What do I believe?
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