Tuesday, 31 May 2011

An open and progresssive global faith

John Hetherington [P2S Associate] explores the 7 Points of his vision for the global religion and spirituality of the future.
[Reproduced from the Article Posted on www.permissiontospeak.com]

The Unitarian approach to faith and life offers a caring, open-minded way of thinking, which encourages seekers to follow their own path. Unitarianism has increasingly drawn me over recent years from my own Reformed heritage as a former Congregationalist. However, I remain for now a 'self-supporting' minister in the United Reformed Church. The Congregational and English Presbyterian Churches, later joined by Scottish Congregationalists, became the United Reformed Church (URC) in 1972. The URC and Unitarian churches thus reach back to the early (16th Century) at the beginnings of the European struggles for religious freedom and tolerance over and against  monarchical state religion, .

Unitarians and liberal progressive in the URC (and in other denominations) draw on many religious sources and welcome people across a wide spectrum of open-minded views. The URC retains a somewhat more Calvinist perspective, with evangelical and liberal / progressive wings. Unitarians are united by shared values, not by creed or dogma.

Unitarian and other progressive, open, liberal Christians yearn to explore, unfettered, the full range of contemporary religious and spiritual insights. Ours is a broad faith that allows people to explore the full range of contemporary understandings of the "mystery" of life and Being that we call "divinity". We are people who "Live the Questions" not expecting to be given fixed answers. We must hope that forever, now, we are past imprisoning or killing one another on the basis of belief or doctrine, though that is not the worldwide perspective - yet!

I am more and more drawn to a Unitarian Universalist position, content to embrace all those progressive values and ideas that have paved the way to open exploration of the world's faiths and spiritualities. The hallmarks of this openness should be reflected in all aspects of our thinking and living.

A word hear on Trinitarian and Unitarian belief. I share my ministry across both traditions. For me the "divine" is not definable - certainly not as a "God" out there beyond the sky, who sent a literal "divine Son" to save humanity. The "God" I know is found in the midst of life - at the depth our being and doing. That beingness is where east and western religions can come together. Trinities crop up in religions east and west and each reflects a way of entering into the mystery of our humanity and divinity and the connectedness we address as Spirit.  To me God must remain a mystery - through which I sense God's 'presence' in all that is in "creation" and also thus "in" us humans (and nature) - beyond any defining. As Karen Armstrong says in her, "The Case for God" we must look for God in "mythos" not "logos". God cannot helpfully be defined as unity or trinity - only experienced. 

Jesus thus remains my source of connection to the divine, but other faith founder also had that connection, too. I find the doctrines hammered out in the 4th Century under Constantine incredible when viewed as "logos" - but deeply powerful when entered into as mythos.

 Given this perspective, I want to share with you SEVEN POINTS that I have come to see as my vision for the global religion and spirituality of the future. See what you think!

So, my First Point: It is in personal encounter with the mystery and wonder of life that we find our deepest selves. When we sense the "spirit" within, lifting us to moments of transcendent "knowing", we glimpse a foretaste of a "divine loving presence" that will ever hold us.

I believe that the heart of all religion and spirituality arises from human encounter with the "spirit of life" that is fully present in us and our world. It's not surprising we start each service at Kendal Unitarian Church with "Spirit of life come unto me".

"Spirit of life come unto me. Sing in my heart the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free, Spirit of life come unto me, come onto me."

My personal perspective is that, as evolved human beings, we are more than "flesh and blood" - we are eternal souls journeying to find joy in our hearts and wisdom for our mind, through the sensed presence of "divinity" within. I sense deeply that we are sparks of the divine life sharing a journey of discovery - connected to the source of all that is.

Second Point: We have discovered that in human lives, words and deeds - prophetic women and men have and are being "energized" to confront the "powers" of structural evil - with justice, compassion and love.

There is more to heaven and earth than most human beings experience. Life is hard and brutal for many. We have down the millennia been blessed with stories that can change things, if we will but listen. The normal modes of civilisation are, for a few, to rise tyrannically to the top of the pile and oppress the mass of the people. Inspired women and men have spoken out and sacrificed their lives to confront such systemic evil - as in Libya now. We must always be prepared to take risks for the future.

Third Point: We know that down the ages, prophets, sages and wisdom teachers have made the "light within" clear to us, and to peoples everywhere. We thus recognise Jesus, in particular, as our model for a life lived in love, compassion and service to others.

There is an enormous literature from west and east that speaks to us of the insights being experienced across our planet from growing awareness of Hindu and Buddhist and other teachings, and the practices being followed. We need to be open to practices of mindfulness and prayer that have often been lost in the western faiths. Meditation and mantras, ritual and chant, stillness and silence - are all increasingly recognised as global phenomena. One "divine light", recognised in tribal peoples and civilisations across the world.

We now know, in this global age, that we can read and absorb all that insight; and be changed as a consequence. We can at least glimpse what it means to be wise, enlightened and loving. I thank God that this chain of messengers has opened the way to justice, peace and love for all - even if we still have a long way to go in our climb to global unity in diversity.

We should always be deeply thankful for the man Jesus who came in the line of inspired prophets within Judaism - and for the recognition of his early followers that, in him, there was a shining depth to his life, love and being that caused many to embrace his "WAY" within their Jewish context. It must remain our model.

Fourth Point: We have the freedom in Unitarianism to explore the wisdom found in all the world's religions (west and east) - and from them find inspiration for our ethical and spiritual life, and help to develop practices to open heart and mind.

There is much I do not understand in my own faith heritage, but I increasingly believe that we are on the verge of a global civilisation, whose deep roots of "practice" have arisen in India, China, Egypt, central Asia and in tribal settings. I firmly believe that Unitarians and other progressive Christian groups have a mission to work across faith boundaries to develop common explorations. As the Baha'i faith is the most recent world religion, it has also sought to integrate the whole picture into a common global ethic.

We must search for "ever new" explorations of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Baha'i writings and consequent teachings - which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbours as ourselves. We must search for "ever new" explorations within eastern religious and spiritual insights, as found in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Sikh thought and practice.

There is a beautiful translation, by Alan Jacobs, of the Isa Upanishad, which Mahatma Ghandi regarded as one of the most important in Indian scripture. It captures the essence of eastern insight:

All is perfect, so perfectly perfect! Whatever being lives, moves and breathes on the earth, at every level from atom to galaxy, is absolutely perfect in its place, precise and choreographed, because "That" flows from the Glory of God, the Lord, the Self, Consciousness, the Source, Awareness, Peace and Love, and is therefore perfect. When you surrender your ego to "That", you will find true happiness. Never envy the place of any other man or woman.

We need to be cautious when we hear people talking of Christianity "being the only way".

All I am discovering, points to there being many paths to the truths about us human beings and our spiritual nature. Insight comes from all that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad and Bahaullah taught. We need to hone our critical faculties to test faith assertions. Unitarians need to ensure they play a decisive role in the global Councils of faith to get their point across.

The era of Christian exclusivism is ending, leading us to an era of mutual inter-faith and inter-spiritual exploration.

The Sufi path in Islam has produced some of the most powerful poetry and insight into God's presence in us. For Sufis there is, "one 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."

Bahá'u'lláh (the prophet of the Baha'i faith) 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"

I am personally convinced that the inspiration for change will only come as we explore the more mystical Christian paths, and connect them with the insights being experienced across our planet from growing awareness of Hindu and Buddhist and other teachings, and the practices being followed. We need to be open to practices of mindfulness and prayer that have often been lost in the western faiths. Meditation and mantras, ritual and chant, stillness and silence - are all increasingly recognised as global phenomena.

Fifth Point: We must embrace Humanist teachings - which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.

People who are a-theist (unhappy with the traditional concept of a Father God "out there") are of course welcome in Unitarianism, for there is much to redefine and explore together. Agnostics are our also our brothers and sisters - because none of this is certain or defined precisely! Writers like Ken Wilbur are exploring an Integral approach, with concerns that link science and faith, and social and cultural issues, to help bring about a connected global understanding.

Sixth Point: We must embrace earth centred spiritual teachings which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

"Pagan" has become a pejorative term - harking back to, what I sense was a deeply real attempt by pre-historic and early cultures to understand and thus "worship" the "gods" of season and places. It must have seemed to be a capricious and dangerous world. There is much to rediscover in the exploration of "earth based" teaching.

I see much to rediscover in the exploration of "earth based" teaching. Unitarians, I know, do appreciate the Pagan, Celtic, Druidic insights that have produced some of the most powerful poetic spiritual verse I know. You may well recall the words of Celtic Christian saints - inheritors of the earlier faith of these islands.

Seventh Point: We should be excited, too, by the new emerging forms of spirituality that embrace the possibility that we can explore connection and healing.

Some of you may have come across the "Celestine Prophecy" series with its 12 "Insights" of a future global connection being enabled. Other writers like Neale Donald Walsch and Eckhart Tolle, as well as writers on "Conscious Medicine", are part of a growing scene exploring the nature of life and soul - the divinity within. Unitarians will freely want to explore this growing area of encounter, practice and healing.

So - to finish:

My 7 Points will, I hope, be memorable and helpful in stimulating you to think further, "outside the box". I always enjoy breaking boundaries - and I welcome your ideas and reactions.

In other words, I want to challenge you all to be risk takers, people open to the call of "spirit" and "insight". We are, I am certain, called to be explorers beyond "orthodoxy" of belief and be open to the excitement of exploration and the joy of new discoveries made and interpretations heard.

We should (to borrow a Baha'i term) be a "House of Welcome" to those with open minds and hearts - supporting one another in our "Way" while fully respecting other's ways. These are exciting times to be part of!

In my Booklet, "Reshaping Christianity" I expand on the new forms of open spirituality.  To order a copy go to the Free to Believe website: www.freetobelieve.org.uk