Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The times are confusing

Times are sure confusing. We are hearing of seemingly radically different approaches to life both from a diversity of places in the world and in the implications of changing society and technology affecting every corner of our lives including religion.

But this is not the first time religion in society has gone through transformation and challenge. And none are more substantial in history than when the largest religions who's origins we know of were themselves born. In the far-east when Buddhism arose there was a period of confusion and ferment - "The period during which the Upanishads were being formulated and eventually recorded, roughly… 800 to 600 BCE, was a period of tremendous religious fermentation… change was happening at an extraordinarily fast rate, historically."[1] During the time of the establishment of Christianity there was a period of "…confused and confusing systems of thought that are the direct outcome of the helplessness and confusion afflicting the Christian Faith and the great variety of popular cults, of fashionable and evasive philosophies which flourished in the opening centuries of the Christian Era, and which attempted to absorb and pervert the state religion of that Roman people….”[2] And in the case of Islam there was a period of wrestling with the so-called ''Ghulat'' when "There thus arose a ferment of discussion around some of the concepts introduced by these older religious systems (which were encountered by Islam's growth).… In Iraq  (various religious systems) contributed to a kaleidoscope of religious debate and speculation probably unequalled in the ancient world."[3]

There is some room for considering the recent age in parallel with such histories. We sure have had more than a few religious developments over the last couple centuries!

• the Protestant group separating into Methodists, Pentecostalism,[4]
• Seventh Day Adventists,     • consider Aikido,     • Tenrikyo,
• Christian Science,      • the Ghost Dance of Native Americans 
• Unification Church,   • …
And not only these new systems creating an air of confusion but a degradation of the heritage of systems of order were disintegrating like the final fall of the Holy Roman Empire,[5] the dissolution of the Caliphate of Islam[6], and the Pope's loss of most of his temporal authority's last vestige in the Papal States[7] amid harrowing scenes.[8]

Religion, it would seem, could never be the same as it was before. But we were forming one world - transportation and communications, organizing peoples and nations - we spread around the world and made it one, big (though seemingly shrinking every day), place and religion has to wrestle with that.

A few of the above are syncretistic - attempting to just merge traditions - while others are schisms. But there was another approach: simple acknowledgement of the fact of the authentic religious experience of the diversity of peoples. Into this period of ferment comes an attempt to look at the diversity of religious experience authentically. And this arose out of America - the United States and Canada in the form of two books and lives of research -  "Cosmic consciousness: a study in the evolution of the human mind" by Richard Maurice Bucke and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

Seemingly for the first time the very fact of a diversity of religious experience was acknowledged and embraced. And it arose out of America where other institutions would unfold in time trying to bring world unity together - Wilson's 14 Points, the League of Nations, the United Nations, etc.  At the turn of the last century William James' work was the first definitive contribution of America to world philosophy and in it he mentions the founders of the religions mentioned above - Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad - in the same sentence: "First-hand individual experience of this kind has always appeared as a heretical sort of innovation to those who witnessed it's birth. Naked comes it into the world and lonely; and it has always, for a time at least, driven him who had it into the wilderness, often into the literal wilderness out of doors, where the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammed… had to go.”[9] In doing so he focused attention on the profound and moving experiences of religionists and gave credibility to such experiences thus founding the philosophy of Pragmatism (from which it can be said something is true if it works for people) - and "… paving the way for modern study of parapsychology and religious experience."[10] And related work has indeed shown up in research on parapsychological phenomena of near death experiences[11] where Phyllis Atwater in her book (and ongoing work) "Coming Back to Life" spends a chapter on the spiritual implications of what NDE might illumine of the spiritual world and our eternal nature. She calls up the work of Richard Bucke's who wrote Cosmic Consciousness that William James mentions.[12] Recognizing that a sense of God comes through NDE reports, Phyllis wrestles with the diversity of religion as well[13] while others research religious scriptures.[14] And papers and books continue to work on the realm of the study of religious experience.[15] And this wrestling with religion has continued in other circles arising out of America as well - consider Scifi author Robert Heinlein's "Job: A Comedy of Justice" where he tries to poke at the diversity of religions by saying they are all true, literally. Joseph Campbell and his "Hero with a Thousand Faces" finding the "monomyth" buried in all our stories of search and triumph – who also mentioning the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammed.[16] Indeed if the religions are all true somehow we have a lot of work of making sense of things, but if it is to be it surely must acknowledge the reality, if subjectivity, of experience. While science inquiry bids fair to wrestle with the issue of the ferment of religion, it seems to be supposing that the religions are going to change beyond recognition. It is remarkable that James wrote his book for scholars and scientists and spent no little time dismissing arguments of atheism (that religious experiences are derangements of biological basis for example[17]) and yet the academic study of religion in the field of the Psychology of religion suggests that the evolution of religion will align along one of three paths[18]: atheism, (a religion of science and technology, of which there are many posts on this site responding to), a religious transformation aiming at appreciation of spirituality vs religion (i.e. individualism vs organized institutional religion) or a cultural divide where the poor and uneducated have one experience of religion more aligned with history and the rich and or well educated fall into one of the previous groups which this site may address at some time.

America may have it's own mixed sense of manifest destiny following on the Great Awakening seeking to be that light on a hill, but I'd hazard this unique contribution to the understanding of religion - of giving fair air to the reality of the experiences of the diverse religions of the world also echoed by the "Parliament of the World's Religions" in Chicago in 1893 - makes fair play to be a place where a ferment of religion is being worked out in a way that recognizes the basis of all the religions and not just our own.

All that being the case there is also a sense that things are as they have never been before. Religiously this is expressed as the “end times”. After all, we’ve never had World Wars before – however much Rome or Persia and other Empires waged wars – even Genghis Khan didn’t reach the Americas, though the Native Americans died in great number from the arrival of the Europeans and might call it a world war.[19] Among those that saw a religious connection with the idea of end times was Joseph Miller. But the “Great Disappointment” of seeing a literal Jesus descending literally on clouds was smoothed over by the idea of a divine side-step into a heaven preserved from the eyes of men until the real end of days – an idea also used in Shi’a Islam, with similar overtones – that the fulfillment of the age before the end times would be when the occultation would end. And others have taken note that Armageddon may relate to the WWI Battle at Megiddo. Note that for hundreds of years we had a sense of a world not least by Columbus’ voyage. But only in the 1900s were we consumed in a process of world war and alienation and universal estrangement – even the struggle between British and Spanish Empires that included navies at odds around the world did not rise to a World War. And in this century tyrants rose up, some even who killed more of their own people than the World Wars (Mao Ze-Dong may have killed upto 78 million people through his decisions alone – then add Joseph Stalin and others while about 97 million were killed in the World Wars altogether).[20] Plagues[21] and new diseases[22] arose. Many religions have their own approach to end times – not just Christians. For example Hindus have the end of the Kali Yug to be followed by a golden age. While official interpretation taking things pretty literally pushes this into the deep future, looking at the characteristics of man’s inhumanity to man it sure seems to fit.[23] Even the Hopi tribe[24] and Mayan calendar[25] point to new golden age after a terrible one.[26]

But is there a way forward other than atheism, degeneration of institutional religion, or social fragmentation? Is there an approach that holds virtue together that arises out of such times of confusion, devastation and ferment and can call all people together?

Beginning in the 1800s a new age has indeed been announced, implemented in ever greater detail, and rolled out across the world by another religion that appeared amid the tumult of the last centuries. And in recent decades it has been recognized as the second most widespread of the world's independent religions in terms of the number of countries with organized communities[27] while still numbering less than 10 million.[28] The only place it is clearly absent is in North Korea and the Vatican[29] having arrived in "outer" Mongolia in 1989.[30] And it has placed first or second in world wide growth according to Christian based statistics since 1970 when such statistics began.[31] Indeed it is wrestling with the diversity of rich and poor experiences.[32] And I think it no accident that America figures prominently in the history of the religion.[33] Indeed one of the things that comes to mind is that when `Abdu'l-Baha traveled across Europe (twice) and America (US and Canada) a century ago[34] He talked to certainly thousands or tens of thousands of people - looked in the faces and shook hands with hundreds or thousands - and with all the unique terrors about to be unleashed in the world millions upon millions more would die. Yet He was endlessly merciful and encouraging and trying to awaken on every turn. Surely they faced trials that dwarf ours. I think more people died then from war and disease at that time than any time previously. And the Baha’is were not side stepped in the pains of the age - Baha'i populations centers in His lifetime - mostly in Iran and north into southern Russia generally speaking - were going to be gutted, not just figuratively, in the coming decades while with this act of reaching and sending plans to the West brought a scale of the spreading of the religion magnified several times. This is what He chose to do, was inspired to do, in the face of scales of devastation we cannot, perhaps should not, clearly appreciate. He chose these acts - the best acts available - to change the course of civilization, by investing in people personally.

And this religion has made clear both its support the religious enterprise of humanity, and also their reconciliation:

"The Faith of Bahá’u’lláh has assimilated, by virtue of its creative, its regulative and ennobling energies, the varied races, nationalities, creeds and classes that have sought its shadow, and have pledged unswerving fealty to its cause. It has changed the hearts of its adherents, burned away their prejudices, stilled their passions, exalted their conceptions, ennobled their motives, coordinated their efforts, and transformed their outlook. While preserving their patriotism and safeguarding their lesser loyalties, it has made them lovers of mankind, and the determined upholders of its best and truest interests. While maintaining intact their belief in the Divine origin of their respective religions, it has enabled them to visualize the underlying purpose of these religions, to discover their merits, to recognize their sequence, their interdependence, their wholeness and unity, and to acknowledge the bond that vitally links them to itself. This universal, this transcending love which the followers of the Bahá’í Faith feel for their fellow-men, of whatever race, creed, class or nation, is neither mysterious nor can it be said to have been artificially stimulated. It is both spontaneous and genuine. They whose hearts are warmed by the energizing influence of God’s creative 198 love cherish His creatures for His sake, and recognize in every human face a sign of His reflected glory."[35]

"Nor does the Bahá’í Revelation, claiming as it does to be the culmination of a prophetic cycle and the fulfillment of the promise of all ages, attempt, under any circumstances, to invalidate those first and everlasting principles that animate and underlie the religions that have preceded it. The God-given authority, vested in each one of them, it admits and establishes as its firmest and ultimate basis. It regards them in no other light except as different stages in the eternal history and constant evolution of one religion, Divine and indivisible, of which it itself forms but an integral part. It neither seeks to obscure their Divine origin, nor to dwarf the admitted magnitude of their colossal achievements. It can countenance no attempt that seeks to distort their features or to stultify the truths, which they instill. Its teachings do not deviate a hairbreadth from the verities they enshrine, nor does the weight of its message detract one jot or one tittle from the influence they exert or the loyalty they inspire. Far from aiming at the overthrow of the spiritual foundation of the world’s religious systems, its avowed, its unalterable purpose is to widen their basis, to restate their fundamentals, to reconcile their aims, to reinvigorate their life, to demonstrate their oneness, to restore the pristine purity of their teachings, to coordinate their functions and to assist in the realization of their highest aspirations. These divinely revealed religions, as a close observer has graphically expressed it, “are doomed not to die, but to be reborn… ‘Does not the child succumb in the youth and the youth in the man; yet neither child nor youth perishes?’””[36]

"The Revelation, of which Bahá’u’lláh is the source and center, abrogates none of the religions that have preceded it, nor does it attempt, in the slightest degree, to distort their features or to belittle their value. It disclaims any intention of dwarfing any of the Prophets of the past, or of whittling down the eternal verity of their teachings. It can, in no wise, conflict with the spirit that animates their claims, nor does it seek to undermine the basis of any man’s allegiance to their cause. Its declared, its primary purpose is to enable every adherent of these Faiths to obtain a fuller understanding of the religion with which he stands identified, and to acquire a clearer apprehension of its purpose. It is neither eclectic in the presentation of its truths, nor arrogant in the affirmation of its claims. Its teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind."[37]

And this religion has continued to release statements and work on interfaith projects local and international:
• at the United Nations,[38]
• helping the NGO forum at the 1992 Earth Summit,[39]
• participating in the 1995 World Conference on Women,[40]
• schools in many many countries,[41]  
• relief efforts,[42]
just to name a pittance[43] of endeavors where it has not been legal proscribed.[44]

I recommend you investigate it. It's trying to make one world in our experiences even as it must be in even as it must be in reality.

[1] The emergence of Buddhism, by Jacob N. Kinnard,  p. 10
[2] The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, by Shoghi Effendi, p. 184.
[4]  Diagram of Protestant denominations and movements, Wikipedia editor, Lokal_Profil
[8] The Promised Day Is Come,  by Shoghi Effendi, p. 53 ( and next three paragraphs)
[9] The Varieties of Religious Experience‬,  by William James, p. 269.‬‬
[11],  (FAQ).
[12] The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James, p. 439.
[13] Coming Back to Life; The After-Effects of the Near-Death Experience (Revised and Updated), by PMH Atwater, chapter “Spiritual Implications” pp. 109–149. (sorry, no url.)

[16] The Hero with a Thousand Faces,  by Joseph Campbell, p. 30.
[19] Indigenous Native American Prophecy,  (Elders Speak part 1, youtube.)
          • • World War II casualties, Wikipedia
          • World War I casualties, Wikipedia.
[26] Native American Indian prophecies, talk by Lee Brown, 1986.
[32] FUNDAEC, Wikipedia.
[33] "Abdul Baha Talks to Kate Carew of Things Spiritual and Mundane",  New York Tribune by Mary Williams (page 1) May 5th, 1912 and bottom left of (page 2).
[35] The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh,  by Shoghi Effendi, p. 197-8.
[36] The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, by Shoghi Effendi, p. 114.
[37] The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh,  by Shoghi Effendi, p. 57-8.
[40] The Role of Religion in Promoting the Advancement of Women, statement to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, distributed officially to all participants. (Beijing, China; 13 September 1995)

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