Why Am I Here?

Thoughts on the Awakened World 2012 Conference

When I made the decision to go to Italy for the Awaken 2012 conference, I knew I already had a commitment to attend and lead another event that conflicted with the first two days of the Awaken event. So it was with some hesitancy that I agreed to attend knowing that I was going arrive two days late, with little sleep in forty eight hours and with all of the stress that is just part of international travel. I remember thinking in the last two hours of the flight, “And why I am doing this?”

Things did not get any easier when I arrived in Rome’s International Airport. I was told that most of the taxi cab drivers did not take credit cards so I needed to get enough cash to pay the fare and that it should cost around 70 Euros. I tried three different ATM machines, using a debit card I had recently used while traveling internationally, but none of them would process the transaction in English. Finally a nice Italian woman, seeing my frustration, used my card to do the transaction in Italian and I now had 80EUs. With my heart pounding away, I was asking, “And why am I here?”

The taxi cab driver was a nice guy and assured me that he knew where the retreat center was or at least knew the area. Well over one hour later, after finally stopping to ask one of the local taxicab drivers where the retreat center was, he finally managed to find this place nestled in the mountains outside of Rome. I was glad to be there but I could only think about how I was going settle with the driver. I let him know that I had been told that it was supposed to be around 70 EUs. And although his meter said 89Eus, he agreed to settle for 70. So when I ran into the center, I was a tired and frustrated and totally out of sync aging man.

Suddenly, I was surrounded by a multitude of wildly different people. With delegates from 15 different countries and too many spiritual traditions to count, I felt like I had been thrown into a kaleidoscope of colors, languages and traditions. As I stood there looking over the more than two hundred people as they emptied out of the auditorium into the lobby where I was standing, I wondered if I was having a lovely dream. I have never been thrust into such a diverse group that also had such a sense of obvious camaraderie. Although I was still not certain why I was there as a representative of ProgressiveChristianity.org, I was slowly becoming very glad I made the decision to come.

I thought I had prepared for this unique event by reading most of the materials that we had been encouraged to read, but admittedly I was clearly a little lost my first day. I was having problems sorting out what we were trying to do and how the actual process was organized. But with a little sleep that night and the help from a few long time friends and a few new ones, I began to understand the system and what we were trying to accomplish. It quickly became obvious that this was an unusually well planned event, although with admittedly lofty goals.

The first difference I noticed was the uniquely egalitarian process that the organizers had attempted to make. While not perfect, I filed the idea way for future reference. There were no keynote speakers and although there were assigned leaders and scribes for our working groups, everyone was given an opportunity to speak. It did seem a little strange in the beginning to be sitting in a small group or sharing a meal, or having a conversation with someone you have only seen or heard from a podium in a large auditorium; or meeting people you have read about, like Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mohandas Gandhi. I suspect that one of the reasons for the apparent egalitarian process was the number of women who participated in both planning and as delegates. There were roughly one and half times as many women as men who attended. I wondered if that was going to be my important take away from this time. Was that why I was here?

The Association of Global New Thought (AGNT), along with International Interreligious Peace Council (IIPC), and the Interreligious Engagement Project (IEP), hosted the conference. The theme was “Engaged Spirituality for the 21st Century.” The intention was: “to call attention to shifting paradigms in our world today- including concern for human rights and the environment – and help facilitate the religious and spiritual healing of the world.” All of the delegates, including me, were aware that we were attending and participating in this event with the same assumption.

One of our early handouts included the following quote from the internationally renowned theologian Ewert Cousins:

If we shift our gaze from the first millennium BCE to the eve of the twenty-first century, we can discern another transformation of consciousness. It is so profound and far-reaching that I call it the Second Axial Period. Like the first it is happening simultaneously around the earth, and like the first it will shape the horizon of consciousness for future centuries. Not surprisingly, too, it will have great significance for world religions, which were constituted in the First Axial Period. However, the new form of consciousness is different from that of the First Axial Period. Then it was individual consciousness, now it is global consciousness.

The organizers shaped the conference based their identification of sixteen observable signs of this dramatic change in religious and spiritual values. These changes were listed as Axial Markers and as delegates we were encouraged to pick one or more of these markers to focus our attention and time during the week that we were there.

As a progressive Christian leader, I had already noticed some of these shifts. And while I agreed with many of the “markers,” I kept wondering if our organization or if the entire Progressive Christian movement could be useful in helping make this transition. I kept wondering if we were too little or too late to be affective midwives in birthing this new consciousness.

Two of the salient events began to shape my thinking. In both Rome early in the week and in Florence our delegation was honored at receptions, organized by both local and national political leaders. Representatives from the Mayors’ offices in both cities and national representatives from their parliament greeted us.

With reporters taking photos and notes, these politicians each gave impassioned talks about the importance of what we were doing. Almost to the person, these men and women talked passionately about the need to return to the spiritual values that seek the higher purpose for everyone. They spoke bravely about the need to erase boundaries as we search together to find and fund a common good for all citizens of the world. They pointed to the need for more than just competition but rather to find ways for cooperation. We were listening to this a couple of weeks before the United States elections. I could not help but wonder what would have happened if one of our presidential candidates had given the same speech.

And a light went off for me.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I joined Jim Adams in the little organization called The Center for Progressive Christianity, I thought I was trying to save the Christian Church. As the years passed, however, it became clearer to me, like the early twentieth century progressives, I was trying to save Christianity. It occurred to me that Walter Rauschenbusch was right when he commented in 1917 that “by striving vainly to keep Christian doctrine unchanged, we shall ensure its abandonment.”

But after this incredible week, I realized that what progressiveChristianity.org ought to be doing is trying to save the world or at the very least becoming partners in the birth of a new spiritual awakening and a new world consciousness of Oneness.

As Barbara Nussbaum points out in her article in this publication, when we gathered on the last day and sang “We are the World” something magical happened. I have seldom felt such a Oneness in the midst of such diversity.

And then I knew why I had gone to Italy for a week. It was a good trip home.

 

Review & Commentary

8 thoughts on “Why Am I Here?

  1. Hi Fred: This article warms my heart. It is so obvious to me that the shift so many of us are sensing is global and involves all religious/spiritual thought. I’m glad to hear of your experience.

  2. Fred, Thank you for your newsletter, for keeping us in the loop. I am so glad you went to the conference in Italy and that you all were honored for what you are doing. We have so much work to do. I am trying to sew my little square of the quilt by leading the adult class at Parker through Living the Questions II. More importantly, our daughter is a Progressive link to our future.

    Parker has joined the reconciling movement of the Methodist Church. Most of us feel that the Methodist Church is moving too slowly. As you know, we are tied to the African Methodists who are very conservative. Our Bishop, who is retiring, encouraged us to join this grassroots movement.
    We have advertised it in every way we can. I am so glad!!

    Have a wonderful Christmas!

    Carol Ballantine

  3. I feel encouraged that persons feel strong enough about a spirituality that makes sense are willing to meet and discuss it.I am hopeful that in time the tide will turn from fundamentalist Christians who are hell bent on seeing to the total destruction of Christianity.

  4. I admit to envy that I was not there too. Thank you for the news letter and please keep adding things you got out of such a diverse group of like minded people.

  5. “The Christian religion is grasping at the straw man that is the God created by ancient men who didn’t know why the wind blew. We don’t live in that world anymore. We need to leave that old creator god behind with all the other myths of those times and envision a new reality that is the connection of all Life, its value and importance, and the connection of Life Itself in all things, that is the true reality of our Universe, of which we are only one tiny part. The story is much bigger than what is told in the Bible, or even what Jesus knew and talked about with his limited understanding.” —-Jim High…

  6. Fred, the way that you share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and reflections is inspiring!!
    Thank you so much for everything you contribute to the conversation – I always love reading what you have to say and feel encouraged to continue the journey. The concept of ‘oneness’ is where it’s at for me.
    I’m so glad you were able to attend such a significant world event!
    Our warmest christmas wishes to you and Deshna and all the family. Diana

  7. I have felt for a long time that we are entering into a post-Christian world. I like the idea that it is being called a new axial age. Thanks for your article! I look forward to more.

or, use the form below to post a comment or a review!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>