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October, 2006

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Seeking alternatives to secularism, fundamentalism
by Harvey Shepherd

I first heard of the Dawson College shootings of September 13 when I walked into the press room at the Congress of the World’s Religions after September 11 at Montreal’s Palais des Congrès.
I was at the conference as a freelance reporter and later asked for comment. The president of the conference, Arvind Sharma, professor of comparative religion at McGill University, referred implicitly to the shooter’s connection with the goth subculture, suggesting that this incident, like suicide bombings, was related to “an urge in human beings to connect with something ultimate and absolute.”
It is as problematic to try to ignore human religiosity, he suggested, as to deny human sexuality.
For me, this fit in with what emerged as one of the key themes of the conference, which attracted close to 2,000 people from many countries.
This was the need for a religious alternative to forces that seem deadlocked in sterile and tragic confrontation: rampant secularism and religious fundamentalism.
For US feminist scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether, feminist theology, drawing on ancient shamanistic traditions, offers a way out of this “false dichotomy.”
US-Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr offered “orthodox” theology in the various religious traditions as an alternative to secularism and fundamentalism, both products of the modern world. He said the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York five years ago actually weakened the voice of fundamentalism in the Muslim world, although events like recent clashes in the Middle East have had the opposite effect.
Other speakers also looked for ways of transcending polarization, in one way or another. Shirin Ebadi, the courageous Nobel-prize-winning Iranian lawyer, spoke out against human-rights abuses in the Muslim world, but also against Western countries that use these as a pretext for military adventures and curtailing dissent at home.
Mohammed Ali Abtahi, a former vice-president of Iran who now heads an institute for interreligious dialogue in that country, said military confrontation, the media and exploitation of the media by fundamentalists have let the “rude voice of fundamentalism” overshadow the voice of religious dialogue. But religious texts themselves have always provided grounds for opening doors to religious dialogue. He still hopes the age of communication can become an age of dialogue.
For Rabbi David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Community for Interreligious Consultations, it is essential that the psychological-spiritual dimension be involved in attempts to resolve economic, political and territorial conflicts. But religion can also “be exploited to become the demonizing force.”
“If we don’t want religion to be part of the problem, it must be part of the solution,” Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland, said.
Is all this remote from saluting the 20th anniversary of The Senior Times and reminiscing about its past? Not altogether.
In my own relatively recent involvement with the Times as a freelance reporter, mostly between the fall of 2004 and last spring, some of my favourite stories touched on attempts to find balance between a robust concern with this world and some sort of focus on the transcendent.
For example, I particularly appreciated my contacts with the Creative Social Centre. Housed in the Chevra Kadisha synagogue in Snowdon, it is in important ways a secular centre that offers enriching artistic and cultural activities to all comers. Yet, it is infused with Jewish tradition.
Helen Knight, founding co-ordinator, is inspired by the vision of the late US writer Abraham Maslow, who saw human needs as a hierarchy, with basic physical needs, like air, water and food, at the bottom and “self-actualizing needs,” the need to fulfil one’s self, at the top.
I interviewed Marilyn Bronstein, whose many activities range from teaching computer science at Champlain College in St. Lambert to active participation in the Havurah Har Kodesh, a spiritual community that reaches out to Jews who feel they do not fit into traditional synagogues.
May the Times continue to highlight attempts to strive for balance between the secular and the transcendent in its next 20 years!

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