(This is an extract of a paper delivered, originally, at an Annual WACOSS Conference).

I have written and spoken, for many years, of ‘Developing Spirit’. In doing so I have maintained a secular tone, and I think this has helped. A sports coach, a Christian or Muslim theologian, a feminist, a socialist, a capitalist will all have insights to contribute to a dialogue about Spirit.  I hope that it sometimes shift people from the distractions and smokescreens  that are put before us – tax cuts, border security, wars on terror, endless forms, new theories on management – to what actually matters: the spirit of each of us and all of this planet.


But today, let me move deeper; move from the secular toward the ‘religious’. In fact, let’s talk about God. That’s one of the most dangerous suggestions I’ll ever make.  Dangerous because there’s a good chance you now consider me loopy. Dangerous because there’s an equally good chance that you now have an image in your head which is, inevitably, profoundly different to the image in mine. And most of all dangerous because God can be used to justify genuine evil.


But alas, dangerous things must be talked about openly. So here I go……


Talk of God is dangerous and damaging when it feeds fundamentalism – the idea that God’s on your side; that if you are right, then I, with different beliefs must be wrong; the idea that your truth is the whole truth.  So many of us have been wounded by the spirit-crushing certainties of fundamentalism that we have turned away from religious dialogue.   Certainly I did.


But those of us who have turned away from religion have got to answer a serious question.  As we sought to throw off the constraints of religion – of God even – did we leave ourselves a moral void? Have we really created anything with the resilience or depth of Hinduism, Christianity, of Islam, or Buddhism? It is not enough to discard them as simply as systems of power and control, or distraction. They can be that, but they have also been the basis for some of the most important movements of liberation the world has seen. They remain a key foundation of social services in Australia.


We who have strived to understand the world by rejecting these sometimes stultifying traditions have to ask each other: what do we have to replace them? Of course, we don’t need to have a relationship with or belief in God to have a consistent moral position.   As a non-Christian, non-Muslim, non-Buddhist, non-Hindu I still believe that I have a consistent moral position.


But look around. How are we – who are on the side of collectivism, of compassion, of environmental protection, of social justice, of peace, of civil rights – how are we doing right now? We’re losing. And we’re losing because we don’t share clear gathering points. We don’t share clear vision. We don’t share a passion for something beyond ourselves.    We don’t put, at the centre of our dialogue, the great questions of human experience. We don’t put Spirit there. We don’t put God there, in all It’s many meanings and languages. We get overwhelmed by all that we must stand against and try to address it in splintered, ad hoc ways.


Listen to Arundhati Roy the author of ‘The God of Small Things’ and a passionate activist. She said, in Sydney “Today, it is not merely justice itself, but the idea of justice that is under attack. The assault on vulnerable, fragile sections of society is at once so complete, so cruel and so clever…. that its sheer audacity has eroded our definition of justice. It has forced us to lower our sights and curtail our expectations.”


We are losing.


And part of what I’m saying is: perhaps those who believe in and talk about something called God have something to teach us. See, I can think of at least three really big advantages that most understandings of God share (I know there are more): When we think of God we are thinking of something very much greater than, and beyond, ourselves. When we think of God we are thinking of something that goes way beyond the possible. And when we think of God we are remembering that miracles happen.  (I watch the daily miracle of a tiny seed turning dirt and water into a magnificent flower or tree. That was a miracle before we understood how it happened. And it is a miracle after we understand how it happens.)


I think these features hold the seeds of antidotes to the rampant individualism that leaves us lonely, depressed, obsessed with reality TV and other distractions; antidotes to the meaningless materialism that so damages our environment and our spirit; anti-dotes to this terrible apathy and disengagement we are experiencing. And maybe the idea of miracles can give us hope in this time of despair, can remind us that South Africa defeated apartheid without civil war; that the Berlin Wall came down without bloodshed at the end, that Indonesia transformed to a  democracy quietly and without fanfare, and that a small hard seed can turn mud into a magnificent tree.


I wonder if the answer to all this is for us – all of us – to engage passionately in religious dialogue.  But I want to be careful here. Religion, as I said, can do great damage. So let me explain what I mean by religious dialogue. The great religious traditions are only part of it (albeit an important one).  My dictionary shows the original meaning of ‘religion’ as coming from the same root as ‘diligent’ – extreme care – and ‘negligent’ – lack of care. In other words ‘religious’ dialogue is about care; it engages us in the question, ‘what do we care about’? I have found that when you ask people that question, and give them time for real reflection, their answers are surprisingly consistent, positive, and heartfelt.


A plan!

So here’s a thought – a 20 year plan say – for all of us who believe that humanity can do something greater, who believe that we are actually capable of caring for our planet and caring for each other. (And I include those of us who experience and place value on a relationship with God, and those of us who don’t.)  Let’s gather together in a spirit of ‘religious’ dialogue – by which I mean dialogue that explores what matters to us in the rich experience of being human in this universe. Let’s listen and speak passionately of the wisdom of our different traditions – Jain, Quaker, Bahai, feminist, socialist, capitalist, humanist, and let’s feel free to bring questions to those traditions, based on our own individual wisdom and experiences.


Let’s, through that dialogue, develop moral positions that are greater than our own individualism, that go beyond the possible, and that insist that miracles will occur when we believe, collectively, that they must.


And with all that, let’s collectively call our leaders to something greater and deeper than cutting taxes, than protecting borders, than trying in vain to bomb nations into democracy or submission.


Let’s call those leaders – and us as leaders – to work with us in honouring and responding to our spirit and the spirit of all things, and to the deep, awesome privilege of being human together in this glorious universe.