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

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.