Beyond Difference, Beyond Belief

  (23 September 12)

Beyond Difference, Beyond Belief


  SoFiA Conference

‘Beyond Difference, Beyond Belief – Faith, Meaning and Humanity in the 21st century Global Village’

Coolangatta, 31 August 2012


Opening address by Peter Robinson


Some of you tonight, may hear the distant roar of the ocean, carried on the night air. This image, of the ebb and flow of religion and faith, lies at the heart of the Sea of Faith network.  


As a national forum for the discussion of religion, faith and meaning, SoFiA affirms the continuing importance of religious thought as a creative human endeavour – one that must continue to change in order to remain relevant for people.  SoFiA offers a critical thinking environment, and encourages honest scholarship and respectful dialogue.  


My impression from the many people I speak with is that most people are surfing the sea of faith already. While organised religion tells people to ‘swim between the flags’, more and more people it seems, are choosing to swim beyond the flags.


The conference title, ‘Beyond Difference, Beyond Belief – Faith, Meaning and Humanity in the 21st century Global Village’, captures the sense of what the organisers of this conference hoped to convey – we are moving to a post-modern global society.


We live in an age of unprecedented social mobility - 1 billion people on the move worldwide according to UN figures - where we not only rub shoulders but have immediate global communications, and internet access to any information on any subject. In a recent article in SOF Magazine UK, Brian Mountford of Oxford University Church observed that we can no longer see our own faith in isolation from other faiths and world views. We are forced to see religions as social phenomena, rather than as embedded ‘truths’. As the Dalai Lama has said, ‘the future is not a theological problem, it is a human one’.


When John Lennon wrote the song ‘Imagine’, over 40 years ago, it was seen by many as an anthem of post-modernism with its call for breaking down perceived barriers between peoples of the world. And Steve Jobs, in narrating the first ‘Think Different’ Apple commercial, spoke of the ones who see things differently, who change the face of things and push the human race forward. This kind of naïve hope finds expression and new meaning, as old polemical religious traditions are again being examined, and as people look to religion as a humanizing force in the new global society.


It is into this melting pot of social and religious innovations, ferment and cross-cultural exposures, that this conference takes us over the next couple of days. One might not even be religious, but one needs an understanding of religions to make sense of the world in which one lives. It is one prism through which we begin to see and understand our ‘presence’ in the world.


Religion, faith and meaning are not something to be thought of purely in the abstract - at their best, these are ‘lived experiences’. The way of ‘compassion’, which has emerged at the heart of every major religious, ethical and spiritual tradition, in every major culture, transforms not only intellectual beliefs and external behaviour, but every relationship of life.  


This conference then, focuses us on what one might call ‘applied spirituality’. In a world that has allowed fear to displace our better wisdom, one clear way forward is our willingness to engage in open, candid conversations about our different religious cultures and spiritual understandings.


There is a simple common thread. We each have a story, one that engages the human spirit. As this conference unfolds, our hope is that it will cause us to listen, to reflect on the experience of others as well as our own, help intuit ourselves into a new future space of our own imagining, one that expresses our highest shared human values and aspirations. More than ever, there is a need to develop creative communities of conversation.


 I trust that this conference will be a most stimulating and enjoyable experience for everyone.



Reflection on Adrian Pyle’s opening presentation


In this short reflection on Adrian Pyle’s opening presentation to the Conference, Nancy Duncan helps point us to making ‘new connections’ and ‘living into the future’.


Adrian introduced the U Theory of organisation as a helpful process of encouraging individuals and groups to develop various leadership capacities and facilitating a future which is innovative, responsive and meaningful. Through this process, a journey of connection takes place which requires us to let go of our old selves and establish a new connection with an internal source of deep self and communal awareness and knowledge. It requires us to let go of old models and past events. We are challenged to formulate new ideas and pathways from what is currently emerging. Being fully aware of the current moment and living into the future as it emerges is known as Presencing in this model.


The U Theory challenge is not repeating initiatives that have gone before - ones which served the needs of a society of a bygone age. So what faith / spiritual experiences will emerge to meet the needs of modern Australian society in coming years? What common needs, experiences will we use to awaken spiritual communities of the future? Perhaps the essence of community, compassion, quietness and reflection will be part of what feeds the spirituality of 21st century people in a technologically based postmodern society. Forms this might take may include retreats, meaningful service programs, meditation, urban interaction initiatives, food banks, reflective music, art, literature programs etc. The forms will depend on the needs, interests and focus of individuals and local communities these are meant to engage.


Adrian explained some of the initiatives he had been involved with, including travel with a purpose and conscience. This could take place in our own city, country or overseas. Such powerful experiences had sometimes led to life changing directions for participants. Some participants had taken up new roles in their working lives after such travel experiences.


Other experiences included a neighbourhood food preparation and dinner experience which brought together people of varying backgrounds in a new communal way of interacting. This was an exciting model as it combined the concepts of community, compassion and deeper personal understanding of one’s neighbourhood.


The prospect of implementing this model for local spiritual communities is a challenging one as it demands one leave one’s comfort zone of the familiar, and step out to try new initiatives. In this model each initiative will be a bit different to what is currently happening elsewhere as it requires us to develop new unique connections with our local community. It becomes very much a collaborative fluid way of growing in our spiritual community.



The Future Spiritual Community


By Rev John Wessel


A recent SBS –“Insight” program discussed the Anger and Violence on our streets. What kind of world do we live in? Do we want to make a difference?


In an earlier conference session, the video presentation featuring Karen Armstrong spoke about the urgent world wide need to establish a Charter for Compassion. Today I intend to present some thoughts on a practical way Future Spiritual Communities might become agents to make this Charter a reality. I want you to be courageous enough to:




Gretta Vosper in her book With or Without God says: ‘When we allow the progressive scholarship of the past century to challenge us to reconsider the foundations of our faith, we find ourselves left with an enormous task: constructing something viable to replace what we find to be no longer working’.


We who have come here today have entered a process of walking with a group of people, however slowly, toward the future.


What I intend to say has a Christian perspective about it simply because Christianity is my spiritual home. I know no other. We each inherit our particular faith, along with our language and our culture, so this then becomes ‘right’ for each of person. However, I believe what I have to say is also applicable to all religions, ethical and spiritual movements because all future spiritual communities will have to take into account the modern social and cultural context in which they must work.


I believe that the Church has not come to grips with, nor has it understood the effects that post-modern cultural change is having of the thinking of modern people.


By clinging to the past we not only lose sight of the present but we fail to allow the future to be born. Hugh Mackay, well know social analyst, has said ‘the cultural shift is so radical that it amounts to the discovery of a new way of thinking…. a new kind of change is taking place in our society… we are at a turning point… these recent changes have affected Australia’s’ view of life and religious faith in a very profound and irreversible manner’


A whole new way of presenting the Christian story will have to be developed if it is to make sense to our modern world. The traditional package came out of a completely different culture and world view and is no longer adequate to deal with the challenge of this age. Religions have always been based on the human search for meaning. The central question for all religions is, “What do humans want?” In Christianity the traditional answer has been salvation from sin.


When we reply today to the question “What do humans want?” with the above answer, we find it is an answer that only a few are seeking and for the majority it has little meaning. Modern culture wants to find harmony and liberation; wants to find wisdom for living in the here-and-now, in an otherwise religion-less world.


We are living through what may be the greatest time of change in Christian history. All institutions, political, secular and religious, are being questioned.


Bishop John Spong says ‘I believe Christianity is in deep decline because it cannot bring itself to face the fact that the presuppositions on which our faith story was erected in the past are today no longer self-evidently true or even believable. We are living through a cataclysmic transition from the presuppositions by which we once lived - and have no idea how to tell our faith story in terms of the emerging world view for which our religion of yesterday has no relevance… Church ‘business as usual’ is a prescription not only for disaster, but for extinction”.


What have all the above statements been saying? They have clearly said that because of globalisation which had its birth following the Second World War and in the light of our now pluralistic world, along with many other issues, there is an urgent need for all religions to implement some radical change from within.


The spiritual community of the future must not be based upon what we believe so much as on how we live. It must be a pathway we walk, a journey we take, a journey of connection with people, not just about ideas and dogma which too often divide. It must therefore proclaim a new concept and understanding of the word “Incarnation”. The traditional understanding of this word has caused division between Christianity and other religions. What do I mean?


In his book Eternal Life John Spong says: ‘if we read John’s Gospel through a mystical lens we see that his story is not of a divine life invading the world, as we have been accustomed to reading it, but a portrayal of Jesus as a human being having a relationship with the holy – an inseparable unity. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” What this means is that the time has come when we need to - define humanity as that in which the life of the Divine lives – define human love as that through which the Divine loves- and how in humanity the being of the Divine is made manifest in the world.’


This means that the Divine is not met beyond life but at the very heart of life. Therefore the task of any future spiritual community becomes no longer that of clinging to creeds and doctrines that are based on a dated world-view; the task of such a community is to seek a humanity in which the divine is part of, and indeed, at the very heart of what it means to be fully human.


To walk in Jesus’ footstep is to be conscious of the indwelling of the Divine Presence in all people. This then will direct and influence the way we live, how we relate to others and to the world at large. Thus our presentation teaches and lives the Way of Jesus.


First, Unconditional Love is of basic importance for any New Community. Think about what ‘Unconditional’ means. If love matters in our personal lives, we must also find ways to give love expression in the public and political arena. That is, in the justice of political systems; systemic justice. Such love is grounded in the interconnectedness of all life.


Secondly, the New Story must break down all barriers that divide. Read the Christian Gospels and you will clearly see that Jesus broke down so many of the religious and cultural barriers of his time - this was  important for him, it is important also for us. However, from the time the Creeds were formulated these created division and barriers, both within the church itself and beyond.


Coupled with this, and part of the breaking down of barriers, any future spiritual community must eradicate prejudice in all its forms by the way its people think, speak and act.


And Inclusiveness is a keystone that needs to be central in any New Story. (Remember the Good Samaritan, Jesus eating with the tax collectors, his touching lepers, and his conversation with the woman at the well.) All are about inclusiveness. For some to be “chosen” means that there are others who are ‘unchosen’ (excluded). This can have no place in any future Spiritual Community.


Jesus early followers were known as followers of The Way. This Way was a way of life and of living. Jesus called his followers to interact with their world with peace, compassion, respect, tenderness, grace and justice. 


Any New Story needs to stop concentrating on the after-life, on judgement and the human rescue role of Jesus and face the spiritual and practical needs of this life. It needs to help all people find Life, life in all its fullness, in the here-and-now. It will need to teach people “how” to live and not dwell on ‘what” to believe.


Jesus followers felt that the Divine Presence was part of who Jesus was and now that same Spirit was calling them to give expression of its presence in their lives. Humanity was seen as the vessel in which the divine lives and loves. That is what has been lost and it is that which must be experienced anew in any future community. The challenge that confronts all religions today is a practical one. It calls me, as a Christian, to actually live my understanding of what it means for me to follow the Way of Jesus.


This Way of life that I have described was what Jesus meant when he spoke of The Kingdom of God. This phrase appears 140 times in the four Gospels. Thus, for Jesus, and the gospel writers, this phrase embodied a concept of primary and foundational importance and perhaps was the very core of his message to the world. He had lived his whole life in bondage to an occupying, dominant power. Israel knew many dominant powers during its history. His followers would have clearly understood the difference between dominant kingdoms and that of what Jesus meant by “Kingdom of God.”


It involves giving who you are and all you have completely, wholly away to something greater than yourself. The Divine Presence is at work in each of us, and yet, there is also a cosmic reality about it that no longer rests on the narrow association with any one religion.


At a gathering in Brisbane where Lloyd Geering was the guest speaker I had the opportunity to ask him what his vision was for the future church. His reply was “The Kingdom of God”. I did not understand what he meant until I read his book, “Christian Faith at the Crossroads”. In it he explains that the Old Testament and the Jewish faith did not look for salvation in another place called “heaven” which was beyond earth; it looked for the Kingdom of God to be established on Earth (when the Messiah would come.) Jesus would have understood this - he was a Jew, a man of his time, so when he spoke about the Kingdom of God he was teaching and living an example of what the Kingdom will look like when we humans live in such a way as to make the Kingdom come, here on earth.


For close to 2000 years we in the church have placed the emphasis in the wrong place. We have allowed the dualistic concept of natural and supernatural – of earth and heaven – to distract us from hearing what Jesus was saying to us. He was pleading with us to actually live in such a way as to enable the Kingdom of God to be experienced now. He saw that the Kingdom can be a present reality and was not a future hope.


The concept of the Kingdom of God is not clearly understood in modern Australia. We do not live under, nor have ever lived under, a dominant King, so to use words that capture Jesus concept and place them in a modern context, I want to alter Jesus’ wording, as suggested by John Dominic Crossan, and use in its place the phrase The Companionship of Empowerment. This means that together we are to empower each other to live Jesus dream for the human race.


As a Companion, we empower and encourage each other to:


·         Love unconditionally

·         Eliminate prejudice

·         Dismantle all barriers that divide

·         Seek justice for all – both personal and systemic

·         Respect other people… and our planet Earth

·         Live with compassion


Any future spiritual community needs to create an atmosphere, an expectation, a Companionship of Empowerment to ensure that all people whoever they are and wherever they live experience abundant life. We stand today on the edge of a new, exciting journey, a journey of unknown opportunities and perils, a journey of yet unfulfilled hopes and dreams.


Have we the nerve and the will? Our choice lies between continuing the spiritual decline that we see today… or a spiritual greatness where the inner spirit breathes new life and new hope into the world.


All human life is part of who the Divine Mystery is and what it is, and this Mystery is part of who we are and what we are. It was as a human being that Jesus modelled this generosity, modelled this new Way of living, which became the experience for others, the experience that, in turn, gave birth to Christianity when his followers realised that they too could model this Way of Jesus’ by giving themselves, completely, to something bigger than themselves.


It was Tim Costello who recently said: ‘The Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed involved the transformation of our hearts and minds, our society, our politics and our economics’. If only that insight into what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, became today the motivating force and the Way of life within the modern Spiritual community, as it did with his disciples, Jesus’ dream for humanity would be fulfilled and that Future Spiritual Community would breathe New Life into the world.


Such a community would be a place where we freely and openly reflect and process our life experiences with others, in such a way that it encourages us all, empowers us all, to become more compassionate, more loving human beings whose life’s goal is to seek justice for all, and thus through whom the love of the Divine Presence becomes known.


I conclude by saying that any future Spiritual Community must seek a global ethic through which salvation is not found in… or confined to, any one set of human theological doctrines; rather, this is to be found…. in people’s hearts; a ‘state of being’ that is experienced daily and which governs the way we live and how we relate to all people by showing them respect, compassion and justice.


I may be too idealistic, but such a Community, I believe, would indeed be “Good News” for our modern, confused and angry world.




Excuse my confusion, but I don't get "religious thought as a creative human endeavour"... And what is "Jesus' dream for humanity? and why is it important?" Sorry if I'm confused by the obvious.

Posted by Grant

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