Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Blood Foundation's religious tourism trivializes religious differences

Let's go Sufi now,
Everybody's learnin' how,
Come on and safari with me...

(to the tune of Surfin' Safari--with apologies to the Beach Boys)

According to secular journalist Gwynne Dyer's column of July 4, 2011:

Gandhi, born a Hindu, once said: “I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Most people will never achieve such enlightenment (or spout such pious tripe, if you are of a less reverent turn of mind). But such thinking certainly creates an opening for innovative programmes like “Muslim for a Month.”

No, really. There is an organisation that invites people of other religions or none to come to Istanbul and live as Muslims for a month. Well, not a month, exactly: the 9-day “Explorations” programme costs $900 and the 21-day “Ruminations” programme costs $1890.

“We like to think that “Muslim for a Month” facilitates more understanding of a religion which gets a lot of bad press,” explained Ben Bowler, who lives in Thailand and runs similar “religious immersion tours” in Buddhism for the same organisation. “There’s a huge difference in the public perception of Buddhism, for example, and Islam – Islam is thorny, while Buddhism is warm and fuzzy.”

People who think Buddhism is warm and fuzzy would probably benefit from Bowler’s “Monk for a Month” programme in Thailand. People who think that Islam is a religion of hatred and terrorism would likewise benefit from the “Muslim for a Month” programme. Indeed, if all that’s going on here is a simple download of information and perspective, you could argue that every religion should be doing it.

Much of the human race lives in places where two or more major religions co-exist – Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India; Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews in South Africa. Not to mention countries where up to half the population are non-believers (like Britain and Korea). A crash course in your neighbours’ religious beliefs ought to be part of the school curriculum. In some places, it already is.

But there is still something disturbing about the very idea of religious tourism. Immersing yourself in the prayers and rituals of a religion EVEN THOUGH YOU THINK ITS GOD IS FALSE smacks of condescension at best, blasphemy at worst. And although a sense of politeness prevents most people from saying it loudly in public, religious people generally believe that the gods of all religions but their own are indeed false.

Non-believers go even further. As Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading advocate of atheism, once put it: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that people have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” Fine. That’s a perfectly respectable position to hold. But if that’s what you think, then pretending to pray to Allah as a “cultural experience” is downright disrespectful.

The people who are organising “Muslim for a Month” have the best of intentions. The Blood Foundation is a Thailand-based enterprise whose goal is “to promote the ideal of the sister/brotherhood of all humanity. We operate cultural exchange programs that build bridges of understanding between diverse peoples through the means of shared, authentic experience.”

According to the Blood Foundation, the “Muslim for a Month” programme aims “to foster a spirit of good will and increased mutual understanding between Muslims and the west. It is not the purpose of the program to bring converts to the Islamic faith but rather to strive towards a greater sense of unity among people.”

I believe that that is truly their goal. I also very much like the Sufi tradition of Islam, one of the most attractive forms of religious expression that I have ever encountered, and it is the Sufis who are providing the facilities and the teachers for the “Muslim for a Month” programme in Turkey. But it still doesn’t feel right.

Here’s the thing. Almost all of the “modern” religions that have arisen in the past 2,500 years (and Judaism, which is much older) have sacred texts that are held by the believers to be divinely revealed truth. They are not negotiable or mutually compatible, like the old pagan beliefs were. To believe in any of the modern gods requires the faithful to reject all the others as false.

If Muslim beliefs are right, then Christian beliefs are wrong, and vice versa. If the Sikhs are right, then the Baha’i are wrong, and vice versa. If the Buddhists are right, then the Jews are wrong, and so on ad nauseam.

Why stop there? If the Mormons are right, then all the other Christians are horribly, catastrophically wrong. If any of the other Christian sects (or any of the non-Christian faiths) is right, then Mormon beliefs are downright ridiculous. If the Shia are right, then the Sunnis are wrong, and vice versa. So in a world where something like 90 percent of the population is still religious (though much less in the developed countries), what is one to do?

We minimise conflict by simply not talking about the huge, irreconcilable differences in our religious convictions. (The non-religious play the same game: they rarely challenge the beliefs of the believers either.) It’s not an attractive behaviour, and it doesn’t always avert conflict, but most of the time it works. On most of the planet, we are no longer at each other’s throats about religion.

The world does not need “Muslim (or Sikh, or Christian) for a Month.” Let sleeping dogs lie.

Here's what the Blood Foundation says about itself:

About Blood Foundation

Blood Foundation is a small NGO based in northern Thailand near the Thai-Burma border. We are a group of volunteers from different nations committed to serving the various people of this region through a series of education, health and income-generation projects...

What we Believe

We believe in a universal spiritual heritage shared by all people which we hold to be the foundation of the human family. As with any family this carries an obligation and duty of care towards the less fortunate members. We believe there is much of value in all our great spiritual and philosophic traditions and we encourage the ongoing search for the Universal in human experience. We celebrate the diversity of our cultures and marvel at the absolute uniqueness of each individual and still we see that the greater truth is that which unites us, - our common humanity, the mystery of our origin, the search for meaning and the love of family.

What we Advocate

We advocate that alongside the globalisation of markets, economies and world culture we must strive for the globalisation of justice, fairness and ideals based on the expansion of our philosophic frameworks and the enlargement of our religious perspectives. While we are bound to each other through shared biology, economics and environment we also share a simple human desire for peace, prosperity and purpose. Blood Foundation advocates for greater expression of this unity as we join with the people of good faith everywhere in calling for respect of human dignity, freedom from oppression and justice for the poor. We proclaim that as human beings we are in fact spiritually related to one another and so promote the high ethical ideals that come with being members of a common family. We are inclined to look after our own immediate family because we place such a high value on blood relations, - the idea is to make the circle bigger. It's a high ideal but we believe it's worth striving for and we invite you to join with us in making it real.

What we Do

Currently working on the Thai-Burmese border in northern Thailand, we have a number of education and income-generation projects directly benefiting Burmese refugees, hill tribes and Thai people. These humanitarian efforts are supported by commercial projects that remain in line with our overall philosophy such as Monk for a Month and Flow.

From the Monk for a Month home page:

Monk for a Month offers you an authentic Thai Buddhist
experience and a journey of a lifetime.

Live at the temple
Study with the monks
Follow the ancient precepts
Practice meditation and chanting

Men and women are invited to formally receive the eight precepts and for men staying two weeks or longer there is the chance to be ordained as a novice monk at the discretion of your preceptor.

And from the Muslim for a Month home page:

Muslim for a Month is a Blood Foundation cultural exchange program run in partnership with Islamic scholars and peace activists in Istanbul Turkey.

Blood Foundation is a social enterprise and NGO dedicated to promoting positive intercultural experiences.

We operate the successful Monk for a Month temple stay program in northern Thailand’s Fang Valley, offering guests an immersion experience into Buddhism and Thai culture as well as a unique opportunity for personal spiritual progression.

In a similar vein the Muslim for a Month program offers an inner experience of the Islamic faith with the focus being on the Sufi path and the universal spiritual teachings of Mevlana Rumi.

The word ‘month’ in the name of these programs is used with poetic license – typical length of stay is 10 days

We are launching Muslim for a Month by offering the 10 day program and the ability for group bookings. The 10 day program consists of a broad introduction to Islam, Sufism, Rumi, and Turkish culture and a deep exploration of Sufi mysticism and a more thorough immersion into the life and works of Rumi.

I generally agree with Mr. Dyer's position, although I take a less benign view of the Blood Foundation's sincerity, especially with the prices they charge for their programs. The Blood Foundation programs have the effect of trivializing religious beliefs, practices--and differences. Adopting religious beliefs and practices is not a matter of taking on the trappings for the duration of a workshop. When I was drawn to trust in Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord, I didn't do so "for a month," but for the rest of my life and into eternity.

As for the Blood Foundation's beliefs in "a universal spiritual heritage shared by all people" and "that as human beings we are in fact spiritually related to one another," the only such commonality taught in the Bible is a unity in sin, the need for a saviour, and God's provision of salvation through the shedding of the blood of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross:

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:6

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Romans 3:23

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. John 1:29

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Acts 4:12

Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.
And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
Acts 17:29-31
Let's pray that those involved with the Blood Foundation will come to know the salvation that comes only through the blood of the Lamb.

I expect the Blood Foundation's programs to become increasingly popular and to expand to embrace other religions. The emphases on mysticism and experience are the very sort of thing to appeal to the Emerging Church crowd. It will come as no surprise to this blogger to see promotion of the Blood Foundation programs from those involved with Emerging "Christianity."

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