Spiritual Awakening, A Global Vision – By John Hetherington

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What is your expectation for the future – is it optimistic or pessimistic? Consider that question personally and globally, as you read on. Ask yourself how you react to the questions raised here. Do they excite or scare you? 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. In this review I thus assess how old ways of thinking about ourselves need to be challenged on every front if humanity is to emerge into a creative future on earth, at last feeling at home in the Universe. TS Eliot reminds us that the human species is always journeying, searching and striving:

“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.”

On the way we, at times, pause on that journey and turn away from open exploration, fossilising past insights and ways of living together in our various societies. But, in due time there comes a growing recognition that we need to break free and move on with our human journey. The tectonic plates of our ideas move and nothing is quite the same. Now is another such time of awakening.

Our old ways of looking at life and shaping human society are self-evidently no longer workable. So what do we need to do to initiate a peaceful global awakening that will potentially draw humanity past its turbulent adolescence and on to its maturity? How do we become the harmonious global society we long for – living peacefully as nation states within wider unions – engaging in creative dialogue across the world’s religions, until together we develop a sustainable future for humanity and the earth? How do we take forward past sources of human wisdom into the 3rd millennium AD, in a sense knowing them again for the first time?

Making the necessary changes will require progressives and other open minded people to challenge the previous deep seated beliefs which still dominate most religions, cultures, economies and legal systems. It will need fresh thinking within Christianity and the other faiths, as well as from those taking a secular perspective. It will require an almost impossible ‘awakening’ (locally, collectively and globally), to achieve such change. This is necessary whether people approach it via the literalism of much religious belief, or the hard secularism that has put out the fire!

“And new philosophy calls all in doubt, the element of fire is quite put out; The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit can direct him, where to look for it.”

Difficult though it will be, we will need to work to identify ways to build a new global socioeconomic and political consensus, linked with a reshaped global spirituality, which could reignite humanity’s ‘fire’. Such a consensus will require radical reflection on the ways we have been living unsustainably, cut off from the spiritual heart that underpins reality. Spiritual awareness will need to underpin global governance.

The Problem of Inherited 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 developed around 4000 years ago, with farming and differentiation of labour. They have become embedded in religious / cultural writings that have been read as God given – and thus been heightened to the status of infallible scripture – with the passage of time. The same texts can support war and oppression (to preserve the tribe or empire) 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 most 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. This God (wholly other) was seen as far separate from humanity – which was seen as fallen and sinful – requiring God given community sanctions to keep them in line (for example in the Old Testament summaries of Jewish Law). Christianity too, in its turn, began to teach that the substitutionary death of God’s Christ was necessary to appease that Father God of wrath and so buy human salvation, reaching its climax in Calvinism. This was a far cry from the simple teaching of Jesus that we can still glimpse in the early books of the New Testament.

The societies in which these ideas developed were, and in most cases still are, societies where religion and the state are intertwined. At their worst (medieval Christianity) they launched crusades and called for holy war (jihad) – framing later collective memory on the basis of centuries of mistrust. At their best, as in early Islam, they recognised human universality under God in the concept of “ummah”. This history still deeply influences global relationships today.

Other empires had different theologies, with pantheons of Gods, but divinised rulers – as in the pre Constantinian Roman Empire – which remains, with Greek learning, (rediscovered in Europe via Islamic scholars) the dominant source of western thought. Throughout, these societies were equally coercive, as society remained stratified and 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 religious expressions of worship of individual ‘manifestations’. Buddhism can be seen as agnostic about God as external reality – preferring to focus on practice – through ancient Vedanta techniques of mediation providing ways to handle the suffering inherent in life. At the heart of these ancient spiritualities is a profound insight that,

“Who thinks the Self may kill, who thinks the Self itself be killed, has missed the mark of truth. Self is not born, nor does it ever die; it does not come to life, not having been, nor, having been does it thereafter cease. Eternal, ancient, ever present Self, though bodies are cut down, lives on intact.”

The cross-fertilisation of religious ideas is now growing rapidly as east and west share common insight to a growing extent – though with little impact in the more fundamentalist expressions of each religion. For example, there is increasing emphasis on meditation practice in Christianity with numerous local groups across the UK making links between the Christian mystical and contemplative tradition and eastern practices. More recent writers, such as Eckhart Tolle, are increasingly recognised as key western leaders in the movement to “awaken” individuals to the “presence” found in times of stillness:

“When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.”

The hard reality is that all the major world faiths struggle between such elevated thought and a crude defensive barbarity, which supports slaughter in the name of God or the Gods – and divides on tribal / sectarian lines within and across the faiths.

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.

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!

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. It is important, therefore, that much effort goes in to exciting conservative and fundamentalist believers with the knowledge that the evolutionary “great story” offers as a way of bringing science and religion together.

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 their 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 at 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 this “post religious” 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” which maps the development of this ‘territory’ in 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.

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

  • 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 selfconsciousness 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 interfaith encounter).

Neale Donald Walsch maps out several key changes that will shape the future growth of an open contemporary spirituality. He boiled 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 end.
  • You cannot “die” and you will never be damned.

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, ‘In whom we live and move and have our being”.

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.

So, to move to a workable future global politics and economy fundamental change is necessary too, 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 period of 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. 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, a New World! There are many visions of our future world – including that of fundamentalist Christianity (and its counterpart in jihadist Islam), 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 I know is ‘present’ in all life, as the source of love, the foundation of all that is. My life is rooted in that ‘presence’ – those moments of deepest experience, knowing and creativity. What we are called to do is enjoy and develop our present experience of God – the All – eternally evolving and growing in and through us.

Thus, I trust that all who read this will share my confidence that,

“All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well.”

“For God showed a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, it seemed to me, and it was round as a ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made” I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it would have fallen suddenly to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding, ‘It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it, and so have all things their being by the love of God’. In this little thing I saw three qualities. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. The third that God keeps it.”

Together we can apply Julian’s confidence – for we will, together, save this world for yet further lives, fully lived as part of an ever evolving humanity, at last at home in the stars, sharing God’s All.

John Hetherington – July 2009

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Email: john.hetherington@btinternet.com