Seeking Solid Ground in a Pluralistic World
Religion: Having trouble sorting through all the "isms" today?
This article was published in the Vancouver Sun, Saturday November 17, 2007.
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Seeking solid ground in a pluralistic world
Having trouble sorting through all the 'isms' today? Bottom line: What we need is the transcendent power of love
The Vancouver Sun
Saturday, November 17, 2007
It is considered a good thing in Canada to have firm opinions about hockey, movies, politics, crime and restaurants.
But it's not stylish to have convictions about the ultimate nature of reality, about metaphysics, about cosmology, about theology.
In other words, it is not cool to be "religious" in Canada. When it comes to foundational spiritual beliefs, the safest stance in Canada is not to take a stand.
Christianity? Forget it. Islam? Too heavy. Sikhism? A little odd. Judaism? Okay, if you're Jewish. Buddhism? Well, the Dalai Lama is a nice guy, but why do Buddhists surround their statues with oranges and incense?
It could be worse, but in much of Canada, especially British Columbia., the most that many people can say about religion is to acknowlege they sort of feel "spiritual" when they're walking in the forest, doing yoga, taking in a sunset or skiing in the Rockies.
Six out of 10 British Columbians no longer show up with any regularity at a spiritual institution, the highest rate on the continent. As a result, the complex worldviews associated with ancient religions, and the valuable debates that have taken place within them for centuries, no longer receive wide airing.
Instead of holding convictions about God, death, love, morality and beliefs that matter, Canadians have opted for a free-floating relativism, a kind of tolerant, easy-going spiritual whatever.
Pope Benedict XVI was on to something two years ago, at least in part, when he attacked the western world's pervasive relativism, charging it "does not recognize anything as absolute and leaves as ultimate only the measure of each one's ego and his desires."
Although I don't agree with Benedict's complete denunciation of relativism, it is a concern that many Canadians seem to believe there is no such thing as truth -- that there's no basis for saying some things are more beautiful and authentic than others.
The danger of such a blow-with-the-wind approach has been raised before, including by Alexander Hamilton, the U.S. founding father, who once famously said: "Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything."
Pluralism is one of the reasons for this era's dearth of spiritual conviction and abundance of credulity (witness the extraordinary popularity of the bestselling book and CD, The Secret, which guarantees astounding wealth if you just think positively).
As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says in his new book, A Secular Age, a few centuries ago it was almost impossible not to believe in God. Now it's just one option among many, and being religious exposes one to stigmatization.
With no one religion dominating in Canada (except perhaps the civil "religion" of secularism) many people feel overwhelmed by all the isms that exist, from Buddhism to Judaism, libertarianism to consumerism, socialism to liberalism.
They feel lost in a churning sea of worldviews, and so come to think truth is just a matter of opinion.
Why think too hard about truth, when one person's view is just as good as another's? Anyway, the rent has to be paid.
How can we hold strong convictions in a pluralistic world?
It's a question I face daily, as I write about the breathtaking, often disturbing, variety of religious experience in Canada and around the planet.
However, part of the reason I keep enjoying my job, without being torn apart by the myriad religious and secular beliefs I write about, is I hold to provisional convictions.
These are provisional ethical and spiritual truths that feel so thoroughly tested I no longer really doubt them. Although these truths often cannot be proven with empirical evidence, they can be intellectually defended, shown to be more coherent than competing ideas.
Even though I was raised an atheist, I now feel strongly bolstered by neo-classical western philosophy (rooted in Plato) and some streams of Christianity.
For me, the divine, which can be called God, is not a dictatorial power -- but the persuasive entity that draws all living things towards creativity, goodness and beauty. To me, Jesus embodied this spirit of creative transformation.
In the evangelical world, this position would be closest to something called "open theism," as taught by Canadian thinkers such as Clark Pinnock, once of Vancouver's evangelical Regent College.
Open theism counters classic western theological traditions that held up God as unchangeble, as having pre-determined the future. Open theism accepts free will and envisions the future as unpredictable.
In such an open-ended universe, the search for truth is eternal. I believe behaving as if one has forever nailed down the absolute truth suggests a lack of humility, a human assumption of divine omniscience.
My western-rooted convictions, for instance, have been enhanced by studying the truths of Buddhism, which teaches liberation from pure self-interest, that everything in the universe is interdependent and that sometimes it's important to get beyond ideas and just experience life in its fullest.
At the same time, my willingness to refine my provisional truths encourages me to learn from scientists, some of whom teach that evolution is a process of both chance and purpose and that there seems to be some kind of intelligence guiding the universe.
I also have had the good fortune to learn a great deal about ultimate questions from the people I meet through journalism.
Two of the most beautiful humans being I have had the privilege of interviewing had profound convictions about the meaning of life: Catholic author and psychotherapist Henri Nouwen, and Canadian fiction writer Carol Shields.
Although Nouwen's Christianity may seem to be in conflict with Shields's atheism, these tender-hearted intellectuals (both of whom died in their 60s) held up as their ultimate truth the mysterious transforming reality of love.
"I think all my life I've felt close to God, particularly close to Jesus," Nouwen told me. "On the other hand, I've had to rediscover Jesus over and over again. And one thing I have discovered is the spirit of Jesus blows where it wants . . . . I have this incredible feeling there are no boundaries and God loves everyone."
When I talked to Shields, who had been a United Church member and Quaker, she no longer believed in God, or, as she said, "a Mind behind the universe." But she talked passionately of the "sacred patterns" she found in each person's uniqueness.
Shields experienced moments when she touched the "transcendent." She said of love: "I think it's the basic building block. It's your basic molecule." Love to her linked all things.
"Why else would we make an effort to be sort of good in the world and with one another, if it wasn't for this kind of mystical connection that holds us all together?" she asked. "Why else would we do it?"
Why indeed? As far as provisional beliefs go, I can affirm with Nouwen and Shields there seems nothing more important in this difficult world than the transcendent, mysterious, unpredictable power of love.
© The Vancouver Sun 2007
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