Further reflection

I was reflecting on the last post, Repositories for weirdness and I realised that it probably seems out of context. What has my spiritual preferences got to do with aid and developement work?

The connection is, that it seems to me that development work is inherently spiritual, as well as inherently many other things: political, conflictual, economic. But while those aspects are often acknowledged and debated, the spirituality of development isn’t. Yet in almost every development setting I have worked in, the people believe in something. They are openly, orthodoxly spiritual – they are not plant-lovers, or tree huggers or discovering their inner adult (not that there is anything wrong with that. More people should discover their inner adult).

Most of the developing world are worlds of faith and belief. Non-belief and un-belief are largely Western, privileged-life orientations. Indeed, there is no word for atheism in many of the languages of the poorer world; faith of some sort is assumed. And again, unlike the West, daily life is embedded in spirituality. Faith in a God or gods or something seeps through every aspect of living. Even if if you don’t share it, you can’t ignore it. Half of the time its the Prophet’s birthday, death day, Ramazan, Diwali, New Year, Old Year, Eid, Muhurram, Passover, Yom Kippur. I don’t know a tenth of the holy holidays that occupy the ‘normal’ working year. Then there is daily namaaz, pooja, penitance and worship. Faith and life are indistinguishable.

So what happens then when the worlds collide? My spiritual world and the spiritual world of the people with whom I am working? Generally what happens is predictable. One set of spiritual paradigms are assumed to be superior. Most Christian evangelicals take that line and for that reason are disrespected and disliked by the secular aid community (and often by the national people as well – No one likes it to be suggested that their faith is second rate and superannuated. And what’s more, the attitude of evangelicals – of any type – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, whatever can quickly move from sympathetic, to persuasive, to assertive, to aggressive to arrogant – I have been evangelised by Muslim charismatics before, and it was not fun). 

 Or what happens is the local peoples’ life view is considered irrelevent. Only when it reaches extremes (ie, Taliban versions of Islam) is it considered fair to question it. Even then,  it can take the horrors of the collapse of the Twin Towers and the death of a couple of thousand Americans, before such radicalism is unacceptable. A few thousand Afghans killed in the name of Taliban purity was never a problem before 9/11…).

But maybe there is a third way, that is a little more progressive and gently provocative. Is there a way that we can sit together and start by not having to reconcile all our different views about God? At least, not in the first day, or month. Or even the first year. Can we sit with the tension of unknowing? Maybe if we stay long enough in this place of discomfort and irresolution, we might actually arrive at some deeper truths about the nature of God and justice and love and life. We might begin to see where the shared values are and then might begin to build some common understandings. We could even challenge one another’s prejudices and inconsistencies. We might begin to ask why it is that we don’t take the uncomfortable teachings of our God or gods more seriously – those annoying teachings about including the ugly, the poor, the difficult, the unlovely, the teachings about self-sacrifice or mercy, the injunctions to seek the good of others.

As one of my gurus says, ‘The truth is in the struggle’.

Anyway, enough spiritual barking at cars. Coming soon: Ghulam Hazrat and Qorban the big-handed. 

an old man of Kabul 


3 thoughts on “Further reflection

  1. Your third way reminds me of the passage from the Journal of John Woolman, the 18th century itinerant Quaker minister, in which he determined to visit the Native Americans (referred to as “merciless Indian savages” in our glorious Declaration of Independence), that he “might receive some instruction from them.”

    Excerpt from Chapt. 8:

    ” Twelfth of sixth month being the first of the week and rainy day, we continued in our tent, and I was led to think on the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them; and as it pleased the Lord to make way for my going at a time when the troubles of war were increasing [the War of Independence was brewing], and when, by reason of much wet weather, travelling was more difficult than usual at that season, I looked upon is as a more favorable opportunity to season my mind, and to bring me into a nearer sympathy with them. As mine eye was to the great Father of Mercies, humbly desiring to learn his will concerning me, I was made quiet and content.”

    Oh, that Love could always be our “first motion!”

    In the Light.

  2. Yes, the Quakers do seem to model this form of thoughtful and non-coercive engagement far better than most. For those who call them selves followers of the Christian faith, it does seem though that the primary injuction to love gets left behind, or at least layered over with conditionalism, a religio-political agenda, or reinterpreted through a kind of violent dualism – and yet love is meant to be its defining characteristic. I’m not sure what the defining characteristic of other major faiths might be – God’s majesty and justice in Islam, perhaps? God’s unity and soverignty in Judaism. The diversity and omnipresence of God in Hinduism. Non-believers probably consider tolerance and non-judgement their defining characteristic.
    Or maybe it is wrong to ascribe ‘defining characteristics’ to faiths. Maybe that’s part of the problem – we define ourselves in contrast to others and thus begins the battle…

  3. Well said, I totally agree. I’ve had my fair share of run ins with prozletysers Hindu, Muslim and Christian… and atheist/humanist too actually. The moment people are convinced that they are more ‘right’ than everyone else, and this somehow privileges them in the moral stakes, is when people start rationalising the suffering of others or trivialising the human condition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s