Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

The peaceful and uplifting simplicity of the interior of the Methodist Church in Ludlow

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

The Oneness of God

For present purposes I am of course assuming we can all accept that a power we label God in English actually exists. It would take too long to deal with that issue fully right now. What we can deal with briefly is to confirm the essential unknowable nature of God: in the end it is the words we use to describe this Great Being, the Ground of Being, that divide is.

‘McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary explains (page 193): ‘Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.’ Similarly with painting: Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (Prideaux’s biography – page 201): ‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

When we try and capture such an immense ineffability as God, we are in the country of the blind where the one-eyed man is king, as they used to say. Imagine two adjacent countries, the one a culture of cooks, the other of gardeners. For the land of cooks, the colour red has been explained to them by the one-eyed king as chilli: in the land of gardeners, their one-eyed king has said that red is like the perfume of a rose . When people from these two different countries meet they quarrel bitterly, sometimes killing each other for not believing in the rose or in chilli, when in fact they are talking about the exact same thing but do not know it. So . . . .

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

The Oneness of Religion

This is not a new idea, though. John Donne, an Elizabethan poet-priest in Tudor England, wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. Only when someone’s idea of God takes them downhill, perhaps killing others in His name, or at least hating them as misguided deviants, should we realize their God is not ‘worthy of worship,’ to use Eric Reitan’s phrase, and is not God at all. Theirs is not a true religion. All the great world religions are in essence one. It is only when we mistake the cultural trappings and rituals for the core that we think this is not true.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.’

A material symbol of this essential unity is the Bahá’í Temple.

Bahá’í Temples, as the world community of Bahá’ís grow larger, will be surrounded by ‘a complex which, as it unfolds in the future, will comprise in addition to the House of Worship a number of dependencies dedicated to social, humanitarian, educational, and scientific pursuits.’ These will be open to all.

I will explore the oneness of humanity next time.

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On 29 and 30 October 2019, in countless settings and places throughout the world, people will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Birth of the Báb, whose revitalizing message prepared the way for the coming of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. In addition to our celebration events, the Bahá’ís of Hereford, in the UK, have adopted a magnolia tree in Queen’s Wood to make a more lasting remembrance of this important time.The plaque is worded in such a way as to honour both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.  Once we have held our celebration later today, there may be more to say.  For those who are interested to know more, there is a film which explains all the background either at the above link or on YouTube (see below).


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Grave & Courtyard v2

We’ve had another meeting of the Death Cafe again – only six people this time, but still a good solid number.

The main topics we covered were ‘Is there life after death?’, the origins of the kind of toxic prejudice that ends up killing people and organising your own funeral.

Since then I’ve spotted an article in the Guardian that goes some way to explaining a phenomena that raises a wry laugh at most Death Cafe Meetings: ‘Why do people bury their head so deeply in the sand about death, so that the very idea of a Death Cafe seems hopelessly grim to them?’

The article in part reads as follows:

Warning: this story is about death. You might want to click away now.

That’s because, researchers say, our brains do their best to keep us from dwelling on our inevitable demise. A study found that the brain shields us from existential fear by categorising death as an unfortunate event that only befalls other people.

“The brain does not accept that death is related to us,” said Yair Dor-Ziderman, at Bar Ilan University in Israel. “We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it.”

Being shielded from thoughts of our future death could be crucial for us to live in the present. The protection may switch on in early life as our minds develop and we realise death comes to us all.

They go on to explain the exact nature of the study pointing in this direction before drawing an interesting conclusion about the world we live in now:

Dor-Ziderman added: “We cannot rationally deny that we will die, but we think of it more as something that happens to other people.” The study will be published in NeuroImage next month.

In the not-so-distant past, Dor-Ziderman pointed out, our brain’s defences against thoughts of death were balanced out by the reality of death around us. Today, he believes, society is more death-phobic, with sick people confined to hospitals and elderly people to care homes. As a result, he suspects, people know far less about the end of life and perhaps come to fear it more.

According to Arnaud Wisman, a psychologist at the University of Kent, this is further confounded by our culture of distraction:

His own work had found that in modern societies people embraced what he called the “escape treadmill”, where hard work, pub sessions, checking mobile phones and buying more stuff meant people were simply too busy to worry about death.

The next meeting of the Death Cafe will be at 6 pm on Tuesday 19 November at the Courtyard Theatre Hereford.

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Rather late in the day I stumbled across a thoughtful response to the climate crisis by Daniel Perell posted in September on the Bahá’í International Community website.  Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

As thousands gather for the Climate Summit at the United Nations, we are confronted with the basic question of what is needed to make lasting progress on climate change. Views on this may vary, but one thing seems clear: coherence between principles and action is necessary to advance climate justice and environmental protection. Rhetoric articulating appreciation for the environment, concern for future generations, and well-being for all, rings hollow when unmatched by ethical behavior and policy. Achieving such coherence requires more than science and logic—it requires courage and sacrifice.

If steps in this directions are not taken, it is too easy to fall back into the well trodden paths that have brought us to this point. Compromises allow an unjust and unsustainable system to endure, expediency becomes valued over the needs of the most vulnerable, and the inertia of the status quo drives humanity to the limits of the earth’s resources. Given the degree of transformation required, we must not wait for more tragedy before taking the courageous steps necessary.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that setting humanity on a sustainable path would require “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” This includes transformations to technological, industrial, agricultural, and scientific systems, which in turn require unprecedented change in values, assumptions, standards, and patterns of thought and behavior.

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Grave & Courtyard v2

We’ve had another meeting of the Death Cafe again – only 11 people this time, but still a good solid number.

The main topics we covered were assisted dying, suicide and, towards the end, reincarnation.

The latter was triggered by my recent reading of James G. Matlock’s book, Signs of Reincarnation. Give that I have dealt with this topic at some length already on this blog, why did I go back to look at it again.

Well, basically, I felt I would implementing a double standard if I criticised, as I frequently do, materialists for refusing to look at the evidence for a spiritual reality because they have ruled it out in advance as impossible, and I then refused to look at newly described evidence organised under a different model for a concept like reincarnation because I have decided I do not believe in. That would smack of hypocrisy.

So I bit the bullet and bought the book. We are hopefully going to have another look at that at a later meeting of the Death Cafe as I was only half way through the book when I brought the matter up at the end of the meeting.

I’ve now finished it and he has not changed my mind, but I respect his careful review of the most convincing evidence and his preference for letting the evidence shape the theory not the theory warp the evidence.

He summarises his basic position near the end of the book by stating (page 258):

The workings of reincarnation are often presumed to lie in metaphysical obscurity. In reality, as I have tried to show, the process is probably fairly simple, at least in outline. The stream of consciousness that animates a body during life continues into death, and persists through death, until it becomes associated with (possesses) another body, generally one not yet born. The consciousness stream is composed of both subliminal and supraliminal strata, the former bearing memories and various traits we may subsume under the heading of personality, the latter representing conscious awareness. Once in possession of its new body, the reincarnating mind customises it by adding behavioural and physical effects through psychokinetic operations on its genome, brain, and underlying physiology. At the level of conscious awareness, there is a reset, as the mind begins to interact with its new body and brain. Amnesia sets in, the subconscious blocking conscious memory of the past in what it considers to be its own best interests. The influence of the past is expressed behaviourally, however, and at times the subconscious permits memories to erupt into conscious awareness.

I must thank him also for pointing me in the direction of another model that seems at first sight to map more closely only my own perspective (page 233 – my emphasis):

The [Archetypal Synchronistic Resonance – Mishlove & Engender 2007] model emphasises the hidden nexus of meaning underlying seemingly disparate events and may have some utility in explaining unverified past-life memories, past-life regression, and past-life readings that tap into a client’s mind if these relate to deep psychological processes and psychic connections between people rather than to the memory of previous lives.

Matlock feels this model is inadequate to explain ‘solved reincarnation cases.’

The middle paragraphs of the second of two posts on reincarnation show how closely I t corresponds to the clause in bold.

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, in their excellent book Past Lives, have a whole section on this very issue. . . .[T]hey refer to (page 278) . . . the ‘Cosmic Memory Bank.’ They describe ‘field theories’ and refer to Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of ‘morphic resonance.’ They add (page 279):

If memories (information) are held in this way they would exist independently of the brain and therefore be accessible to another brain which ‘resonated’ with them.’

A model along these lines is still my preference, even though Mishlove is clearly a convert (page xiv), and even though I’ve ploughed through some of Stevenson’s work, as I indicated I would, and now Matlock’s sophisticated theory as well.

I may have time to explain that more fully later. For now, suffice it so say that I cannot see quite why the kind of affinity between a deceased consciousness and a newly generated one that the Fenwicks describe could not psychically impact upon a developing foetus just as strongly as a migrating soul might do. The only data that needs some explanation are the experiences people report of a soul in transit visiting them to declare where they intend to be reborn. Given that communications from a spiritual realm tend to be experienced in ways that are influenced by culture, that may not hole my hoped for theory below its waterline. I’lll be giving more thought to that as time goes on.

The next meeting of the Death Cafe will be at 6 pm on Wednesday 14 August at the Courtyard Theatre Hereford.

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Redwood trees in Guerneville, California. Photograph: Gabrielle Lurie/The Guardian

Yesterday’s Guardian published an intriguing article by that raised a glimmer of hope about our resolution of the climate crisis. There would still be much to do in the short time we’ve got, and it may not constitute some kind of miracle solution. However, it looks as though it could avert some of the worst effects, if we had the resolution to devote resources to its implementation. Below are some short extracts: for the full article, see link.

Research shows a trillion trees could be planted to capture huge amount of carbon dioxide

Planting billions of trees across the world is by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis, according to scientists, who have made the first calculation of how many more trees could be planted without encroaching on crop land or urban areas.

As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global heating. New research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities, a figure the scientists describe as “mind-blowing”.

The analysis found there are 1.7bn hectares of treeless land on which 1.2tn native tree saplings would naturally grow. That area is about 11% of all land and equivalent to the size of the US and China combined. Tropical areas could have 100% tree cover, while others would be more sparsely covered, meaning that on average about half the area would be under tree canopy.

. . .

Crowther emphasised that it remains vital to reverse the current trends of rising greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and forest destruction, and bring them down to zero. He said this is needed to stop the climate crisis becoming even worse and because the forest restoration envisaged would take 50-100 years to have its full effect of removing 200bn tonnes of carbon.

. . . 

The study, published in the journal Science, determines the potential for tree planting but does not address how a global tree planting programme would be paid for and delivered.

. . . 

“Without freeing up the billions of hectares we use to produce meat and milk, this ambition is not realisable,” he said. Crowther said his work predicted just two to three trees per field for most pasture: “Restoring trees at [low] density is not mutually exclusive with grazing. In fact many studies suggest sheep and cattle do better if there are a few trees in the field.”

. . . 

However, some scientists said the estimated amount of carbon that mass tree planting could suck from the air was too high. Prof Simon Lewis, at University College London, said the carbon already in the land before tree planting was not accounted for and that it takes hundreds of years to achieve maximum storage. He pointed to a scenario from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5C report of 57bn tonnes of carbon sequestered by new forests this century.

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