Saturday, 4 February 2012





Mysticism, Spirituality

and Global Faith


John Hetherington


Free to Believe


                                Reshaping Christianity

Mysticism, Spirituality and Global Faith

Contents                                                                               Page
1.         Introduction                                                                 2
2.         A changing Christianity                                               2
3          Surveys of contemporary Religion and
           Spirituality                                                                   6
4.         Progressive Christianity                                           7
5.         The New Spirituality                                                  8
6.         A Perennial Philosophy                                            10
7.         The Implications for Christian Doctrine                    12
8.         Rediscovering Mystical Christianity                         14
9.         Relating this to the world’s faiths                             16
            Sufi Islam                                                                 19
            The Bahai Faith                                                       20
10.       A final challenge to the churches                            22
            References                                                             24


This booklet in the Free to Believe series is ambitious in its scope, as it seeks to relate evolving Christian belief and practice to developments in both the emerging “New Spiritualities” and the major world faiths.  The issues raised are relevant to those remaining in, but on the edge of, Christianity; as well as open minded practitioners of the other historic faiths and participants in the newer forms of spiritual practice.

Globally, we are witnessing increasing tension and schism in Islam and Christianity as modern and post-modern ways of ‘knowing’ challenge the core assumptions of what are at heart ‘pre-modern’ faiths. The increasing global reality of travel, trade and the internet could shape a common understanding, but also generate a significant destabilising backlash. This Pamphlet explores a possible way forward.

 A changing Christianity

In Christianity, a growing movement for change is occurring not just in liberal contexts, but through direct movement from evangelical and catholic positions. Ways of knowing or experiencing the divine, as the ‘ground of being’1 rather than a God ‘out there’, are increasingly capturing the interest of those leaving dogmatic religion, or exploring beyond theism2. Liberal reflection on the authority of the Bible has been underway for over 150 years, with the application of scientific analysis and ‘historical-critical’ methods to key sources.

As that knowledge spread across wider western society it began an apparently unstoppable process of loss of allegiance to traditional faith and doctrine. The pain of this loss of faith in the modern world was famously captured by Matthew Arnold:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.3

For those hanging on to ‘traditional’ faith (Catholic, Reformed or evangelical) since Arnold recognised the trend, the health of Christianity in the west has never looked so bleak. There has been continuing decline in church attendance to as low as 3% in the UK. Modernity drove this trend until the 1970’s, and ‘Post Modernity’ was initially seen as a further challenge to the faith, since practitioners had absorbed modernity’s unfolding scientific insights.

What is new is that post modernity, through its re-awakening to the ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ is now opening up new avenues of faith exploration for some beyond the old evangelical / liberal divide. For others, the “melancholy roar” provokes a pulling up of the drawbridge and a retreat to historic fundamentals rooted in formulations reflecting ‘pre-modern’ faith.

Dave Tomlinson’s book, The Post Evangelical4, first exposed this situation in 1995. He acknowledged the “growing discontinuity” of many nurtured within the evangelical milieu who had “growing difficulty in reconciling what they see and experience in evangelicalism with their personal values, instinctive reactions and theological reflections.”  Tomlinson argues that both liberalism and evangelicalism are “two sides of the same coin” as they “find their natural cultural roots in modernity.” Citing the liberal American theologian Walter Wink5, he notes that, “after a long search Wink became convinced of the need for a theology and spiritual life which, whilst incorporating the fruits of the critical age, press on to a more holistic consciousness than objective knowledge can achieve.”

Gordon Lynch (Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Birkbeck, University, London) has also written about his journey from evangelicalism in Losing my Religion6, but has recently set out his analysis of the emerging encounter with what he calls The New Spirituality7. His book subtitle, An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the 21st Century describes the research. It first reviews the roots of the new, progressive spirituality, its ideology, and its organisational emergence. Its approach is captured by his sub headings to Chapter 2 – The Ideology of progressive spirituality:

·         The unity of the ineffable and immanent divine – the guiding intelligence behind evolutionary process and the energy of the universe itself

·         Pantheism / Panentheism – replacing a transcendent, patriarchal view of God

·         Mysticism and the divine feminine – using symbol and liturgy, encounter with nature and celebration of the feminine in God

·         The sacralisation of nature – affirmation of the material and nature / life as participation in divinity

·         The sacralisation of the self – as a manifestation of the divine – with human consciousness derived from the supra-consciousness of the “All”.

·         Understandings of Religion – as culturally and historically bound and thus metaphorical – enabling a growing spirit of ‘ecumenism’

·         The deeper cultural roots of progressive spirituality show underlying coherence, reflecting adaptation to modernism, liberalism and welcome insights in quantum physics and cosmic ‘unfolding’.

Lynch also includes the first survey in print of networks such as Free to Believe and PCNB (TCPC in the States), which support this new territory.

The Australian, David Tacey8 has also written in this context, commenting “Religion taught me to find God in heaven; aboriginality has shown me how to find the sacred on earth.”

I have made this journey too, from a mainstream Congregational upbringing in Lancashire, to conversion through the Manchester University Christian Union, eventually moving to post-evangelical liberalism while training as a non-stipendiary minister in the URC on a diocesan training course. This booklet arises from my desire to share this process of ongoing change – and my excitement at where the journey might take us.

My aim is to suggest a way forward for people of all Christian backgrounds that will enable us to embrace insights from both the new spiritualities and other faiths. A chorus of voices now proclaim that Christianity must re-embrace the spiritual, the mystical in ways that make the mystery of God real in human experience. My italics indicate the need to unpack each of these slippery terms. Karl Rayner9 said, “The Christianity of the future will be mystical, or it will not be at all.”  He considered that all human beings have a latent awareness of God, who he describes as “absolute mystery”

This call to mysticism will not be easy for those whose faith journey has been rooted in accommodation to the religious critique posed by modernity where God is simply the “religious ideal 10. They will think us delusional, as all this must also seem to Dawkins11. It will be hard also for those from more conservative faith backgrounds who cannot accommodate the necessary theological reorientation. However, it may be welcomed by those who can find ‘God’ in these very different contexts.

Surveys of contemporary Religion and Spirituality
The Religious Studies Department at Lancaster University chose Kendal, in Cumbria, to research levels of involvement in both the old “religion based” and new “individualised” spiritualities, as practiced in a small town of some 27,000 souls in the north of England. The resulting book The Spiritual Revolution – why religion is giving way to spirituality12, was written to bring the research to a wider lay audience. It has driven wide interest in a phenomenon that everyone in the Christian church needs to comprehend.

At the heart of the research is a distinction identified between those who see ‘life as religion’ and those who seek ‘subjective-life spirituality’. There is ample evidence that religion is in decline, while ‘spirituality’ is growing – but what is spirituality? The authors identify the “massive subjective turn of modern culture” with a profound rejection of the authority claimed by ‘religion’. They caution that, where the word spirituality is used in Christian circles it traditionally references the transcendent, not an experience that flows “through one’s own subjective life”, though there are overlaps. They suggest that “forms of the sacred that are compatible with the turn to ‘subjective’ will be faring better than those that serve to reinforce ‘life-as religion’ modes of existence, which emphasise a “transcendent source of significance and authority.”

The Kendal Project looked at the ‘congregational domain’ and the ‘holistic milieu’ and found that there are “two worlds” in Kendal with the subjective turn “far more evident in the holistic milieu than in the congregational domain”. They are “largely separate and distinct worlds” - with the exception of the Unitarian Church in Kendal. Interesting! My suspicion is that the age profiles of the two domains are significant markers. Their conclusion on the ‘congregational domain’ is stark. They predict a decline to virtual extinction over the next 20-25 years, with attendance by 2030 below 1% of the population. However, they predict that the ‘holistic milieu’ will grow to 3% of the population, “high enough to bring about a spiritual revolution.”  But what of the 96% who are into none of this? There is a vital ‘mission’ here.

Progressive Christianity
My own experience in Kendal broadly confirms the analysis from the Heelas and Woodhead project above. Yet it is not that simple. Over recent years there are emerging in Kendal and many other UK towns and cities13, groups of Christians who are exploring beyond the edge of traditional Christian faith. They remain active in the congregational domain, but are meeting to explore the growing literature and experience the lengthening speaker list of open, progressive and liberal forms of Christian faith. The Kendal Ecumenical Group (KEG) with which I have been involved alongside others with a Free to Believe and PCNB background, has provided the opportunity to hear locally from Jack Spong14 and Richard Holloway15, to name but two, and share in ongoing study of, for example, the Living the Questions course16. All of this has broadened our insight beyond the textbooks – allowing those involved to meet real practitioners of the “new Christianity”. Recently KEG has begun to engage across the faiths, sharing experiences with Sufis and Bahá'ís, of which more later.

Adrian Smith17, a Roman Catholic Priest, author of ‘Tomorrow’s Christian’ and many other books addressing this theme, has been another leading explainer of these trends – helping to map out what would characterise a contemporary, open and accepting way of life earthed within the Christian spiritual tradition. 

The main challenge now for open Christians is to reach out and explore the complex networks and individuals who are in what Heelas and Woodhead call the ‘holistic milieu’. If the Kendal survey results indicate a national trend, it is clear that most open Christians (still in the congregational domain) remain unfamiliar with the holistic milieu and thus misunderstand it. At root, we both seek the same journey into the experience of the one God. For both, experience and practice matter more than doctrine.

The New Spirituality
There is a growing spectrum of credible writers and spiritual teachers with an increasingly high profile role in drawing together the holistic milieu into a more coherent framework of belief. By its nature, the new spirituality comprises many spiritual paths which are being pursued by those who do not directly follow one of the recognised eight or so historic faiths. A look at the literature demonstrates that the historic faiths are a core source of the wisdom the new spiritualities advance. Christian and Buddhist writings, as well as aspects of psychology, are regularly quoted.

One significant example is found in the writing of Eckart Tolle18 – author of The power of the Now and A New Earth. His website illustrates this reworking of Christian and other religious language. For example: “In the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, Jesus says to Martha, ‘You are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needful.’ (Luke 10:41) As I was writing A New Earth, people would sometimes ask me, ‘What is the new book about?’  And invariably, my answer would be, ‘I only ever write or speak about one thing.’  What is that one thing?  Spiritual awakening.”
For Tolle the key is the Now. He suggests that for most of us life is one damn thing after another – rushing here and there, too busy with work or other commitments to ever be still and expand our God consciousness. Most days we never get beyond the constant internal prattle of our minds and ego – regretting the past – planning the future – never ever stopping long enough to discover our real nature – that we are part of the ‘immanent19’ divine being and becoming.

At heart, the historic faiths also provide ways of realising a person’s spiritual development in the here and now.  Yet, in an age suspicious of dogma and authority, seekers are doing their own investigating. As the Kendal Project points out, the faiths need to be better informed and in touch with this trend.
Neil Donald Walsch20, writer of the fascinating trilogy, ‘Conversations with God’, sets out a comprehensive ‘theology’ of the way we and the world are. A selection of his key points illustrates the genre:

“Life is an ongoing process of creation... We call forth what we think feel and say... The soul creates, the mind reacts... The soul understands what the mind cannot conceive... Your feelings are your truth... Be in the present moment... “
He reminds us that God is critical of religion – God is known intuitively. However, that inner sense can get blocked by religious claims and requirements which go counter to common humanity. He puts in God’s mouth some telling criticisms: “Religion ordered men to bow down before God where once man rose up in joyful splendour. Religion taught you need intermediaries – when you were already living your life in goodness and truth. You are all priests. There is no original sin.” This repeats the view on sin well expressed in the 80s by Dominican Matthew Fox21. It has, down the millennia, been religion’s task to introduce human beings to the God within – the ‘life force’, the ‘being-ness’ in whom they subsist.

Both authors provide a challenging set of pointers to living out our true nature, and in so doing re-appraise Judaism’s and Christianity’s emphasis on sin and judgement. Yet none of this is really new.

A Perennial Philosophy
Aldous Huxley22, writing in 1946, referred to a “Perennial Philosophy” – a term coined by the German philosopher Liebniz. This refers to a way of understanding which is immemorial and universal – in which a person recognises a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds – with an ethic that places our end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ‘Ground of all being’, the mystery of ‘Thou art Thou’23.

For Jews, Christians, Muslims and Bahá’ís, this is both the absolute and immanent “I am” introduced in the Old Testament. The path of the spiritual seeker is to come to know this Being in his or her own being – in his or her soul. To borrow a term from Buddhism – we are to become ‘enlightened’. There are numerous passages in the writings of every religion seeking to say the same thing – not just in the western faiths but in Hinduism and Buddhism too. At heart all the religions and spiritualities are or were in the business of supporting their adherents as they journey into “the experiential knowledge of God” 24.

Thus a key challenge for both traditional and progressive Christians is to realise that Christianity can no longer be seen as the only route by which God has been, or can still be, truly known. This understanding makes clear that there have and always will be many pathways to individual spiritual enlightenment. God’s universe is a place of infinite and ever growing variety in which the historic faiths will remain, while increasingly be seen to embody the basic unity of all faiths and spiritualities.

A key implication of this is that the age when Christians can be exclusive is over. The era of mutual interfaith acknowledgement is inevitable as we become a “global village”25. There is thus hope that, while the faiths and varieties of individual spirituality will persist, we will mutually recognise one ultimate Being – one transcendent yet immanent reality – unfolding within our amazing planet and universe.

The Implications for Christian Doctrine

All this has, of course, significant implications for the doctrinal basis of Christianity. Traditional Christianity as it emerged from the Constantinian settlement, but not from the mouth of the original Jesus, interpreted New Testament texts to imply that we are sinful failures destined to live in fear, without God’s self sacrifice in Jesus. Contemporary Biblical scholarship, summarised in depth by David Boulton26, notes that “Decades of painstaking historical Jesus research have not produced a scholarly consensus on who the man Jesus was”.
What consensus there is across the ‘New Spirituality’ implies that what Jesus actually taught is: that each of us is capable of living, being and loving to the full now – doing the “greater things” John’s Gospel says his followers would do. The ‘Kingdom of God’ metaphor is, in this perspective, an internal state of being and living – as well as a future vision of a reformed world society. “Heaven is within you”27.  The Christian ‘Good News’ becomes the realisation that we are, here and now, in and of God, loved without limit and free of condemnation – called to ‘live in the light’.
So, of course, our Christology28 needs to be restated too, by utilising ‘historical-metaphorical’ ways of telling the Jesus story. The sources combine memory and testimony, while the language combines memory and metaphor. This leads to the distinction Marcus Borg particularly highlights under the terms, pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus29. The exalted language of ‘Son of God, ‘Lord’ ‘Saviour’ is post-Easter metaphor, and can thus be recast.  Our approach to Jesus then becomes ‘following him’, not ‘believing in’ him. And his challenge? To centre our lives in God and participate in God’s passion for the world – to change the world!

Radical spiritual explorations, rather than traditional faith teachings, broadly identify a set of common perspectives on the nature of reality, human life and the way to experience God. These perspectives are being explored in significant ways, both within the ‘holistic milieu’ and increasingly on the edge of the ‘congregational domain’. Stephen Mitchell30 sets out 4 key descriptors of this God:

1.    Creation is an ongoing present process [in God]

2.    God is coming to be.

3.    There is not God and some “stuff-out-of-which-he-makes-his-creatures”. Without the ever sustaining presence of God, everything collapses.

4.    God is the source of all things [‘good’ and ‘bad’ – my addition], God is being-ness itself, reality itself.

What I think is going on in all this, is that Christianity and the new spiritualities are re-discovering what was always at the heart of the Christian faith – and other faiths too: that in mystical experience or spiritual encounter we can come to know the One, the All. Paul surely understood this when he explained, within the Roman Imperial context, that; “As your [6th Century BCE] poet said, ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”. This “Unknown God” is the God of Christianity’s beginnings, not the divine ‘Mr Fix-it’ of later orthodoxy.

The intellectual search for truth – necessary as it is – cannot alone meet humanity’s need to return home into the life in God in which he/she exists. Without that inner light we and humanity can feel lost and confused about who we are and how we should live. We become driven by our ego and develop ‘hardened’ hearts. It is this dilemma from which post-modern insight and the new spirituality can free us.

There is now an exciting possibility of mutual exploration between progressive, open Christians, practitioners of the new spirituality, and the open forms of other faith traditions.

However, we need to tread carefully! We must not reject the clear insights of the enlightenment rationalist project  which have opened up scientific understanding and technology.  Dawkins has a point!

What we claim for God and human experience of the divine needs to be critically assessed – there needs to be evidence to set alongside experience of the spiritual. Our new ways of defining God and understanding physics, evolution and the workings of the human mind must also be open to ongoing scientific and theological dialogue. There is not space in this booklet to cover such a vast subject – but scientists with a Christian perspective, like Keith Ward31, John Polkinghorne32 and Arthur Peacocke33 have written many helpful books, as have practicing scientists with an open mind, such as Paul Davies34.

Rediscovering Mystical Christianity

Marcus Borg, in a Conference at the Sheffield Centre for Radical Christianity35,36 in April 2008, explored this resurgent focus on the spiritual in Christianity – what he calls “Mysticism” – within the Christian way.  His full notes (slightly edited) are included as an Appendix – with due acknowledgement.

Borg states clearly that for him “mystical experience makes God real”. He uses mysticism as a broad term for experiences of the sacred, while recognising its ambiguity in contemporary culture, in theology and in the academic world. But of course mysticism is not new. For medieval Christianity, mysticism is the, “cognitio experimentalis Dei” — the experiential knowledge of God. He quotes William James, writing 100 years ago, who identified two primary features of mystical experience: A sense of union, connection - with God, the sacred, and a sense of illumination - an experience of enlightenment. Borg suggests they involve a non-ordinary state of consciousness, and a momentary softening or disappearance of the ‘self/world’ distinction, of ‘ego separation’.

Secondly, he lists instances of the occurrence of Mysticism within Christianity, noting that the central figures of the Christian tradition have all had mystical experiences.  He then outlines what the impact for Christians and Christianity in our time would be if we took mystical / spiritual experience seriously. He suggests it would modify our view of the symbolism of the word God, and our sense of the reality of God, taking us from supernatural theism to panentheism.  A key point is that Mysticism takes seriously “the turn to experience” of modern and post modern culture.

Thirdly, Borg explains what he calls Open hearts and Thin Places. Pointing out that the Christian life has an inner dimension and outer dimension. He endorses the phrase ‘Thin Places’, taken from Celtic Christianity, to mean “places” (times, practices) where the separation of ordinary consciousness from consciousness of God becomes “thin” and concludes by saying that the goal of the spiritual life (and the height of mysticism) is union with the will of God.

The point of this summary of Marcus Borg’s views on the mystical in Christianity is to remind us that these ways of knowing, rather than believing, have long been found in Christianity. They are similarly found in both the emerging spiritualities and at the heart of the mystical traditions in other faiths. This is what we would expect since God expresses the unity in what is.

This rediscovery of the mystical and spiritual in Christianity challenges us – as reformed Christians – with our historic emphasis on ‘word’. Change is already happening as post-modern influences reshape our worship. Mystery, meditation, light and colour have become more acceptable. The austere and plain do not mirror creation’s riotous enthusiasm! Our churches will continue to empty less we accommodate this spiritual revolution, and the “subjective turn of modern culture”. We have been warned.

Relating this to the world’s faiths
To conclude, I’ll explore how we can take on board the best insight of the two western faiths which followed Judaism and Christianity.

The primary challenge for Christians in working with other faiths is rooted in our traditional Christology, summarised the arguments on page 13. If we are freed up to follow Jesus, rather than believe in doctrine about Jesus developed to define the post-Easter Christ in terms of sacrifice-salvation, then the whole task of engagement becomes radically changed. The ‘Christ of Faith’ is set free too – as we “belove 37 Jesus and follow his example of a life centred in God, with a passion to change the world.

Then we are free to respect others similarly centred and energised.  Thus, alongside Jesus, a series of ‘enlightened’ human beings also became divine Messengers, anointed ones (Christs) and Wisdom Teachers.  Each primary prophet’s teaching became the foundation of a major world religion. The messengers have included Abraham, (Krishna), Zoroaster, Moses, The Buddha, Muhammad, Guru Nanak and Bahá’u’lláh. Interestingly, Matthew 10, 40-42 offers, in a possible reading, a highly relevant reflection on God’s call to “receive his prophets” and serve the, ”little ones” of the world. Our own New Testament thus called us to listen to future prophets.

These prophets still challenge us to step beyond our everyday lives and concerns. Each one has sought to enable us to change so that we can live with the ‘Being’ of God at the still centre of our lives, set free increasingly from anxiety and fear. The word’s faiths can, in their different ways, free us up to become aware that we live ‘in God’, whatever our religious or other background. This enables us to pursue compassion, justice, peace, sustainable living and acceptance of others – now. These ways of being are the marks of God’s unfolding purpose.

The western faiths each sprang from the same root, as one ‘people of the book’38, with Islam and the Bahá’í Faith later also acknowledging the Old Testament and the Gospels alongside the Koran. Until recent centuries each faith developed a distinct human culture, and interaction was limited. The development of humanity was not ready for a single faith and common understanding. However, there are those who hope the time is near when this can emerge, as the global village enables increasing numbers to see what is happening in the world wherever it takes place.

These and other faiths, as well as Christianity, are of course not monolithic in either beliefs or practices. And there lies the rub. The historic faiths have each evolved significantly and diversified in ways that emphasise belief on the one hand as against experience of the ‘divine  mystery’ on the other. It is as an offshoot of the latter that “new spiritualities” are emerging in the 21st Century from earlier beginnings.

As we have come to realise down the centuries, belief as opposed to knowing God can be very dangerous. It has made people do terrible things to defend their own faith’s beliefs. In each faith there are those who live loving, compassionate, peaceable lives, because they truly live within the love and compassion of God. Others wage sectarian or religious wars in defence of sometimes arcane ‘belief’. Our history, as children of the Christian Reformation, reminds us that our forefathers in faith were of that mindset too.

At the heart of Jesus’ message is a simple call to live without anxiety about our past mistakes or our future path – “consider the lilies”, “take no thought for the morrow” -- but also warnings: “Nobody who takes his hand from the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom”. It is a mistake to think of the Kingdom of God as a future goal; as these sayings make clear. We are called by Jesus to live in the ever present ‘Being’ or “is-ness” of God – Now! This Christian “good news” is the same good news at the heart of all faiths and spiritual practices. It is the call to Kingdom Living.  As we clear our minds from the clutter of the everyday we can be reborn into the realm of God’s being - now! There is a Sufi saying that captures this: “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time.”

Knowing more of other faith traditions is thus of key relevance and challenge to Christians. So to conclude I’ll refer to the two faiths which are particularly challenging to Christian understandings of Jesus as the ‘Christ’, the ‘Son of God’ – since they post-date Jesus and the development of Christian orthodoxy.  First Islam (in its more mystical Sufi form) and second the Bahai Faith, given its claim to offer a specific revelation for the new global age. But as we approach our conclusion, let us bear in mind the wisdom of the Dalai Lama who said that even as we come to understand other faiths, our primary task is to move deeper into the wisdom already within our own faith.

Sufi Islam
Islam is a religion that was aware of Judaism and Christianity from its birth. It fully acknowledges Jesus as God’s “messenger” alongside key Old Testament prophets. Of course Islam rejected some of the doctrine added by the church, in particular the Trinity. Muhammad’s message was quite clear – that human beings need to turn wholeheartedly to God, living faith out in everyday devotions – the Pillars of Islam - that bring the faithful into inner awareness of God’s Being.

By the 800’s the Sufis39 emerged as a protest movement against the excesses of the Islamic Empire, reacting against its materialism and inhumanity. They reminded their fellow Muslims that their God was supposed to be compassionate, all-loving, all-merciful. As Sufism developed it emphasised an inward religion of the mind and heart – developing ways to experience the mystery of Allah. Through the Kendal Ecumenical Group, I and others have experienced the way Sufi Islam lives its faith through its Zikr service – men, women and children chanting and moving together in heightened experience of God.  Sufi’s believe that perfect self-understanding leads to the understanding of the Divine. This is based on a typically succinct saying of Prophet Muhammad: "Whoever knows oneself, knows one's Lord."
Sufis acknowledge that the ways to reach God are as numerous as the number of people on earth, but at root require abandonment of false pride and the following of a path of selfless service to humanity.

For Sufis there isone human brotherhood and one morality that blooms in deeds of service. They are sceptical of churches and shrines. Rumi, the famous Sufi poet of the 13th Century said, “I gazed into my own heart; there I saw him, nowhere else.” They also see each religion as different lights: “The lamps are different, but the light is the same: it comes from beyond. If you keep looking at the lamp, you are lost. O you who are the kernel of Existence, the disagreement between Muslims, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews depends on the standpoint”40.  We have much to learn and respect from this long existent scholarly and progressive face of Islam.

The Bahá'í Faith
Finally I’ll highlight some of what I’ve discovered about the Bahá'í Faith. Again, I have had the opportunity to share in its festivals locally in Kendal.

Bahá’ís41 proclaim that the latest of God’s Messengers - Bahá’u’lláh - brought new spiritual and social teachings for the coming global age. The 19th Century was a time when the world was becoming fully aware of the diversity of human cultures and religions. Bahá’u’lláh, is a title that means "the Glory of God". He was born on 12 November 1817 in Tehran, Iran42. His given name was Husayn Ali, and he was the son of a wealthy government minister, but devoted his life to the poor. The Bahá’ís were persecuted in the beginning – being seen in Iran as “a radically modernising movement within Islam 43.
In April 1863, Bahá’u’lláh and His companions camped in a garden on the banks of the Tigris River for twelve days, where Bahá’u’lláh revealed He was the Promised One foretold in all the world's scriptures.

Bahá'u'lláh said, “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”; and that, as foretold in all the sacred scriptures of the past, “now is the time for humanity to live in unity”.
The core elements of Bahá'í thought include these key ideas – which make deep sense to me:

·         Independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition;

·         the oneness of the entire human race,

·         the basic unity of all religions;

·         the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national;

·         the harmony which must exist between religion and science;

·         the equality of men and women;

·         the introduction of compulsory education;

·         the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty;

·         the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations;

·         the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship;

·         the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations;

·          the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind.

The Bahá'í Faith is now a recognised worldwide religion with its world administrative centre in Haifa, Israel. There is, Bahá’u’lláh insists, “but one human race”. Thus inherited notions that a particular racial or ethnic group (or religion) is in some way superior to the rest are without foundation. Similarly, he explained that the revelations of the messengers of God are our collective human legacy.

A final challenge to the churches!

As Christians we are called by Jesus to begin a journey of discovery in this life – to experience the God who is both within us and ‘more than’ us. We are called to awaken to the truth that our being, our life, is but an expression of the great “I am” that shouts from every atom, star, galaxy and life form in the Universe. There are numerous passages in the writings of every faith that seek to say the same thing.

To build God’s future, the core message of all religions and all spiritual searching is that we need to discover ourselves, discovering fresh ways of living in the now of God’s reality. We can do this within our own faith background, without converting to another faith or insight. But from this generation on we must be open to all that God has made plain through the insights of all the faith founders and the countless other deeply spiritual human beings.

The time is now very short to learn to live sustainably and in harmony with one another on this planet. Yet, together, we can change the world! 

Bahá’u’lláh said: “all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled — what harm is there in this? … Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the 'Most Great Peace' shall come.…”

These are exciting times!

John Hetherington, Kendal – July 2000


1 Paul Tillich – part of his Systematic Theology - “ground of being” is used in answer to the ontological threat of non-being [ontological = the study of being]

2 For a full exposition see Jack Spong’s “A New Christianity for a new World” Harper SF, 2001 – pp 72-77

3 Matthew Arnold, Poetry and Prose, ed. J. Bryson (London 1967) pp144-5. Cited in Stephen Mitchell, ‘God in the Bath – Relaxing in the everywhere presence of God’, O Books, 2006.

4 Dave Tomlinson, “The Post Evangelical, SPCK, 1995, p2

5 Walter Wink, Transforming Bible Study, Mowbray, 1990, Ch 1

6 Gordon Lynch, Losing my Religion – Moving on from Evangelical Faith, Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd, 2003

7 Gordon Lynch, The New Spirituality – An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the 21st Century, I B Taurus, 2007

8 David Tacey, The Spirituality Revolution: the emergence of contemporary spirituality. Routledge 2004 p7

9 German Roman Catholic theologian behind Vatican 2 – who shaped modern Catholic understanding.

10 Don Cupitt – After God: The future of Religion, Weidenfied and Nicholson, 1977

11 Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006. [Also see

12 The Spiritual Revolution – Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead - Blackwell Publishing, 2005

13 Listed on the Progressive Christianity Network Britain (PCNB) Website:

14 John Shelby Spong ( - author of many books including “A new Christianity for a New World”, Harper SF, 2001 and “Jesus for the Non-Religious”, Harper SF,2007

15 Richard Holloway - Doubts and Loves – What is left of Christianity, Canongate Books, 2002

16 Living the Questions (Resourcing Progressive Christians) - 

17 Adrian B Smith – Tomorrow’s Christian: A Framework for Christian Living, O Books, 2005

18 Eckart Tolle - author of several books on Spirituality, including ‘The Power of Now’ and ‘A New Earth’ :

19 In this Pamphlet ‘immanent’ refers to God’s indwelling in the world rather than his transcendence – depth rather than height – “Presence” to quote Tolle.

20 Neale Donald Walsch, – The Complete ‘Conversations with God’ – an uncommon dialogue. Hampton Roads Publishing, Putnam New York:

21 Matthew Fox, Original Blessing – A primer in Creation Spirituality, Bear and Company”, 1983

22 Aldous Huxley – The perennial Philosophy, Fontana, 1946

23 ibid, p14 – “Thou are Thou” - Sanskrit translation “tat tvam asi”. The last end of man is the, “unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground”, p33

24 Thomas Aquinas’ (1255-74): his definition of mysticism.

25 Tony Blair, The Times 14th June 2008 – “As the world becomes smaller, the need grows to understand each other’s faiths grows”:

26 David Boulton - Who on Earth was Jesus: The Modern Quest for the Jesus of History, O Books, 2008

27 Luke 17:21

28 Christology – the doctrine of Christ

29 see Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus again for the First Time, Harper Collins, 1995 – pp 15-17

30 Stephen Mitchell, God in the Bath, O books, 2006 – Chapter 3 “In God”

31 Keith Ward, God, Faith & The New Millenium – Christian Belief in an Age of Science, Oneworld, 1998

32 John Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief, 1993-4 Gifford Lectures, SPCK, 1994

33 Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God – the end of all our exploring, One World, 2002 – see particularly his definition of panentheist Reality (God), pp129-130

34 Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Dilemma – Why is the Universe just right for life?, Penguin 2007

36 Tapes and notes are available from CRC:

37 Before around 1600 the word ‘believe’ had much more the connotation of commit to,  love; rather than the modern ‘believe in propositions about’.

38 In Islam, the "People of the Book" (Arabic أهل الكتاب, Ahl al- Kitâb), are non-Muslim peoples who, according to the Qur'an, received scriptures which were revealed to them by God before Muhammad

39 Sufi Islam - International Association of Sufism:  or in the UK – the Sufi Muslim Council:

40 Sufism, A S Barnes and Co., Inc, 1976, p103 & p68ff (English modernised)

41 The Bahá'í Faith - - with further links

42 Source for this section – Hatcher and Martin, The Bahá'í Faith – the emerging global religion, Harper and Row, 1985, plus material on the Bahá'í website

43 Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed, p498