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Toward a Global Theology

Sue Tennant

Spiritual Fellowship Journal
Spring 1996

Adapted from a talk given at the opening of the first free standing Taoist Temple in Canada

Peace and Religion are Related
Religion is Basic to Survival
The Strength and Enrichment of Diversity
The World Interfaith Education Association


Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure for me to be here on behalf of the World Interfaith Education Association of Canada. This is a great day for the faith community of Taoism and it is also a great day for religion in Canada. I deeply appreciate your inviting members of other faith communities to join in this moment of celebration.

The World Interfaith Education Association (WIFEA) is a multifaith organization in Canada dedicated to fostering respect and understanding among the people of all religions through education. When a new religious community flourishes, I think all people of faith can be morally encouraged and spiritually strengthened. When pluralism, particularly religious pluralism, prospers in any country, I believe the world is positively influenced and enriched.

We live in one of the most faith diverse regions in the world. In 1991, when secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar retired from the United Nations, he donated his collection of memorabilia from all over the world to the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. When he was asked why he did this, he said he regarded Canada as an inspiring model for the future. Canada, he observed, is a prosperous, multicultural society with a strong commitment to individual rights and pluralistic democracy. If he is right, and Canada is a model for the future, then how we manage the challenge of religious diversity in our country may be an inspiration to others.

Peace and Religion are Related

Harmony among the religions has been strongly linked to world peace. The famous Swiss theologian, Dr. Hans Kung, is best known for his recent work on the declaration of a global ethic, which was adopted in 1993, in Chicago, by the Parliament of the World's Religions. This was a centenary celebration of 100 years of Interfaith Dialogue and was attended by over 6,000 religionists from around the world. Four years ago, I heard Dr. Kung speak at the United Nations to a special assembly on world peace. He said,

There will be no peace among the nations until there is first peace among the religions. Then he added that there will be no peace among the religions until there is dialogue among the religions.

Given the insidious prejudice, persecution and violence which has gone on in our world, often in the name of religion, this made sense to me. What also made sense was that Canada, with its multicultural demographics and tolerant policies, could be an ideal test ground for developing inter-religious harmony.

I would like to take this opportunity to reaffirm the essential role religion plays in society and to encourage support for interfaith education and co-operation wherever cultures cross. It has been my experience that many people are cynical about organized religion. No need for the crutch of religion, they say. And they want no part of religion's saying one thing and doing another. Their lives are just fine, thank you very much. Increasing numbers of religious people choose not to become members of organized faith communities. And given the great diversity of beliefs and practices and the tendency of one religion to assert its superiority over the others, many people fail to see how religion does anything but cause hostility and conflict in our world. For the record, I'm strong on religion, true religion-faith in God and service to one's fellows-and every religion that I study enriches that fundamental truth in unique ways. When I speak for religion, I mean to speak for the truth and goodness of all religions.

Religion is Basic to Survival

I believe society cannot survive long without religion. Religion attempts to satisfy our deepest yearnings and anxieties. Even though the United Nations has ranked the quality of life in Canada as among the highest in the world, we are very much part of a world still plagued by fear and ignorance, and the basic instincts of self-preservation. Our problems are complex, they are inter-related and they are accelerating rapidly. So much so, that many of us feel quite overwhelmed, confused and powerless to improve either ourselves or our world. If our problems were only material, they might be solved by better technology; if our problems were only economic, they might be solved by better commerce and trade. If our problems were only political they might be solved by more efficient government. But it seems to me that the root of our problems is spiritual. It is not knowing who we are, why we are here, where we are going, and to whom we belong that feeds our deepest fears and anxieties. Only religion has the spiritual resources to offer answers to these profound human questions. Only religion has the courage and conviction to affirm the existence of an unseen but personally experienceable Reality and only religion identifies the human being as spiritual with transcendent possibilities. Religion offers a compelling rationale for goodness, truth, and beauty. It challenges us to higher moral thinking and ethical living. It enriches our lives with new meanings and new values.

Religion offers the individual person stability and poise in the midst of disaster. When all our hopes are dashed, when dreams are broken, when adversity strikes, it is the citadel of the spirit within which remains unassailable. Life in today's world is beset by change. We live in a sea of economic uncertainty. Massive dislocation and social reconstruction pervades society. Our world is shrinking with instant communications and global trade and travel. We experience upheavals daily. If ever people needed the hope of something permanent in their lives, the security of some transcendent identity and purpose, it is now, at the end of the 20th century. Religion offers hope and comfort and speaks to us of eternal realities.

The Strength and Enrichment of Diversity

Many people perceive the differences in religion to be a problem. I believe there is strength and enrichment in diversity. Religions evolve in different parts of the world at different times in history. It seems natural and healthy to have so many different religions in a multicultural world. Religions differ because people differ. We differ in culture, race, gender, temperament, disposition, and inherited capacities. We differ profoundly in our life experiences and we differ in how we think and what we believe. Our differences reflect our uniqueness as individuals. We come into the world as tiny miracles, marvelous, one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated packages of genetic potential. We are in fact irreplaceable and have unique contributions to make to the world. In this diversity, who but God, who but the Source of all things and beings, could possibly speak with wisdom and authority for all of us?

If religions differ so greatly, is there nothing we have in common? After twenty years of studying religion and people, I think I am starting to understand something fundamental about truly religious people, in spite of their different beliefs. They are devoted people. Religionists are wholehearted people, dedicated to what they view as supremely valuable. Religionists are devoted wholeheartedly to supreme values. In my experience, their devotion is dependable, reliable, and most often, loving and compassionate. Their devotion is self-forgetful. Even the devotion of supposedly irreligious parents for their children, or an atheist for a social cause, borders on the religious. When this devotion is misguided it produces fanaticism and, of course, that's one of the unfortunate down sides of religion. But having discovered what I think is the essential quality of religious people, it is easy for me to see how religionists profoundly impact the world. The power of effective religious leadership can change the course of history. And it is also easy for me to understand, when supreme values become distorted, how impossible it is for some religionists to get along.

The religions of authority can only divide men and set them in conscientious array against each other; the religion of the spirit will progressively draw men together and cause them to become understandingly sympathetic with one another. The religions of authority require of men uniformity in belief, but this is impossible of realization in the present state of the world. The religion of the spirit requires only unity of experience-uniformity of destiny-making full allowance for diversity of belief. The religion of the spirit requires only uniformity of insight, not uniformity of viewpoint and outlook. The religion of the spirit does not demand uniformity of intellectual views, only unity of spirit feeling. The religions of authority crystallize into lifeless creeds; the religion of the spirit grows into the increasing joy and liberty of ennobling deeds of loving service and merciful ministration. (U. B.,1732)

In nature, diversity ensures versatility and versatility ensures survival. This may also be true of religion. Many elements of society are converging for increased effectiveness and efficiency to survive. In his book, The Global Paradox, futurist John Naisbatt writes about the impending convergence of communications technologies which will facilitate a new global code of conduct to protect basic human rights. Over time, he says, all communities will be held to the same standard of behavior. Those that do not do so will be held to account by the rest of the international community. When the world is watching, he observes, a community's behavior is influenced by the anticipated reaction of its economic allies. If economic power is the leverage of social action, is not moral power the leverage of religious ecumenism? And does not the world appear to cry out for bold moral and spiritual leadership?

Because our differences are so great, the possibilities of misunderstandings multiply and anger and resentment fuel conflict. Our nuclear capability can destroy our planet and civilization as we know it. What I believe the world needs is a strong unified voice that speaks to the issue of violence with a new democratic model of tolerance and respect. But can the religions teach what they do not yet practice? According to Alan Falconer, Director of the World Council of Churches' office of faith and order, churches are at least partly to blame for our severely divided world. "On the whole the division of the churches has reinforced the divisions in our society. The world is crying out for unity and we offer no sign-a counterwitness to our words."1 If religionists are to inspire this necessary understanding and respect among religions then they must begin to learn the art of dialogue. They must co-operate and fellowship with one another at every opportunity. Strong moral ties and humility must bind religionists to work toward common goals and ideals.

Some theologians, religious leaders, and lay people are frequently blind to the obstacles they themselves erect...The humble approach to human knowledge is meant to help as a corrective to the parochialism that blocks further development in religious studies. Taking the humble approach reminds us that each person's concept of God, the universe, even his or her own self is too limited. To some extent, we are all too self-centered. We overestimate the small amount of knowledge we possess. To be humble means to admit the infinity of creation and to search one's place in God's infinite plan for creation.2

World Interfaith Education Association

In Canada, the World Interfaith Education Association is working to bring interfaith education into the public education system. An interfaith curriculum is being developed which offers young and old an informed overview of the beliefs, practices, and histories of the world's religions. The goal is to broaden the conceptual knowledge base with ideas about religion and an appreciation of how it is valued by others. Such programs are now carried on successfully in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia and one will soon be launched in Edmonton.

But equally important is to broaden the experiential knowledge base. WIFEA plans to initiate programs and events, much like the Multifaith Festival of the Family last year, which actively engaged people with others from diverse backgrounds in practical ways. When individuals are actively involved with others, co-operating for a common cause, trust and respect develop. Paradigm shifts occur through personal association. Individual attitudes and behavior are transformed. Interfaith education becomes a natural pluralistic democracy.

If our society, with its many diverse religious/cultural groups, can conceive and evolve a functioning pluralistic religious democracy, an association whose concern is the well-being of the whole society and one in which each member has an equal voice, I believe that religion can regain much of its former credibility. I think a show of solidarity with other religions in the age long quest for peace and good-will among the earth's peoples can attract strong public support. The dream of peace and fraternity is inherent in all the world's religions and when all people of faith regard themselves and all others as the beloved children of God and members of one human family, then the right spirit will exist in which to solve our problems.

Religions promulgate. People are inspired by a teaching or a leader. They gather together when they think in similar ways and then unite to achieve common goals and that's how religions begin. They grow in power by organization. It's instinctive for like-minded people to stick together. The old adage that "birds of a feather flock together" is particularly true when it comes to religious communities. But throughout history we see how a higher synthesis results in progress, how competition gives way to co-operation and results in greater vitality and security. The primitive family becomes the clan which eventually becomes the tribe, and when many tribes compete and hostilities threaten extinction, tribes become nations. Nations, in turn, form international associations, and if we follow this process to its logical conclusion, some day we can hope to see a true union of nations, a real government of humankind.

Living with diversity is not easy. To leave the comfort of a like-minded community with its predictable values and lifestyles and venture into the multicultural world takes some courage, or at least a sense of adventure. It takes conscious determination and effort to learn and grow amidst cultural and religious differences. But if we love God and this world, we soon discover a new and exciting dimension of goodness and truth residing in the hearts of others. It is not long before we realize, "What does it matter that differences persist, as they will, for we are all children of God."

Someday religionists will get together and actually effect co-operation on the basis of unity of ideals and purposes rather than attempting to do so on the basis of psychological opinions and theological beliefs. Goals rather than creeds should unify religionists. (U. B. p. 1091)

In my experience, no teaching resonates more strongly in the human soul than the teaching that our minds are indwelt by the divine spirit of God. This inner light, which all religions acknowledge, uplifts our thinking and leads us into new ways of compassion and service to others. Personal spiritual experience is the fact around which religions can discover kinship; and interfaith associations are the experiential journey in which increasing spiritual fraternity is realized. We share the journey with all people of faith and as our experience expands, so does the power of openness, listening, reflecting, communicating, ambiguity, diversity, teamwork, and universal spiritual ideals. The road ahead is long and straight, and progress is not always easily perceived. But to all who will take forward steps, the Interfaith journey does promise hope for a better future and exciting opportunities for making a better world.

1 The Disciple, January, 1996, p. 39

2 Templeton, John M. The Humble Approach. New York: Continuum, 1995, p. 2

A service of
The Urantia Book Fellowship