by Andras Corban Arthen
Every Parliament of the World’s Religions focuses on a collection of particular themes chosen for their relevance to the interfaith movement or to the world at large. A great many other topics are broached during the course of the event, to be sure, but Parliament presenters and attendees are encouraged to weave as many of the key themes as possible into their presentations and dialogues.
The overall focus of the 2009 Parliament was “Make a World of Difference: Hearing each Other, Healing the Earth,” but this broad purpose was given a sharper definition through the following seven key themes:
- Healing the Earth with Care and Concern
- Reconciling with the Indigenous Peoples
- Overcoming Poverty in an Unequal World
- Providing Food and Water for All People
- Building Peace in the Pursuit of Justice
- Creating Social Cohesion in Village and City
- Sharing Wisdom in the Search for Inner Peace
As explained in the Parliament’s literature, “These sub-themes have emerged from the dialogues of previous Parliaments and continue to resonate as urgent matters to address in this time and place by the largest interreligious gathering in the world. Throughout the Parliament week, hundreds of programs will explore these critical issues through the lenses of richly diverse religious and spiritual perspectives. So what do the Bahá’ís tell us about social cohesion? How do Christians and Muslims view their responsibility to humanity’s most vulnerable? Can Confucianism guide our approach to peacebuilding in the modern world?”
As an aid in framing the exploration of these topics, the Parliament, together with the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (the same Sikh organization that provided the daily langar — a free, vegetarian meal — at the Barcelona event in 2004) organized two special displays at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre. One, located on the second floor of the Convention Centre, was entitled “Sacred Sites, Sacred Solidarity” and addressed the growing destruction of holy places around the world as a result of globalization, political and sectarian violence, and ” the impact of urban, industrial and recreational development.” The other one, on “Teachings of the Traditions,” was situated inside the Exhibition Hall, amidst the dozens of booths which provided information about some of the various organizations (among them EarthSpirit) represented at the Parliament. Its aim was to highlight — using the seven sub-themes as a context — “the relevancy of religious perspectives on contemporary issues, as well as the successful efforts of spiritual communities to address these pressing concerns at local and global levels.”
Prior to the Parliament, several people involved in the interfaith movement were asked to submit text and photographs which addressed the focus of each of the exhibits from their personal point of view, as informed by their respective spiritual traditions. For the exhibit on imperiled sacred sites, for instance, a Christian Orthodox representative warned about the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (built over the grotto in which Jesus supposedly was born), endangered by the imminent collapse of its roof due to the inability of its caretaking organizations to agree on how to proceed. A Diné woman wrote about Dook’o’osliid (otherwise known as the San Francisco Peaks, in Arizona), sacred not only to the Navajo but also to twelve other tribes, threatened with desecration and destruction by plans of the U.S. Forest Service and a private developer to expand the recreational resources of the Snow Bowl Ski Resort, located among the peaks. A Sikh described the impaired state of the Nankana Sahib Gurudwara, the birthplace of Guru Nanak in Pakistan, as a result of restrictions and prohibitions placed upon Sikhs by the Pakistani government, and of travel limitations due to border conflicts between India and Pakistan.
For the Teachings of the Traditions exhibit, a Bahá’í wrote on “Creating Social Cohesion between Village and City;” a Confucian discussed his tradition’s approach toward “Building Peace in the Pursuit of Justice;” a Hindu told of Vedic hymns in praise of natural forces in addressing “Healing the Earth with Care and Concern;” a member of Shimji Shumeikai described their founder’s development of Natural Agriculture as a spiritual practice in the context of “Providing Food and Water for All People.”
I was asked to write about an endangered sacred site of particular concern to pagans, and to offer a pagan perspective on two themes, “Reconciling with Indigenous Peoples,” and “Sharing Wisdom in the Search for Inner Peace.” I was also asked to provide a selection of photographs relating to the three topics that I was writing about, so that the organizers of the exhibits could pick the most appropriate. Below are my responses to the three topics, as well as the chosen photographs:
SACRED SITES, SACRED SOLIDARITY Pagan
The Hill of Tara, known in Irish as Teamhair na Rí (“The Hill of Kings”), is one of the most ancient and sacred sites in all of Ireland. Located in County Meath, approximately 50 km from Dublin, Tara appears to have been used as a religious centre starting some 6,000 years ago. Ceremonial structures on the hill include the Lia Fáil (“Stone of Destiny” ) – a phallic-shaped menhir that served as the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland – and the Dumha na nGiall (“Mound of the Hostages”), a Mesolithic passage grave built around 3000 BCE.
For the Indigenous pagan peoples of Ireland, the Land was their true sovereign, and the role of the sacred king was to act in the Land’s stead and manifest her sovereignty. After a series of trials to prove himself, he would become one with the Land through a ritual wedding, enabling him to rule. It was upon the Hill of Tara that this sacred marriage and subsequent coronation would be held, underscoring its position as the seat of spiritual and temporal power in Ireland. It continues to be regarded and used as a sacred site by many thousands of people today, including adherents of the Indigenous pagan religion of Ireland.
Despite its considerable spiritual, historical and archaeological importance, the Hill of Tara and the ancient underground structures surrounding it are currently endangered by the Irish government’s decision to build a major motorway less than a mile from the summit.
The Hill of Tara has been placed on the endangered sites lists of the World Monuments Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, and Sacred Sites International. An official application has also been filed with UNESCO to have Tara designated as one of its World Heritage Sites, but the Irish government has been withholding its prerequisite endorsement of the nomination until the motorway is completed.
SHARING WISDOM IN SEARCH FOR INNER PEACE – The Pagan Traditions
There are many diverse ways in which spirituality manifests in the pagan traditions, but underlying all of them is a fundamental sense of experiencing the Sacred, the Great Mystery, through communion with the natural world. For pagans, Nature is our spiritual matrix, the means through which we may most directly connect with the Great Mystery that permeates every facet of our existence and surpasses the many identities, labels and theologies through which humans have attempted to represent it.
Nature is the most immediate and tangible manifestation of the Great Mystery. Like the Sacred, it contains us, but also transcends us. In cultivating a spiritual relationship with the natural world, we quickly come to realize that we are part of something much greater than ourselves, something so much more complex and far-reaching than we can begin to understand. We are as much a part of Nature as a tree, as a mountain, as a stream, as a meadowlark, as fire. Our sustenance, our very survival, depend upon it – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the wood and stone we use for shelter.
Through spiritual communion with the natural world, we experience ourselves as enmeshed in a vast, living web of interdependent relationships, where we are part of everything, and everything is part of us. This leads us to an understanding that all our actions matter, that all our actions have consequences which affect everything else. It also instills in us a sense of perspective, of proportion – that the universe does not exist exclusively for the benefit of us humans, that the rest of the natural world deserves our respect and consideration.
Pagan communion with Nature brings us face-to-face with the Sacred in all its mystery and power, and can induce in us a mystical experience of profound inner peace, in which we merge with the Sacred and are nurtured and formed by it.
RECONCILING WITH INDIGENOUS PEOPLES – The Pagan Traditions
Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been subjected to a multitude of long-standing injustices – such as the taking of ancestral land, abduction of women and children and the destruction of ancient ways of life – as a result of conquest and colonization.
Those who practice the pagan spiritual traditions have a unique perspective concerning this situation, in that some of our ancestors were colonists, while others were colonized Indigenous people. Pagans are particularly aware of the origins of this problem in a policy of religious manifest destiny, a foundation that is often disregarded or ignored today. “Paganism” is a collective term that most aptly defines the Indigenous cultures of pre-Christian Europe: the Celtic and Germanic tribes, the Balts, the Scandinavians, the Basques, the Slavs, and many others. The pagan peoples suffered, at the hands of fellow Europeans who had converted to Christianity, almost all of the same injustices that other Indigenous peoples were later subjected to by their European conquerors. The systematic obliteration of European pagan societies was so extensive, and its history so thoroughly suppressed, that it has become all but invisible despite the fact that some of the Indigenous pagan spiritual traditions have survived into the present.
It is very encouraging that the world – and in particular the interreligious movement – seems to be finally recognizing this problem and attempting to do something about it before it is too late.
Reconciliation begins with awareness – a realization of the many wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples and an understanding of the extent of the consequences those wrongs have in their lives. Awareness is followed by an acknowledgment of responsibility: while the people who originally perpetrated those wrongs are no longer alive, their descendants and inheritors continue to benefit from the deeds of their ancestors, while Indigenous populations still suffer the consequences.
The third and most important step is reparation – we cannot undo the past, but we can certainly change the present and the future. Reparation begins with apology, as the Australian government has commendably done. But an apology by itself has little meaning unless it is followed by a series of concrete and tangible actions to redress injustice. These steps can include the restitution of ancestral lands, or a fairly negotiated compensation for their taking; the restoration of sovereignty and autonomy; the repeal of discriminatory laws; the protection of Indigenous culture, religion and language; and the return of ancestors’ remains and sacred objects.