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.