This short volume seeks to capture the energy and dynamism of these world religious traditions-a central force in human history and society-for illuminating and addressing major global issues: population growth, environmental destruction, freedom, the rights of women and minorities, the place of economics and work, issues of sexuality and the body. Based on consultations of leading scholars and religious leaders from a variety of traditions, and worked out in conjunction with international conferences sponsored by the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics, this book highlights the special insights and lessons each major religious tradition has to offer today.
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From Chapter One (pre-publication version):
The Wake-Up Call
Power-holders of the world, take notice!
The world's religions grew up rather separately. Even when they had some common scriptures as Judaism, Christianity and Islam did, they quickly parted and went their own ways. Any contact they had was often hostile, even to the point of war, pogrom, persecution, and crusade. In spite of that, they have this in common: they were all powerfully influential in the development of cultures, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.
Now in what is an almost unnoticed breakthrough in human history the religions of the world have decided to sit down and talk to one another. No one even thought it possible. How could Hindus and Muslims, Confucians and Buddhists, Jews and Christians, and native religions of every stripe have a conversation together. Well, they are not only talking; they are planning, strategizing, and forming alliances of conscience. They are interested in doing again what they have done in the past: changing the way the world thinks, acts, and does business, but now they are interested in doing it together.
Two thirds of the world's peoples actively affiliate with the world's religions, and the other third cannot escape their impact on thought and basic attitudes. Anyone who ignores religion is ignoring a central force in our humanity and in the functioning of human society.
Religion in a word is power. John Henry Newman said that people will die for a dogma (a religiously held conviction) who will not stir for a conclusion. Why is that? Religion is, quite simply, a response to the sacred. Sacred is the superlative ofprecious. And there is nothing we take more seriously than that which we call "sacred." So, when all the religions of the world, animated and charged as they all are with a sense of the sacred, start talking and bonding and planning together, history is about to turn a corner. An epoch is getting born.
And why is this suddenly happening?
Of course, not only fear. But fear is a big part of it. The ancient Hebrews noted that fear is the beginning of wisdom. Fear in the presence of danger is smart. Those who are fearless in time of danger just don't see the problem. Fear is like pain in the presence of infection. It alerts you to the fact that there is a problem and that you ought to do something about it. And our lovely and lonely little planet is in danger. In all the vastness of the universe, our earth may be the only one that sprouted the miracle called life. Religion is the response to life as sacred. Ethics is the response to life as good. Human beings are the privileged bearers of religion and ethics. As such we have special obligations to the earth and to the life-miracle of which we are a part but neither religion nor ethics seem to be up to the challenge of doing proper reverence to the life that bore us. "It's a dumb bird that befouls its own nest," goes an old saying. But homo sapiens, as we have all too prematurely called ourselves, has done just that.
Some, in fact, would say that we are the fatal flaw in the evolution of life on earth. In richly poetic language the great anthropologist Loren Eiseley indicts humankind for terrestrial malfeasance. He writes:
It is with the coming of human beings that a vast hold seems to open in nature, a vast black whirlpool spinning faster and faster, consuming flesh, stones, soil, minerals, sucking down the lightning, wrenching the power from the atom, until the ancient sounds of nature are drowned in the cacophony of something which is no longer nature, something instead which is loose and knocking at the world's heart, something demonic and no longer planned-escaped, it may be-spewed out of nature contending in a final giant's game against its master.
That's pretty tough judgment on a species that has such a high regard for itself. We have proclaimed ourselves the pinnacle of evolution! "a little less than the angels," the Hebrew scriptures call us. "What a piece of work!!" says the Avon's bard of humankind. How dare Eiseley call us earth wreckers, "something demonic" and cacophonic that is breaking the world's heart!
Before dismissing Eiseley's grim view of us, a chastening look at some of the ominous new facts of life should bring blushes of guilt to the faces of those who fancy themselves "stewards" of the earth. Reader be warned. It is no easier to look at the facts I will give here than it is to look at the sun. But squint a little and dare to look at these realities:
All life depends on cropland and on the earth's generous waters. Topsoil, that precious and thin layer of life support, is washing like blood into the seas and rivers, blowing away in the wind, and getting paved over. In 30 years, China , where one of five humans lives, lost in cropland the equivalent of all the farms in France, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. 43 percent of the earth's vegetated surface is to some degree degraded, and it takes from 3,000 to 12,000 years to develop sufficient topsoil to form productive land. On a typical day on planet earth seventy-one million tons of topsoil are lost. If we were losing huge quantities of gold it would be a lesser tragedy.
Oysters, of all people, are another witness to earth-woes. The oysters do for sea water what our kidneys do for us. They purify it and filter the water as they feed themselves. The fabled Chesapeake Bay once enjoyed a thorough filtration by the massive oyster population every three days. Thus cleansed, the Bay flourished. It was fish heaven. Now the oysters are so depleted that the filtration occurs only a few times a year with portentous results. Similarly, mussels, as they busily glean vast quantities of water to glen out microscopic plankton, perform the filtering process for inland waters in the United States. 77 percent of them are either extinct or endangered.
Table of Contents
1. The Wake-Up Call
Acts of Hope
2. The Religion of the Marketplace
Consumerism on the Rampage
Reimagining Our World
Lessons from Europe
3. Pledging Allegiance to the Corporations
"In the Beginning . . ."
Any Hope Out There?
4. This Thing Called Religion
Ants and Humans
I-Self or We-Self
5. The Poetry of Africa
The Nature of African Religions
Visions from Africa
6. Buddhism: Lessons on Downsizing Wants
The Four Noble Truths
The Ethics of Buddhism
7. Hinduism's Rivers of Wisdom
Ghandi as Hindu Hero
The Meditative Pause
8. Ancient Chinese Secrets
A Very Different Worldview
Yin and Yang
Chinese Hope for Humanity
9. The Unveiling of Islam
Toward the Real Islam
Who's in Charge?
The Qu'ran and Economics 101
What about the Women?
10. Judaism: Workshop for a New Humanity
The Significance of Exile
Judaism's Grand Paradox
Justice as the Price of Peace
11. Protestant Christianity and the Recovery of Lost Fragrance
What's Wrong with Protestantism?
It's Off to Work We Go. . . .
Good Protestant News
12. Catholic Liberation Theology
The Piety Bypass
The Anger of Justice
The Catholic Case for Moral Pluralism
A Brief Annotated Bibliography