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ColumnistsPilgrim's NotesReligion and Spirituality in the 21st Century: Part 1

Religion and Spirituality in the 21st Century: Part 1


by Jack McLean

I ventured in my first column that religion and spirituality, despite the sway of certain contemporary ‘isms’ (consumerism, materialism, terrorism, secularism, atheism), still have a viable future. Today, I would like to explore certain vistas of this future. What I am proposing here is admittedly a thought-experiment–admittedly an ideal in terms of present society.

But I see enough of these signs glimmering on the horizon to believe that we are gradually moving toward more progressive forms of religious understanding, expression and practice. By keeping the following principles in mind, it is possible to envisage religion as being part of the solution to creating a more peaceful, united and progressive global society, rather than exacerbating division and intractable conflict.

Beyond ecumenism to pluralism. In Christ’s prayer (John 17: 21), he prays “That all may be one.” This prayer has given rise to the laudable goal of creating Christian unity –ecumenism.  But the prayer of Jesus may be understood to include all religions. Pluralism is one such expression. It recognizes the validity of all the world’s independent religions. The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008) responded that only about 30% of interviewees said that their religion was the only true faith that would lead to eternal life. About 70% included other religions in response to the same question. Based on this one survey, inclusive-minded Christians outnumber exclusive-minded Christians by roughly two-thirds. Interfaith dialogue and study of the world’s religions will help to abolish sectarian prejudices.

Global issues were discussed at the 2004 “Parliament of the World’s Religions” in Barcelona, Spain. Among them were “mitigating religiously motivated violence, access to safe water, the fate of refugees worldwide, and the elimination of external debt in developing countries.” World leaders and their governments have been challenged to rethink global issues in light of the documents produced at the various Parliaments, following the reconvening of the Parliament in 1993. That year was the centenary celebration of the first “World’s Parliament of Religions,” held  in 1893 in Chicago at the Columbian Exposition, a type of world-fair.  

Belief in one God and the organic unity of the human race. The foundational religious belief in monotheism has definite implications for human solidarity. Spiritually, the human race is one. The corollary is that no race is foreign. All races without distinction belong to the earth, our common home. The diversity inherent to the human race greatly enhances the vibrant colours of our world mosaic. Whatever our racial or ethnic origin, all humans possess the defining traits of consciousness, intelligence, creativity, volition, love, faith, and knowledge, which are vital properties of the human heart, soul or spirit.

The ethical foundation of all the world’s religions is one. Although the man-made theologies or belief systems of the world’s religions are difficult to reconcile, and although great diversity characterizes the ceremonies and rituals of the world’s religions, the foundation of the world’s great faith-traditions is their common ethical core. Despite various accents, the ethics of the world’s religions, i.e. how we are exhorted to live our lives in the day-to-day experience, do not really contradict one another. All religions teach such spiritual virtues as loving-kindness, purity of heart, cleanliness, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, justice, forbearance, and patience. The integral, complete and universal practice of any one of these spiritual virtues by itself would be capable of transforming the world.     

Hate speech and violence are an oxymoron in religion. In the past and continuing into the present, violence was/is sanctioned in the name of God. The ancient Semites under Joshua’s leadership conquered the ancient land of Canaan (modern-day Israel) by slaughtering every man, woman, child and beast. The commandment was to kill “anything that breathes.” (Deut. 20:16). During the First Crusade, the “Christian” victory following the siege of Jerusalem (1099) signalled a bloodbath of unprecedented violence even for medieval times. Saracens numbering 10,000 were slain on the Temple Mount where they had attempted to take refuge in the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The feet and ankles of the Knight-Crusaders were literally covered with the blood of the slain.

The 124-year-long Wars of Religion in Europe between Catholic and Protestant nations (1524-1648) took at least 100,000 lives. Twenty-first century jihadis justify the massacre of innocents by reading the Qur’an.

The “law of the sword” is an oxymoron to religion in our day. Because “war begins in words,” hate speech and hate preachers inciting to violence should never be tolerated in the name of anyone’s religion or holy scriptures.

The One Tree of Humanity. In the past, sharp distinctions were drawn between believers in one particular religion and those who were not. Those who considered themselves to be the true believers, judged those who did not share their faith as being of the lost, unclean, rejected by God, or destined for hell. Religious minorities suffered under discriminatory laws. Religious ghettos in all faiths were formed in which non-believers were not welcomed or even allowed to enter. Friendship with non-believers was either forbidden or discouraged. Interfaith marriages were not permitted. Religion became the source of deep-seated prejudices.

For those who welcome pluralism, however, since there is only one God, who has spoken through the sacred scriptures of all the prophets, and although there are many religions, there is only one universal faith.  Humanity is not two trees–the flourishing tree of the saints, while the tree of non-believers stands out as an infernal tree.  All mankind are the leaves of one tree because all are created by God. Our unity matters far more than our diversity. A humanity divided against itself cannot stand. (Part 2: to be continued)





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