revealing himself to all others as difference necessitated. The third answer is the most challenging in that the light of man’s religions derives from the “same source.” Smith suggests the challenge in this third response is “whether our personal, autonomous reason is qualified to stand judgment on matters as important as these, picking and choosing what in other traditions is authentic and what is spurious?”
Smith’s last question is, “What should be our approach to the religions of man from this point on?” Here I suggest Smith misses the point, in that we should not be about “picking and choosing” with “autonomous reason” but of exploring inwardly with symbolic reasoning our common source – our common collective unconscious. Smith’s suggestion that we must listen first to our own faith and then to others, left me wondering what listening involves. Smith views the “same religions source” as an objective rather than a subjective experience and thus left me looking for more direction.
In the face of the threats, Smith saw in 1958 from “nationalism, materialism, and conformity” (today add terrorism) he correctly calls attention to the urgency of opening a dialogue on “man’s spiritual life.” In spite of these plagues, Smith called this a potentially “great century” if, however, the scientific achievements of the first half are matched by “comparable achievements in human relations” in the second. What happened to Smith’s call for a basic change in human relations? How do we rate the capacity of man’s mind today to destroy itself? Where have all the soldiers gone? Still going to fields everyone….
Indeed, soldiers are still going, as suggested by C.G. Jung, in that the body count in the wake of the 20th Century’s political faiths surpasses the slaughter left by the crusaders, inquisitor, and Holy Wars following the Reformation. Jung writes, “Not even the medieval epidemics of bubonic plague or smallpox killed as many people as certain differences of opinion in 1914 or certain political ‘ideals’ in Russia.” There certainly is an urgency to find a common understanding – a new universal spirituality.
In considering Smith’s approach to “religions from this point on”, I discovered John Dourley’s book, The illness that we are, to offer a point of departure. What is unique is Dourley’s thesis that a universal subjective symbolic reasoning process provides a way to deeply listen, understand, and dialogue about man’s common religious function. Symbolic reasoning addresses this key concern of Smith’s, “Who does not have to fight an unconscious tendency to equate foreign with inferior?”
Smith closes his book with this Jesus saying, “Do unto others as you would they do unto you.” However, at a deeper level this Jesus saying, “First take the beam out your own eye,” has to precede “Loving thy neighbor as thy self” or “Doing unto others…” Symbolic reasoning is about “understanding the beams”, which in turn unveils the “unconscious tendency to equate foreign with inferior” or that “evil” is out there in an “empire” or “triad” and can be eradicated. A more universal spirituality might begin by placing many religious monuments in Fargo’s Civic Center Courtyard. [Scherling, SA, 2004, Ten Commandments or a new universal spirituality in our Civic Center courtyard? High Plains Reader, October 14, Vol.11, Iss.6. p.3.]
City of Fargo down for the count-of-ten
I anticipated a line of spectators for the March 11th 2005 Fargo Ten Commandments hearing but only a small camera crew was at the Courthouse entrance and the courtroom was only three-quarters full. Third-year law student Tiffany Johnson presented the plaintiffs’ case and argued that the monument violates the First Amendment and is unconstitutional for the city to have accepted and to maintain the Monument. Defense assistant Fargo City Attorney Patty Roscoe argued that “secular” and “context” aspects of the monument matter, illustrating the secular by pointing to America’s legal heritage and that donation of the monument to commemorate Fargo’s 1950s urban renewal. How is Judge Erickson seeing this case?
Throughout the hearing, Erickson made comments and asked questions. As the judge professed, for this case he was playing the role of educator for the benefit 4th grade and university law students present. This certainly was helpful for court pundits analyzing the judge’s thinking and setting odds on how he will rule. Just as the attorneys and judge speculated on the meaning of what several Supreme Court Justices said or did not say in hearing their Ten Commandments case, we can speculate on how Erickson might rule based on his comments and questions.
Erickson stated the reason he allowed this case to come forward is its unique circumstances. One uniqueness is that the monument had been donated to the city to commemorate its 1950s urban renewal project, clearly stated on the monument. The judge saw this as supporting the city’s secular argument. However, Johnson made an important point – the monument contains two stars of David, the $1 bill “all-seeing eye”, an eagle grasping an American flag, and the Greek letters Chi and Rho, which are symbols representing Jesus Christ. The judge, however, did not buy Johnson’s argument that “eagle grasping an American flag” on the monument when seen by a passing U.S. shoulder holding the Muslim faith would be seen as an affront to his service.
Erickson responded with concern to Johnson’s photo of the Monument 20-feet off the ground showing that the only direct sidewalk between three public buildings intersect in a circle sidewalk surrounding the Monument. Erickson asked, “Why can’t the City move the sidewalks?” The judge clearly feels the sidewalk layout between these public buildings is making an inappropriate statement about the centrality of this religious monument. While the judge seemed to discounts the argument that it is a burden to have to avert one’s eyes when passing such a monument, he was not impressed that the city has not provided an alternate sidewalk between these buildings. The layout of the Civic Center Courtyard sidewalks should have been and needs changing Erickson is thinking.
Erickson asked Johnson, what her clients thought of the idea of placing other monuments in the Civic Center Courtyard. “I do not know – they are only concerned about the present situation,” she replied. The judge asked Roscoe, “Have other groups offered to donate similar monuments to the city.” “Not to the best of my knowledge”, Roscoe responded. Roscoe informed the court the City Commission (July 8, 2002) voted not to move the Monument and that City Commissioner Rob Lynch’s no vote was because the City’s new urban renewal plans envisioned extending 2nd Avenue North through the Courtyard and would thus necessitate moving of the Monument. Erickson quickly asked, “Does the city have any current plans regarding this?” “None to my knowledge”, Roscoe replied.
Erickson’s comments accepted and discounted points on both sides and reveal he was probing for accommodation. At the center of his concern seems to be, “how can the Fargo’s Ten Commandments Monument remain?” The judge has to be thinking that the City Commission has not strategically anticipated this case and properly defused the plaintiffs’ case with plans to address the sidewalk and to place other religious monuments in the courtyard. Such efforts in other communities have met with success in retaining Ten Commandments monuments.
A more important lapse, the judge must be thinking, has occurred within Fargo’s religious
communities. They have failed to seize the opportunity to donate like monuments representing their beliefs. Where are Fargo’s Muslim’s Koran, Hindu’s Bhagavad-Gita, Tibetan’s Book of the Dead, the Native American’s Lakota Wisdom, Unitarian’s Seven Principles, free-thinkers’ Humanist Manifesto III, Chinese Dao de Ching, atheist’s manifesto, and really where is the Christians’ Sermon on the Mount monument?
Erickson’s comments and questions reveal that he would favorably have viewed Fargo Community support and a current City Commission plan to reconstitute the Civic Center Courtyard as justification for keeping the Ten Commandants Monument. Pundits calling the pending Supreme Court decision are predicting its decision will require the Ten Commandments monument be removed from inside courthouses but will allow it to remain in courtyards providing they include other secular and religious monuments. It seems Erickson’s summary decision will be for the plaintiffs – a sad outcome for all belief systems and a setback for Fargo making a statement on “universal spirituality”. However, I hear there is a side bet at even odds that Erickson will rule in favor of the City, providing the sidewalk is changed and other monuments added. [Scherling, SA, 2005, Ten Commandments Update. High Plains Reader, Vol.11, Iss.31, April 21:7.]
Does a Ten Commandments monument belong on public land?