What do I be­lieve?

The Witness - Wheels - - INSIGHT - ALLEYN DIESEL • Ref­er­ence: Alleyn Diesel and Pa­trick Maxwell: (Univer­sity of Na­tal Press, 1993).

ECAUSE I fre­quently write and talk about re­li­gion, I am of­ten asked, but, what do you be­lieve in? Of­ten fol­lowed by: well, if you’re not a Chris­tian, are you a Hindu? The sim­ple an­swer is, no.

But the real­ity is far more com­plex, in­volv­ing a long, wind­ing path.

Where did the in­ter­est start? Where am I now?

As a pupil at GHS in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg in the late fifties, I was rest­less, al­ways ask­ing awk­ward ques­tions, and a pain to the teach­ers. What I liked best was to go to the li­brary to find amaz­ing books on as­tron­omy, phi­los­o­phy, the­ol­ogy and won­der­ful things never men­tioned in the class­room.

Some­how, I passed ma­tric and went to Na­tal Univer­sity where for the first time I could choose what I re­ally wanted to study: the­ol­ogy, bib­li­cal stud­ies, English lit­er­a­ture, art his­tory. I worked hard, and for the first time in my life did quite well. I went to pub­lic lec­tures and Film So­ci­ety, eagerly soak­ing up this new ex­cit­ing world of ideas.

For some time, a group of us Chris­tians went to a dif­fer­ent church each Sun­day evening, to ex­pe­ri­ence how var­i­ous Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions wor­shipped, and had long dis­cus­sions about this.

Hav­ing taught for a few years, I em­barked on what was then called “di­vin­ity” hon­ours, and later did a masters and then a doc­tor­ate in what had be­come known as re­li­gious stud­ies, and grad­u­ally re­alised I could no longer iden­tify fully with the Chris­tian faith. Later, for some years I taught re­li­gion at the univer­sity, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the most ex­cit­ingly chal­leng­ing years of my ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. I be­came pas­sion­ate about study­ing other re­li­gious tra­di­tions, also ex­am­in­ing the place of women in re­li­gion. With a col­league, I em­barked on ex­plor­ing the Hindu tra­di­tion, so close on our doorstep in Mar­itzburg,

Many Sun­days were spent vis­it­ing a group of Hindu tem­ples in a par­tic­u­lar area — Dur­ban, up the North Coast, down the South Coast, en­coun­ter­ing some won­der­ful ex­am­ples of tem­ple ar­chi­tec­ture, at­tend­ing nu­mer­ous fes­ti­vals, meet­ing many de­light­fully friendly devo­tees eager to dis­cuss their be­liefs and prac­tices. We learnt more about this re­li­gious tra­di­tion, very dif­fer­ent from what we had been brought up in, than we could have from books, and re­alised that here was an­other chal­leng­ing world view which, in­ter­est­ingly, had many as­pects in com­mon with what we knew, but of­fered al­ter­na­tive per­spec­tives on fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory, pro­vid­ing stim­u­lat­ing new di­rec­tions.

We put into prac­tice the tenets of the con­tem­po­rary study of re­li­gion: to at­tempt to view all re­li­gious tra­di­tions as far as pos­si­ble from the point of view of be­liev­ers. Put one­self in an­other’s shoes, be re­spect­ful and em­pa­thetic to their be­liefs and prac­tices, with­hold­ing any judg­ment as to the truth of what is claimed.

This in­tro­duced an ex­cit­ing new phase in my un­der­stand­ing of the mean­ing of the uni­ver­sal re­li­gious quest.

Two vis­its to In­dia, one in­clud­ing a con­fer­ence on di­as­pora Hin­duism in Delhi, and later an­other on In­dian re­li­gion in Ox­ford, of­fered new con­tacts, new ar­eas of re­search.

So, back to what do I be­lieve? Ask­ing, what do you be­lieve in, sug­gests that if you say, I be­lieve in this doc­trine or that re­li­gion, you are, ef­fec­tively, say­ing there­fore I don’t be­lieve in any­thing else, ex­clud­ing other tra­di­tions, fail­ing to recog­nise that each has much of value.

I like to con­trast “spir­i­tu­al­ity” and “re­li­gion”, sep­a­rat­ing spir­i­tu­al­ity from the more rigidly dog­matic stances of tra­di­tional re­li­gion. Although I don’t iden­tify with any par­tic­u­lar world re­li­gious tra­di­tion, I am pas­sion­ately in­ter­ested in the pow­er­ful in­flu­ence re­li­gion has for good and ill in to­day’s world. In the light of this, I be­lieve that re­li­gion, at its best, has the power to in­spire hu­man­ity to build a bet­ter world.

But to achieve this, a clear dis­tinc­tion has to be ac­knowl­edged be­tween what pro­motes the well­be­ing of all life, hu­man and non-hu­man, and what has harm­ful con­se­quences.

It alarms me that too much con­tem­po­rary re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity re­veals a lust for power, ma­te­rial wealth, ex­ploita­tion of the weak, pro­mot­ing fear of the Other, lead­ing to in­tol­er­ance, ex­clu­sive­ness and di­vi­sive­ness.

Surely, au­then­tic re­li­gion should of­fer guid­ance for spir­i­tual good­ness — lift­ing the spirit be­yond ma­te­rial de­sires, pro­mot­ing uni­ver­sal well­be­ing, cul­ti­vat­ing al­tru­ism, com­pas­sion, heal­ing for the suf­fer­ing?

It seems clear that in­tol­er­ant, rigid le­gal­ism and pa­tri­ar­chal au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, oc­cur­ring in var­i­ous faiths world­wide, tend to em­body fea­tures in­im­i­cal to the flour­ish­ing of life, while the ben­e­fi­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics of re­li­gion — a plu­ral­is­tic ap­proach of tol­er­ance, flex­i­bil­ity, in­clu­siv­ity — are of­ten most ev­i­dent in all the mys­ti­cal tra­di­tions. The essence of mys­ti­cism is the fo­cus on love, recog­nis­ing the spir­i­tual di­men­sion in­fus­ing all things, tran­scend­ing na­tion­al­ity, race, gen­der and re­li­gious ad­her­ence. Many mys­tics re­joice in poetry, mu­sic and vis­ual art to cel­e­brate their sense of won­der at the es­sen­tial in­ter-con­nec­tive­ness of all ex­is­tence, a sense of cos­mic con­scious­ness evok­ing a pas­sion­ate en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and rev­er­ence for this unique planet, part of a vast, in­ef­fa­ble uni­verse.

This is what mo­ti­vates my writ­ing. Hin­duism in Na­tal — A brief guide

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