Monday, December 7, 2009

World Religions Get Down to Earth

"Welcome to country" is how the Aboriginal Australians greet visitors, and it was the greeting of "Aunty" Joy Murphy Wandin, a senior Aboriginal leader of the Wurundgeri people, to participants in the Parliament of the World's Religions, currently being held in Melbourne, Australia. The theme of the parliament, which was first held in 1893, is the environment: "Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth."

It would be hard to find one of the world's religions NOT represented at this gathering. The Aboriginal people of Australia are here, of course, as are other indigenous people from Scandinavia, America, Africa, and other lands; Christians of different denominations; Jews; Hindus; Muslims; Buddhists; Zoroastrians; Sikhs; Pagans. What is even more extraordinary than the diversity, however, is the willingness of people of different faiths to listen to and learn from one another. Those who have attended previous parliaments claim that there is an openness and honesty here that has not been seen before, from the native Australians' expressions of sorrow and distress over the failure of the government to recognize them to the admission of several religious leaders that they have not always been mindful of holding the earth in respect.

My own particular interest is in finding ways to reconcile people and wounded places, and I'm curious how people of different religious traditions view that challenge. A few responses:

Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin: "My people know that the pavement all over Melbourne is not the real surface of the Earth. It's a covering over the hills, the rivers. There is a cemetery that now has buildings over it. But we remember what is really here."

John Grim
, Senior Lecturer and Scholar, Yale University (at a panel on the work of Thomas Berry): "Thomas was very concerned about the degradation of the environment, but then as he got older, he wanted to turn away from a negative view. He wanted to be more hopeful, especially for the sake of the younger generations."

Leo Killsback
, Northern Cheyenne: "They said that the killing at Virginia Tech was the worst mass murder ever in the U.S. The [1864] massacre at Sand Creek that killed 250 of my people was even worse."

Vidya Sarveswaran, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Deep Ecologist: "We must work to heal what is broken on the inside, as we heal what is broken on the outside."

H.H. Swami Sandeep Chaitanya
, Hindu, founder of the School of the Bhagavad Gita, India: "Become a vegetarian. Meditate. You cannot change what is already done. You can only improve yourself."

Chris Peters
, Yurok, director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, Arcata, CA: "It's a good question. Indian people never used to have to worry about this. If the forest burned, you knew it would grow back."

Freya Mathews
, Associate Professor, LaTrobe University, Melbourne, and author of The Ecological Self and other books: "That's what the Kingfisher Festival is all about. It's finding revelation in the midst of a fallen state."

The concept of "wounded places" obviously has a lot of different connotations for people. Religious people have the capacity for awe, which means they can see the beauty of the Earth and be transported, can see the Earth either as sacred or as a manifestation of the sacred that is the Creator. However, many religions also tend to focus on teaching people to live today in ways that will make the next life (or after-life) better. Can both these perspectives be merged to help us solve the problems of living on our wounded and ailing planet today?