Faith, Culture and Dialogue in the Global Village

(May 10, 2016)

To mark Earth Day 2016, I flew to Tehran, Iran, for the weekend.

On one level, this is as crazy as it sounds, but there were good reasons to make the trip.

It was the second International Seminar on Environment, Culture and Religion, hosted by the Islamic Republic of Iran and co-sponsored by UNESCO and the United Nations environment program (UNEP). It brought together about two dozen global representatives of different religions to meet with colleagues from Iran, for an inter-faith talk as part of the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

I was there as a speaker, sponsored by UNEP, and I headed the final plenary panel on global partnerships.

The first such seminar was held in the spring of 2001, just before the world changed with 9/11. Since then, global tension and politics had made further progress difficult, at least until the election of a more moderate government in Iran and the nuclear agreement reached last July.

We were warmly welcomed, hospitably treated and met a host of Iranians working on environmental issues who were delighted to share opinions.

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Life in the LEGO-verse

"I'm so glad we were able to connect!"

“I’m so glad we were able to connect!”

Ever since I was a kid, I have enjoyed LEGO (trade mark registered, etc.)

But lately, I have come to wonder if LEGO has changed the way we see the world, or whether LEGO is the result of a change in our worldview.

It all comes down to the words we use. Words shape our thoughts. If we don’t have the right words, we can’t think in certain ways. When we use particular words, they shape the direction in which we think, whether we realize it or not.

I have become sensitized to certain words that seem to be everywhere. They take our thoughts about a better world and instead return us – inexorably — to a world that is increasingly toxic.

No one, no matter how cool the movie or how awesome the song, would believe for a second that we live in a LEGO-verse. Yet over and over we use words to describe relationships and growth that are more easily associated with LEGO blocks than living or growing things. We see all of our systems (social, cultural and ecological) as linear and mechanical, not circular and organic, and are reaping the whirlwind of devastation we have sown as a result.

I have developed the argument at length elsewhere (in Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World) that our society has emphasized mechanism over organism. We have turned our experience of nature and each other into something that can be sliced, diced and counted – the “metrical me” living in a material world.

To talk about ourselves in abstraction or separation from natural systems is physically absurd – but we do it all the time. Realizing that there is something wrong with our perspective on life, the universe and everything, we therefore decide it is time to “reconnect with nature.” People will earnestly use this expression, indicating awareness of something being wrong and a desire to …fix it? Rebuild it? Reconnect it? All the while, these same people are usually unaware of the utter absurdity of their language and do not thank me for pointing it out.

Very frostily, I am asked if this is not a good place to start, whether or not I like the words? Isn’t doing something better than doing nothing? Isn’t reconnecting with nature a desirable goal?

And so we are trapped, by our words, in the LEGO-verse. We build relationships, along with communities – not realizing that neither are barns, and certainly not seeing the huge difference between a barn raised by a community and one built to code by a contractor.

We construct, build, connect, and so mire ourselves further in the worldview a sustainable future requires us to escape.

No matter how hard we try to return to an organic view of the universe around and within us, our words get in the way. If you can use those same words to direct someone in the construction of some LEGO artifact, then they don’t fit the curves, resilience and springy-ness of life.

We need to use other words, if we want to think other thoughts. We need to experience relationships, not build friendships. There is good reason and much wisdom behind the aboriginal expressions we would do well to incorporate into our own vision. For me to appreciate the world in which I live, for example, I need to think about “all my relations” not “all my connections.”

After all, social, cultural and ecological systems are not linear. They are a weave of many elements and practices, spiritual and philosophical as well as material, subtle and transient as well as solid and enduring. Caught in the web to which we contribute our own weaving, we can rarely be certain of the outcome of our own actions within a system so complex that no computer system could begin to replicate it, much less understand what it means.

So, if you want to stop the delusion — in your mind and in others — that we live in a linear, mechanical, material world, stop using the words that make such a perspective necessary and inevitable.

Fine yourself a nickel for every time you use the word “connect” when you really mean “relate,” every time you talk about “building” or “constructing” when you mean “growing” or “nurturing.” Donate your fines to a community organization that helps people to grow into a sustainable future.

It will be money well spent. You will feel better and your mind will be clearer (I almost said your brain would work better!).

Your spirit will be nourished as you become more aware, more mindful, of the web of life and community within which you are woven and which you are weaving.

You will live with intention and purpose, as your new words guide your thoughts in creative directions that then give you reasons for doing what your heart tells you needs to be done.

Or, you can keep on using those old words and – like the LEGO characters in the picture above – you can connect with other people instead. You can build a better future, reconstruct society, or reconnect with nature through a more thorough understanding of the building blocks of life.

Your choice – but the words you use indicate the choice you are making and where it leads.

At the Gate of the Year

Ice fog and sun dogs – that was the morning of December 31st in Winnipeg. As I wait for sunrise on this first day of the New Year, I am uneasily reminded of the lines from the poem King George the VI read in his Christmas message in 1939.

We stand at the gate of the year, to be sure, and the way ahead is always dark. We would like a light, but there isn’t one that allows us to see further than our own feet, much less what lies ahead, even by as much as a day.

So we take whatever hand is offered to us as a guide. There are those who take the hand of God, of Allah, Yahweh, of the Creator or Great Spirit, of the source of Life and Light, or however the One greater than all is named or understood, trusting that the guidance found in such beliefs will shape the journey toward some better destination.

There are those who believe none of these experiences to be real and so take the guiding hand of the secular leaders who offer reassurance about the year that will unfold. Whether economics or business, politics or government, horoscopes or social hagiography, there is no shortage of prophetic voices with advice about what lies ahead.

Yet in the ephemera of ice fog and sun dogs, there is more substance than the predictions we are able to make about the course of our life, day by day. We really don’t know what each sunrise will bring or what will unfold before any sunset. Nor does anyone else.

Our New Year’s resolutions are as ambitious as they are incautious. If we speak and choose and act for the day, that is as much as any of us has the ability to control.

When it comes to bigger decisions, dealing with more than the choices that swirl around what we do as individuals, how then can we choose? Without a light ahead, without anything more than the noisy and conflicted leadership of our global society to guide us, how can we trust the wisdom of any decisions beyond the reach of our own arms?

We are at the gate of a year in which what we do about climate change, about the unsustainable way in which all of us together live, will profoundly shape the future of not just all the children of Earth, but our own future, as well.

It is time for a new story, one in which resilience and regeneration replace devastation and disappearance, one in which desire is replaced by need, one in which disregard is replaced by respect.

And, as the sun rises on a new day and a new year, we need at least to hold each other’s hand as we try to find the path that will lead us into a future shaped by this new story.

It is through such an act of trust, shared with another person, that the universe of relations unfolds as it was meant to unfold, weaving the future we need out of the choices we make.

Wishing you wisdom for the day, strength for the journey and rest at the end.