Archive for June 9th, 2008

Interfaith not dead

Posted on June 9, 2008. Filed under: Culture, Health, Philosophy, Spirituality |

I had the most delightful and emotionally satisfying experience recently. I attended a meeting at our local community group of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). This organization, among other things, hosts monthly speakers on the topics of “Science and Consciousness.” For me, at least, these two items encompass just about everything I’m interested in, one way or another.

I enjoy learning about science because I enjoy it, not because I find its methods conclusive. Sometimes it does contribute to my sense of rightness about my chosen course: “See, I told you! I was right all along! Scientists have discovered a spot on the 3rd chromosome of the 16th strand of DNA which explains why I’m grumpy in the morning! It’s not my bad attitude, it’s my genes!” …Of course, I tend to ignore the scientific results that do not support my justifications for my own behavior. But, hey, I do that with religion, too, so at least I’m consistent.

This brings me to the topic of consciousness, which doesn’t necessary include religion, but can. I’m very happy to study religion as long as I’m able to be immersed in at least three of them at once. Otherwise it’s particularism, and I don’t like to get sidetracked in that way. Keeping a more universalist perspective allows me to include religious study within the broader field of the study of consciousness. My personal definition of consciousness is: “anything that asks a question.”

So, you can see why I like IONS. The presentation for this particular meeting was entitled “An Interfaith Panel representing Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Protestant faiths – ‘The End of Life and Beyond: An Interfaith Perspective'”. Obviously this particular topic leaned further towards the “consciousness” area than the “scientific”, although there were some surprisingly scientific dimensions to the discussion.

IONS decided to invite this panel after the IONS group coordinator heard a similar panel discussion at a Hospice event. Before I write further about the panel, just let me put in a plug for Hospice. Everyone associated in any way with this movement is to be commended, in my opinion. Hospice, is, basically, near-death care, including physical, social, and spiritual components. I could do an entire post about Hospice and my experiences with it, and perhaps I will. I’ll just say here that they are committed to honoring those who may be about to die, and that includes helping them sort out their spiritual beliefs during this critical time.

The panel was made of of people the Hospice director knows personally, and who, in most cases, work with the hospice patients as spiritual counselors. There are certainly other traditions which could have been included; for instance there are many Hindus and Sikhs in my area; but the meeting would have gone on for hours and hours if every perspective one could think of was represented. As it was, these panelists presented a wonderful, diverse, and yet complementary and respectful discussion about end of life and afterlife issues.

Each panelist gave a brief explanation of their tradition’s perspective on what happens after the body dies, and then followed with their own particular spiritual beliefs. It was surprising that there were often discrepancies, or slight alterations, between the personal beliefs and the mainstream religion’s “party line”, if you will. It seemed to me that everyone must personalize their religious beliefs (or lack of them) to some extent; we are all individuals, after all. The most surprising thing to me was that every one of the panelists stated that we cannot know for sure exactly what happens to “us” after we die. I’d thought that, with at least a couple of these religious philosophies, there were cut-and-dried, prescribed beliefs. And it could be that these five individuals don’t really represent the main teachings of their faiths. Even so, the responses ran from “We leave the details up to God”, to “There is beauty, and comfort, in the not-knowing.” As individuals, all said they believed that there is a part of “us” that does continue to exist. Whether it is “us” as personality, or “us” as soul, or “us” as a minute particle in the stream of consciousness remains to be seen.

I know in the scientific/consciousness community there is a continuing debate about “where consciousness resides”. Is it strictly a neurally-generated process, which shuts down upon our physical death, or does some part of our thought exist independently of our physical cells, both before and after physical incarnation? The panel at the IONS meeting certainly came to no conclusions about that. I came away with this perspective: These five people, at least, were able to treat each other with respect and appreciation for each others’ views. They weren’t just “tolerant”, they were actively, joyfully curious about each other and the larger World. Would that such dialogue exist amongst us all.

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