Friday, September 23, 2016

WORLD RELIGIONS 2016 • How do we combat fanaticism? the report

The invited speakers from left to right: Karen Armstrong OBE FRSL Historian of Religions, Author / Arvind Sharma Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, School of Religious Studies, McGill University / Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Humanitarian leader, Art of Living / Dr. Amir Hussain Professor of Theological Studies Loyola Marymount University / Manjit Singh Sikh Chaplain McGill University / Gregory Baum Professor of Theological Ethics Emeritus McGill University / Susannah Heschel Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies Dartmouth College / Deepak Chopra, M.D., F.A.C.P. / Harvey Cox Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus Harvard Divinity School. Photo © Lena Ghio, 2016

I had not attended the two previous conferences of WORLD RELIGIONS but when I saw who the panelists for this third and last conference were and what the context of the conference was, I knew I could gather some profound insights into my largely ignored transdisciplinary practice where I observe natural phenomena traditionally classified under superstition while pitting them to the concerns of contemporary physics and ancient metaphysics. I had one overriding question: Because of our evolving understanding of the forces of the world through science and new evidence that is gathered by all of us through new technologies, could we reach a universal understanding about the mystery of God? Could this new understanding create a universal spiritual language we could agree on based on shared evidence?

The day begins

I was delighted and honored to cover this event as I sat, pen in hand, before the panel of scholars who would bring forth all their expertise for people to find a common ground that is at the heart of all different religions that would bring a healing to the growing hatred and religious bigotry going on around the world today.

Karen Armstrong opened the day: How to reduce the radicalization of religion that leads to violence and terrorism? She focused on Islam because at this time this is the religion that has become the focus of increasing hate crimes in the West, 500% in London since Brexit, she underlined. She recommended that we study the regions where the upsurge of Islamic radicalism emerged. She recognized the role of Britain in the brutal and dehumanizing practices of colonialism, the result of oil becoming the most cherished products of our modern time, the endless conflict between Israel and Palestine, the obscene wealth of Saudi Arabia that leaves millions of people in a state of limbo where they feel useless, meaningless. Many young people have aligned themselves with Islam without understanding that it is a religion of peace and wisdom, to then channel their frustration through Jihad, holy wars.
Gregory Baum mentioned that the media pay more attention to the conflict that results from the various religions than the good that is also at work.
Deepak Chopra suggested a pragmatic approach to minimize the violence of fanaticism that all could engage in: Respect. There are perceived injustices on both sides of any argument. Ask for forgiveness and give forgiveness for the sake of PEACE. Refrain from making somebody wrong, refrain from belligerence. Use the simple principles of empathy, compassion and shared values. Many current ideologies are born of misunderstood theologies and not by religious experience.
Harvey Cox underlined the political side of the current conflicts, that religious symbols were hijacked as a means of seduction. He also made a point that the impact of big business and their aggressive unprincipled marketing practices have taken over the ritual element of religious beliefs to fill the minds of the unwitting populace.
Susannah Heschel gave us a rare insight into the present Jewish mindset where scholars and Rabbis are profoundly divided into two radically different views of the future of mankind: the Apocalyptic Jew and the Prophetic Jew. I link here a very insightful resume of the meaning and role of Prophets and Prophecy where WOMEN are included as people that can be a link to God. These two different branches of Judaism stand by their polarized views: Apocalyptic means death and destruction; Prophetic suggests hope and peace. The brilliant professor and author spoke of the rage of our times that transforms men into murderers; that some men crave the domination of others, of their bodies. She condemned the ongoing international practice of slavery.
Dr. Amir Hussain is a Muslim born in Pakistan who has lived in Toronto and now works in Los Angeles. His specialty is Islam. From his perspective as a citizen of a major American city, he condemned the failure of policy makers to recognize behavior problems and their incapacity to understand the difference between a practicing Muslim and a terrorist that leads them astray when they try to identify terrorist cells, for example.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar focuses on bringing people opportunities to experience inner peace and solace. He showed us examples of young men he worked with at his The Art Of Living Institute. These men had spent time in terrorist camps because they got swept up by the promise of a purpose they could not recognize in their lives.
Arvind Sharma concluded the introductions by reminding us of the importance of compassion, to let it guide us to the understanding that will allow us to celebrate our differences.

The answer to my question was best addressed by DEEPAK CHOPRA:

« God is not an external deity but the inner intelligence within you that mirrors the wisdom of the cosmos. 1 »

Dr Chopra is a well loved figure of the New-Age movement, but he claimed in a 1997 interview with Rashmi Uday Singh published in India that he is "not religious at all." Indeed, at the conference, he succinctly and brilliantly outlined a juxtaposition of quantum physics and astrophysics with the world view of the Vedic mythological Gods. Religion for him is a question of transcendence and bliss where the invisible intelligence underneath all of life manifestation becomes known to oneself. Here is a resume of how his speech answered my question:

"My four year old grandson asked me what is dark energy? What is dark matter? What is dark space? I asked him where he had learned about these things and he replied: It is on my Pokemon bag."  This simple anecdote shows that our children are gathering spontaneously knowledge it took mankind millions of years to assimilate. That is the basis of what I mean by a common language. On a large scale we are reaching the same conclusions about many new observable features of the world. Dr. Chopra proceeded to resume the known features of the universe until he reached the number 0.01% as the quantifiable known features of the universe. He concluded with his hypothesis that God is " ... the subjective element of knowing, that in which all experience is known. " This being said, I am convinced humanity's diverse religions will continue to be simply because we are diverse creatures, but we may soon reach evidence that will demonstrate the underlying cause of our faiths to be the same source.

We all hope to find a solution to the religious fundamentalism that leads to violence in the world. There were many misconceptions to address about what is meant in the popular media by Islamic Terrorists, who are they really? In the end everyone agreed on the one important point: that every human being deserves to eat and to be treated with dignity.


The drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World Religions, from left to right: Brian Lepard, Harold W. Conroy Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of LL.M Program in Global Legal Practice, University of Nebraska-Lincoln / Daniel Cere, Interim Dean, School of Religious Studies, McGill University/ Arvind Sharma Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, School of Religious Studies, McGill University / Vivian-Lee Nyitray, Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director, University of California Education Abroad Program / Amir Hussain Professor of Theological Studies Loyola Marymount University. Photo © Lena Ghio, 2016

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