With World Interfaith Harmony Week resonating around the globe, Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick asks us to consider what religion is…or could be. And whether this is the time for a “post-tribal” inclusive spirituality to be increasingly articulated – and lived.
I have a soft spot for religion. And even for religions. However, many so-called religious views and people fill me with despair (and sorely try my claims to compassion). So I was not entirely surprised some time ago to receive a short appreciative note about my writing from someone who has been significantly helped by my books but wishes that I could personally be “less religious”.
Frankly, although religious impulses drive my life, my work and my thinking, I don’t see myself as conventionally religious. (And as an interfaith, spiritually inclusive teacher and minister, the conventionally religious certainly don’t offer me an unconditional welcome.) Nonetheless, it’s clear that for many people – and many of my friends and acquaintances among them – holding onto any remnants of connection to organized or institutionalized religion, as I do, is worse than misguided. For them, religion has come to be associated with divisiveness, self-righteousness, arrogance, sexism, homophobia and unrelenting global violence. Far worse than mere foolishness, religion has, from that perspective, little or nothing to recommend it to a contemporary world seeking greater peace and justice or simple kindness.
But the tragic part of that perspective is that it leaves out the essential spirituality that not only sustains any genuine religious impulses but effortlessly transcends them. This is the spirituality that heals and unifies; that “belongs” to everyone and to no one; that consoles and strengthens; that seeks to create “heaven” on this flawed, beloved earth; that uses us – all of us – as its instruments. This is the spirituality that does, almost miraculously, survive within the religions as well as way beyond them. It survives the arrogance, the power seeking, the sexism, racism and homophobia, and the gross lack of love – although it certainly doesn’t do so uniformly.
When “religion” fails to heal and instead causes harm, when it shields or promotes bigotry or violence, when it brings a message of death and fear rather than life and love, it ceases to be religion. It is ideology, at its most debased.
At the heart of all faiths, in language that is plain and inescapable, is a call to care for and about other people, species and our physical environment – regardless of who they are. This call refuses to name some as fully human and others as less than human. This call also refuses to pretend that God plays or claims favourites. It is also a call that must be lived in the challenges of daily life, that must become the ethic that informs daily life indeed, if it is to be meaningful.
Forgiveness, tolerance, understanding and compassion: these are the essential constituents of what’s widely known as “the Golden Rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” In other words, let your knowledge of what you most want (or dread) dictate and guide your conduct. Know that you are making choices and that your choices have consequences.
Each of us, individually and collectively, is making our world more violent – or kinder, more loving and safer. The Golden Rule acknowledges our power to choose.
Universally, this teaching takes precedence over dogma. Or it should. “Do everything in such a way that the Divine can be revealed through it,” said Paul to the people of Corinth. But human beings have a unique talent for hair splitting. What ought to be an unconditional call to appreciate, respect, LOVE long ago descended into wretched arguments about who, exactly, “my neighbour” is, particularly when that “neighbour” doesn’t look or believe just like I do. Conformity, fear and divisiveness have justified the arrogant assumption that there is only one way to believe…to discover life’s meaning…to know God and our own selves. And that all other ways are self-evidently wrong.
This is a problem explicitly addressed by Jesus, Jewish teacher, man of all people, inspirer of what eventually (after several hundred years) became the Christian faith. Far from privileging the “righteous”, or those most eager to conform to orthodoxy, he appears to have gone out of his way to include women and men who were dismissed and disparaged by the majority of his day. People on the margins listened to him. They had far less to lose when it came to embracing an inclusive view of humankind. Perhaps they still do.
I’d go so far as to say that without an unconditional respect for human life and dignity, religions have little or no value beyond any other power-seeking institution.
There are countless religiously-minded people who do indeed care far more about peace and justice than about claiming an exclusive view into the mind of God. That alone is a quiet miracle. But it is also testament to the spiritual values that transcend any one faith or culture.
For many, religious or not, this is a post-religious age. But it is certainly not an age lacking a far-reaching spirituality, a sense of purpose and interconnectedness that is most urgently needed. A post-tribal, at least tentatively inclusive spirituality is significantly influencing how we view and respond to the most urgent but seemingly disparate issues of our time. In the late 1930s the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung wrote: “The modern world is desacralized, that is why it is in crisis. The modern person must rediscover a deeper source of his [or her] own spiritual life.”
That was the theme that inspired and drove my writing of Seeking the Sacred, a book that addresses directly the yearnings that most have to understand life in its depth and unity, and to find ways to live that in the small, modest gestures of life, as well as the most significant choices and decisions.
Whether the issue is religious or cultural wars, homelessness, addictions or climate change, we need to take seriously that our personal choices and values affect the world we are collectively creating. We are part of the problem and of the solution. This may mean we will finally hear what it is that the Golden Rule asks of us – and gives us. We may finally and significantly re-think who our neighbours are and what choices we have in how we will affect them.
Spirituality is the connective currency here. It’s a vision of life that emerges from valuing all of life – and our own gift of life. It is cultivated when we take seriously that through our attitudes and behaviour we are influencing “the world”, as well as being influenced by it. And that our choices matter. It is a vision of life that allows us to be love’s instrument, that calls us to maturity, self-responsibility and care for others. And to constantly renewing compassion, self-confidence, appreciation, gratitude and joy. Perhaps most significantly of all, this universal spirituality knows no boundaries, has no favourites, is infinite in its generosity. And arises wherever the human heart welcomes it.
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