My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Friday, 23 December 2011

What would you do?

Imagine the scene. All the family is at home with you for Christmas. You are having a lovely party time – all is merriment and joy. Suddenly your child lunges out at his cousin with the toy sword you gave him from Santa. Blood is drawn and your son shows no sign of stopping. What do you do? You stop him, take away the sword, tend the wounds of the cousin, apologize profusely to the mother and impose punishment or sanctions or both on your son. Of course you do. You do most or all of these things, and peace is restored, a lesson has been learned. You may even think twice about the choice of present another year. You can take some responsibility.You can make a difference.

Now imagine the party scene again, only this time there is a fracas outside your house, in the street. A youth is beating up another and it looks violent. Do you just ignore it? Of course you don’t. If there are enough big strong men in your party they may go out and separate the lads, restore peace: although the police frown upon this vigilante approach, and sadly the good guys may suffer at the hands of the lads. So at the very least you call the police. Don’t you? Of course you do. And if you have any sense of social responsibility at all you would not, should not, resent paying appropriate taxes or rates to fund agents of law and order to keep your home, street, town, county, state or country safe.

Now imagine the party scene one more time – only you have turned on the TV news, just in time to see scenes of appalling rioting, violence and arson on the streets of the town a few miles away.

Or you see scenes of appalling rioting, violence and arson, or murder, or torture, or any dreadful abuse of human rights a little further afield - just across the border, in the next State, County, Country, even in another Continent…global news reaches our front room so quickly and graphically in this digital age.

What do you do?

You may be getting the idea.

Where do we draw the line, the boundaries.

What can we do to relieve suffering elsewhere. Does suffering matter less to us the further away it is, the more remote it is from our own circle of family and friends?

What is our government doing about global suffering? Is it enough? Do we campaign enough? Can we help financially? Can we influence with our vote?

We all tend to live in our own bubble. But not caring about our fellow human beings wherever they live, whoever they are, diminishes us as humans.

Surfing the internet, I came upon the following story told by Amital Etzioni in his blog (July 27, 2007) in connection with his book Spirit of Community.

Five shoppers at a Witchita, Kansas convenience store simply stepped over the body of 27 year-old LaShanda Calloway who lay on the floor bleeding severely. None stopped to ask if she was in need of assistance. None even bothered to call 911. Ms. Calloway died later that day at a Witchita hospital of injuries the result of a stabbing; she had been an innocent bystander, wounded in someone else’s fight.

What can you do to help heal this world?

Let’s bring compassion, empathy, tolerance and respect back into our lives.

I'm taking time out from blogging for a few days as I celebrate the birth of Christ.
I wish all my readers a very happy Christmas. May we all work in 2012 towards a more compassionate and tolerant World.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Athiests at odds with our Nation's history

Splendid article in the Evening Standard last night by Sarah Sands Atheists are at odds with our Nation's History.
Christopher Hitchens praised the King James Bible, she writes, for its "common stock of references and allusions rivalled only by Shakespeare."
And if its good enough for Hitchens, she concludes, its good enough for her.
Really what is all the fuss about because Cameron said we live in a Christian country? And why should people be offended? How can I be offended if I visit or even live in a Hindu, or Islamic, or Buddhist, or any other country with a religious tradition of any kind that is not my own? Our Christian roots in the UK go back a long way, and Christianity is still the religion to which people turn in great number when they face illness, bereavement, tragedy or other need.
Depending on the method of data collection somewhere between 66% and 90% of the global population have a religion or faith. This is a substantial force to be reckoned with. What is more these numbers are not declining, as the increases in human population are happening in those countries where faith has the strongest hold. Even in Europe, where we have seen a decline in church attendances over the last 50 years or so, Christian belief still claims 58% of the UK adult population, 15% of UK adultsstill go to church at least once a month, and Cathedral attendance figures are rising. So religions still retain a significant presence. 

And this weekend our churches and cathedrals will be full to overflowing with people attending Midnight Mass and other special services where we celebrate the birth of Christ.
So back off, atheists and humanists and others who seem intent on stamping out our wonderful religious and cultural heritage.
Actually you don't have a hope.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

RIP Christopher Hitchens

A lovely tribute and comment on Christopher Hitchens is to be found at the Huffington Post, written by the Revd. James Martin, S.J. “Someone asked me this morning what I hoped for Christopher Hitchens, the fierce atheist who died after an agonizing bout with esophogeal cancer, and my first response was to say that I hope he's pleasantly surprised,” he writes. Do read the whole comment, it is so thoughtful and respectful. And indeed Martin’s words are a far cry from the rant from Richard Dawkins – that I frankly found quite unnecessary and opportunistic – especially doubtful behavior from someone who counted himself as a close friend of Hitchens. Dawkins yesterday on Twitter said: Christopher Hitchens, finest orator of our time…valiant fighter against all tyrants including God.” God a tyrant? Not in my religion Richard. Cheap point scoring I call that.
Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, by contrast said that to those who knew him well, Hitchens “was a gift from, dare I say, God.” You certainly may dare to say that, Graydon!
I can accept that Hitchens was a great man in many ways, although like the Revd James Martin I could not agree with his atheist views. Best selling author he certainly was with his book God is not Great, and his memoirs that he wrote up to his dying day, to be published next year, will no doubt also be a huge best seller. But I firmly believe that the best selling atheists of our time are misguided in their efforts to evangelize their own particular brand of religion: and they are ill advised in their fundamentalist campaign to quash other religions. They call for the abolition of those religions on the flawed assumption that such are the cause of most if not all our wars and violent episodes. They say that only by abolishing religion will violence and war be eliminated, will there be any chance of a better future for us all.
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote that excuses abound for war and violence without any need for religion. And far from religion losing its bite, there is a move back to the wisdoms of the sacred texts of all the great religions, to recognizing that they can have relevance again in today’s world. It is certainly true that these religions also need to change, to be more true to their original teachings, to become more relevant for the lives we now lead, and to help us live those lives true to our faith and our ancient and spiritual values. But the reality is that healing our world depends now more than ever before on at least supporting the religions and faith groups, not knocking them.
So to atheists everywhere I say - you do not have to believe in God – that is your choice. But please leave the religions alone. Please respect where we are coming from and don’t feel you have to join a crusade of abuse, a quest for the abolition of religion. Because such a crusade could prove as deadly and costly to mankind as the original crusades you so vehemently criticize.

Friday, 16 December 2011

We are all Divine Beings

At the end of the day our religions underpin values for very many people, and our values distinguish the human from the subhuman. We must live ecologically and we need to live as mature humans. So many have travelled different pathways to come to this same conclusion. Mehta commented that when we consider the environment, the institutions and ourselves, we have least power over nature, most power over ourselves. Therefore it is we who need to change. As Gandhi so famously said in probably one of the most oft quoted wisdoms of our time “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” We ignore the wisdom of old at our peril.

Ursula King is far from alone when she calls for anything that will kindle spiritualities, that will heighten awareness and sensibilities, give us a sense of global responsibilities and a new kind of spiritual literacy.
We are now profoundly connected as humans across the world. But we are guilty of a kind of group egotism, often loving only our own kind. Augustine saw that the State that looked after only its own interests and not a justice for all was no more than an organised band of robbers. We are in danger of copying that band of robbers and we need to look not only to universal justice now, but we need to look to the future with new eyes.
A rule of the ascetic Jains is for “Careful Actions, Careful Thoughts. ” Here is a good guide for living for us all. Before taking any action we need to ask ourselves what effect that action will have on us, on others, on society, on the planet and on a generation or more from now. This type of thinking is instinctive in many indigenous cultures. It also links with the Seventh Generation Principle, from the political culture of the Iroquois people, and now adopted by Native American elders and activists. “What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”

We need to understand that each individual is a unique spiritual mystery, and we must be prepared to not only make dialogue with others outside our own limited circle but also to see each other as divine and be prepared to then change ourselves at a profound level.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

God is here to stay!

I belong to the Scientific and Medical Network (SMN), where there is a strong consensus amongst its members that alongside our scientific achievements we have lost sight of the sacred, the spiritual, and our purpose on the planet; that we are in a spiritual crisis as much as a political or ecological one, and that this needs urgently addressing. We are an organization that pushes the boundaries of understanding of all things spiritual, of consciousness, always with a scientific rigor. Amongst the stated aims of the Network, we are called to “encourage a respect for Earth and Community which emphasizes a holistic and spiritual approach,” but whilst we also stand for “critical and open minded discussion of ideas that go beyond reductionist science,” we are meant to be “sensitive to a plurality of viewpoints.” We therefore aim above all else for tolerance and understanding between our many and various ideas and viewpoints, “wacky” as some of them might seem to our colleagues. We stand for open dialogue to further understanding. And this is what is desperately needed in our world today, particularly where our religions and faiths are concerned.

Martin Luther King once said that nothing in the entire world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. We need neither.

We need to be more prepared to take things at face value. We need humility. We need to understand that we simply do not know what we do not know. We have tried too hard to understand things we shall never understand – and to know things we shall never know.

Whether we like it or not, religion is here to stay, certainly for the duration of the time frame that we probably have left to steer our own evolution in a better direction than its present trajectory. And religions will be an essential part of that evolution. So let's talk, not fight, about our differences.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Interfaith dialogue then and now

"From now on, the great religions of the world will no longer declare war on each other, but on the giant ills that afflict [humankind]."

Charles Bonney, 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions

"World Scriptures will become a shining light,…a precious textbook for educating the younger generation who are to live together as one global family…to overcome barriers between religions, between races, and between cultures…through this text, all people will not only free themselves from religious ignorance and self-righteousness, but also realise the fact that, among religions, there are shared values and a universal foundation which are of greater significance than the differences which have historically divided religions."

Andrew Wilson, World Scripture and Education for Peace, in World Scriptures, October 1991.

"So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to [one] another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill."

A Common Word Between Us and You, an open letter to all leaders of the Christian churches and denominations worldwide, signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals October 2007

And nothing changes!

Monday, 5 December 2011

A Common Word between Us and You - a dialogue between Muslims and Christians part 2

This is arguably one of the most important books of our time. All Christians and Muslims should know about this initiative.

That was how I ended the blog the other day about A Common Word, the Muslim initiative addressed to Christians, prompted by the Islamic furore provoked in many Muslim countries by part of the Pope’s 2005 Regensburg address.
And the response is said to have been phenomenal. Quoting from the Cambridge Interfaith Programme site, “A Common Word has been the subject of major international conferences at Yale University, the University of Cambridge - facilitated by CIP, Lambeth Palace and Georgetown University, over 600 Articles—carried by thousands of press outlets—have been written about A Common Word in English alone, over 200,000 people have visited the Official Website of A Common Word (and) over 6000 people have ‘fully endorsed’ A Common Word online alone.”

But in the grand scale of things, although these together make for a very promising start, they are but “a drop in the ocean.” As the book so rightly reminds us, there needs to be a trickle down effect to reach the masses, and the learned conferences and articles are but a stage towards that goal. There is a significant proportion of the population that can only be reached by people of influence: by Imams, priests, teachers, lecturers, youth leaders etc. They’re not going to read conference reports and educated commentary. We need that trickle down effect to start working in a big way to reach beyond the intellectual and the well educated, to reach out to the masses, many of whom do not read very widely if at all and may harbour plenty of prejudice born of ignorance and fear. And we need plenty of responsible media reporting and press officers in organizations who can push for that responsible reporting to reach out as far and wide as possible. Because not only can the media be hugely influential in that trickle down effect; They also have the networks to become tentacles reaching out laterally as far and wide into crevices of public ignorance and prejudice as possible. And if we continue the water metaphors, we need Ripples of Hope, because as Robert Kennedy said all those many years ago, in Cape Town in 1966:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

When I think of what needs to be done to promote tolerance and peace, I am reminded of Tariq Jahan, the hero in the Birmingham riots earlier this year after his son Haroon had been killed in the violence. ‘I lost my son.” He said to the angry crowd, “Blacks, Asians, whites, we all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this? Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home – please.”
Now if every person of influence at grass roots level where there is a choice between violence and anger or dialogue and calm could step forward and speak up for peace between us all in the same dignified way that Tariq did back in August, couldn’t we begin to build a better world for us all?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

A Common Word between Us and You - a dialogue between Muslims and Christians

There have been four high-profile cases in recent years where the media in both the West and the Middle East have not been helpful in how they have reported the religious issues involved: these were the incidents of the Danish cartoons, The Archbishop of Canterbury's Sharia Law lecture, the issue of whether Muslim women in Europe should be permitted to wear headscarves, and Pope Benedict's Regensburg address. In such cases the media tend to “over-dramatise the conflict and to under-research the complexities of lived religious traditions in the modern world…In each of these cases, with polarisations between blasphemy and freedom of speech, secular enlightenment and religious prejudice, it was almost impossible for Westerners to discover the full range of Islamic (especially Arabic-speaking) views, with the result that there is a repeated widespread perception that Muslims are stuck in the Dark Ages. Likewise it was almost impossible for Arabic speakers to discover the full range of Western views, with the result that there is a repeated widespread perception that Europeans are irremediably decadent and morally corrupt.” From Nurani

Ironically, one of those incidents initiated a response from the Muslim world that may yet prove to have been the catalyst for building a greater respect and understanding between the two most powerful and influential religions, Islam and Christianity than has ever been seen, and that the world has long been crying out for and so desperately needs.
A Common Word was born out of the address made by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2005, Faith, Reason and the UniversityMemories and Reflections, given at the University of Regensburg where he had once been Professor of Theology. Part of this Regensburg address was taken as provocative and insulting by certain parts of the Muslim community, and sparked mass street protests in many Islamic countries. Pakistan called on the Pope to retract what they called "this objectionable statement.” The Pope apologised to Muslims and assured them that the passage quoted did not reflect his own views. Relations between Muslims and Christians at that time were stormy and deteriorating. Into this climate a letter was launched, printed in The New York Times in October 2007, signed by 138 leading Muslim intellectuals and scholars. It extended a hand to the leaders of the World’s Christian churches and denominations, including His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in a call for peace and harmony between the two religions worldwide. The letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” outlined the basis of this offering, in the spirit of the shared doctrine of love of God and love of neighbour on which dialogue could be opened.

The handshake was symbolically returned within just over a month, in a letter known as the Yale Response, also published in The New York Times, (accompanied by the release of an Arabic translation in the United Arab Emirates). Written originally by four Christian scholars, it was endorsed by more than 500 Christian theologians and leaders, representing many hundreds of millions of Christians across the globe. This exchange of handshakes has produced astonishing results. From these exchanges has grown an organisation, based on the expressed purpose to find common ways, in Christianity and Islam, to work together for the social good of all. Grievances are recognised on both sides of the faith divide, it is acknowledged that there are some irreconcilable differences of interpretation on both sides, some difficult questions to deal with, but nonetheless the initiative seems to be making a great impact.
“The response, in which the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme has been deeply involved, has been phenomenal. To name just a few initiatives:
H.H. Pope Benedict XVI and sixty other leading Christian figures have responded to the document in the two years following its issue.
A Common Word has been the subject of major international conferences at Yale University, the University of Cambridge - facilitated by CIP, Lambeth Palace and Georgetown University.
Over 600 Articles—carried by thousands of press outlets—have been written about A Common Word in English alone.
Over 200,000 people have visited the Official Website of A Common Word.
Over 6000 people have ‘fully endorsed’ A Common Word online alone.”

And it is now all in a book, A Common Word,
perhaps one of the most important books of our time. All Christians and Muslims should know about this initiative.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Religion and Spirituality

Religion and spirituality are such slippery words. Most would think they know what is meant by religion, but are not so sure how much religion has to do with spirituality, if at all.

What is religion?

When many people think of religion they think first about outdated institutions, with strict and inflexible dogma, dry rituals, boring sermons. Then they may think of buildings, of mosques and cathedrals, churches (perhaps cold and musty and expensive to maintain!) and synagogues. And many will believe all this to be irrelevant in today’s world. They could not be further from the truth in very many cases.
Mine is a vibrant church, full of joy and worship, with the sounds and smells of choir and incense, all offered to the glory of God. Our different styles of service cater for many different tastes and needs. And the church is where, along with many others, I find my spiritual nourishment.
But it is certainly true that the local Christian church has ceased to be relevant to very many people, and is no longer the centre of community life. Many worshippers drifted away in the second half of the twentieth century. Some simply felt the whole experience to be irrelevant to their lives, and many of these were our youngsters as they grew up, and left home and church. Others became the “spiritual without being religious” group and another group felt that they could better follow the teachings of Jesus outside the formal church. The biggest tragedy of all was the way the church lost its youngsters and this still challenges us today; how to retain our youth when they grow up.

“The majority of…religions…ultimately rest upon the foundation of…a primary goal of enhancing people’s spiritual growth. Religion consists of the institutionalized structures, norms, leadership roles, rituals and the like that have emerged from that basic function.”(1)
We are all intrinsically spiritual beings, and one only has to look around in the world, in our media, on our book- shelves, in the market place, to see the significant role that spirituality plays in many lives. So it would seem that the church is not satisfying that need. The church clearly needs to change and I will come back to this later.

P. Mehta in defining religion wrote that it need not be confined to the established great religions of the world, “still less of the organized churches claiming authority to lay down what is or is not religious truth…whatever purifies and perfects a man, relates him fully to life and allows the realization of the Transcendent, is Religion.”(2)

But it is true that religion can become “a closed system, a dualistic cult that protects and distracts its adherents from reality” where spirituality is equated with holiness of life instead of religiosity, where spirituality is seen as an overarching phenomenon within which religion has but a small part to play.(3)

And it is also true that not every one who is religious considers themselves to be spiritual.

So What is spirituality?

My favourite definition of spirituality is to be found in J Astley’s Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology, where he defines spirituality as “the way we hold the what of our faith.”(4) I also like John Swinton’s attempt at defining spirituality by what it does, rather than what it is, that it represents something “missing” in our lives.(5) And that we can use that missing element to help us care and educate more, to learn to treat people as human beings; to make a positive difference in the world. This of course is a matter dear to my own heart, explored in great detail elsewhere in relation to healthcare, economics, community, creativity, faith, and nature.(6)

In defining spirituality, words and terms such as “search for meaning and purpose,” the transcendent, soul, consciousness and interconnectedness of all beings, the numinous, divinity, God, inner peace, and perhaps many others will variously spring to mind. So spirituality is also used in a vast range of contexts. It is certainly to be found within the established religions and wisdom traditions, the Muslim Sufi for example, in the great Christian mystics, or the Jewish Kabbalah. These not only provide a rich supply of spiritual experience, they can and do play a part in nurturing and kindling spirituality.

But it is also found divorced from religion, amongst those who say they are spiritual but not religious. Perhaps you are one of these.

And spirituality can be secular, although even in seeking a secular definition of spirituality a transcendent dimension can be acknowledged, that may “include the traditional view of a personal God.”(!)(7)

David J. Hufford, in ‘An analysis of the field of spirituality, religion and health,’ defines Spirituality as the personal relationship to the transcendent and Religion as the community, institutional, aspect of spirituality
Thus spirituality is the more general term, it includes religion, and spirituality is a core aspect of religion. This does not deny that there are “spiritual but not religious”
individuals or that extrinsically religious people may not be especially spiritual.”

We need to try to couple religion and what I would like to call for the moment genuine spirituality back together again. And that is where the church needs to change and become more relevant again. But how can it do this? That will be the subject of another post.

1. Journal for the Study of Spirituality (JSS) volume 1.1, 2011, p.98 Hunt citing McBeis article
2. P. Mehta The Heart of Religion, p. 28.

3. Brian Taylor 1996 Setting the Gospel Free,cited by J Williams p. 99 JSS

4. J Astley, Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 39, (Cited by John Williams “From Habitus to Critique”, in JSS p. 99)
5. John Swinton, “What is Missing from our Practice? Spirituality as Presence and Absence,” Journal for the Study of Spirituality, volume 1.1, 2011, p. 13.
6. Healing this Wounded Earth
7. Elkins et al Journal for the Study of Spirituality volume 1.1, 2011, p. 58

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

9/11 and the media

The other day I wrote about media bias against religion and mentioned Gustav Niebuhr’s excellent book Beyond Tolerance: How People across America are Building Bridges Between Faiths.
Writing about the aftermath of 9/11, Niebuhr tells us that the media misrepresented what happened. The fact is, he writes, American people wanted to preserve humane community after that dreadful event, to look after the vulnerable, to show neighborliness, to demonstrate however they could by their actions that they were all in this together, not pitching one against another as the subsequently declared “war on terror” implies. Niebuhr writes that what was needed from the leaders was a social and intellectual response, as much as a military one. Those who died at 9/11 deserved a monument dedicated to life and hope, he wrote, not a “war on terror.” So many individuals showed responsibility after that event to maintain their communities. How much of that was covered by the media?

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Interfaith week and media bias - again!

Did you know we have just come to the end of Interfaith week? No, I didn’t either. There is an International version, World Interfaith Harmony Week, in the first week in February, and I'd love to hear about any similar American initiatives. But for England, Wales and Northern Ireland Interfaith Week this year was November 20th to 26th, and in Scotland it will be November 27th to December 4th!

It wasn’t until I read a fairly muted piece in The Times on Friday about the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks confessing to politicians and Jewish communal leaders at the Scottish Parliament that he finds Christmas carols uplifting, that I discovered, way down towards the end of the item, the fact that “leaders of all faiths” have been celebrating this week as Interfaith Week.

Why on earth hasn’t the media given it more prominence? OK I know there has been lots more going on in the world this week that has attracted the attention of the journalists; not least the attacks on their own kind by the Leveson inquiry on the behaviour of the UK media in hunting down sensitive stories and converting them into the sensational, at the expense of the victims. But why on earth didn’t I know about it from my church activities? I would have incorporated it into my intercessions I prepared for the service last Sunday had I known. And I read quite widely, listen to the news regularly, spend time researching faith issues.

Of course the media trades in bad news, not good. And interfaith initiatives are good news for society. Any interfaith activities that promote dialogue and understanding and respect between them have to be a good thing in promoting a peaceful future for us all.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said to be close to the Chief Rabbi, is quoted in The Times as saying that “One of the things we have cause to be grateful for in this country (1) is the warmth and spontaneity of relationships between leaders in the faith communities.” “Lord Sacks, as quoted in the same article, told the Jewish Telegraph: “The big challenge is to bring the news to the public that the different faith groups get along together and enjoy being part of the British culture.” Williams is further quoted as saying that such relationships are “rare” in the modern world and something to be grateful for. “In history, religious identity has sometimes been the cause of rivalry.” That seems like a masterful understatement and ingenuous comment coming from such a fine intellect. I quote from what he went on to say:
"The point is though that although we have a history that is sometimes one of conflict and rivalry, we have begun slowly but steadily to develop that much richer vision which allows us to say we help one another to be human in our difference. And because our religious identities are not just something that affects one little part of our lives but something that has to do with the most profound and definitive relationships that we have, our relationship to God, to reality, that surely is a reason for not seeing our religious belonging, our religious identity, as ever in competition with other things but rather as the context in which all our thinking, all our loving and all our hoping takes place." and I strongly recommend that his speech is read in it entirety.

Now why couldn't The Times have put across something of that fuller message? Sacks is right. Getting the news to the public will indeed be a big challenge as long as our media continue to be biased against religion in their reporting.

(1) And this extends to America. In an excellent book by Gustav Niebuhr, Beyond Tolerance: How People across America are Building Bridges Between Faiths, he describes in some considerable detail the many initiatives being taken in this respect. (See my blog for August 22nd for review).

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Christ or Paul?

For quite a while I have been wondering about some of the more obvious differences between the teachings of Jesus Christ and those of Paul the Apostle; on the status of women and marriage, for example, or the question of meat eating. I have wanted to look at these issues, and more, in a little more detail, but other commitments on my time crowd in on me! We all know that problem!
I love serendipity. I'm pretty sure I've posted a blog on that some while ago now. Whilst I was at Occupy London last week, strolling around the tent city set up rather appropriately outside St Paul's Cathedral,(and St Paul was of course a tent maker by trade!),I picked up in their Tent City University Library a little booklet Christ or Paul, by The Rev. V. A. Holmes-Gore, written in 1946 but with a second edition published 1989. This challenges the emphasis that Christians place upon the authority of Paul - his work does after all take up a very substantial part of the New Testament and we seem to revere his word. And from my so far cursory speed reading of this booklet, Holmes-Gore makes some good points. This then led me to the website for Jesus' words only, set up by the author of a book of the same name which can be read on-line there, if your eye-sight can cope with that, or it can be bought at Amazon.

I hope over the next few weeks to delve deeper into both books, alongside my textbook (Ed. Alister McGraph) on Christian Theology, and of course MacCulloch's A History of Christianity, and hope to be back with some more detailed thoughts in the New Year.

All this is very apt in light of the recent news that Church of England Dioceses have overwhelmingly voted for supporting the appointment of Women Bishops.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The loss of religion affects our moral and ethical values?

Is religion needed to support ethics and morality?

Martin Luther King saw that ‘the richer we have become materially the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.’ We live, he said, in two realms:

“The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”

And he further warned that racial injustice, poverty and war would only be alleviated if we balance our moral progress with our scientific progress and learn the practical art of living in harmony in a ‘worldwide fellowship that lifts neighbourly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation.’(1)

There is a three-fold morality that comes from all the great Holy teachers, from Jesus, the Buddha, from the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament, from the Upanishads, and the 8 limbs of Yoga,(2) for example. They all call for a behavioural code grounded in right conduct in thought and speech and deed. Mehta sees this three- fold morality as the “foundation for living as an integrated human being,” extolling values that distinguish the human from the sub human. If we abide by these rules there will be no inner or outer conflict in living our lives.(3)
Mehta tells the Buddhist Parable of the Saw, where the Buddha teaches his monks how to behave in the face of all the bad things that people can do to them: “Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to that very person, making him as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.” (4)
This simple morality, with nurturing, flowers into virtue, or what Mehta describes as “the transcendental ethic by which the true human lives.” (3)
I think a great fallacy within the criticisms of so many vociferous atheists and humanists is that they are fond of portraying religions in the worst light: and such comments are nowhere more adamant than around the question of ethics and morals. The critics are fond of quoting stories of awful deeds done in the name of religion, the Inquisitions and some terrorist attacks, for example. We cannot deny these. But causes are to be found in religious fanaticism and in civilizations less advanced than our own. We in Britain committed dreadful atrocities in our past history to robbers and Kings alike. Our justice system may not be perfect but it is at least now much more civilized in its treatment of wrongdoers. But a word of warning: Gandhi, on being asked what he thought of Western Civilization reputedly retorted: “It would be a good idea.”

There has to be a good reason why our “faith schools” are so very popular amongst parents for the values that they are said to teach. Our local Anglican Church school has been turning children away for lack of space and is now busy finding that extra space to accommodate two further classes. Soon there will not be enough room in church to accommodate all the children and their parents and guardians at the regular services held for them. The evidence is strong. Are so many parents likely to be very far wrong? Or are we dangerously brainwashing impressionable young children? That rather depends on how the children are taught. It is important to teach them from an early age about the world’s different religions, but emphasis should be placed on the many features common to them all, so that these can be appreciated and celebrated whilst helping the children to understand and respect the smaller number of differences. But most important of all is the need to nurture the spirituality within these children so that they grow in spiritual as well as religious literacy.

So do we need religions to support moral behaviour? In a sense the question does not matter, it is even the wrong question. The Dalai Lama writes: “whether a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” Although he has observed that religion and ethics were once closely intertwined and warns that since the influence of religion has declined in so many lives there is ‘mounting confusion with respect to the problem of how best we are to conduct ourselves in life…morality becomes a matter of individual preference.’ (5)

To be sure, the great religious texts and teachers lay down codes of behaviour that few could argue with. We can allow these to be our teacher, our guidance, our wisdom. And the supposedly exemplary behaviour of the atheist who proclaims that he does not need religion as a code is in fact grounded in the wisdom and teachings of the great faiths, regardless of his belief in them. So rather the question should be – should we be teaching the values and virtues of the great religions and religious leaders as a basis for our behaviour in this world – the answer for any thinking person has to be a resounding “yes!” When one views the immorality in the world, an alternative secular and materialist society has not served us well.

Whatever the differences between us relating to spirituality, religion and faith, we simply do not have time to iron them all out. We need to put them to one side, curb the bickering. Instead we should be celebrating what we have in common, understanding and respecting our differences, and seeking ways to work together as human beings, with all our individual frailties, for the mutual benefit of the one beautiful and finite planet earth we all have to share.

We have a fine inheritance in our many different faiths, religions, spiritualities and ancient philosophies. They are a part of life’s rich pattern, providing a splendid tapestry of experience, wisdom and sacred texts, with so many common features to celebrate and differences to learn from. I shall consider these in future posts.

1. Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture December 11 1964
2. Morality, religious observance, posture, control of Life Energy (or breath-control), withdrawal of senses from worldly objects (detachment), collectedness of mind, meditation, mental union of meditated with meditator from P.Mehta, The Heart of Religion p. 256. Morality is further defined in the Sandilya Upanishad 1.13 as harmlessness, truth, non-covetousness, continence, kindliness, equanimity, patient endurance, steadiness of mind in gain and loss, abstemiousness (especially with food and drink) and cleanliness of body and mind.
3. Mehta P. 258, 259
4. several translations are available on Internet see for example or
5. HH The Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium, (New York, 1999), p. 19. cited in Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life The Bodley Head, (London, 2011), p. 20.

© Eleanor Stoneham 2011

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Do we Lack true Spirituality and a sense of the Sacred?

One of the great tragedies of our age and culture is that by abandoning religion in favour of scientific “certainty” (and I use that word cautiously because of course very little can be certain, in science, in anything!), we seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Even amongst many of the leading philosophers and scientists of our age there is a strong consensus that alongside our scientific achievements we have lost sight of the sacred, the spiritual, and our purpose on the planet; that we are in a spiritual crisis as much as a political or ecological one, and that this needs urgently addressing.

And without a sense of awe and wonderment at the world around us, without a sense of shared sacredness with our fellow beings, we are capable of the most awful and destructive behaviour, a point that is self-evident at the present stage in our evolution.

How do we define spirituality? There are perhaps as many attempts at definition as there are spiritual writers, and different cultures and religions. Perhaps we do not need an “all things to all men definition.” The danger comes when spirituality becomes wrapped in commercial trappings, with the promise of peace of mind, spiritual growth, wealth and success and happiness: but at a (material) price. Even “care of the psyche” in current psychotherapy language sounds very like “cure of the soul” to me!
And the cure of souls, with the nurturing of spirituality, is the role of the religious leaders. Sadly there are many amongst us who fail to appreciate that organised religion can satisfy this need, can help us grow spiritually without recourse to the expensive trappings of commerce. It is also true that the churches themselves sometimes need to change: not only change but also let the world know what they can offer. This will be explored in much more detail in later posts when I shall look at ways of "bridging the gap": finding common ground, exploring the interfaces, between religions, spirituality and indeed science. Because I shall also be explaining why bridging this gap is so essential for the health of the world; and that means all of us.

The photo is of Fly Agaric fungi in my garden - I have never in all the years we have been here had so many - and they are also far larger than I have ever seen before. Sign of a really harsh winter to come? Maybe. 

© Eleanor Stoneham 2011

Friday, 18 November 2011

Are religion and science incompatible? Part 3

John Polkinghorne defends theology, like science, as being an “investigation of what is, the search for increasing verisimilitude in our understanding of reality.” In his book One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology, he explains that theological enquiry is based on scripture, tradition and reason. Polkinghorne is an eminent English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer and Anglican Priest, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He defends the idea that science and theology both explore aspects of reality. It is just that they are concerned with different levels of meaning. Science, he points out, uses the quantitative language of maths, whilst religion uses the qualitative language of symbols; a theme incidentally also explored in some detail by Mehta who I wrote about a couple of days ago.

Science clearly expands knowledge, and contributes to a more compassionate world through its many positive discoveries and inventions. But as Paul Gilbert reminds us in The Compassionate Mind, it is not helpful for the majority of people on this planet if we use scientific knowledge “to demolish [their] belief systems, “leaving them with nothing other than the lives they have been born into.”

In 1999 Richard Dawkins said that it was his ‘suspicion...hunch...and hope’ that within the twenty first century the nature of the ‘mysterious substance called consciousness’, that ‘spiritual part of man regarded as surviving after death, the theory that there is something non-material about life, some non-physical vital principle...vital force…mysterious energy or...spirit,’ will be completely mastered by scientific explanation and the soul will be definitely dispatched once and for all. With the same reasoning he argues passionately that there can be no God. Quite apart from the muddled lumping together of consciousness, spirit, soul, vital force, energy, life after death, and more, with a flawed and possibly misplaced certainty that they all mean the same thing, this reductionist thinking does our world no favours. What is more, Dawkins’ hunch is fast losing its credibility. An increasing number of respected and eminent scientists and philosophers are challenging those who only see the human being in terms of physical body and brain. There really is something more to life than mere matter, something that is beyond the ability of scientists to prove or disprove empirically. God most certainly is not dead. But there are many who do not seem to realise this.

Science and theology are not incompatible. They are two different ways of exploring aspects of reality.

I'd love to hear your comments.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Are religion and science incompatible? Part 2

Physicists are more at home than biologists with the uncertainties of our world, our cosmos, and our consciousness. Einstein trumped Newton with his relativity theories. Now even these have been cast in some doubt by experiments in the world’s largest physics laboratory at Cern, suggesting that subatomic particles have gone faster than the speed of light.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” wrote Wittgenstein. The truth is that we simply don’t know what we don’t know. As Chris Clarke writes in Weaving the Cosmos: Science, Religion and Ecology: “the realm of the unprovable will forever outstrip our attempts to grasp it.”

There is a real need for us all to show much more humility and be far more open-minded to the co-existence of science with the religious and the spiritual as well as the secular. We need all of these in the world, coexisting and cooperating in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. We need balance between the head and the heart.

Many astronauts, all highly trained scientists or technicians and dependent on the latest most complex technology for their missions, have found a spiritual awakening or deepened their particular religious faith when in awe and reverence they saw the cosmos and the earth for the first time from space. Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut and the sixth man on the moon, wrote: “My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity…we went to the moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians.” He went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences, ‘a non-profit membership organization located in Northern California that conducts and sponsors leading-edge research into the potentials and powers of consciousness, including perceptions, beliefs, attention, intention, and intuition. The Institute explores phenomena that do not necessarily fit conventional scientific models, while maintaining a commitment to scientific rigor.’ For example their many current research projects include a study of how engagement in spiritual practices is related to health and well-being.
“What a wonderful, what a religious discipline, is science and mathematics. Today science has shown me that all that is discovered is only an approximate knowing, and that I cannot even reach, let alone touch or overstep the frontiers of knowledge…” These were the wise words of Phiroz Dorabji Mehta, reminding us that the scientific method of experimentation is only suggesting probabilities, from experiments devised to test theories: nothing more or less. Mehta (1 October 1902 – 2 May 1994) was an Indian-born writer and lecturer on religious topics who studied natural sciences at Cambridge as well as pursuing many other interests, including astronomy, poetry and philosophy. He was brought up in the Zarathushtrian religion.
In his wonderful book The Heart of Religion, written over a period of 20 years, he brought 50 years of study and practice together to explore what it means to understand and live the religious life, to evolve towards a life that is “free from fear, greed and hatred, a life in which our actions are pure, wise and compassionate.”
He further wrote: “For him who attempts to write about the deeps of religion, science is a powerful aid, for the scientific discipline helps in curing the mind of intellectual cobweb-spinning, of using misleading analogies and of false reasoning.” He went on to observe that science has become a god for many, a modern idol! (This was in 1976 – we do not seem to have learnt!) “Applied science, technology, holds the human race in thrall to the machine. Drugs, chemicals and various inventions destroy man and nature alike and fill the plundered Earth with pollution. Mankind, perhaps all life on the globe, is in danger of extermination by man. No animal has shown such ingratitude to Life. Vast hordes senselessly look to technology to solve human problems and produce human fulfilment.”
Where is the balance? Where is the inner life in that?

To be continued...

Monday, 14 November 2011

Are religion and science incompatible? Part 1

"After all, if there is no God, then God is incalculably the greatest single creation of the human imagination."
Sir Anthony John Patrick Kenny Fellow of the British Academy

Many now seem to believe that science and religion are entirely incompatible, at opposite ends of the spectrum of understanding. And that therefore in the light of our scientific achievements there is no further need for religion in our lives.
But science was after all originally called the natural philosophy. It is only relatively recently that it’s meaning has been hijacked by the reductionist scientists and the angry atheists for their own agenda. There are many scientists, eminent or otherwise, who still believe in God, myself included.
The Dalai Lama warns us that we should not ‘overlook the limitations of science. In replacing religion as the final source of knowledge in popular estimation, science begins to look a bit like another religion itself. With this comes a similar danger on the part of some of its adherents to blind faith in its principles, and, correspondingly, to intolerance of alternate views.’

I am far from alone in my belief that science and religion or spirituality are not mutually exclusive. If we are prepared to take a dialectical look at the extremes of polarity between the scientific and the spiritual viewpoint, between the objective and the subjective, between thinking and feeling, the expressible and the ineffable, between our outer or exoteric selves and the inner or esoteric, we may be able to appreciate that these extremes are simply different ways of viewing the same reality. We have inherited the works of the great mystics, from all cultures and faiths. They alone have seen things, experienced things, which only they have been able to articulate for the benefit of us all. Many are able to feel these qualities from both a heart and a head perspective, to have a sense of the spiritual, the intrinsic, the inner, but still cannot accept the need for any organised religion.
I want to explore at a later date the advances in the scientific understanding of our brain and our consciousness and how these not only begin to bridge the gap between science on the one hand and religion or spirituality on the other, but also why I believe they are of importance within the religious tolerance debate. Meanwhile science has a very long way to go before it can hope to fully explain our inner worlds of human consciousness and spirituality. Indeed if it ever will?

To be continued...

Friday, 11 November 2011

Many Religions, One Universal Truth, and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon

"There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it."

George Bernard Shaw

928 pages, over 4000 passages, from 268 Sacred texts and 55 oral traditions, gathered comparatively around 165 topics.
I’ve just stumbled upon the most extraordinary book!

World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts was commissioned back in 1985 by the controversial and colourful Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. But please do not allow this to detract from the value of such a comprehensive textbook.

Because it compares passages from the sacred writings of all the world's great religions on all the significant issues of the religious life – our universal concerns about salvation, sin, faith, prayer, self denial, purpose of life, and so on. It’s an amazing reference book, a holistic approach to understanding the world’s religions, requiring the cooperative labours of more than 40 scholars and religious leaders from every faith over a period of five years.

In a paper delivered by its editor Andrew Wilson to the inaugural assembly of the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace, (IRFWP), in 1991, he said that he hoped that this book would become a textbook in religious education for teaching the young how to live together as one global family, how to overcome barriers between religions, races and cultures. Because the book shows so clearly that there are many shared values and a universal foundation behind all religions, of far greater significance than the differences which are so often used to divide us. Is it being used anywhere in the world for this purpose I wonder? If Amazon rankings are anything to go by, its importance seems to be scarcely recognized.

An analysis shows that the religions broadly concur on about 80% of the 165 topics covered. Instead of insisting on a religion’s uniqueness on the basis of the 20% where it differs, let’s celebrate the common ground on that shared 80%, Wilson urges.

Here is an essay for the promotion of world peace through finding religious convergence and through emphasizing the universal spiritual truth at the heart of all religion; I recommend it for reading in full. I think it is an excellent essay supporting an amazing resource. But do let me have your comments.

"Those who praise their own doctrines and disparage the doctrines of others do not solve any problem."

Jainism. Sutrakritanga 1.1.50

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Was Jesus a female God?

That is the claim of Polish philosopher Professor Henryk Skolimowski in Let There Be Light: The Mysterious Journey of Cosmic Creativity. Christ came to earth as goddess in male form, to bring the feminine qualities of love and affirmation, forgiveness and healing, to a harsh world. But the patriarchal status quo, the masculine dominance, has been suppressing and intimidating the forces of love that He brought ever since. "The forces of male mentality subverted the gentle teachings of Jesus." And because of this the Church failed to protest against a blatant perversion of Christ's teachings.
And the Christian churches will not strengthen and renew themselves, he writes, until they cease to ally themselves with this dominant male status quo, they cease to worship Mammon, and they truly recognise the female side of Jesus and pursue love beyond all else in their teaching and actions. At a time of global financial turmoil, when capitalism protest demonstrations are taking place outside St Paul’s Cathedral and Wall Street, alongside the successful establishment of female priests in the Anglican Church, and when it seems that at last we may see female bishops before too long, these are indeed interesting thoughts.
You can read my full review of this lovely book at Amazon.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

St Paul's and Wall Street Protests, and Ladakh

As the protests continue about global capitalism and unfair wealth distribution, I am minded of a book I read and reviewed some time ago but that speaks to the world just as much today.

Ladakh (part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir) is a beautiful part of the Western Himalayas. It used to be a synergistic society. That is, the economy was shaped by mutual aid or co-operation, not competition. This concept of sharing everything was seen in the conduct of all aspects of the people’s lives, from farm work to funerals, animal herding to partying. There was no waste; everything had a further use, all was recycled. Even human waste, mixed with ashes and earth, was spread annually on the fields. Money was scarcely needed, only being used for a few luxuries such as jewellery, salt, tea and a few metals for cooking pots. Otherwise the people were self sufficient, living a life of frugality in the true sense of the word, not being mean or stingy, but rather using scarce resources in a careful way, getting more out of little, being “fruitful.”
And most important of all, the people were really and truly happy. They shared a deep contentment, a strong self- respect and sense of their own individual values. Women had equal status and respect with the men, the old people had active and respected roles in their extended families, even the boys were brought up to help with the nurturing and compassionate care of the young and old alike, and this was in no way deemed to be “sissy” or unmanly.
Then in the mid 1970’s the Indian government opened the region up to Western tourism.
Over the preceding centuries changes had occurred, but at a pace whereby they could be absorbed into a gently adapting culture. Now the changes were rapid. The people were exposed to money and a seeming Western wealth that they could not comprehend; but of course they were tempted by what they saw. The youngsters saw the fun their Western counterparts were apparently having, with cars and consumerism. The adults saw technology they could not have dreamed of. And a “need” developed that they never knew they had before! And with that need came greed, and all the inevitable trappings of a global economy that relies on continuing growth and consumerism for its furtherance.
The problem was that neither side really understood the other side. The Western tourists only saw what they perceived as poverty, deprivation, lack of education, lack of “basic” conveniences. The Ladakh did not see the darker side of Western society, the aggression and stress, the cancers and heart disease, the pollution, the lack of respect for many of our old folk, left to stare at walls in nursing homes, unloved and lonely. This is the story of Ladakh, told in full by Helena Norberg-Hodge in Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World.

How long is it going to be, the author asks, before we sit up and take notice of the damage inflicted on our world by our global economy, based as it is on unsustainable consumerism and material growth. Influenced by Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Helena Norberg-Hodge’s work continues within the International Society for Ecology and Culture, promoting locally based alternatives to the global consumer culture.

We can learn so much from the Ladakh story. When will we listen to our hearts not our minds?

It is to be hoped that we can somehow show to the rest of the world that we have gone wrong – that we have tipped the balance too far over towards materialism and consumerism and that our lifestyle is not working, that it is not as desirable as it may look from their perspective. It is to be hoped that we can somehow curb our excesses, drastically reduce our consumption, and meet the rest of the world halfway between our lifestyles and theirs, so that the whole world can live according to its needs, and within its means. “Live simply, so that others may simply live,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Education for Spiritual Literacy

Teaching our young people in the ways of spirit and respect and love will be the world’s healing force for the future.

There is much ignorance, fear and misunderstanding to be overcome surrounding the many different world religions. In today’s world, strident God-denouncing books are widely read, whereas serious and informative religious material scarcely gets shelf room; because it fails the mantra – What is in it for the reader? And we can hold the media partly responsible for this in some very biased reporting policies, for plugging the sensational rather than the serious. We live in a quick sound-bite, low concentration, noisy, violent, opinionated world where every one looks only to his own interests; the only “spiritual” books that are read widely are those that promise personal growth and development, or success and wealth. We have entered the “Me- Millennium.”
But there is a very wide consensus amongst leading thinkers, scientists and, of course, religious leaders, that there is a crisis of spirituality, that the balance has been lost between the objective and the subjective, between the exoteric and the esoteric, between thinking and feeling; and the religious leaders themselves are not blameless in their failure to adapt to modern day spiritual needs. Education too often now concentrates only on league tables and exam results; there is too much emphasis on going on to higher education, to being able to command good jobs and high salaries, to rise to the top. And in many schools there is little time or space for spiritual nurture, for soul healing, beyond relativistic religious studies.

The Global Justice Movement describes the purpose of education as to ‘teach people how to become life-long learners and virtuous human beings, with the capacity to adapt to change, to become masters of technology and builders of civilization through their ‘leisure work,’ and to pursue the highest spiritual values.’

The Dalai Lama has stressed that education ‘constitutes one of our most powerful weapons in our quest to bring about a better, more peaceful, world.’ He emphasizes the need to open children’s eyes to the needs and rights of others, so that their actions have a universal dimension, and they develop their ‘natural feelings of empathy so that they come to have a sense of responsibility towards others.’ He reminds us that traditionally it has been assumed that ethical and human values would be taught through a child’s religious upbringing rather than in mainstream state education. With the declining influence of religion and faith in family life this vital part of a child’s education has become neglected. The Dalai Lama proffers three guidelines for the education of our children. First, he says, we need to awaken their consciousness to basic human values by showing them how these are relevant to their future survival, rather than presenting them as solely an ethical or faith issue. Then we must teach them how to discuss and debate, to understand the value of dialogue rather than violence for resolving conflict. Finally there is the urgent need to teach children that differences of race, faith, culture, while important to preserve, are nevertheless secondary to the equal rights of us all from whatever background to be happy.”

Many other respected thinkers are calling for a spiritual revolution in our schools, a move towards an education that enhances spiritual literacy.

Spirituality comes naturally to the very young. I observe this first hand in my work in an Anglican church. And there is scientific evidence that humans appear to be born with an inbuilt spiritual awareness, and that this will normally be expressed via the religious culture in which they are nurtured.

The great tragedy in my view is that this innate spirituality seems to be very often left at the school gates when children enter secondary school.

The world’s religions have an enormous influence in education. And where they are involved, and use that mandate for proper spiritual nurture and growth, rather than for any subversive activity, then all to the well and good. And of course it is the perceived indoctrination and exclusivity, for good or ill, of “religious” schools, that the atheists rail against. So let’s support the faith school, and simply ensure through parent and governor powers that they do not abuse their position of trust in developing the spiritually literate, empathic, well rounded citizens of tomorrow, that the world so needs!

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ancient Wisdom Modern World: Ethics for the New Millennium (London: Abacus, Time Warner Books UK, 2000), p.192.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Quote for the Day

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.” 

Albert Einstein

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Thought for the Day

There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it. 
George Bernard Shaw

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The power of prayer and meditation – the interface between Medicine and Religion

Science is increasingly meeting spirituality within medicine:
Larry Dossey: "I used to believe that we must choose between science and reason on the one hand, and spirituality on the other, as foundations for living our lives. Now I consider this a false choice…we can recover the sense of sacredness…not just in science, but in every area of life." From Reinventing Medicine
In 1988 Byrd, a cardiologist at the San Francisco General Hospital and also a devout Christian was struck by a conversation with a colleague about a terminally ill cancer patient. All medical avenues had been exhausted and the physicians really did not know what else they could do for the patient. We could try prayer, said Byrd.(2)Thus began the prayer study that has inspired so many subsequent experiments into non -local healing phenomena. The scientifically designed and double blind trials produced more positive responses in those groups of patients who were prayed for, when compared with the control groups. Although the sample was small and the statistical interpretation of the results controversial, there have been many more studies since then that have corroborated in different ways the principal of that pioneer experiment; non local intervention such as prayer can give a positive outcome. Byrd’s work certainly proved to be a catalyst for physicians such as Dossey who was interested in exploring the spiritual questions of medicine within wider parameters beyond the known interaction of mind and body.
Inspired by his belief in faith's healing power, and by personal experience Harold G. Koenig(3) has spent many years studying the impact of people's religious life on their physical and emotional health. He shows how prayer can very definitely help people come through serious afflictions and improve the outcome of many illnesses. He relates many such stories of hope and inspiration in The Healing Power of Faith,(4) which he later followed up with The Healing Connection: The Story of a Physician's Search for the Link Between Faith and Health.”(5)

Work of doctors such as Dossey and Koenig who are recognizing a further healing dimension in medicine beyond the body and brain are I believe incredibly important in helping us gain an understanding of a further dimension in religion beyond the dogma and doctrine. There is a massive overlap between the phenomena described by these men in their healing practices and the power of prayer or meditation in a religious or spiritual setting. But there is still a great deal of prejudice against these views, particularly those where the focus is specifically on religion, rather than on a more generalized concept of spirituality. Indeed, doctors and nurses have put their careers in jeopardy by suggesting prayer in a clinical setting, for example.
We are indeed seeing the dawning of a new paradigm in the history of medicine: we are entering an era where the spiritual healing needs of the patient can be met alongside both alternative and complementary therapies and the very best of the latest clinical medicine. Although there are some highly successful holistic healing centers – for example Burrswood in the UK, and the Integrative Medical Clinic of Santa Rosa, California, much work still needs to be done.
Dossey has labeled what he sees as the dawning of the latest phase of medical history as Era III. This is the era of non-local mind medicine. Some of the most exciting work to emerge over the last few years has been that of Dossey himself as he works to show to the world the ability of a mind that is ‘unconfined to the brain and body, mind spread infinitely throughout space and time,’ a concept introduced in his 1989 book Recovering the Soul. ‘This is the first era of scientific medicine that acknowledges that our thoughts may affect not only our own body, (Era II), but the body of a distant individual, without the mediation of any known physical energy or force, and without diminution by spatial separation,’ he writes. ‘Non-local healing phenomena appear almost always to involve consciousness: the empathic, loving intent of one individual to help another.’(6)
This all builds on Byrd’s earlier and famous research and there are an increasing number of empirical and scientifically measurable studies on spiritual tools such as prayer intercessions, intuition, dreams and stories of coincidence that provide a sound foundation for those who believe that medicine can be imbued with spirit. In his book Reinventing Medicine Dossey relates stories of experiments conducted on subjects as diverse as barley seeds and yeast cells, mice and human tissue cultures, to see the effect of prayer or other healing intention, often using conditions and analyses as stringent as any employed in traditional drug trials. In one such experiment, for example, mice were measured for their ability to heal from a deliberate wound made on their backs. The subjects were divided into three groups. The group that was exposed to the attentions of a healer showed a statistically significant healing rate above that of the group looked after by inexperienced medical students with no interest in healing, or by the control group. Similarly, it has been shown that yeast cells respond with an increased growth rate to the attentions of spiritual healers when compared with the attention of those disinterested students. It has to be assumed that mice and yeast cells are incapable of giving a bias to the experiments through their own positive thinking, or by praying for themselves or for those in one of the other groups. This answers some of the cynicism often displayed around prayer experiments on human beings. We do not need to understand why these experiments give the results they do. As Dossey points out, we still don’t understand gravity but we have come to accept it! If we are prepared to accept these profound findings medicine certainly will require reinvention.

What does this have to do with religious tolerance? Firstly and perhaps most obviously, I believe that we need to build a society where doctors and nurses can talk about spirit and soul and prayer with their patients in appropriate circumstances without fear of reprimand.
But I think that this new era of medicine has a deeper significance for religious tolerance. Because there seems to be the potential for so much common ground between the findings of doctors such as Byrd, Dossey and Koenig, and the spirit and power of prayer, meditation and spirituality in any religious setting.

(1)Byrd story related by Larry Dossey, in Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing, Shaftesbury, Dorset, Boston, Massachusetts: Element Books, 2000, p. 12, p. 53 et. seq.
(2)Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Associate Professor of Medicine, Dr. Koenig is founder and former director of Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality and Health, and is founding Co-Director of the current Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University’s Medical Center,
(3) Koenig, Harold and Malcolm McConnell, The Healing Power of Faith: How Belief and Prayer can help you Triumph over Disease, Paperback Simon & Schuster - April 17, 2001.
(4) Koenig, Harold G., The Healing Connection: The Story of a Physician's Search for the Link between Faith and Health (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004).
(5) Dossey, Larry, Recovering the Soul: a Scientific and Spiritual Search (Bantam, 1989).
(6)Definitions of the 3 Eras taken from Larry Dossey, article, The Forces of Healing: Reflections on Energy, Consciousness, and the Beef Stroganoff Principle, revised from the keynote address and welcome originally presented at Exploring the Forces of Healing, the Second Annual Alternative Therapies Symposium; April 1997; Orlando, Fla.
(7) Larry Dossey, 2000, also a HarperCollins e-book; 1 edition July 24, 2007)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

It is the Same Thing that we all Worship

“It is the same thing that we all worship; we all think the same; we look up to the same stars; there is one sky above us, one world around us; what difference does it make with what kind of method the individual seeks the truth? We cannot all follow the same path to so great a mystery.”(1)
(Senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (c. 345 – 402), Roman statesman, orator, and man of letters in fourth century Rome).

“So great a mystery as the Divinity cannot be fixed in one image, which would exclude all others - to one path obligatory for all…He is practising the ethic of tolerance who recognizes in each one a little of the truth, who does not set his own above what is strange to him, and who peacefully takes his place in the multiform symphony of the eternally unattainable that hides itself in symbols, symbols that yet seem to be the only way we have to grasp in some sense the Divinity.”(2)
(Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI).

References - (1) Cited in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance- Christian Belief and World Religions, (Ignatius Press, 2004)(2) p. 176, the oration of 384 AD by the senator Symacchus before Emperor Valentinian II, in defence of paganism and advocating restoration of statue of goddess Victoria in the Roman Senate, quoted from Gnilka, Chresis.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Too Much Noise

Apparently the University of Carolina jams technology in the lecture theater to eliminate distractions away from the important matter in hand – the lecture. Is that right? Are there any students of Carolina University out there to disagree?

I was at a conference at Cambridge University, UK, the other weekend, on Sustainability in Crisis. (That is another story, that I will come back to later – my report for that will be going up on the Conscious Connections website soon). Anyway,I was listening to the American Douglas Crawford-Brown, Director Emeritus of the Institute for the Environment at the University if North Carolina, US, making his contribution to an exploration of how we need to govern for sustainability. Douglas has now moved to Cambridge, where he is Executive Director of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research. And he told us that his enforced change of lifestyle has not only cut his carbon footprint by 60% but he is also much happier with a much better quality of living to boot. And he it was who mentioned the technology jamming. He should know!

I have to say that I did find somewhat distracting the clicking of laptop keyboards all around me as people took notes, not to mention the flashes of mobiles as they took photos of the power point presentations. Surely this must have distracted the speakers as well? And somehow I found it a little rude.

Fast forward to this last weekend, when I was at the Christian New Media conference in London, exploring how we can best use in our churches the many new digital media opportunities available to us. And right at the beginning we were told to switch on our mobiles. Yes, switch them on, not off! And all through the day there was a continual twitter roll up on the screens at each side of the main lecture hall, full of a continuous chatter of tweets from the assembled 360 delegates. How distracting was that!! And isn’t it somehow rude? Not listening with full attention to the words of wisdom from the platform? Even if the tweets are comments on what the speaker has just said? Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned!

But there is a serious point I want to make on all this. There is too much noise!

A new organ of consciousness

Long before the era of mass cheap travel and the universal availability of personal computers, the French Jesuit and visionary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin predicted a new kind of oneness of humanity. He foresaw the massive advances in technology and communications that would create a planetary information network. He called this new organ of consciousness the ‘noosphere’. This, he said, would enable a convergence of mankind at all levels, between families, communities, organizations and nations, across all boundaries, social, cultural, economic and political. With the development of the worldwide web, and the enormous advances in global communication that this made possible, these predictions have been fulfilled. What is more, Teilhard also foresaw the possible dangers of such convergence; and that this had fundamental implications for the future of humanity if we did not consciously evolve to cope with the effects of these changes.
Teilhard lived before the age of the internet and the global communications phenomenon that he foresaw so accurately. He made a life time study out of trying to integrate theories of evolution with religious experience, particularly Christian theology. Most of all he wanted to understand the place of man within evolution and the implications that would have for our future.1 He was excited by the possibilities of his predicted new global consciousness for the future evolution of mankind. Man, he said, was at an evolutionary crossroads, and if he could overcome the dangers inherent in these changes, then he was capable of heading for a new state of peace and planetary unity. There would be a convergence of systems across the world, a coalescence of consciousness. He called this the ‘Omega’ point. He was equally clear that to achieve this new planetary harmony ‘It is not our heads or our bodies, which we must bring together, but our hearts…Humanity…is building its composite brain beneath our eyes. May it not be that tomorrow, through the biological deepening of the movement drawing it together, it will find its heart, without which the ultimate wholeness of its power of unification can never be achieved?’1” (3)

I do not believe that the coalescence of consciousness of which de Chardin spoke is fulfilled in the constant noise of tweets, or digital inconsequential chatter. That is not where humanity will be healed. Note that de Chardin spoke of bringing together our hearts, not our heads or bodies. Constant electronic noise, however much it is used to make connections between humans, distracts from our spiritual being, from our spiritual connectivity. It is true that in the conference we were shown many wonderful opportunities that digital media could bring to our churches. But that sense of spiritual togetherness, of love and harmony between all sentient beings, is found in group meditation, prayer, worship, and in the sound of silence, not in digital noise. And I believe that it will be an increased understanding of the mysteries of our global human consciousness, not digital connections, which will finally bring humans together to live and work in peaceful love and compassion and cooperation regardless of color or faith or creed.

“And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”
King James Bible, Cambridge Edition - 1 Kings ch. 19, vv. 11, 12

1. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, written to understand what is happening to man and to help others understand.
2. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, Collins 1969, p. 49.
3. Extract from Healing This Wounded Earth, 2011, O Books.

Monday, 17 October 2011

It is fashionable to knock God

Those books that do so become bestsellers overnight.
But much of the anger seems to be directed more at organized religion, accompanied by what appear to be serious and often strident calls for its abolition, as if that were at all possible, let alone sensible.
And there is an increase in those of us who call ourselves spiritual, whatever that means! At the same time, there seems to be a growing realization that there is something missing in many peoples’ lives, some hard to describe quality that may be called spirit. Some are calling for the infusion of this spirit throughout our lives if we are to build a better world for all, and for the need to enhance and nurture spiritual literacy. I’ve contributed to this myself, in Healing…. So what is going on? The rise of this so- called spirituality (again whatever that means) does seem to be matched with a decline in organized religion, much to the delight of militant and angry atheists and humanists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, et al). Don’t religion and spirituality go hand in hand? Or do they? Can we have one without the other? Which came first? Is one an identifiable aspect of the other? Do they need each other?
Books appear that reply to the angry atheists, explain why there is a God.
But I want to go further in the defense of religion. I want to show you why I believe there is an urgent need to support religion in its many guises and how this may be possible. We need to build tolerance. Or do we? And the atheists and humanists also need to develop tolerance, instead of feeding and brainwashing easily influenced minds, a crime by the way of which the organized religions stand accused by the atheists themselves.
On the day that William Lane Craig debates in London with Stephen Law on Does God Exist, (a debate which Richard Dawkins declined to take part in) I ask -  
What is the sane alternative?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Power of Non-Violence

I was sorting through many loose papers today, trying to tidy up my desk, and found a reference to the following blog posted on my Ripples of Hope site back in July. Not only is it relevant to this Tolerance blog, (not in existence at that time), it is a timely reminder that I still haven't read the book featured. Must do so soon, and report back on it!! So I quote from my other blog:

"We have recently seen some wonderful examples of the power of non violence - for example the successful liberation of Egypt from the Mubarak regime. I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, all of whom have preached justice by non violent means.

I subscribe to the Christian magazine Sojourners, Faith in Action for Social Justice, and in the July edition just received have had my attention drawn by a letter from a Tom Ewell of Clinton Washington, to The Power of Non Violence, written by Richard Gregg in 1934, after the author had spent four years with Gandhi running up to the campaign for Indian independence.

I have found an inexpensive second hand copy, the revised 1959 edition that includes a foreword by Martin Luther King, and look forward to reading it - and will write a review in due course. (Now available as kindle version). I am sure, as Tom says, that this has enormous relevance today as all those years ago."

So now I must indeed do as promised and get reading!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Peace in the Middle East - start with Economic Justice

Sometimes an idea comes along that just does not get the airing it deserves. And sometimes books likewise. I thought this as I listened the other day to a talk given by Julia Foster of the Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund to a group of Christian “ladies who lunch.” The premise of the Foundation is that “Only Jesus can reconcile Jews and Arabs, and He is doing it” and it “aims to build bridges of understanding and support in a spirit of reconciliation between believers (both Jewish and Arab) in the Holy Land (Israel and the Palestinian Areas) and Christians worldwide.” I was uneasy with this. Perhaps that is why one lady walked out? In my research into religious tolerance for my own book I am rather favoring the idea of respectful dialogue between faiths, not requiring conversion of all to Christianity that the Olive Tree Fund seems to be advocating?

"If you want Peace, work for Justice" was the message of his Holiness Pope Paul VI
for the celebration of the day of peace 1 January 1972.

And I thought back to the book Seven Steps to Justice, by Rodney Shakespeare and Peter Challen, which I had read some while back now. So as soon as I was home again I found it and reread it. (It is a delightfully small volume and very easy to read and digest).
The basic theme of the book is the proposal of a new financial system that will give two basic incomes for all, capital ownership for all, a proper deal for women, and a solution to the Middle East (and Kashmir). A lofty aim!

Economists, philosophers, theologians and more have contributed to the debate on the way forward for our economy in the context of addressing the world’s often seemingly insuperable problems. Our economic system is certainly not serving us well at the moment in its present form. Perhaps this is the opportunity to consider other options that address some of the present flaws.
We do urgently need a system that promotes human justice and that stresses the importance of the long-term sustainability and protection of our planet. Where can we find this? (I’ve written about this quite a bit before so those who are regular readers bear with me for a short while).

The Global Justice Movement and Binary Economics
One such organization that works within these parameters is The Global Justice Movement (1). The essence of this movement’s message is an inclusive justice for all. It promotes policies that will provide a new, stable, just, global monetary system that will protect the environment by its sustainability, address poverty and the present rich–poor divide, and focus on real productive economy. It starts with the idea of national bank-issued interest-free loans that have a real link to productive capacity and the spreading of that productive capacity, arising from within society. It is opposed to interest bearing loans which are created without any link to production, which have no regard as to whether the needs of society are met and which are controlled by those with no concern for society. It takes up the line of Pope Paul VI: Global justice, it believes, ends with global peace.

So what monetary system is proposed? Binary economics (1) is a system developed in the 1990s by Rodney Shakespeare with Robert Ashford that fits well within the aims of the Global Justice Movement. It is based on the principle that both capital and labor should physically produce wealth and that all individuals should have access to such capital, provided for them if necessary using interest free money. This could produce a secure source of income for everyone, regardless of age, ability or occupation. This is the new and refreshing idea that has been woven into a complete re-thinking of economics and politics, expressed in a most extraordinary vision in Seven Steps to Justice.

So what is that vision for the Middle East?
The vision is of economic justice first and foremost in the region, and then trading on the fact of a historic Abrahamic bond between Jew and Arab, which can be built upon. It then uses the idea of the biblical Sabbatical and Jubilee years, designed for “ensuring that all individuals were regularly restored to positions where they could produce for, and produce enough for, themselves. In simple terms, it was a periodic renewal of economic justice.” (p. 95 Seven Steps To Justice). And it draws upon the binary economics of Ashford and Shakespeare.

And all this is to be implemented within a new entity that Shakespeare and Challen call The Abraham Society. The Centre for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) in Washington D.C. had already proposed The Abraham Federation, and through the CESJ representatives of the Palestinians and Israelis have apparently already reacted in an open-minded and constructive way to this whole idea. How far has this come? Has Tony Blair read these books and papers? I have to assume he has. I would like to know how far, if at all, this idea has progressed?

For much more background I recommend starting with the paper from the CESJ: 
From which I quote:
“Building a just and pluralistic nation is, of course, a complex undertaking. But by focusing on the limitless possibilities of industrial growth, rather than on endless confrontation over scarce land resources, Arab and Jewish settlers of the Abraham Federation can take a new look at their common problem. Under the mantle of Abraham, they can step back into the past in order to leap forward into a more just and hopeful future.”

Given that tensions and strife in the Middle East affect the whole world, Seven Steps to Justice (2) is then one of the most potentially and profoundly life changing books I have come across. Its methods appeal.

1. Robert Ashford and Rodney Shakespeare, Binary Economics: the New Paradigm (Lanham MD: University Press of America, 1999).
2. Rodney Shakespeare and Peter Challen, Seven Steps to Justice, London: New European Publications Limited, 2002.