Monday, July 14, 2008

A New Series: TED Talks

If you haven't been to TED's website, go now. Once a year, top scholars, prominent figures in industry, and just generally amazing people gather in California to share the information they've accrued throughout their life that has made them who they are. I've watched quite a few since I discovered the site, but lately a friend turned me on to a series of talks entitled, "Is there a God?" and it's proven to be quite an amazing, thought provoking adventure.

Most of the people who are in this series are authors whose books I have read, or scholars I've seen on a film somewhere, etc, so it's really cool to see them in person talking about the things they REALLY think and care about. It isn't research, it isn't sanitized for your protection, it's just raw discussion of the thoughtful positions they've developed through their experiences in life. Very cool. So today I thought I'd start a series of discussions focusing on these people and their thoughts. Some I agree with, others I think are underdeveloped. All, though, are intriguing and deserve to be talked about.

I thought I'd start with a discussion of a fellow religious scholar, Karen Armstrong. You can find a link to her talk here if you'd like to watch it, which I wholeheartedly suggest. She started her religious life as a Catholic nun, but quickly got burnt out on Christianity and went into religious hiding, if you will. She eventually, through studying other world religions, redeveloped her love for Christianity and discovered an intense passion and respect for other world traditions. Her knowledge is expansive, and it is very obvious that she has optimistically reflected upon the core values of each tradition in order to find ways to learn to love each other better, to get along.

As far as I can tell, she assesses the current problem with religion to be an unnecessary focus on difference. Currently, we have a strange conception of the word "belief" which has never existed in its current form. Originally, belief meant "an intellectual ascent into certain propositions." To say, "I believe something" never meant "I completely agree with and wholeheartedly adopt these ideas." Instead, to say that you believed something was saying, "I commit myself; I engage myself." It meant that you were investing yourself to discover what certain things meant, to developing an understanding of something, to seeking the truth of certain statements. Belief was not, as John Mayer puts it, "armor" and "the heaviest sword." It was considered the pinnacle intellectual integrity and a commitment to absolute brutal honesty with yourself.

Currently we wield belief as a tool of division, using the subtlest difference to try and decide who is going to heaven and who is not. Sounds to me like the work of the ego, figuring out who's got it right and who's got it wrong. In the Koran, as Armstrong points out, discussion of religious orthodoxy is dismissed as "Zamna: Self-indulgent guess work about matters which nobody can be certain of one way or the other but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian." I couldn't put it better myself, so I won't try.

Religion has been hijacked as a tool of division instead of being used for its original purpose. As Armstrong puts it, "Religion is about behaving differently." It appears, then, to be a summons to action. It is about developing compassion within oneself for ALL of humanity, not just those within your particular sect. As the Bible puts it, "True religion is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." In other words, unless religion is motivating you to reach out to those who have been disenfranchised by society, to look after those who need help, to love more fully, it is being misused.

Armstrong finishes her talk with a sort of peaceful "call to arms," if you will. We cannot afford to fall into the category of closed-minded sectarianism any longer. Our world simply will not survive, and I mean that very seriously, if we do not learn to get past the idea that I am right and you are wrong, that my gain is better than your gain, that your losses don't mean as much as my losses. Religion, almost across the board, has fallen into this trap, which is truly sad because I believe religion is one of the few tools which has the potential to counter-act this global problem.

Armstrong, in closing, says this:
"I wish that you would help with the creation, launch, and propagation of a charter for compassion crafted by a group of inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and based on the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule. We need to create a movement among all these people that I meet in my travels who want to join up in some way and reclaim their faith, which they feel has been hijacked."

Well, Ms. Armstrong, I promise to work for that end. My voice, at least, will join in the chorus of those fighting for peace in the religious realm. May we work to counter extremism in our lives, to look for sameness instead of difference, to love others out of a heartfelt desire for peace and harmony throughout the world. The world is a beautiful place, and religion can help play a vital role in making it more beautiful if we remember what Armstrong has brought forth in her TED talk. I encourage you to watch her talk and reflect upon what she says.


On a side note, there was a beautiful moment on the Tour today. My favorite to win the race, Cadel Evans, took the yellow jersey after a tumultuous few days. He teared up when he put it on, and I'm sure many fans did as well. Good for him, and may the Tour continue another day scandal free!


Anonymous said...

i love you mark walter

Mark said...

I love you too, Anonymous.

PeterAtLarge said...

Nice work, Cadel. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him today! I reviewed Karen Armstrong's book on the Buddha for the LA Times a few years ago. She writes clearly, and with conviction. I'll watch her video...