Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Religions of the World

This brings us neatly to the world of religion where the spiritual values that inform–or should inform–our choices are enshrined. Many thoughtful people find their relationship to the world’s various institutional religions a difficult one. On the one hand there is an intuitive sense that all the world’s major religions as well as the many wonderful expressions of indigenous spirituality embody timeless expressions of great truth and beauty. They are like jewels shining in the mind and heart of humanity, helping to lift us all onto the path of love and selfless service. On the other hand there is also a realization that often the forms of religions can crystallize into dead husks that obscure the inner light which they are supposed to transmit to a needy humanity. When this happens then there is a tendency for an open-hearted tolerance and joy to give way to a more fanatical position that sees only one particular religion as true and correct and by definition all the others as useless, or worse still as instruments of the devil!

This is one of the reasons for the present phenomenon of aggressive religious fundamentalism whose intolerance is now flowing into peoples’ consciousness through the many channels of the world’s media, negatively affecting relationships throughout the world. Interestingly, we see a parallel to this in the new brand of an equally intolerant atheism. Together, these two have helped to precipitate the present “Does God Exist?” debate characterized as it is by megaphone exchanges between deaf protagonists. While many may regret this unproductive confrontation, we need to recognize that it has helped spark off a huge level of sensitive and thoughtful inquiry into the nature of reality and the place of the sacred, as the bookshelves in any good book store will demonstrate. We must be grateful that this debate is enabling people everywhere in the world to question their attitudes towards religion, to discard superstitious and glamorous misinterpretations of sacred texts and scriptures and embark on the pilgrimage of inquiry, of love and of sacrifice that will lead us all into a greater experience and understanding of the truth.

In particular the shrill voice of fundamentalism must not be allowed to blind us to the quiet steps of progress which have been taken by the thoughtful adherents of all the world’s faiths in finding common ground, shared values and, increasingly these days, shared worship. While most people might think interfaith understanding is a recent phenomenon, in reality it has an impressive history that bears witness to humanity’s eternal and expanding search for truth and righteousness. In Greece in the 6th century BC Xenophanes worked on a philosophy of religious beliefs. 12th century Cordoba in Spain was an unusual example of religious tolerance in a period we normally associate with bloody religious wars and crusades. Here the co-operative interaction of Jewish, Islamic and Christian scholars facilitated the rediscovery of the classical Greek and Latin discourses on science and philosophy which led directly to the European Renaissance. Nearer our own time in the 17th century Lord Herbert of Cherbury wrote De Religione Gentilium in which he proposed five factors that were common to all religions: a belief in God; the duty to give God reverence; the identification of worship with practical morality; the obligation to repent of sin and to abandon it; divine recompense in this world and the next. Also in the 17th century, Jesuit theologians in China made comparative studies, for example, of the similarity between the Tao of Chinese philosophy and the Christian concept of the incarnate Logos or Divine word. In a similar way towards the end of the 18th century, missionary schools in Calcutta compared the Christian Bible with sacred Indian texts.

The consolidation of the world-wide European empires in the 19th century inevitably led to a cultural cross-fertilization that prepared the ground for a deepening of the religious life of humanity, notably in the work of the orientalists and of the various theosophical movements with their motto of “There is no religion higher than Truth”. An important outcome of this trend was the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. This represented a major step forward in promoting religious dialogue, tolerance and understanding. For the first time leading exponents of the world’s religions came together in a spirit of dialogue and a desire to learn about each other. This was a ground-breaking event and, as might be expected, there were many strident voices raised against it. But as one of the participants, the Ven. Dr Philip Schaff, noted at the time: “The idea of this parliament will survive all criticism. The critics will die but the cause will remain.” Indeed the cause has remained and the World Parliament continues to convene and do valuable work. Since the end of the 19th century, very broadly speaking, the world’s religions seem to have divided into two camps. On the one hand there is the conservative camp who see the last word of revealed truth enshrined in the text of their particular scriptures, and on the other hand a progressive group who view the religious experience as a journey of exploration, an opening of the heart, a widening of the horizons of the mind, and a cultivation of an openness to the truth wherever it may be found. This idea is beautifully embodied in the life’s work of the Dalai Lama who has said, “On the level of a religious practitioner, my … commitment is the promotion of religious harmony and understanding amongst different religious traditions. Despite philosophical differences, all major world religions have the same potential to create better human beings. It is therefore important for all religious traditions to respect one another and recognize the value of each others respective traditions.”

A more radical vision is found in Matthew Fox’s book The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. This calls for a new deep ecumenism involving the participation of people from all the world’s faiths. He writes: “Deep ecumenism is the movement that will unleash the wisdom of all world religions – Hinduism and Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, Taoism and Shintoism, Christianity in all its forms, and native religions and goddess religions throughout the world.” One of the effects of this sort of creative encounter is a renewed commitment of religions to serve humanity and the world in a spirit of humility, rather than proselytizing arrogance.

An example of this was in 1986 the World Wide Fund for Nature celebrated its 25th anniversary in Assisi, the home of St Francis, the Christian saint famous for his commitment to peace-making and to the natural world. Part of these celebrations involved the leaders of six of the world’s major religions proclaiming the duties of their adherents to protect, care for and nurture the natural environment. Thus, “the interconnectedness of religious and environmental concerns was acknowledged, along with the fundamental importance to all traditions of safe-guarding the planet as a common inheritance.” Explicitly acknowledged, too, was a new and deep respect of the religions for each other. In the words which Fr Lanfranco Serrini spoke at the opening of the ceremony: “We are convinced of the inestimable value of our respective traditions and of what they can offer to re-establish ecological harmony; but at the same time, we are humble enough to desire to learn from each other. The very richness of our diversity lends strength to our shared concern and responsibility for our Planet Earth.”

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