Why Religions Work: God’s Place in the World Today

Of course interfaith tolerance is a huge issue in today’s world. Some would say that there can be no reconciliation between so many different faiths and creeds.

Indian Muslim Eboo Patel felt the shame of how he had treated his own school fellows from different faiths so he founded and runs the Inter Faith Youth Core. This organization has trained thousands of people across continents (Australia, India, Qatar, and across Western Europe for example as well as across America) for the skills needed to transform religious diversity or religious tension into active interfaith cooperation. One way it achieves this is by training college students as leaders to engage with and address topical social issues in an interfaith way, within the college, schools and in the community, wherever there is an identified social need.

This is just one of many initiatives to promote interfaith tolerance and respect. Because we should really talk about respect rather than tolerance- tolerance is after all somewhat condescending.

There is the Cambridge Interfaith Programme.

An offshoot is Nurani, pursuing what it calls Scriptural Reasoning, based on the belief that ‘at the heart of healthy inter-faith engagement is a triple dynamic: going deeper into your own faith, deeper into each other’s, and deeper into action for the common good of humanity. How can that be bad?

There are thousands of such initiatives – dedicated to fostering and nurturing interfaith dialogue and tolerance, with their own visions for a better future. Religions themselves recognize only too well the need to work with each other, to find effective and lasting ways to bridge the gaps between them.

Possibly one of the most important current initiatives, that sadly not many have heard about, is “A Common Word” – http://www.acommonword.com/ a dialogue initiative between leading Muslims and Christians prompted by the Regensburg address given by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and some remarks he made that were taken as offensive by Muslims worldwide, sparking ugly rioting.

So where is spirituality in all this?

As the internationally renowned theologian Ursula King reminds us:

“The spiritual probing of religious pluralism and the drinking from each other’s spiritual wells may be today’s great spiritual event, full of significance for human well-being, and for the future of humanity on earth.”

I believe that there is great potential for finding common ground between all spiritualities, all religions, all people in the connectivity that many of us now accept as existing between humans and even between all sentient beings.

I believe that common ground may be found in something that may defy current definition, perhaps what some may mean by the Holy Spirit, or the Transcendent, a true spiritual oneness of humanity, a global spiritual interdependence available to everyone, whether or not we believe in God the Creator of all things visible and invisible – or God the ‘moralizing super person!’

Will this help us address our religious intolerances and divides? I think it could. If we can truly promote a global spiritual awakening and if the religions can tap into this – indeed claim it back as their own, it gives us great hope for human flourishing.

It seems to be such a blindingly obvious idea, but isn’t it just possible that when we have our spiritual experiences we are tapping into a common thread that could bind and unite all religions? Because, after all, this indefinable global consciousness, soul, spirit, empathy is presumably of the same character whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jains, atheists, agnostics, black, white, Scottish or Zulu or whatever our faith, color or culture.

And what about the latest scientific studies into prayer, empathy, Near Death Experiences (NDEs), Out of Body Experiences (OBEs), consciousness and other esoteric ideas, that may somehow give us more clues about a spiritual connectivity, a spirit that brings all religions closer together, if they will allow it? Rupert Sheldrake has his theory of morphic resonance, Teilhard de Chardin wrote of a global consciousness, Carl Jung had his theory of the ‘collective unconscious’ and wrote of a God Consciousness, an awakening consciousness in the universe. This echoes the higher levels of consciousness recognized within various mystic and meditation practices, and which are generally considered unavailable to the uninitiated, as in the mass population. But many feel we are moving towards a new global consciousness. Perhaps we may find here somewhere the links we need to build a greater respect and understanding between all humanity, between all religions, essential for the future healthy evolution of this planet.

There is much work to be done here – which I want to pursue as my own research project over the next few years.

So how do we join all this up into something meaningful but most importantly practical and healing?

I’m reminded at this stage of those “Joining up the Dots” puzzles we did as children – to create an overall picture. How do we join up all these dots now?

How do we turn ideas into practical positive action?

I really believe that education is the key to our future.

And I believe that spiritual literacy must be part of that education; that all young people need to be educated in the ways of spirit and respect and love, because this will be the world’s healing force.

Education should be a holistic journey of spiritual discovery and growth, a development of body, mind and spirit for us all, as we all learn how to become fully human. And religion is fully equipped to be there to help us on that journey.

The former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and later Chancellor of Costa Rica’s Peace University, Robert Muller, wrote in the 1980s of the need for a global education that ‘must transcend material, scientific and intellectual achievements and reach deliberately into the moral and spiritual spheres.’ After extending the power of our hands with incredible machines, our eyes with telescopes and microscopes, our ears with cell phones, radio and sonar, our brains with computers and automation, he wrote, we must now also extend our hearts, our feelings, our love, and our soul ‘to the entire human family, to the planet, to the stars, to the universe, to eternity and to God.’

So in conclusion I would say two things:

1. We need to foster wisdom above knowledge

We all of us need humility. We need less cynicism, although a little is healthy and essential! 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.

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 wisdom. And religion provides that wisdom.

2. Our Spiritual Crisis is religions’ opportunity

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 can be an essential part of that evolution.

In three short articles it is impossible to do full justice to the various issues I have explored; all the reasons why religion is still important and why its many organizations and efforts for humanity need support rather than disdain; issues of tolerance and respect; the interface with science and spirituality; and yes, how religion needs to change so that our present spiritual crisis can become a wonderful healing opportunity.

To the spiritual but not religious, I would say give religion a chance. At least be open to what it can offer and treat it with respect!

To the religious I would say – try to bridge the gap with science, be receptive to what latest science is showing us. Perhaps we can begin to understand religions better through the latest consciousness studies; religions should no longer ignore the evidence for many supernatural phenomena, such as out of body experiences, non-local healing, and so on – and the idea that we are all interconnected at some level of consciousness or spirit or energy.

All this and more is covered in my latest book, Why Religions Work, which I think will help the religious laity and their clergy alike to relate church tradition to the wider world of science, spirituality and interfaith issues.

To the atheists, I would say that they do not have to believe in God; that is their choice. But please leave the religions alone. Please respect where we are coming from and don’t feel the need to join a crusade of abuse, a quest for the abolition of religion. Such a crusade could prove as deadly and costly to mankind as the original Crusades and other intolerances that the neo atheists so vehemently criticize.

SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Armstrong, Karen (2010), The Case for God Vintage, London.

King, Ursula (2009), The Search for Spirituality: Our Global Quest for Meaning and Fulfilment, Canterbury Press, London.

Patel, Eboo (2007), Acts of Faith: the Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Beacon Press, Boston.

Sheldrake, Rupert (2012), The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, Hodder and Stoughton, London.

This is the third and final adapted extract from a talk given by Eleanor Stoneham to a local group meeting of the Scientific and Medical Network, an international network “exploring and expanding the frontiers of science, medicine and spirituality.

Eleanor is the author of Healing This Wounded Earth: With Compassion, Spirit and the Power of Hope (2011), O Books, Hampshire.

And Why Religions Work: God’s Place in Today’s World, Circle Books, Hampshire, due November 2012.

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