Religion and the Onslaught of the ’60’s

In the movie MASH Hawkeye observes Major Frank Burns praying, and remarks, “Have you ever seen this syndrome before?”  Duke replies, “Not in someone over the age of eight.”  That interchange captures the spirit of the late ’60’s/late ’70’s.  Irreverent, anti-authority, self-confident, free love,–and in the movie, elitist.

I grew up in the ’60’s/’70’s and feel that there is much to be treasured from that era, now gone.  Peace and love, philosophy, self-reliance, music, freedom, individuality.  But along with these ideals, this idealistic time, came the kind of spirit that MASH captures so well.  Religion is ridiculed and the religious Frank Burns is an intolerable character.

Where so we go from there?  The spirit of the ’60’s/’70’s declared religion to be childish and ridiculous, and irreverent camaraderie to be the virtue of the day.  I think society bought it, and that those values persist today.  People turn to pop-culture to find behavioral norms and proprieties.  And for some, probably a lot, there is no place for prayer, no use for prayer.

Churches are failing, even synagogues and mosques are seeing diminution in attendance.  A while back I thought we are in a “post-Christian” age.  Now I see it as a “post-religious” age.  Even the “spiritual-but-not-religious” demographic is less than half of North American culture, and only a fraction of the population in Europe.

Certainly there were bad ideas in religions.  Certainly there were abuses of power.  Certainly there was hypocrisy.  But religion also contributed some of society’s most glorious cultural artworks, literature, philosophy, and, of course, theology.  The religious and spiritual impulse is a beautiful aspect in the human situation.  It makes the psyche sing.  It gives us honesty, sincerity, generosity, care for others, the quest for truth, repentance and human perfection, and ecstasy.  Without spirituality, what are we left with?

“But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” the poet W. H. Auden writes.  I don’t know.  I fear indifference.  I can’t but feel that the indifference to religion and even spirituality is numbing society.  We’re getting bland to everything, getting bland.  And we are retreating into tribes.  Instead of spiritual community that reaches out to the stranger and foreigner, we are retreating into tribes that close off the other.  We ignore religion to the peril of the loving community that the world can be.  While religion is often castigated for causing wars, I think that the lack of genuine religion is causing us to be more xenophobic and antagonistic to the other.  Will the indifference of our age ever produce another work like Beethoven’s 9th?  Will we ever know again the peace that passes understanding?  Will we ever again sing, “Love divine!  All loves excelling!”

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Personal Transformation at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions

Over the dates November 1-7, I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada—“The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.”  I will be posting a series of blogs about my experiences there, which were extraordinary.  I am not the same Swedenborgian I was before the Parliament.  I understand my own tradition differently, understand religion differently, understand more fully all the richness that God’s world is.  I learned in general that encountering other religions is much more than intellectually inquiring about beliefs.  I learned much about many traditions and perspectives.  But it would be a mistake to think that one now understands a tradition that others have spent their lives growing into.  The Parliament of the World’s Religions is a taste, not a meal.

The seminars were divided into 10 categories: 1) Justice, 2) Women’s Dignity, 3) Global Ethic, 4) Next Generation, 5) Countering Hate and Violence, 6) Sacred Space, 7) Indigenous Peoples’ Program, 8) Climate Action, 9) Interfaith Understanding, 10) Science and Religion.  As is always the case at these kinds of gatherings, you can’t do everything.  There are several seminars going on at the same time.  It took me about an hour and a half to figure out how to read the program guide and to decide on the seminars I would attend.

Sometimes what happens in the hallways between seminars, at conferences like the Parliament, is as valuable as what happens in the seminars themselves.  Previous to the formal opening, I had delightful conversations with a few people in the convention centre lobby while we were all looking over the 380-page program guide.  One couple from Washington State told me that they were from the Unity tradition, among other interfaith groups.  I asked them how their church was doing.  “If by ‘church’ you mean what is tied to a building, that might be questionable; but if you mean ‘church’ as a movement, I’d say it’s doing wonderfully well.”  Already, I’d learned something.  From my own tradition, I thought about what the New Church really is.  We were joined by another couple who were interfaith ministers.  They said that their outlook on religion is “not ‘instead-of,’ but rather, ‘in addition to.’”  By that I understood varieties of religion to supplement each other, rather than compete with each other for who’s right is righter than who’s.  I was off to a good start.

Attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions was spiritually transforming for me.  Such a compressed, intense exposure to leaders of other faith traditions must have a powerful impact on a seeker with an open mind.  Nevertheless, reflecting on my experiences, I realize that however intense my exposure was, my grounding is in my own tradition.  My own understanding has been given a good jolt in a positive direction.  Areas of my own faith that weren’t working for me, have been adjusted by techniques from other religions that do work.  I am enjoying seeing the world differently than I saw it before the Parliament.  I am enjoying the world more than I had before the Parliament.  I am enjoying my fellows here on earth better than I did before the Parliament.  It will take some time before I fully integrate my experiences at the Parliament into my spiritual life.

I didn’t expect to be so moved by the Parliament.  I did expect to learn and celebrate, but not to be transformed.  I will share meaningful experiences from those remarkable seven days in the upcoming posts.  It is my story, but others may find meaning in it, and may find inspiration to further investigate truths from the traditions I experienced by their own methods of spiritual questing.

THE LEXICON OF LANGUAGE

Human community is the lexicon of language
Shared speech defines word and syntax
I know holy language, spoken among
Those self-identified spiritual
The lexicon of holy books, prayer, chant, doctrines
To whom these matter
I know ecstasy and peace
I know sin and craving
Shadow only exists by sunshine
I know secular language, spoken among
Those self-identified disinterested to spirituality
The lexicon of sciences, literature, arts, pop-culture, ego-gratification, social standing
To whom only these matter, or matter largely
I know class, sophistication, cultivation
I act the fool, commit faux-pas, social blunders
What honest human doesn’t, can’t, won’t
Secular language grounds the holy
As bark encloses trees, skin encloses the body, callous
Only flowers are unprotected

Discovering Art

Good art affects me like symphonies.  Art moves my spirit and evokes states of mind in like manner as good music stimulates my feelings.  Colours laid together to create an effect, shapes, background, objects.  When I gaze on good art, I am lifted into a transcendental world and sacred space of the mind, heart, and soul.  Art is made of sensual materials–paper, visual shapes, and colors–and yet its effect is inner, intangible, spiritual.

I finally brought the fine art print I spent a lot of my liquid monthly income on (more than twice my monthly rent) into my home.  It’s a massive limited-edition print that covers almost half the wall from the ground to the ceiling.  I came home from church today, and when I looked at the print, I realized that the service wasn’t over for the day.  This work, “Spring Fed” by Andrew Wyeth, is both a realistic painting and not realistic at all.  It’s not really a painting of anything.  It is a painting of a square cistern in the foreground with a square window behind it.  You can see the square cistern in the foreground and look at the square window behind it, and the square window panes of the window, then look through the window at some cattle and a hill with patches of snow.  Is it a painting of a cistern?  Of a window?  Of cattle and a hill?  I don’t know how to consider the painting as a whole.  It is a magical complexity that is not an image of anything.  Then there are the colors.  The painting is almost a monochromatic.  The cistern is dark brown, the hill is brownish green, the cattle are brown, the walls are grey-green-off-white.  The complexity of the multiple layers of imagery and the color combinations create a wonderful effect that no photograph could.

Artists know that their work will end up on a wall, and that people will look at it day-in-and-day-out.  And yet the monochromatic color choices render the painting something that is even room decoration, too, and can be looked at again and again without tiring the eye and mind.  I say this with no deprecation of the greatness of it’s artistry.  Unlike a piece of music, which one can’t listen to over and over again without getting sick of it.

I have always enjoyed visiting museums and viewing art.  I’ve never owned a consummate work of this quality–even though it is a limited-edition print and not the original.  I don’t know of a purchase I have been happier with.  The cost is of no consequence.  My living room is transformed by this work of art, as I am, and will continue to be.