February 17, 2012

Faith and the Future

John Shields

John Shields


Gertrude's Restaurant at Baltimore Museum of Art

I had a sense of foreboding as I approached my assignment to blog about the Faith and the Future session, the fifth in the Baltimore Food and Faith Project’s Enoughness series. This is a tricky subject for me. Like millions of people worldwide, I struggle with my personal thoughts, beliefs, and disbeliefs, about how our spiritual perspectives shape the future of our world, or of the realm to come. Not only what might happen to us at the end our mortal lives, but even how the end of civilization might come about. Perhaps as the musical group REM’s song decries, “[it’s] the end of the world as we know it.”

In this session, Christopher Leighton (executive director, ICJS) proposes the thought that religions throughout time have viewed this process of faith and the future as a realm somewhat outside of our control. It is a worldview based on the power of imagination. It seems to me that religions and indigenous spiritualities—both monotheistic and polytheistic—have for thousands of years imagined the narratives of how we—as people of particular civilizations and communities—have cosmically been created and of how life and the world began. These foundations of our worldview of civilization and the Earth effectively define the afterlife, the netherworld, the end of times. Through the imagination of storytellers, religions were basically just trying to make sense of it all.

As for myself, I’m still trying to make sense of it all. And it is sense that needs to be made. In this session, George Fisher (Professor Emeritus, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University ) spoke to the realities of the condition of the Earth—our collective ecological footprint, and the components of that ecological footprint. And as we all know the picture is not pretty. Numerous spiritual traditions have taught that we must tend and care for the Earth. And while those traditions and practices entirely make sense for the common good, we have for the most part ignored them. “And the land became desolate and no one took notice.”  If you want to hear how we as a people would, (remember he’s a prophet) and have, messed up, check out Isaiah 24:4. (Read translations here.) He gave his people hell.

But this is a sentiment heard throughout times from most religions and spiritualities. In the Tao Te Ching we hear:

In harmony with the Tao,
The sky is clear and spacious,
The earth is solid and full,
All creatures flourish together,
Content with the way they are,
Endlessly repeating themselves,
Endlessly renewed.
When man interferes with the Tao,
The sky becomes filthy,
The earth becomes depleted,
The equilibrium crumbles,
Creatures become extinct.

I think, while to the point, it is a kinder, gentler, and poetic, if you will, end of times vision.

We were asked to discuss at our tables our own thoughts on the “end of the story,” our fate and the hereafter. Will we pull it together from our noble spiritual traditions or will we ignore the missive, “If the land does not flourish, the people do not flourish?” My table got a bit off the “hereafter” track, and we spent our time discussing our thoughts on whether or not the good in people, and the “greening” movements to restore the Earth, be enough to turn around the seemingly, looming ecological disaster ahead.

Have our religions and spiritual communities failed us, or have we failed them? I believe that the direction in which we proceed from this point will determine our heavens and our hells. Much seems prophetic, but often by our actions, or inactions, we fulfill our own prophecies.

Perhaps we will be instilled with more hope and more soothing thoughts on the afterlife at the conclusion of next week’s field trip. I’d advise not spending too much time looking at the landfill.

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