Let me remind you of my Christmas poem selection #4 from last year.
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
— Yehuda Amichai
The other night I was listening to ABC Radio National, which at this time of year broadcasts New Dimensions, a US-based program of left-field alternative and often New Age views which range from the flaky to the genuinely thought-provoking. The particular episode was devoted to Aftab Omer. According to New Dimensions:
Omer is a truly a global citizen. He was born in Pakistan and has lived in Turkey, India, Hawaii and now lives in Northern California. His research and life experience has led him to study how we need to move from dysfunctional conflicts to creative conflicts. The problem of our global cultural crisis is not conflict, rather how we handle those conflicts. He says, "We are surrounded by people who perceive differently than us. As long as we’re locked into our personal perceptions and cannot broaden out into different perspectives we will be struggling with dysfunctional conflicts rather than creative conflicts." He suggests that the global challenges of diversity, conflict, and chaos can be met through actively engaging these differences and perspectives with openness, fierceness, and curiosity. He shares with us the idea that peace is not sustained though avoidance of conflict, but is sustained through finding ways to engage in creative conflict.
His is a quite different analysis of the problems we face, and I think it deserves thought. There is a downloadable free lecture available (signing up is easy) from Glasgow Caledonian University:
In a city which prides itself on friendliness and yet has inequalities in health which persist despite our best attempts to tackle them, questions about our relationships to others are of key significance. This issue of otherness is ancient and contemporary, local as well as global, and of significance both in everyday life and periods of cultural crisis. In this lecture, Aftab Omer will consider how to develop core principles and practices that are responsive to the challenges of otherness both within the city and beyond. The diversity we see in the human race is often treated as a problem rather than an asset. For example, we see this in various forms of social oppression such as inequality, racism and cultural trauma. Omer argues that responding effectively to the fragmentation that characterises this global cultural crisis, calls for leadership that practices a profound engagement with all that is other. Such a perspective will raise important insights and questions about how people, organisations and cultures relate to each other, with important consequences for the pursuit of wellbeing.
In the progressive US Jewish magazine Tikkun a recent article refers to Omer’s work: Awakening Our Faith in the Future: Obama’s Renewal of Our Liberal Identity by Peter Dunlap.
With an Obama presidency, liberals like me can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Well, yes, but maybe no. Certainly when our candidates win locally or nationally we feel pride, relief, and hope. Yet, what have we really gotten with an Obama administration? As the Clinton administration demonstrated, it takes more than winning an election to move the country, especially if it seems that winning required a turn to the right.
Many people feared Obama’s post-convention lean to the right. George Lakoff may have articulated this fear best when he said Obama’s pull to the right would legitimize the conservatives’ positions and perhaps even help make their candidates more appealing. After all, “if Obama espouses conservative positions, then why not simply vote for the real thing?” Well, Obama took that risk and has been elected on centrist political themes without a clear liberal/progressive mandate. Where does that leave the Left? Where does that leave issues of universal health care, offshore oil drilling, corporate accountability? While I’m certain that Obama would do the right thing if he thought he could, his turn to the right tells me he isn’t so confident. He may know the way, but will he turn this country toward its moral destiny? Will he lead us toward a future that repudiates and pursues reparation for our past militarism? Will we develop alternative fuels and overcome our oil addiction? Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that, like before, the opportunity does not lie so much with Obama as it does with us.
How many times have we heard that one—that the answer lies with us? How about the idea that the answer lies within? Does that sound true but unhelpful, because you feel you don’t know how to turn inner change into political change, or your own concerns into community engagement? Gandhi’s invitation for us to become the change we wish to see in the world risks becoming a painful cliché because it does not come with instructions. Without some sense of direction, it’s too easy to infuse Obama with too much responsibility for the hopes he has released in us. He released the hope. We need to embody it, but how?…
If we assert our political agenda in the overly rationalized manner adopted by many liberals and progressives, we will not have learned from Obama’s example. Obama’s evocation of hope reflects his own transformation of that traditional liberal identity; it is this transformation that’s worthy of following, not his (necessarily?) centrist stance on issues. We can follow him toward the realization of a new liberal political identity, one based on his mastery of leadership capacities and our own manifestation of other emergent leadership capacities that even he has not yet embodied.
While we can learn from Obama’s new liberal identity, there are many cultural leaders currently articulating and embodying other leadership capacities that will be essential for the future of liberalism and the progressive movement. My own understanding of the emergence of such capacities comes from the work of Aftab Omer, founder of the Institute of Imaginal Studies. I discuss the contributions of Omer, Lakoff, Michael Lerner, and other emergent progressive cultural leaders in my book Awakening Our Faith in the Future: The Advent of Psychological Liberalism…
Faith, by way of contrast with both fanaticism and fundamentalism, is the capacity to embrace and confront uncertainty; words to that effect (I paraphrase) in Omer’s New Dimensions interview resonated with me. Dunlap continues:
For Obama, religion cannot be reduced to a right-wing fundamentalism that identifies abortion and same-sex partners as immoral. Obama believes that America’s religious tendency speaks to a hunger that “goes beyond any particular issue or cause.” Describing his own experience with this hunger, Obama testifies that, without faith, something is missing in our lives. He understands that people “want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness.”
During his time as a community organizer, Obama confronted his own “spiritual dilemma” through which he discovered that he had kept a part of himself “removed, detached,” leaving him as an “observer” in the midst of the many people of faith he worked with. He said he learned that “without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.” Through his community service work, he confronted his own religious alienation and resolved this dilemma by joining a faith community.
Obama’s story shows us one path to reconciling our prejudices against religion with our liberal values and politics. His integration of these enable him to speak with a moral authority that is missing from both traditional religious speaking not rooted in egalitarian values and traditional liberal speaking not rooted in a faith community.
In The Boston Globe (referred from The Arts & Letter Daily today) is another article which appeals to me: When Jesus met Buddha by Philip Jenkins:
While few mainline Christians would put the matter in such confrontational terms, any religion claiming exclusive access to truth has real difficulties reconciling other great faiths into its cosmic scheme. Most Christian churches hold that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and many also feel an obligation to carry that message to the world’s unbelievers. But this creates a fundamental conflict with the followers of famous spiritual figures like Mohammed or Buddha, who preached radically different messages. Drawing on a strict interpretation of the Bible, some Christians see these rival faiths as not merely false, but as deliberate traps set by the forces of evil.
Being intolerant of other religions – consigning them to hell, in fact – may be bad enough in its own right, but it increasingly has real-world consequences. As trade and technology shrink the globe, so different religions come into ever-closer contact with one another, and the results can be bloody: witness the apocalyptic assaults in Mumbai. In such a world, teaching different faiths to acknowledge one another’s claims, to live peaceably together side by side, stops being a matter of good manners and becomes a prerequisite for human survival…
Many Christians are coming to terms with just how thoroughly so many of their fundamental assumptions will have to be rethought as their faith today becomes a global religion. Even modern church leaders who know how rapidly the church is expanding in the global South tend to see European values and traditions as the indispensable norm, in matters of liturgy and theology as much as music and architecture.
Yet the reality is that Christianity has from its earliest days been an intercontinental faith, as firmly established in Asia and Africa as in Europe itself. When we broaden our scope to look at the faith that by 800 or so stretched from Ireland to Korea, we see the many different ways in which Christians interacted with other believers, in encounters that reshaped both sides. At their best, these meetings allowed the traditions not just to exchange ideas but to intertwine in productive and enriching ways, in an awe-inspiring chapter of Christian history that the Western churches have all but forgotten.
To understand this story, we need to reconfigure our mental maps…
Christianity, for much of its history, was just as much an Asian religion as Buddhism. Asia’s Christian churches survived for more than a millennium, and not until the 10th century, halfway through Christian history, did the number of Christians in Europe exceed that in Asia.
What ultimately obliterated the Asian Christians were the Mongol invasions, which spread across Central Asia and the Middle East from the 1220s onward. From the late 13th century, too, the world entered a terrifying era of climate change, of global cooling, which severely cut food supplies and contributed to mass famine. The collapse of trade and commerce crippled cities, leaving the world much poorer and more vulnerable. Intolerant nationalism wiped out Christian communities in China, while a surging militant Islam destroyed the churches of Central Asia.
But awareness of this deep Christian history contributes powerfully to understanding the future of the religion, as much as its past. For long centuries, Asian Christians kept up neighborly relations with other faiths, which they saw not as deadly rivals but as fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment. Their worldview differed enormously from the norms that developed in Europe…
The article spells out in more detail the ideas found in the Jesus Sutras, a book I read with much interest a few years ago: The Great Surry Hills Book Clearance of 2005.
In the second in this series I ask: Does the usual Christmas Nativity Scene have authenticity? I answer: No. Did you know that Jesus may well have not been born in Bethlehem? Did you know that what we accept, or have come to depict, as the Nativity is an amalgam of several contradictory stories? Did you know that the earliest gospels say nothing at all about the birth of Jesus?
For many none of this will be news; for others it may be disturbing. Wait and see.