The course “Rooted in Faith: Religious Cultures of the Lower Mainland” was an enriching experience and greatly enhanced my awareness of the historical depths from which the world religions emerge and are transformed over time. The timelines supplied by the instructor were invaluable in terms of understanding the development of historical events that shaped the religious communities in the Lower Mainland. I also appreciated the various summary tables offered for our consideration in the attempt to place a contextual framework that unified the overarching tenets that can be drawn to make connections across faith perspectives. While we intuitively grasp that all religions to a certain extent are talking about the same codes of conduct, morality, and worship of a transcendent entity or force, I have not been conscious of the thematic consistencies across religious traditions. The scope of the material for this course is immense yet I felt that I came away with greater knowledge of the origins, the principles and the developments across time of the faith traditions presented – to an extent where I could have a reasonable introduction with which to reach across into conversation with someone of these traditions.
While I was superficially aware of most of the religious cultures that were presented, I gained greater understanding of their sacred texts and beliefs. I had little knowledge of the origins of schisms that had occurred within various traditions lending to the rise of the Eastern Orthodox or the Christian Reformist traditions for example. Furthermore, I knew nothing of the origins of the Zorastrian faith and the Persian civilization nor the various types of Buddhism prior to this course.
There is a diversity of religious traditions in my workplace. I have a Catholic, a Hindu, a Chinese Buddhist, two spiritual but not religious, and two atheist colleagues. As a result of this course, I have initiated some dialogue with these colleagues. It was my Hindu colleague who informed me that I should take a tour of the Highway to Heaven in Richmond and visit the temples along No. 5 Road. She also said that in her community they are already concluding that their religion will die out. I am intrigued by the two colleagues who profess to be atheists as both have a keen sense of morality and an abundance of spirit and concern for the natural world realizing that I assume atheists to lack morality! It would have been interesting to have had a discussion in class about the growing number of books on atheism and the people who prescribe to this ‘spiritual’ position. Is it a survival, identity, or unity based worldview I ask myself? The categories do not fit easily.
I have found that the concept of pilgrimage seems to crosscut all of the boundaries between my colleagues and each of us can articulate the desire for some kind of journey that involves both an interior and a geographical aspect that holds the potential for being elevating or revelatory. Yet I find a resistance to this appropriation into modern spiritual discourse of traditional religious practices where there is coherent beliefs and rituals. This is why I have reservations about intercultural/faith initiatives as outlined in our last session being instrumental in effecting change. While it appears that the future of organized religions is fraught with uncertainty given intermarriage and the rise of secular spirituality, I think something is lost when we begin to collapse attributes of various religions into amalgamations, however cohesive, of worship. I think the integrity and complexity of the various religions whose practices require discipline and unique rituals are worth preserving. In the absence of this diversity, we risk concrete practices organized around a community of faith and a liturgical year being replaced by relativism. My bias is for boundaries that facilitate regulation of systems with dynamic synergistic relationships between discrete entities or traditions with their own distinctiveness. I liken this to the peaceful coexistence presented to us by Medieval Spain and the reign of Akbar in India.
Atheists claim that religions are based on the fear of death and provide answers for the question of what happens when we die. And yet, fundamentally, all organized religions in fact provide the community of practice with a healthy way to integrate death into life within structured rituals and beliefs that bind people together in faith. I think of an age of spiritual relativism or avowed anti religion and I see the potential loss of sitting shiva or funeral Masses or funeral pyres as leaving humanity bereft of any respect for the sanctity of both life and/or death. In fact, without distinct rituals based on a sound structure all passages in life will be left without meaningful acknowledgement. We are hardwired through evolution for religious expression, ritual and community. Indigenous peoples have practiced sacred rites of passage built into the Creator centered religions that connected individuals to their world. It is difficult to foresee how these essential elements will be incorporated into post modern life under ad hoc arrangements of spiritual complexes. The contradiction of globalization and the internet is the increasing isolation and loneliness of our modern era. The decline of organized religion as antidote to the human consciousness of aloneness does not bode well in this respect.
There are definitely benefits to dialogue and fellowship in intercultural initiatives in generating respect and inclusiveness towards a united response to the decimations of the land and the peoples of the world where the increasing inequality of capital is creating massive instability in our shared future. It might be said that this instability is the impetus for rising fundamentalism in all religious traditions. Who will hear the cry of the poor?
The hegemony of economics and materialism in the choices we are making in this emerging global civilization may well lead to a new totalitarianism. I have young Millenials among my staff and they are largely abdicating from long held religious, political, and social traditions here in the West creating virtual communities and new models of citizenship. The direction of change and consequences for the post modern socio-political contract is unpredictable. Organized religion has been most frequently associated with governance for good or for harm and that link may at some point be broken. In short, we do not know where we are headed.
Perhaps a forerunner lies in Fort McMurray where Shia and Sunni Muslims united to build a mosque because homeownership was more important than religious divisions in the community according to an article in the Globe and Mail this past weekend as cited by my boss. Big box church trend moves into Muslim world? Conversely, some among the Roman Catholic circles predict that, with the declining vocations to religious life, we will return to small, informal lay administered sacraments in the homes of the faithful akin to the early Christians. Interfaith organizations are aligned in a vision of unity but I do not think we know whether religions as such are uniting or disintegrating. We may find that increased interfaith/cultural dialogue and fellowship will enhance moderation and tolerance but I wonder at the mechanisms that will be brought to bear on fundamental sects within traditions. We do not see the Islamic community bringing an outcry and sanctions to bear on ISIS as a distortion of that faith for example.
I look forward to reading Karen Armstrong’s books which were cited in this course addressing cross cultural similarities and differences in religious traditions. I have come away with more questions than answers as a result of the presentations offered which is a measure of the value of the instructor and the material. How will morality be transferred to new generations in a world of “spiritual but not religious” communities? If organized religions decline over time, how will we define the sacred? Further, would the concept of “interiority” as a different way to view the soul hold weight in understanding the mechanism by which any religious/spiritual tradition or system creates meaning for human beings? If organized religions unite into a global religion over time, what will be the governance model and how would it relate to the political and economic bodies of the world? Will a “new age spirituality” inform values and ethics for the social contract? If so, will there be collective forms develop into entirely new organized churches or will there be only locally formed groups with no clerical presence as in the Bah’ai faith? What will be our sacred text?
I agree with Paul Hawken’s thesis in Blessed Unrest that the worldview of the Indigenous peoples that all is sacred and the land cannot be separated from human activity could save us. This could heal our fundamental disconnect. In my mind, we cannot divorce the environment from religious/spiritual practices. This may be the organizing principle within which interfaith initiatives can cultivate meaningful collaboration and be an effective change agent. Traditional organized religions outside of Christianity and Indigenous Circles have largely neglected this critical piece to date, no? I heard the Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church, Mark McDonald, speak on the reframing of rituals and scripture that Christian Indigenous churches are undertaking in the attempt to reconcile the two cultures. Again, I wonder if this kind of hybrid will alter the integrity of both originating traditions. We also now see a “pan” Indigenous religion in North America that the people call “traditional” and yet is actually an integration of practices from many of the Nations. For example, the northern Cree now include the Plains Sioux sun dance ceremony into what they understand as “traditional medicine”. We heard how the Coastal Salish peoples also have incorporated the medicine wheel teachings from the Plains Nations into their religious doctrine.
By way of conclusion, I offer the following vignette to capture the roots of many of the preceding reflection: I am a practicing Roman Catholic who had “fallen away” in my teenage years and returned to the church five years ago. My atheist cousin calls me “an anachronism”. Recently, we went to see the film “Citizenfour” about the whistle-blowing courage of Edward Snowden on the surveillance tactics of the American government. When the 29 year old Snowden declared that he was not motivated by self-interest in his exposure of the extent and nature of the surveillance but rather that he cared about others as much as himself in their right to privacy, I said to my cousin, “that’s the Gospel”. Edward Snowden is now in hiding somewhere in South America to avoid treason charges in the US.
Francine A. Chisholm is enrolled in the 55+ Liberal Arts program at SFU. She continues to work full time for the federal government and takes courses that enrich her spiritual practice. Writing is integral to that practice. Thank you for being the reader.