For three weeks I have been travelling around Australia – with a brief visit to NZ – speaking about the sacred. And particularly about the implications of considering what this powerful word and ideal could possibly mean. This has been stimulated by the publication of my new book, Seeking the Sacred. In bookshops, hotels, community and church halls, I’ve been talking with many people about the changes we might possibly achieve personally and socially if we dared to see life as intrinsically sacred, and to act accordingly.
I’ve been suggesting that changes in attitude and behaviour are not just an ideal; they are urgent and necessary for all our sakes. I have been prompted particularly by three crises that we collectively face: 1) our unprecedented global population and the vast disparities between rich and poor, with all its evident effects on the planet; 2) the loneliness and emotional fragility so many feel, even in the midst of material plenty; 3) the continuing normalisation of violence as a response to social problems.
It’s been deeply gratifying to see how hungry so many of us are to have public conversations about the power of belief and attitude in shaping our interactions and our lives. And to talk about urgent matters of identity, reverence and “do no harm”. Too often it is only extreme views that get expressed and heard. Or the “spiritual” is divorced from the “social”. Or cynical analyses take us to the grimmest conclusions.
Even at the end of writing this book and speaking about it, I am not pretending that I have fully-formed solutions for complex matters, but what I am doing is pointing out with considerable passion and much experience on my side that we are indeed capable of thinking very deeply about human behaviour and its consequences, and that we can develop compassionate, optimistic views with more confidence and perhaps even greater ambition than we may sometimes allow.
Just in my own lifetime, and probably yours, social attitudes have changed dramatically. We have only to think about the kind of apartheid practised by different Christian denominations decades ago, or the lazy racism that many took for granted, or the limited ways in which we thought about what women should or should not be doing. Or the religious and ideological battles that divided neighbours and families as well as countries. Some of that continues, but it is not inevitable.
Many of our finest inspirations and ideas come from the world’s religious traditions – particularly when we can disentangle them from unhelpful or dangerous ideology. My book reflects that. But we must also use contemporary insights to “translate” them for the needs of our time, using timeless ethics to do so. And we need to go on talking, thinking and sharing, becoming even clearer about which ideas benefit us and which do not – whatever their source.
The photograph at the top of this story was taken at a breakfast with my dear friend composer/musician Kim Cunio who was “in conversation” with me at a wonderful evening at the Irish Club in Brisbane. Here he is with his beautiful son, Babu. It was taken by Heather Lee, soprano, Kim’s partner and Babu’s mother.