Monday, November 16, 2009

The Charter for Compassion

This past week, Karen Armstrong, along with Desmond Tutu and other leaders, announced a campaign called the Charter for Compassion. The Charter for Compassion calls on the world community to adopt a global ethic of compassion based on what we often call the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This moral guideline exists in virtually all of the world's religious traditions, which in itself is a rather remarkable fact. One question we might explore is how that came to be. There must be some deep resonance with our human nature and aspirations that is expressed in this simple maxim that does not belong to any one tradition, but to them all.

As Hans Küng and other religious leaders have passionately argued for years, the world urgently needs some kind of shared ethical framework. We are growing ever more interconnected, ever more part of the same village with everyone else on the planet. How are we going to live together on an ecologically and politically endangered planet without some common guideline for behavior? Karen Armstrong believes that compassion, as expressed in diverse ways that echo our Golden Rule, is the ethical guideline that can unite all of humanity.

The key to compassion is to set aside the selfishness and greed of our ego-centered tendencies and truly take seriously the needs of another. This dethroning of the ego has long been described as one of the ingredients of genuine spiritual experience. In compassion, we move beyond caring only about ourselves, and in so doing, discover a far wider world of meaning and satisfaction. We also find that our compassion is powerful and can change the world.

As we enter the festival season of the year, a season that takes compassion seriously, at least for a while, I invite you to explore the Charter for Compassion. You can find it at As the world searches for some way to find common ground, this ancient approach may point the way out of our confusion toward hope.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why Should People of Different Faiths Talk to Each Other?

Later this month I will be leaving to attend the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne, Australia. I'm starting to get excited. This will be my fourth time as an attendee of one of these global Parliaments. ( I missed the first one in 1893.) The idea of the Parliament is to gather people from all over the planet, representing most of the world's religious traditions, and spend a week talking to each other, looking for ways to cooperate to address our common concerns.

It's going to be a great trip, and it will be fun to visit Australia, but how productive is it likely to be? Does it really do any good to engage in interfaith dialogue beyond a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling and the appearance, or perhaps illusion, of progress?

Sam Harris, in his bestseller The End of Faith, argues that we do damage to the world when we give respect to other faiths that may actually be trying to kill us. I agree with Harris that religious fundamentalism is a danger to our planet, particularly when combined with militaristic nationalism. It may actually be the case that fundamentalism itself is not the real problem, but rather this combination of fundamentalist religion with political power.

However, I think Harris misunderstands how religious views can change. My experience is that religious dialogue tends to disarm harsh fundamentalist stances. This is one of the reasons why fundamentalists do not generally attend such interfaith events. To be in dialogue is to let go of rigidity and to acknowledge the value of other positions. Fundamentalists know this and therefore avoid such engagement. Lack of respect, on the other hand, leads to rage and often violence. This is why "dissing" in gang culture can get one killed.

So I am arguing that religious dialogue in a respectful environment creates a counterbalance to rigid beliefs and fundamentalist-inspired nationalistic politics. The more dialogue, the more respect and the less rigidity. The more respect, the more ability to work out problems without resort to armed conflict. The more dialogue, the greater the chances for peace. And peace is something we deeply need. For this reason I devote a portion of my energy and resources to interfaith dialogue. So what do you think? Is interfaith dialogue dangerous or the path to peace?