A Different Kind of Optimism

Column by Rev. Lauren Van Ham on 30 June 2022 0 Comments

Recently, I was in consultation with a colleague who is First Nation Cree. Throughout the conversation, there was a steady stream of confidence, curiosity, and hope.  Really smiling at one point, my colleague said, “I’m an eternal optimist who comes from a history of despair.”

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Is it possible that religion has less to do with what’s true and more to do with where and when you were born?


Dear Reader,

Everything that is, as it is, as it arises at this moment, is what I call Reality. With each moment, Reality arises completely anew.

On a macro scale, we can say that Reality is refracted by each culture. This means that each culture, constituted by the shared meanings and values (such as religion, art, etc.) of its people, sees Reality from a certain perspective. This cultural perspective is quite complex, being enriched by social systems (such as education, politics, science, communication, etc.) and unique persons. Each person emerges as an enculturated being, with their genetic disposition formed by their culture and its myriad systems.

Truth is a claim both individuals and cultures make about their experience of Reality. A religion is one cultural force that helps a given group and its members make sense of their experience of Reality within the context of their culture. An Indian Hindu might interpret her spiritual experience as a vision of Krishna; a Roman Catholic in Mexico might interpret a similar experience as a vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a Zen Buddhist might interpret it as a vision of Avalokiteshvara.

Each spiritual experience is a personal perception refracted through the religious-cultural lens of our formation as a human being. To the degree that an experience discloses Reality as it is, it speaks or embodies truth – in this instance the dimension of Reality might be the strength of love. Where religion becomes lost is when exclusive claims are made about a culturally embedded experience of Reality. Each perspective embodies truth and is partial.

Where we are born is where our personal journey begins but not where it ends nor even where our most formative experiences might occur. Religion does have to do with where and when we are born. Religion has to do with what and how we learn, and how curious and open we are. Buddha, Jesus, Marguerite Porete, Rumi, Julian of Norwich: each of these teachers was greatly shaped by their time and place of birth, but none of them was completely determined by them. Their curious hearts led them to question the assumptions of their cultures and to see with new eyes what was possible for the human being. So it is with each of us.

~ Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.




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