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

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

Friday, 23 December 2011

What would you do?

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

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

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

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

What do you do?

You may be getting the idea.

Where do we draw the line, the boundaries.

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

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

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

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

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

What can you do to help heal this world?

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

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

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Athiests at odds with our Nation's history

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

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

Saturday, 17 December 2011

RIP Christopher Hitchens

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

Friday, 16 December 2011

We are all Divine Beings

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

God is here to stay!

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Interfaith dialogue then and now

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

Charles Bonney, 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions

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

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

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

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

And nothing changes!

Monday, 5 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Religion and Spirituality

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

What is religion?

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

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

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

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

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

So What is spirituality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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