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

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Buddhist and the healing power of nature

Of all the great faiths and philosophies, the Buddhist seems to understand most clearly not only our need to live more simply and altruistically within the natural world but also the healing power of nature.
The Vietnamese monk Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

"Buddhists believe that the reality of the interconnectedness of human beings, society and Nature will reveal itself more…as we gradually cease to be possessed by anxiety, fear, and the dispersion of the mind. Among the three - human beings, society, and Nature - it is us who begin to effect change. But in order to effect change we must recover ourselves, one must be whole. Since this requires the kind of environment favorable to one’s healing, one must seek the kind of lifestyle that is free from the destruction of one’s humanness. Efforts to change the environment and to change oneself are both necessary. But we know how difficult it is to change the environment if individuals themselves are not in a state of equilibrium."

(This is from the Buddhist faith statement prepared for the Alliance of Religions and Conservation by Kevin Fossey, Buddhist educator and representative of Engaged Buddhism in Europe; Somdech Preah Maha Ghosananda, Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism; His Excellency Sri Kushok Bakula, 20th Reincarnation of the Buddha’s Disciple Bakula, head of Ladakhi Buddhism, and initial rebuilder of Mongolian Buddhism; and Venerable Nhem Kim Teng, Patriarch of Vietnamese Buddhism: From Faith in Conservation: 2003, pp.77, 78. Also online at ARC site.)

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

human emptiness reflected within an increasingly barren earth?

In my vignettes on the great faiths of the world, and their teachings on Creation, we now come to Sikhism.

Guru Nanak, who laid the foundation of Sikhism in the late fifteenth century, declared that matter is only a form of spirit and spirit is the only reality.
Sikhs believe that "The current instability of the natural system of the earth, the external environment of human beings, is only a reflection of the instability and pain within humans.  

The increasing barrenness of the earth’s terrain is a reflection of the emptiness within humans."

Now that is something I can really relate to.

On creation the Sikh believes:

"a concern for the environment is part of an integrated approach to life and nature. As all creation has the same origin and end, humans must have consciousness of their place in creation and their relationship with the rest of creation. Humans should conduct themselves through life with love, compassion, and justice. Becoming one and being in harmony with God implies that humans endeavor to live in harmony with all of God’s creation."

Whether or not one believes in God or any other gods, and whatever our beliefs about the origins of this world and all its creatures, surely few can argue with the need for us to be aware of the part we play within the complex network of life on this earth. This after all is basic ecology. And if we all conducted ourselves in this life with total love, compassion and justice, wouldn't the world be a much better place for us all? 

(Sikh quotes taken from the Sikh faith statement compiled by Sri Akhal Takhat Sahib under the guidance of Sri Singh Sahib Manjit Singh, the Jathedar of Anandapur, for Faith in Conservation: 2003, pp. 132 and 134).

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Creation in the eyes of the Hindu.

In the UK, near Birmingham, the Hindu community has reclaimed an area of polluted industrial scrubland. Here they have built a beautiful Hindu Temple within surroundings that now incorporate a historic canal, woodland and hills. From early beginnings where there was much resistance from local communities, there is now a place of beauty that is available not only for Hindu worship, but also cultural and educational events. The Hindus have healed the earth and restored a green and healthy environment to wildlife and the local community.
I really like that story.
Here is a religion that teaches its followers to live simply and to see God in everything in the Universe. ‘Conserve ecology or perish,’ says the Bhagavad Gita, (or Song of God), the Hindu sacred scripture.
‘God’s creation is sacred. Humanity does not have the right to destroy what it cannot create. Humans have to realize the interconnectedness of living entities and emphasize the idea of moral responsibility to oneself, one’s society, and the world as a whole.’ Hindus teach that we can learn spiritual happiness and find fulfillment by living simply and without chasing after material wants and pleasures:

"They have to milk a cow and enjoy, not cut at the udder of the cow with greed to enjoy what is not available in the natural course. Do not use anything belonging to nature, such as oil, coal, or forest, at a greater rate than you can replenish it…do not destroy birds, fish, earthworms, and even bacteria which play vital ecological roles; once they are annihilated you cannot recreate them. Thus only can you avoid becoming bankrupt, and the life cycle can continue for a long, long time."

All these statements that I am drawing upon tell us how the different faiths view creation and their part in it - they are fine words. But how about the reality? How do we really behave towards nature? Do we all take our faiths into the workplace? Indeed we do not!!
But great work is being done by all the different faiths in the field of conservation and environmental sustainability.
The Alliance of Religions and Conservation, formed to help religions live out their beliefs within the environment, supports many different such projects across the world.

For the above I have used the faith statement for Hinduism from Faith in Conservation, 2003, which consists of three distinct sections reflecting the major strands within Vedic (Hindu) thought – these specific quotations are from the statement based on the comments by: Swami Vibudhesha Teertha, Acharya of Madhvacarya Vaishnavas, Udupi, Central Advisory Committee Member of the Visva Hindu Parishad.

The photo is from Photobucket - I don't know which temple this is. As far as I know it is not the one in Birmingham!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Judaism and Creation

So now we come to the Judaism views on God's creation:

Jews believe that the entire universe is the work of the Creator, and therefore to love God must mean to love everything He has created, including the inanimate, plants, animals and man. This core belief is behind the Jewish attitude to environmental issues. They also believe that nature in all its beauty has been created for man, and it is, therefore, wrong for man to spoil it. Moreover, man’s connection to nature can restore him to his original character, to a natural state of happiness and joy.
In the current environmental crisis, Jewish values and laws are seen to be paramount. ‘If the proper course is followed, man will not forfeit his opportunity to live a life of comfort in his environment, nor will the environment be uncomfortable with man.’
Judaism teaches that it is wrong to over exploit the earth’s resources, or behave in such a way as to destroy any species, since all have been created for some purpose. Jews understand the vital importance of preserving the natural balance of creation.

So in the three great Abrahamic religions we see a common theme as regards their relationship with the environment, in the need to preserve it; although the Jewish teaching seems a little more materialistic and dare I say a little egocentric when compared with the Christian ideal? Is that fair comment I wonder? Although I do like the way the writer here quoted has expressed the relationship between man and the environment as symbiotic. It truly is, and the sooner man really and deeply realizes this truth the better it will be for this mother earth that we ravage and wound so deeply in so many ways.Note also the expressed need to love the inanimate as well as the animate amongst God's creations, meaning I guess the mountains, the streams and the oceans. They are inextricably linked of course with the animate life around and within them. And I certainly agree with the idea that nature is restorative and healing. I'm sure many of us can relate to that and I've written quite a bit more about that in my book.

Professor Nahum Rakover, an Orthodox legalist and Torah/Talmud scholar, was appointed by the World Jewish Congress to write a very extensive and comprehensive statement on ecology in Judaism for Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment 2003, Palmer, Martin with Victoria Finlay, from which the above information and short extract have been taken.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Christianity, Creation and the Environment

In my tour of the world's great faiths, and their teachings on creation and the environment, I shall begin with Christianity. It is after all still the faith to which 33% of the world’s population and 78% of North Americans turn for their healing and spiritual nourishment. The ministry of Jesus Christ reflects the very essence of the Wounded Healer, with his compassion borne out of his own redemptive suffering for mankind.
However, throughout the history of Christianity, its followers have tended to think of their relationship with God’s Divine creation in terms of stewardship, which has been too often interpreted as mastery. Faced by the threat of environmental crises, the main Christian Churches have been redefining their theology for some time, as seen in the document from a meeting of the World Council of Churches in Granvollen, Norway, in 1988:

"The drive to have ‘mastery’ over creation has resulted in the senseless exploitation of natural resources, the alienation of the land from people and the destruction of indigenous cultures…Creation came into being by the will and love of the Triune God, and as such it possess an inner cohesion and goodness. Though human eyes may not always discern it, every creature and the whole creation in chorus bear witness to the glorious unity and harmony with which creation is endowed. And when our human eyes are opened and our tongues unloosed, we too learn to praise and participate in the life, love, power and freedom that is God’s continuing gift and grace."

The World Council of Churches again came together in 1990 ‘to consider the issues of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation,’ when they wrote in an affirmation of faith:

"The integrity of creation has a social aspect which we recognise as peace with justice, and an ecological aspect which we recognise in the self-renewing, sustainable character of natural eco-systems. We will resist the claim that anything in creation is merely a resource for human exploitation. We will resist species extinction for human benefit; consumerism and harmful mass production; pollution of land, air and waters; all human activities which are now leading to probable rapid climate change; and the policies and plans which contribute to the disintegration of creation."

The report concludes with a challenge to all Christians, ‘to discover anew the truth that God’s love and liberation is for all creation, not just humanity; to realise that we should have been stewards, priests, co-creators with God for the rest of creation but have actually often been the ones responsible for its destruction; and to seek new ways of living and being Christians that will restore that balance and give the hope of life to so much of the endangered planet.’

Now how many of us who claim to be Christians are prepared to rise to that challenge?
And remember these statements were made over 20 years ago. Have matters changed significantly since then?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

God's Creation and the world's faiths

All the world’s faiths share a concern for Creation. Whether or not we believe that our world is God’s Creation, it is instructive to look at the beliefs of some of the main faiths regarding our relationship with the environment. We should be aware of the substantial work they are all doing, often in collaboration or cooperation with others, towards ensuring the earth’s future protection. In an age when we so often seem to focus on differences between our faiths, and when we are urged to celebrate these differences, it is I think instructive to remember first just how much we all share in common. Our similar views on Creation are a very good case in point.

First a story, taken from Palmer, Martin with Victoria Finlay, Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment, The World Bank Washington DC 2003, p. 3.:
The Tanzanian island of Misali on the East African coast is an important nesting site for turtles and has wonderful corals reefs to support the fish population. The local fishermen were unwittingly beginning to destroy this ecosystem by the indiscriminate use of dynamite to literally blow their fishing catch out of the water. This made their fishing so much easier, and the catch so much more certain. But of course this was not only killing young fish that were too small to catch, and would have escaped through more traditional nets. It was also destroying the coral habitat on which the fish population depends. In the long term this would seriously threaten the livelihood of the fishing community. Attempts to educate the fishermen through leaflets had no effect, and neither did the imposition of a law banning this method of fishing. The law was simply flouted, a sadly common human reaction. Scientists even suggested that there should be armed patrols to apprehend the culprits to put an end to this devastation of their environment. But by appealing to the Muslim faith of the majority involved, through the community sheik leaders, the fishermen were persuaded that what they were doing was wrong, that dynamite fishing is illegal according to the laws of Islam. In particular the Qur’an teaches ‘O children of Adam! and drink: but waste not by excess for Allah loveth not the wasters.’(The Qur’an 007.031).

Over the next few postings I shall write more about the different great faiths of the world and how they each view their place and role within Creation and their responsibility to the environment.

The pictures were taken in Madeira. A beautiful island.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Phiroz Mehta - The Heart of Religion - and Being Truly Human

One of the wonderful bonuses that arise out of the Scientific and Medical Network Conferences is the networking and exchanging of ideas and information. Knowing my interest in the study of religious tolerance alongside my heartfelt vision for the infusion of spirit throughout our lives, (explored in some detail in my first book, Healing This Wounded Earth….) a delegate asked if I had heard of the work of Phiroz Mehta. Indeed I had not, and that is why I find myself on holiday by the side of the pool reading Mehta’s wonderful book, The Heart of Religion. And an amazing book it is, but sadly no longer widely available I fear: because it really needs a wider exposure in an age hungry for an understanding of the role of both religion and spirituality in our lives. Mehta was an extremely erudite student of both and well qualified to write this masterpiece.
An Indian born writer and lecturer on religious topics, he died in 1994 in his 92nd year, but not before leaving a valuable legacy of his knowledge in his various books, not least of which is this one. Completed in 1976, this book encapsulates a lifetime’s study into all the major religions of the world, both theoretical and personal. Mehta was deeply concerned with discovering through personal experience the Truth that is The Heart of Religion, through practical as well as theoretical research: he accordingly practiced both the “outer” and the “inner” disciplines of several of our great religions. This book therefore carries with it a great deal of authority.
Some may find it a slightly difficult read in places, perhaps most so when they are unable to comprehend where Mehta is coming from, in his search for the Transcendent and the Truth. But I would submit that this is the reader’s loss. The book is crammed full of wisdom that is as fresh today as it was in the 1960’s, indeed in some aspects he had tremendous foresight of what was to come, and this and cannot fail to elicit the response from any thinking person today; why on earth after all these years are we still doing so very little about this?

I shall be dipping into this wonderful work again from time to time in this forum, not least for his advice and wisdom in two comprehensive chapters on mindfulness and meditation, but here is a taster from elsewhere in the book, in his chapter on Morality, Religious Observances and Discipline (p. 278):

“Science has opened up many beneficent possibilities and put undreamed of power into our hands. But we have shamefully betrayed our trust by criminal misuse of power, due to our lamentable shortness of understanding, compassion and self-restraint, and because of our abject slavery to greed, fear, power-lust and licentious self-indulgence. Inevitably catastrophe has castigated us again and again but we remain un-chastened, and point a finger of blame always at the other person instead of to our own hearts burning with the poisonous passion for wealth and pleasure and power.
Technology is merely a tool, a lifeless mechanism. If – and only if – it is operated by a clean hand, a wise mind and a pure heart, will it serve us for our lasting good instead of crushing us relentlessly under its juggernaut wheels.”

And from Healing this Wounded Earth:

“We lived simply in those early post war years, and the material changes we have seen since then have been immense. But material wealth does not apparently bring us happiness, peace and contentment. We now live in a culture where success seems to be based on celebrity status and wealth. The material possessions of others often create envy and greed, and this fuels its own social problems. Do we buy what we want rather than what we need? Is our purchase fuelled by need or greed?
The continual urge to maintain an expensive lifestyle can cause stress and depression, both of which are now epidemics in the western world and the cause of many other health problems. The links that can exist between mental ill health and physical disorders, such as certain cancers and heart disease, are well documented.
The stark fact is that most of us now have a love affair with our car, our house, our computer technology and our other material possessions. And we all love a bargain. So much so that many of us are unwilling to pay the premium for fairly traded and fairly priced organic or local goods. We love our sanitized, standardized, pre-packaged meat and perfectly blemish free fruit and vegetables. But when we chase the cheapest mass-produced goods we are at the same time casting aside any ethical considerations regarding the production of those goods. We really do not want to think about the possible sweat-shop conditions of the laborers, the unrealistically low wages that may have been paid, the cruelty inflicted on helpless animals, that our purchasing behavior may be promoting. But we need to!”

And on Yoga, Mehta wrote in 1976 (p. 279):

“Yoga is in fashion. For most of its practitioners it means a system of exercises in physical postures and breathing. Far more important aspects such as the pure ethical life in thought and speech and action, the discipline of the mind, meditation and communion, are barely considered, or else altogether ignored. The common appeal to greed and vanity and egoism – get fit; acquire a lovely figure; enjoy the pleasures of life even more; achieve success and triumph over your competitor – meets with an eager response from the multitude, so that a rapidly expanding field of exploitation has opened up, financially and psychologically.
The spirit can never be bought and sold….”

And from Healing this Wounded Earth:

“Unfortunately Yoga today has too often become nothing more than the learning and practicing of physical postures to aid and maintain physical health and fitness, flexibility and balance in our bodies, a sort of yogi aerobics! But combined with meditation, the use of mantras and breathing exercises, the postures become much more than a physical fitness regime. Yoga becomes a holistic healing system with the aim of attaining the healthy integration of body, mind and spirit. Yoga after all comes from the Sanskrit ‘yuj’, meaning to join or yoke. If practiced completely, true to the principles of Patanjali, it is a spiritual journey, a search for deeper self - knowledge, a source of inner peace, and mental and physical harmony. The postures or asanas so often isolated today into nothing more than a keep-fit class were actually developed as an aid in concentrating the mind to meditate more deeply.”

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It is clear that too many people simply are not aware or do not care about the abyss towards which we are all plunging. How do we stir the masses out of apathy? We need education, education, education, writ large, as they say, but is that going to be enough, or will it be soon enough?

Reference - the website of the Phiroz Mehta Trust, Being Truly Human

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Funchal Cathedral

The cathedral in Funchal - with one very 21st century machine getting in the way. Sadly the cathedral is closed from 12 noon until 4pm every day so yet again I did not get to see inside!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Faith line, Color line, revisited

Since writing my last post about the faith line and the color line, I have been to a secondhand bookshop! Now I absolutely love secondhand bookshops. I simply cannot pass any sale of secondhand books without stopping to browse, and I almost always find something I cannot resist, to add to my burgeoning bookshelves at home, or to increase the height of the pile of books waiting to be read by my bedside. I guess it’s an addiction in its own way! Although perhaps it’s not a bad addiction to have!
The other day we went out for the afternoon to view part of our wonderful national heritage – a splendid Jacobean house and garden open to the public. And there beyond the back of the gift shop selling all those manner of new and over priced items that we simply do not need, was a small room stuffed with old and not so old books of every shape, size, genre and condition, simply begging to be bought; and all for a good charitable cause. What was there to lose?
So I just had to buy Comparative Religion, by A C Bouquet. Born in 1884 and an expert on the history and comparative study of religions, Bouquet wrote this paperback during the Second World War to provide what he described as a “plain tale, inspired by scientific method”… of the “religious quest of mankind, its fruits, its failures, and its future prospects…” This is a Pelican Book, an imprint of the famous Penguin Books, and I bought the fourth revised edition of 1953. How could I not buy it as part of my current research into the Wisdom of Religious Tolerance!?
I havn’t read very much yet – I’m on holiday after all – but there are some very wise words. “No doubt the study (of comparative religion) has its dangers,” he writes. “It may sink to the level of collecting dead insects or pressed flowers, which in the process lose all their colour and reality. Collecting religions is no better. The only tolerable way of engaging in the work is to let one’s self be enthralled by man’s ceaseless quest for something supernatural and eternal which the ordinary life of this world will never give him, and to try to put one’s self into the place of those who are obviously enthusiasts for a religion which is not one’s own” (my emphasis). Now I have mentioned John Sentamu’s call for religions to celebrate their differences and unique perspectives before. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, explained on his visit to the new Hindu Temple of Shri Venkateswara (Balaji) in Birmingham on 15 November 2008, ‘interfaith dialogue is not a way of obliterating our differences, it's a way of living creatively with them. A way of living gratefully with them, so that our compassion, our love and our fellow feeling do not stop simply with those who are like us.’ Only with all the facts, Bouquet wrote all those years ago, can we “make comparisons with justice and fairness.” Oh so true, and surely today so much bigotry and aggression and intolerance and ridicule arises from not appreciating the full facts, from much crass ignorance, although many suddenly seem to claim huge expertise when they can hide behind the relative anonymity of the Internet!

Dr Bouquet was himself an Anglican priest, but he was very clear of his responsibility to write an entirely objective account – to write as a scientist, he said, not as an advocate. “I believe,” he wrote, "that truth shines by its own light. I have faith that if my own creed is in any true sense absolute, it cannot suffer from an unprejudiced and dispassionate exposition of the history of religion.”
It is curious to see his use of the word science as well, in the study of religion, since of course in this twenty first century many seem to believe that science and religion are entirely incompatible, at opposite ends of the spectrum of understanding.
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 and materialistic scientists and the angry atheists for their own agenda.
Talking of which, there is another little gem in the book that I have not yet had time to look into any further. A certain Lord Herbert of Cherbury, who died in 1648, is noted by Bouquet as asserting that there are no real atheists,but only so called atheists, who object to the false and inappropriate attributes which are assigned to Deity, and will rather have no God than one who is unworthy of belief.” An interesting thought.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Can spirituality transform our world?

Ursula King poses this question in a paper of that title published in the very first issue of the brand new and rather good Journal for the Study of Spirituality.
In a nutshell she concludes that spiritualities do indeed offer a vision of hope and human flourishing, but that in practical terms we need spiritual education at all levels and to all ages, alongside a global spiritual awakening, to realize an effective spiritual transformation. We need, she says, a spiritual revolution, something dear to my own heart as readers of my blogs and book will know!
At an individual level I would say we need a spiritual re- awakening. Surely we used to be spiritual beings before many of us became unduly influenced by the advance of materialism and scientific reductionism and the accompanying cynicism about religion and spirituality. In this materialistic and consumerist world many of us have lost the ability to connect with the spirit within us, to transcend the material elements of our lives. If only we can rediscover the spiritual essence of our beings. We then need to connect that spiritual element across all boundaries of space and time, to realize that we are not mere individuals, but we are all part of a deeply interconnected, social mind, with huge potential significance for our future.
But that begs a question. What is spirituality?
It is almost impossible to define, but significantly in that same Journal John Swinton, Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care in the School of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen, draws our attention to the idea of spirituality being best thought of as something that is missing in our lives. It is true that very often people will reflect that they feel something is missing in what they do, but they have difficulty articulating what that something is. So they change jobs, go away for a while, buy more consumer goods, and never find that elusive quality they seek. They continue to feel dissatisfied but don’t really know why.
If spirituality has something to do with our search for meaning, purpose, love, some kind of a God, then we are saying that something profoundly important is too often not being adequately addressed. Our challenge, Swinton writes, is to “learn what it means to treat people as human beings.”
That is clearly of fundamental importance, as Swinton points out, when we are thinking about healthcare and the treatment of patients or about the way we run our businesses and commerce, where people can become nothing more than “economic units.” I’ve written about this elsewhere in my book Healing this Wounded Earth
But I take this a step further. To learn how to treat other people as human beings, then, strange as it may sound, I think we actually have to learn to be human beings ourselves! By that I mean that we need to raise our own spiritual awareness, be compassionate to ourselves, love ourselves, first, be “happy” in our own bodies. How can we bring love and compassion and spirituality and a total sense of worth into any workplace or life if we do not have those qualities in ourselves?

And furthermore I believe we are challenged to bring that undefined spiritual quality into everything we do – not only in our workplace, but in our communities, in our creativity, in our faiths, in our relationships, so that our work and whole way of life reflects that love and compassion and spirit and can become a healing influence for others. Because there is no doubt that the alternatives can be harmful. The Jesuit priest, Thomas Merton, tells us that our hatred of ourselves is more dangerous than our hatred of others, because we project our own evil onto others and we do not see it in ourselves. “If you love peace,” he wrote, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, “then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, [Merton’s italics] not in another.” It is easy to see how our self -hatred could for example be reflected in those nasty computer and video games that are now so freely available and are almost certainly a harmful influence to our children and indeed many adults. But someone, indeed a whole production team, brought such items to the market place, made them freely available to one and all.

Those who create such horror for the retail trade seem to be allowing their own wounds to crush them. They need their own healing. But they also have a responsibility for the potential negative effects of their work; for the harm it possibly inflicts on the minds of others. We know that people who are subjected to too much gratuitous violence put up a barrier of defense and they become desensitized, a process sometimes known as ‘psychic numbing’. (This is significant when we consider the behavior of our soldiers, for example, trained to kill, but who have to live a different life back in the “real” world.) It is not hard to see that the longer-term effects of such violence on the general behavior and indeed future of the human race could be far reaching. I wrote more about this over on my Ripples of Hope Blog very recently.

More spiritual education to enhance the world’s level of spiritual literacy would surely begin to address issues such as these. But how do we start? Some things we can all do. We can introduce our children to beautiful art in our national galleries, we can show them more of the awesome wonders of nature in our museums, we can celebrate with them the wealth of religious traditions around them, we can nurture the innate spiritual qualities within them. And we can nurture our own spiritual needs at the same time! But we do need the support of a spiritually driven education. Because we know that children are born naturally empathic and spiritual, thanks to the work of David Hay and Rebecca Nye, for example. It is our subsequent education system that crushes these qualities, beats them out of our children. And we have a generation or more of parents who went through the same spirit-crushing system!
How many of us are teachers, school governors, or otherwise involved with children in some way? We can all play an important role.

By tapping into the natural spirituality of our young and nurturing it throughout their education, I hope we can start to build a better world. I would hope that children so educated would be less inclined to squander valuable time on video “nasties,” or violent films, for example, and will be steered towards a more spiritual and healing life, a much more satisfying life, that will influence all those around them, in an ever widening aura of spiritual consciousness. Or is this a pipe dream? I don’t think so. I hope not!

This leads into plenty of other topics to write about! What do current consciousness studies tell us about the possibility of a global spiritual awareness? What are the differences between religion and spirituality, how do they interrelate? Do they overlap, or does one encompass the other? If spirituality is a necessary component of all religions why is this not a unifying force between them? What do we understand about the evolution of consciousness and spirituality? Given that we can steer our own evolution by our actions or inactions, and are conscious that we can do this, how can we steer the world towards a better future, whatever we mean by that?
I shall muse on these by the swimming pool today!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The color line - the faith line

More than one hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois warned in his book The Souls of Black Folk that the problem of the twentieth century would be the racial segregation that existed after the abolition of slavery, in ‘the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.’ He called this ‘the problem of the color line.’ With the election of President Barack Obama to the White House and only a short while before that the inauguration in the Anglican Communion of John Sentamu to be their own first black Archbishop of York, the hope must be that this color line is well on the way out.
But what about the Faith Line?
This, the American Indian Muslim Eboo Patel has pointed out, is no less divisive and no less violent than the color line. The faith line does not divide different faiths, or separate the religious from the secular. This line is divisive between the values of religious totalitarians and the values of the religious pluralists. The former believe that their way is the only way and are prepared to convert, condemn or indeed kill, those who are different, in the name of God. It is this side of the faith line that gives religions a bad press in the eyes of the secular public. The pluralists on the other hand hold that ‘people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.’ Pluralism is the belief, Patel explains, ‘that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its own unique contribution.’

We are desperately in need of a universal religious tolerance. We can all play our part, to work hard at that faith line and support in any way we can all those organizations and individuals who are striving to achieve harmony between the diverse religions of the world. Many of us are apparently blind to the fact that all the great faiths share a love, compassion and respect for all beings, sentient or not. May we all in the years to come learn to celebrate our differences and our unique perspectives in an atmosphere of tolerance, understanding and humility. This is a vital message for our future, the need to heal the rifts between religions and faiths so that we can all be a part of that great global healing, all be catalysts for healing change at society and global level.
‘…I would urge people who are judgmental and moralising,” said John Sentamu in 2005 in his inauguration sermon in York Minster,

"as followers of the Prince of Peace, the friend of the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable, I bid you all by the mercies of God to go and find friends among them, among the young, among older people, and all those in society who are demonized and dehumanized; and stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
Christians, go and find friends among Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, agnostics, atheists – not for the purpose of converting them to your beliefs, but for friendship, understanding, listening, hearing…
Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, agnostics, atheists, go and find friends amongst Christians, not for the purpose of converting them to your beliefs, but for friendship, understanding, listening, hearing.
God is working in the world today quite beyond the limits of our budgets, structures and expectation. His gospel, lived out in corporate-discipleship, has the power to transform our individual and corporate lives, our families, our communities and our nations. It has the power to break beyond our timidity and insufficiency."

The color line took a great deal of time to transcend and the work is not entirely finished. Can we dare hope that the faith line will follow the same path towards tolerance and respect for all, blessed as we now are with greater global information, communication and education? May this lead to a better understanding if we will only allow it in our hearts and minds. There are many organizations that work tirelessly to keep the principles of religious pluralism alive. They need our support. Are we ready for that challenge?

See Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: the Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Boston: Beacon Press,
And “Building the Beloved Community; Values of Religious Pluralism” in Frank, the magazine of the Clinton School of Public Service (Winter 2007b), p. 58.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Love your neighbour - as long as he is like you?

Yesterday I wrote about the late John Stott and his book Basic Christianity and his comment on Nominal Christianity. And I had to agree wholeheartedly with that.
Today I was startled by something else he wrote - in his final chapter on Being a Christian. 
Indispensable marks of the Child of God, he wrote, are "Righteousness of life and practical love to one's neighbours, especially to one's Christian brethren..." (my emphasis).
Surely he cannot have meant that? Does Jesus say anywhere in the gospels that we should favour fellow Christians over other people? Love your neighbour as yourself, but especially so if he is a Christian like you?
I was at a conference not long ago where I heard Geshe Tashi Tsering, resident Geshe at the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London, speak on The Spirit of Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism.
There are three groups of people in our lives, he told us; those very close to us whom we love, those acquaintances whom we dislike, and the remaining large group whom we ignore or to whom we are indifferent. We need to break down those divisions by abandoning any self -interest in our relationships and actions. He reminded us that even though our personal circumstances, cultures, upbringings may be different, we fundamentally all have the same yearnings, rights, desire to be happy and not suffer. We are all human. And we must feel these things at heart level, he said. Only then can we cultivate compassion towards others, and meditation is vital to this process.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, explained on his visit to the new Hindu Temple of Shri Venkateswara (Balaji) in Birmingham on 15 November 2008, ‘interfaith dialogue is not a way of obliterating our differences, it's a way of living creatively with them. A way of living gratefully with them, so that our compassion, our love and our fellow feeling do not stop simply with those who are like us.’
In his previous New Year message for 2007 he had spoken of the need for us to put right the injustices of the world, to realize that such issues are an affront to our own dignity. In some way they make each of us less of a person. We will be fed and nourished spiritually only when we really and honestly wake up to the needs of our fellow human beings, learning together to reach out to them, to heal, feed, and befriend those less fortunate than ourselves.And he wasn't saying just reach out to our own kind!
Martin Luther King in his Nobel Lecture reminded us that "All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality."
Three centuries earlier the Renaissance author and Anglican priest John Donne famously wrote in 1624:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Followers of the Baha’i faith see Earth as one country of which we are all citizens. One of their guiding principles is that ‘the oneness of humanity is the fundamental spiritual and social truth shaping our age.’ 
Now I know that the Apostle Paul, writing in his first epistle to the Corinthians, on human worth, likened the worldwide body of Christians with the human body. All parts of the body are essential for the complete welfare of the whole. In the same way we all need each other and the loss of any part weakens us all: there should be no discord between us. He taught his followers that the members of the church should ‘have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’ The ‘body’ in this biblical context is translated from the Greek Soma, related to Sozo meaning ‘to heal, preserve, be made whole.’ We are not whole: we are wounded or spiritually impoverished if we are not a part of the greater body of faith in our community. We all need to feel that connectedness, that relationship. We need to find unity within the wide diversity of all our individual gifts. We all need each other and we all are special in the eyes of God. 
But we cannot have some of us more special than others. Can we?

So I think, just for once, John Stott was wrong.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Religion as a Great Soft Cushion

I’m just rediscovering John Stott’s gem of a little book, Basic Christianity, picked up secondhand for a few pence not so long ago. I’m reading the May 1964 reprint, (selling price 3shillings and 6 pence in very old money – or seventeen and a half new pence and I guess not many US Cents!!) but it might just as well have been written for today’s world. And this post is not just for Christians!
One particular passage has caught my eye.
The great scandal of Christianity (now, I submit, as well as then), is so-called “nominal Christianity, as “large numbers of people have covered themselves,” he writes, “ with a decent, but thin, veneer of Christianity. They have allowed themselves to become somewhat involved; enough to be respectable but not enough to be uncomfortable. Their religion is a great, soft cushion. It protects them from the hard unpleasantness of life, while changing its place and shape to suit their convenience.”

Google “nominal Christianity” and you get over 11 million hits. So it’s clearly an issue today! One hit caught my eye, from the Christian Post, about the “Radical Groups” being formed by Rick Warren and Steve Gladen at Saddleback Church, California. They want to shake up their congregation, trying to reach every believer to show them how to balance five biblical principles, which include fellowship, discipleship, worship, ministry and evangelism. These five aspects should be present not only in church but in one’s personal life and lifestyle as well (my emphasis, although I'm not totally sure about the evangelism thread - that's a topic up for discussion another day in the context of religious tolerance I think). And the way to do this is in small group settings, what they call their Radical Groups.
And these will surely be tackling that great big soft cushion. Christianity was never going to be easy and soft. Take up your cross, Jesus said, before you can follow me. That means, as explained by John Stott, giving Him our thoughtful and total commitment. And that means in every thing we do, even when the going gets tough and there is no soft cushion to act as a buffer.
The great John Stott died in July this year aged 90, in a lovely English village called Lingfield. He was once ranked as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Times Magazine. I recommend his little book to anyone Christian or non-Christian alike, who wants to understand a little more about what it means to be a Christian.
Because understanding each others' faiths is key to being able to respect each others' faiths.
And more than that - we can all, religious or not, critically look at ourselves and see if we are perhaps protecting ourselves too much from the harsh realities of the world beyond our own safe sanctuaries, not taking our own responsibilities for what lies beyond our own front door, our own big soft cushion. Are we too comfortable?
I make no apology for posting this on my two blogs- something I won't do too often, I promise, but it seems very relevant to both!!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Creationism - Nonsense?

Apparently 6 out of every 10 people in America do not believe in the literal translation of the Genesis creation in the Old Testament, the biblical story of the origin of man, the story of Adam and Eve, or perhaps are not sure.
The scientific evidence for evolution by natural selection over billions of years is after all overwhelming, and now genetic science and molecular biology strengthen the case.
But alarmingly, and in spite of the now incontestable evidence otherwise, 4 out of every 10 Americans do believe in Creationism. The original 1920’s movement was simply anti-Darwin and ran out of steam with the death of William Bryan, the passionate campaigner for Creationism. But in the 1960’s a new variant was born, within the Young Earth Creationists, who teach that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that all things were made by God in six literal 24-hour days.
That is sad, because it is this movement that is so often attacked by the angry atheists, who then tar all Christians with the same brush. The atheists cannot believe the ignorance of the followers of a faith based as they see it on fairy tales and myths.
And now there is dissent and fury amongst American Christians of a Creationist bent. Professor John Schneider has been forced to retire from Calvin College in Michigan, a Christian university, because he has suggested that it is becoming ever harder to believe literally in Adam and Eve, and the concept of Original Sin and the Garden of Eden. The evangelical Christian Creationists are in uproar.
Stories such as this are pounced upon by the atheists, anxious to illustrate the continuing stupidity of so many Christians who won’t allow men such as Schneider to honestly develop their thoughts and speak their minds without sacrificing their careers.
And what is wrong with myths anyway? "Myths are the mirrors in which we can study human life", wrote Petrusca Clarkson, an eminent psychotherapist and writer of recommended textbooks who took her own life in Amsterdam in May 2006 age 58.

Martin Luther King once said that nothing in the entire world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. Quite.
Science and theology are not incompatible. They are two different ways of exploring aspects of reality.

What is interesting is that Darwin himself, always thoughtful about the possible problems with his theory of evolution by natural selection, was nonetheless clear that it did not make atheism inevitable. He was never an atheist himself, going from Christianity to theism to agnosticism during his lifetime. And he was always courteous and respectful to anyone who disagreed with his views, willing always to listen openly to other ideas. Now we could do with much more of that kind of dialogue, sadly missing in many of our debates and dialogues today.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

9/11: The Day that Changed the World

"Tolerance, a term which we sometimes use in place of the words respect, mercy, generosity, or forbearance, is the most essential element of moral systems; it is a very important source of spiritual discipline and a celestial virtue of perfected people."
M. Fethullah Gulen Turkish writer and spiritual leader

More from his website:

"Fethullah Gülen is an authoritative mainstream Turkish Muslim scholar, thinker, author, poet, opinion leader and educational activist who supports interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science, democracy and spirituality and opposes violence and turning religion into a political ideology. Fethullah Gülen promotes cooperation of civilizations toward a peaceful world, as opposed to a clash:"

Be so tolerant that your bosom becomes wide like the ocean. Become inspired with faith and love of human beings. Let there be no troubled souls to whom you do not offer a hand and about whom you remain unconcerned.

"He was the first Muslim scholar to publicly condemn the attacks of 9/11 (in an advertisement in the Washington Post)."

I am writing this as I watch the ITV documentary tonight on 9/11: The Day that Changed the World