THE NEED FOR A PLURALISTIC WORLD VIEW

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In the global village, people are encountering more and more diversity in their daily lives. I am confident that slowly and gradually, people are replacing fear and ignorance with curiosity and understanding, with regards to different cultures and religions. We see evidence of this happening at a shallow level in the growing importance of political correctness and in the ‘tolerance’ battle cry. (See my articles “Political Correctness: More Than Just A Filter” and “Beyond Tolerance” for more.) These tactics work to create a society that deals effectively with diversity. But if we want a society that thrives off of diversity, pluralism must be employed.

A true pluralistic perspective, as advocated in the interfaith movement, means recognizing the possibility and perhaps the actuality of many valid religions as well as dismissing any notions of superiority of one tradition over another (Knitter, 54). We cannot just live in separation and annoyance of the Other, we must acknowledge true equality and legitimacy of other traditions. Shallow ‘tolerance’ does not achieve this. Instead, “… pluralism is a deep understanding of the unique values of different communities, and trying to communicate with different communities about these values…” (Kyung, 102). This communication has endless real-world applications in diplomacy and problem solving, not to mention opportunities for new types of spiritual experience. Given the state of our problem-ridden world, more people need to carry a genuine, pluralist world view.

Those from Eastern traditions may have an easier time adopting and maintaining a pluralist world view as opposed to their Western counterparts. Eastern traditions are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly acceptable and common for one to follow Buddhism, Confucianism and the Tao fully and simultaneously. The East has had plenty of practice recognizing the equality and legitimacy of different traditions. Traditions common in the Western world however are often mutually exclusive, each claiming possession of ultimate truth.

Giving up this claim of superiority and acknowledging the truth in other traditions may seem rather New Age to devout believers of ‘one true’ religion. However, it is a long way from pluralism to syncretism. (I hope to explore the relationship between pluralism and syncretism at a later time.) But none the less, pluralism is sometimes seen as a threat in those traditions where superiority is part of their belief system. Regardless, the pluralist effort needs to be universal. ‘Tolerance’ simply won’t deliver what this global village desperately needs: understanding, or at least a genuine effort to understand one another. Given the qualities of the Eastern traditions, it may very well be the East that leads the world in this effort. Given the qualities of Western traditions, our effort to break structures of thought to make room for a more dynamic way of life must be fervent and constant.

Knitter, Paul. Cincinnati Interview 2006 in, The Quiet Revolution: The emergence of interfaith consciousness, by P. Kirkwood, 2007. Sydney, Australia: ABC Books.

Kyung, Chung Hyun. New York Interview 2006 in, The Quiet Revolution: The emergence of interfaith consciousness, by P. Kirkwood, 2007. Sydney, Australia: ABC Books.

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(EXTRA)ORDINARY CHRISTMAS

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For those feeling separated from the divine, due to either a slump in their spiritual life or the strict confines of secularism, Christmas is the perfect occasion to remind us of the intermingling between the mundane and divine. Christmas does not simply commemorate a miracle. It marks the grand meeting of the mundane and divine. The divine’s direct presence comes into the world by the most ordinary means, a birth. It is an absolutely natural act, a process countless women have and continue to experience. Jesus coming into the world in this way makes us recognize not only the miracle of his birth, but all births.

Jesus’ debut, and his ability to straddle divinity and humanity throughout his life, illustrates how the mundane and the divine meet. We see not only how they meet, but how the mundane becomes divine and the divine becomes mundane. The miracle of Jesus’ birth makes it easier to recognize the divinity of all births. The ability to create, carry and bring life into the world is and incredible miracle and mystery. Yet it is also a common place necessity for the continuation of our species. Procreation shows us that the relationship between the mundane and divine is not mutually exclusive. It is a ‘both / and’ relationship rather than an ‘or’ relationship.

Christmas is a celebration of divine presence in our ordinary world. It can help remind us that this presence continues still and is there for those that seek it out through spiritual effort. Our everyday lives are full of mundane divinity and divine mundanity. Let Christmas be a time to break down superficial barriers and fully experience the complex beauty of our world.

A RETREAT INTO SILENCE

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We do not realize how loud the noise has become until silence takes over. This past weekend I participated in a silent retreat with my yoga studio. For approximately 40 hours I did not speak to anyone… including myself, which oddly enough I found to be the hardest part. The silence made me realize how ridiculous and excessive the busyness of everyday life is. Especially this time of year.

We are bombarded with ads and commercials telling us all the ‘must haves’ for this Christmas. Traffic is a nightmare and the stores are brimming with people. What does any of this do to bring us closer to loved ones or to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas? If anything all of this noise in our lives distracts us from the reason for the season. As consumerism has increased through the decades, Christmas has become very much divided. There is the spiritual side of Christmas and the physical side with all of the ‘things’ like gifts and decorations. Not to say these ‘things’ cannot be part of a spiritual Christmas, but the two have gotten farther and farther apart. People have divided down these lines. This is another example of how secular categorization has gone too far. People feel compelled to commit and promote one side over another, rather than embrace the best of both.

Just by participating in society the noise and rapid pace of living can take over and drown out the things we hold dearest. Any slow moments of quiet where spiritual reflection can happen is chased away. The answer is not seclusion, but a balance between the busy outside world and the quiet motions of the spirit. We need not all be monks. But we don’t need to be consumed by making money, spending money, or climbing the ladder for external gratification. We can have elements of both and function successfully in both realms. We need not commit solely to one way, but integrate the two to create a holistic way of living.

In silence we can come back to our roots, recognize all the unnecessary extras that clutter up our lives, understand what is truly important, reprioritize, and decide how we want to participate in the fast paced society we live in. With both stillness and busyness in our lives we gain a better appreciation for both. After a period of silence, we can return to our everyday lives with a new sense of vigor and patience. After being immersed in the daily motions of life, we are more prepared to take refuge in our minds and listen. A weekend-long retreat isn’t necessary, only a commitment to slow down and find quiet. Maybe for just 10 minutes a day. Through such efforts we can make our daily efforts more meaningful and challenge the superficial boundaries of secularism.

THE MELTING POT V. THE SALAD BOWL

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America’s history and diversity are often described with the melting pot symbol. The many different cultural and religious flavors mingle and combine to create one delicious dish… in theory. Some argue that the cultures in the melting pot are expected to meld too much. Rather than a flavorful stew, we get a bland gruel. While law works to protect people so they can express any cultural or religious traditions they choose, conformity is often preferred and even expected. The melting pot image is intended to convey unity, but it has come to encourage conformity.

A better image may be a salad bowl. I heard this imagery from a Canadian friend that was explaining how diversity is handled differently north of the border. If the U.S. is the melting pot then Canada is the salad bowl. In this scenario every cultural element is distinguishable and able to shine forward its own flavor. But in the salad, the flavors work together and complement each other without having to conform.

Conformity requires some type of pressure. This pressure may be imposed through official means like government or church law. Or it may be delivered more subtly through societal or interpersonal interaction. In any case there is an unmistakable feeling of force, that can leave minorities feeling their culture and passions stifled. Such a situation will inevitably lead to rebellion. That rebellion may include violence. The Western world has experienced much of this recently. There has been plenty of talk about revising immigration policies and gun laws, but neither address the core issue of how people treat one another. Laws cannot make people respect one another, embrace diversity, or try new things with an open mind.

This core issue is not easily solved through government intervention. The realm of religion comes closer, but the real potential lies with the individual. People need to recognize the power they have to make change. Granted, it is easier said than done. For many, finding similarities and working to understand differences with a sense of calm and respect is not as easy as flipping a switch. It must be done without condescension or superiority. For example, “… to come to your religious neighbor who is a Buddhist or Muslim, and to want to live in mutual respect, while at the same time thinking that ultimately God wants that Hindu to become a Christian because Christianity is God’s preferred religion, these two attitudes simply don’t go together” (Knitter, 51). For peace and comradery to exist and for diversity to thrive, all traditions must be regarded equally. As challenging as it may be, each person can work to turn the melting pot into the salad bowl with every choice they make.

Knitter, Paul. Cincinnati Interview 2006 in, The Quiet Revolution: The emergence of interfaith consciousness, by P. Kirkwood, 2007. Sydney, Australia: ABC Books.

WHY YOGA IS FOR EVERYONE

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Yoga has increased in popularity in the Western world. Many see it solely as exercise. There is no doubt yoga is good for the physical body, but it can do much more. I think it is the mental and spiritual benefits of yoga that has given rise to its popularity. There are plenty of exercise crazes but none have endured like yoga, because yoga’s benefits go far beyond the physical.

Yes, for some yoga is only an exercise. But with dedication and practice it can become a way to discover and develop one’s spirituality. Yoga has its roots in Eastern spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. But you do not need to be Buddhist or Hindu to feel the spiritual effects of yoga. Yoga means union. Concentration on the breathing and the postures unites the mind and the body. With enough practice, this can keep the mind free of every-day, mundane thoughts and create a prayer-like or meditative state to experience the divine. It doesn’t matter what religion you identify with or what spiritual tradition you follow; the union of body, mind and spirit can help everyone get in touch with the divine. A steady practice can be the means for spiritual growth. This is why I believe yoga has attracted so many people. No matter one’s background or religious beliefs, yoga can enhance one’s spiritual life. It is a way to escape the busyness of daily life and de-stress. This leaves space for the spirit to be the main actor rather than the mind with its logic and emotions.

The union of body, mind and spirit directly opposes secular life. This may be another reason for yoga’s popularity. It is a safe space to combine facets of life and challenge the incessant categorizing that Western society demands. Yoga can be the first step in the rejection secularism. People integrate mind, body and spirit on the mat as practice to do so in the wider world. Then there is no separation of divine and mundane. The divine is no longer a lofty and obscure but immediately present. The mundane becomes worthy of awe and reverence. When categories are not absolute, everything has the potential to be a spiritual experience. Through the union of the mundane and divine, even an exercise class can feed the soul.