Sunday, 29 November 2009

Spiritual Awakening – A Global Vision

Spiritual Awakening – A Global Vision


What is your expectation for the future – is it optimistic or pessimistic? Consider these questions personally and globally, as you read on.

How do we become the harmonious global society we long for – living sustainably and creatively across the nations and engaging in dialogue with the world’s religions? How do we take forward past sources of human wisdom into the 3rd millennium AD?

In this essay I assess how old ways of thinking about ourselves need to be challenged on every front, if humanity is to emerge into a creative future, at home in the Universe.

Our ways of looking at life and shaping human society are self-evidently no longer workable for the rest of this century or millennium. So what do we do to initiate a peaceful global awakening that will potentially draw humanity past its turbulent adolescence and on to its maturity?

In writing this I am distilling much recent reading and thinking about these questions, both in the sciences and in the new forms of human spirituality. I think we all recognise now that the coming century, and those beyond, could be deeply challenging, and risk human survival on this planet.

This will require us collectively, and locally and globally, to question past human ideas still at the heart of our religions, cultures, economies and legal systems. The almost impossible challenge is to achieve sufficient change to cut to the core of traditional beliefs and the harmful social traditions that have long held sway, while supporting those for whom the journey will shake everything they have ever believed. Difficult though it is, we will need to find ways to build a new global consensus and spirituality that can become broadly accepted.

The problem of religion and culture

Human beings are not free. We all inherit from our upbringing a deeply embedded mindset that reinforces cultural and religious values, which still today derive from the early days of civilisation. (This is true even for secularists who rightly criticise religious beliefs as predominantly inconsistent with science and human decency.) These mindsets have emerged in, or in response to, empire-like “civilisations”- which first emerged around 4000 years ago, with farming and differentiation of labour. They have often been embedded in religious / cultural writings that have been read as God given – and thus been heightened to the status of infallible scripture. The same texts can support war and oppression in close juxtaposition with soaring poetry and praise to God or the Gods. They have justified separation of classes and roles, defined gender in terms of male authority, and the separation of their peoples from peoples with other religious-cultural writings and laws. They have claimed in some cases to be bearers of the only true way.

In the west, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic Religions developed, or built on, the concept of a Sky God. God (wholly other) was seen as far separate from humanity – who were seen as fallen and sinful – requiring God given community sanctions to keep them in line. (Christianity has, for example, taught the substitutionary death of God’s Christ as a necessary way to appease that Father God of wrath and so buy human salvation. These were (and in most cases still are) societies where religion and the state were intertwined. At their best, as in Islam, they recognised universality in the “ummah”. At their worst they launched crusades and called for jihad – framing later collective memory on the basis of centuries of mistrust. This still deeply influences global relationships today.

Other empires had different theologies, with pantheons of Gods, but divinised rulers – as in the Roman Empire – which remains, with Greek learning, the dominant source of western thought. Throughout, these societies were equally coercive, as human beings remained stratified, and with slavery taken for granted. Only since the Renaissance has western society begun to openly challenge this religious and cultural conditioning, as the principles of open inquiry and verification in the sciences has spread to allow critical appraisal of religion and culture itself.

In the east the Hindu and Buddhist religions dominated with a very different perspective. At the cultural level Hinduism was pantheistic with multiple expressions of individual Gods as the focus of worship. Buddhism can be seen as agnostic about God as external reality – but with its focus on practice - through techniques of mediation providing ways to handle the suffering inherent in life. Cross fertilisation of religious ideas is now growing rapidly as east and west do share common insight to a limited extent – but with little impact in the more fundamentalist faiths.

The hard reality is that all the major world faiths struggle between elevated thought and basically a crude barbarity, which supports slaughter in the name of God or the Gods – and divides on tribal / sectarian lines within the faiths too. The exception is the Baha’i religion, which is the only faith to have developed within the framework of post enlightenment thought. It embeds these values in its approach to science, human and religious unity, lack of prejudice, equality of men and women, the centrality of education, avoidance of extremes of wealth, international institutions, global justice and the goal of world peace.

However, with a small number of exceptions, our religious global heritage is more often the problem than the source of a solution. The problem is our inherited belief systems, not the higher level understanding of religion founders and ‘masters’. The reaction to modernity from most faiths has been, on the one hand, an intellectual recognition of the western enlightenment and thus a reinterpretation, or, on the other, an increasingly strident return to fundamentalism. Fundamentalists and conservatives cling to scriptural warrant to slow or stop progress. They are capable of leading us into an era of new religiously underpinned wars. It is the conservatives who seek to contain children’s education and shape pliable minds into ways of believing and behaving that make no sense to enlightened thinkers, whether secular or spiritual seekers. It is important that much effort goes in to exciting conservative and fundamentalist believers with the knowledge and excitement that the evolutionary “great story” offers .

I fear that without a step change in our approach to religion, politics and economics, we risk pushing humanity back to a global dark age, surviving only in small numbers on a despoiled planet. It is, of course, not just religion that is at fault, but also materialist and capitalist culture – which has driven economic growth past the limits of sustainability. We are all caught up in that and ought now to be fully aware of the risks. There are countless millions in poverty, and there is a growing insight that we are at a key turning point for humankind and “life in all its fullness”, as countless other diverse species and habitats are lost.

So here I get to the nub of my argument. At root these problems and their holding back of global unity stem from what we believe. So, to effect change we need to frame the challenge at the level of belief – and its spin offs in the different global cultures.

The need for a new paradigm – a new humanity, a new society, a new spirituality, a new politics, a new economy, a new world!

As Neale Donald Walsch explains, the project we need to unite to build is nothing less than a new humanity. We need to recognise our global situation and manage change to minimise harm to the people caught up most in impacts from climate change and the disturbance that will follow to global economies in the decades ahead and beyond. We will best do this if we have a fresh look at what many are coming to see as a new “revelation of God” . The historic faiths were built around a series of “revelations” by human beings for whom “God”, “Life” the “All” was experienced as a deep reality by the faith founders. (This experience is not unique to the religion founders but is a common human experience, whether we are “believers” or secular people – it expresses in simple awe and in the mystical and creative processes of the creative arts and writing.)

The religions developed from the founders, and later ‘teachers’, ways of framing religious practice. They also developed myths and laws applicable to their circumstances. Codified as scripture, these are still the dominant source of rules and guidance for most of humanity. The difficulty is they no longer work for today’s global society and economy. The way forward is not to, “throw out the baby with the bathwater” but to transcend the time bound framing of “scripture” and develop a new universal one – which owns the positive insights and overarches them with a new paradigm and new insight .

Our societies are becoming polarised and divided because of literalist religion. Populist politics too is being forced to accommodate the views of literalist religion. As a result the project for global “unity in diversity” is being slowed. Even where liberal and progressives in the faiths are putting forward open alternatives, the pressure to hold to the founding fundamentals, when they are clearly damaging and plain wrong in the light of 21st Century understandings, is accommodated by leaders who regard unity as paramount. Radical voices for change are thus contained.

In my view, it will take a profound effort to involve the world’s current religious institutions in the project to build a common vision for a new society, which could take us forward together globally through this new millennium. It will involve radical and progressive leaders and spiritual teachers to put forward clearly the fruits of science , working alongside an open spirituality (within and beyond the historic faiths), to roll back the fundamentalist tide. Science , secular voices, and open spiritualities are increasingly becoming partners in this post-modern world – as we better understand the nature of reality and the Universe we inhabit . Our understanding of human minds and its relationship to the spiritual field of the Universe needs to expand. New holistic ways of managing disease is already being more and more recognised. Referring back to Einstein’s experience of “contemplating” his theory, Brian Swimme, director of the Centre for the Story of the Universe, at the University of Oregon comments:

“..the consciousness that learns it is at the origin point of the Universe is itself an origin of the Universe. .. We are all of us arising together at the centre of the cosmos.”

 We need to move forward together on this major challenge to awaken ourselves and all we meet to this amazing reality. The story of evolution, under attack from some fundamentalists, has been called the “Great Story” and frames a new collective understanding of our place as human beings Michael Dowd sums up his hopes this way :

“Over the coming decades I foresee that religious believers of every tradition will embrace a far larger, more reality based view of God than was possible even a century ago. This will be a vision of the Holy One that will draw the vast majority, regardless of religion or philosophical worldview, into a place of respect, adoration, love and care for the larger body of which we are part. Scripture will have become more all encompassing and universally inspiring because altogether new writings will qualify as scripture. Our spirituality will no longer be restricted to ancient texts, we will come to know and be led by God’s word in every fact, every detail, every truth of cosmic history and of that undeniable wholeness in which we all live and move and have our being.”

At the same time we will need to manage massive economic readjustment as we seek to manage the impacts of global warming. So as we look out the vastness of space we need to look too to our stewardship of our amazing, gifted, planetary home. We and it are One!

 The “Spiritual but not Religious ” movement, other new spiritual voices, and many thinkers in the biological and physical sciences are helping shape the agenda on websites, through books and conferences. Some are working within the faiths as voices of reason and progressive thought. Others are now involved in the many varied forms of the new spirituality. I have written on this previously in a “Free to Believe” booklet “Reshaping Christianity” exploring this territory of open spiritual exploration.

 The shape of the new society will be very different – it will require a clear understanding of the links between the scientific understandings in biology, chemistry and physics as well as an open approach to the intelligence at the core of the “All” – of which we are part. The hope is this will become increasingly the universal paradigm for human societies. To quote TS Eliot:

 “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

 The new spirituality will be influenced by many strands of insight now appearing within the historic faiths (already at the heart of some e.g. Buddhism). Neale Donald Walsch maps out several key changes that will shape the future growth of an open contemporary spirituality. He boils these down to a series of “revelations” at the conclusion of his 2003 book (summarised below):

 God has never stopped communicating:
  • Every human being is special – you are all messengers
  • No path to God is more direct than any other path – there is no “one true religion”
  • God needs nothing
  • God is not a singular super being, in or outside the universe – God cannot be hurt or damaged and has no need to seek revenge or impose punishment
  • All things are only One thing – all things are part of the One
  • There is no such thing as right and wrong – there is only what works and does not work
  • You are not your body. Who you are is limitless and without endYou cannot “die” and you will never be damned.
As explained elsewhere, 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. Stephen Mitchell sets out 4 key descriptors of this God:

Creation is an ongoing present process [in God]
  • God is coming to be
  • There is not God and some “stuff-out-of-which-he-makes-his-creatures”. Without the ever sustaining presence of God, everything collapses.
  • God is the source of all things. God is being-ness itself, reality itself.
What I think is going on in all this, is that the new spiritualities are re-discovering what was always at the heart of the Christian faith and other faiths too. In mystical experience or spiritual encounter we can come to know the One, the All. As Michael Dowd pointed out, Paul, quoted in the Acts of the Apostles, noted that a 6th Century BCE poet said, ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”.

Gordon Lynch (Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Birkbeck University, London) has also written about The New Spirituality, which he summarises as:

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’ and- my addition- interfaith encounter.
I am increasingly of the view that the cultural roots of progressive spirituality show underlying coherence, by reflecting adaptation to modernism, liberalism and welcome insights in quantum physics and cosmic ‘unfolding’. They will, I trust, be able over the decades ahead to shape an accommodation with open and progressive elements in the global faiths, necessary to underpin the hoped for changes in global religion and society.

To move to a workable future a new global politics needs to be shaped. Fundamental change is essential, as we make the necessary transition to a global “commonwealth” of peoples and nations able to manage the necessary moves to equality and mutuality and handle the potentially profound impacts of our 20th Century excess and greed.

We will need to transition to appropriate global institutions – based on our common spiritual understanding. The difficult years /decades will arise within this century as the process of change and reaction gains momentum. However, I am hopeful that what may seem like a dream can become reality – as people of faith learn to cherish their holy texts as history but, for the Judeo-Christian tradition, transcend them as being the muddled insight of a projected distant and authoritarian God – modelled on the authoritarian rule of tribal leaders, emperors and other leaders.

We cannot predict what will be needed, but some of the challenges arising in the 'credit crunch' are pointers to our need for a new economics. There will need to be a period of transition to build relationships based on “enough” and a flattening of the gross disparities modern capitalism has generated. There needs to be a full global accounting understood and applied – to ensure transition from excess consumption in the presently affluent nations, and a transfer of wealth to support sustainable growth in the countries damaged by western greed. We have plundered million year old planetary resources in oil, coal and gas. New ways to tap renewable sources on a large scale for equitable distribution will be needed to recover from this.

This will need to be supported by new forms of governance that involve citizens in decision making and a new look at the way representation can happen in a wired world. Travel will need to be restricted and balanced by excellent communications infrastructure and in time a “telepresence” in business and home. I could continue to speculate – into a period of future fiction – as it may all play out. There are grounds for hope for both a new politics and a new economics.

And finally, there could evolve a New World! There are many visions of our future world – particularly in fundamentalist Christianity, where the world ends in a bang and a wrapping up of the universe as punishment for human sin, with only the elect pardoned. That is not the God I know or would want to know.

The God we glimpse is present in all life: the source of love, the foundation of all that is. Our life is rooted in that experienced 'presence' in those moments of deepest experience, knowing and creativity. What we do is informing the All – eternally evolving and growing. I dream that we can together save this world for yet further lives well lived, as part of an ever evolving humanity sustaining life on this earth, as we awaken more and more to our home among the stars in All that is and is becoming.

Copyright ©: 2009, Rev John Hetherington. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for this sermon to be reproduced upon condition that full acknowledgements of author and copyright details are made. John Hetherington - July 2009

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