Wisdom Newsletter | Religious Leaders Find Inspiration

In This Newsletter:
1. End of Year Appeal
2. Religious Geniuses as Sources of Contemporary Inspiration
3. Gregory the Theologian
4. Al-Ghazali
5. Sharing Wisdom

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1. End of Year Appeal

Dear Friends of Elijah,

We are constantly seeking ways of making the exchange across religions more engaged, authentic and true to who we are as religious personalities, meeting across our differences. The resources that Elijah creates are helpful to individuals, communities and organizations, as they deepen their interreligious exchange. The present issue of Wisdom features our work on “Religious Genius”, the study of outstanding individuals, as a new area of exchange across religious traditions. What we have accomplished thus far is only the beginning of the work. As some of you may know, the death of one of our biggest funders has left us even more vulnerable and in need of your support, in order to advance this project. If you have been inspired by the vision of “Religious Genius”, and if you find Elijah’s work of Scholar to Street important, please include Elijah in your end of year contribution. With your contribution we can move forward in making available to communities globally the witness and inspiration of religious luminaries across traditions. With this, we can help make religion and interreligious relations a force for the good in society.

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2. Religious Geniuses as Sources of Contemporary Inspiration

Religious leaders are used to providing guidance and inspiration for their communities but from where do they draw the strength? One of the answers is from lives and teachings of the religious luminaries who have formed and transformed their traditions.

At the recent meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, a number of important discussions took place on the subject of those personalities who have inspired and transformed religions, whose lives were exemplary and whose teachings transcend their historical contexts. Elijah has chosen to discuss their importance under the heading “Religious Genius,” attempting to find a language to give space for each religion to articulate itself without projecting its specificity onto another tradition. Previously used terminology, including “saints” or “gurus,” suffer from their associations with particular traditions and are culturally loaded.

A list of the qualities that define “Religious Genius” has been identified by the scholars from the Elijah Academy.

Three categories of potential religious inspirational figures were identified who might not live up to the category of “genius”. There are living people, whose lives might not be able to be properly evaluated at this time. This category might include one of the subjects of our current studies, Amma. There are religious people whose genius was in the political or social sphere, such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. There are “flawed” geniuses, who had lapses in their personal lives might preclude them from being “religious geniuses” but who nevertheless had an important impact on the followers of the tradition.

One of the observations was that religion is only manifest by the people who live it. Examining the lives and teachings of those individuals who live the religion well and have helped define it, provides the model and standards to which today’s leaders can strive. While not expecting to become Religious Geniuses through studying those who were, today’s religious leaders look to those who have preceded them for the best way of being religious, the best way of modeling religion.

Religious Geniuses connect with the spiritual realm but also provide guidance on earthly matters. Religion today needs to restore its ability to straddle the two realms of the spiritual life and the secular, consumerist world. Today’s religious leaders can learn from the religious geniuses of their own and other religions.

When leaders considered who were the “Geniuses” who had inspired them, they realized that particular qualities, reflecting those identified by scholars (see above), seemed to cut across traditions. One was an excess of humility, compassion and love. Another was their ability to stand up to a hostile environment or antagonism directed towards them or their ideas. Every religious genius that our leaders identified as having inspired them had to deal with a struggle. It was often through the struggle itself that their genius came to the fore or can be identified.

Something that distinguishes the Religious Genius from other brilliant theologians is that they interact with society. Their interaction has been defined by Elijah’s scholars as the “religious genius event,” whereby the individual with special insights into the spiritual realm applies their wisdom to their communities. The communities are transformed through the exposure to the wisdom, energy and special qualities of the genius.

Elijah’s scholars have postulated that we can re-create “Religious Genius Events” when we bring the teaching and life-stories of these outstanding individuals to the current generation. Exposure to Religious Genius still has the power to transform our lives.

We would like to share with you some of the sources we used and some of the points that came up during the discussion, with reference to two religious geniuses.

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3. Gregory the Theologian

There are theologians who devoted themselves to explicating the articles of faith within their particular religious traditions. It might seem that they would not be candidates for providing inspiration to those from other faiths. However, we can be inspired by their religious lives and teachings without adopting all their theological positions. When looking at the poetry of Gregory the Theologian, Christians and non-Christians alike were inspired by his assertion that those who have had profound spiritual experiences need to work out how to allow their access to a higher realm to inform their work in the here-and-now. His emphasis on grappling with real issues allowed leaders to reflect on the fact that little of their daily lives is focused on the spiritual endeavours that may have drawn them to religious leadership in the first place. Indeed, they said, gatherings of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders were glimpses into what might be an ideal religious life – sharing wisdom and praying alongside each other.

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias and Dr. Dimitra Koukoura shared their thoughts on the impact that Gregory has had on Christianity. He contributed to the theology of the Trinity but also helped make Christianity what it is today – a faith that demands from its adherents commitment to helping those most in need. Gregory called on people of his times to care for the leper. Not only was this demanding in terms of resources and the change of attitudes required but it also presented a possible risk to care-givers. Gregory suggested that caring for others might be a higher order priority than caring for oneself.

This observation led Rabbi Richard Marker to compare Gregory’s view with that of the Talmud, which does not require one to give up their own life for the sake of another except in very specific circumstances. This, in turn, led to a vibrant discussion about the limits of personal sacrifice. It is an existential problem for people of all faiths who feel drawn towards self-sacrifice, even to the extent of martyrdom. How can we promote selflessness while keeping in mind the need to protect oneself?

[When the same question was raised by students at Utah Valley University who read the same text from St Gregory, Bishop Frank Griswold reminded everyone that sometimes our acts of generosity are, in reality, acts of self-aggrandizement. He warned us to make sure that our motives were genuinely to help and not to make ourselves feel more “holy” than others.]

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4. Al-Ghazali

One of the most celebrated of the scholar-practitioners who shaped Islam was Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī, (early 12th Century), a renowned scholar of the Shāfi‘ī fiqh (jurisprudence) tradition and the Ash‘arī school of dogmatic theology (kalām). He abandoned his prestigious professorship at the Niẓāmīya college or madrasa in Baghdad in order to live a life of poverty and walk the path of inner purification and experiential knowledge.

One of our Muslim leaders, Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, who works in India and the United States, had just explained to his study circle the significance of al-Ghazali in Islamic history and how he rescued Islam from losing its spiritual centre. Al-Ghazali took many years to struggle with his conviction that Islam as it was practiced in his time did not adequately reflect the richness of the tradition bequeathed by the Prophet Mohammed. His reflections, written as a diagnosis and prescription to cure the ills of contemporary Islam, are preserved as important texts in Islamic theology.

Another leader, Adamou Njoya, from the Cameroon, responded passionately, saying that Islam today needs al-Ghazali. He spoke from his heart about his concern that the very issues that al-Ghazali tackled – a strict interpretation of religious obligations that paid too much attention to legalities and too little to the soul – was plaguing contemporary Islamists.

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5. Sharing Wisdom

Members of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders studied the life and teachings of Gregory the Theologian, a case study in Religious Genius. This extract from one of his orations focuses on the obligation to care for the most needy in society.

Gregory of Nazianzus, known as St. Gregory the Theologian, is one of the greatest of the  4th century Greek Christian Fathers, and was one of the core architects of classical Christian thought on God, the World, and Humanity’s aspiration to the Transcendent. The fifth century church afforded him retrospectively the title of ‘The Theologian’. His influence is monumentally significant for the development of Christian ideas. he lived a personally frugal and celibate lifestyle, advocating that the  single (monastic) life is well suited for someone who wishes to approach divine mysteries in a radical way. He was the chief architect of the classical  doctrine of the Divine Trinity. Gregory was also a prolific and ecstatic poet writing rhapsodically about the life in God. He also wrote extensive philosophical works. His Oration 14 ‘On the Love of the Poor’, is historically a turning point in Greek Letters. It is the first time a philosopher in the classical tradition took the image of the suffering person (the leper) and elevated it as an icon of divine justice and mercy. In this piece he argued that the suffering person is a sign for society, that calls for help as a matter of justice, yet stands as a challenging icon of God’s blessing of the virtue of philanthropic pity. Compassion is elevated as the supreme mimesis of the divine. Before Gregory, the Hellenic sophistical tradition classified extreme suffering as a divinely attributed punishment for hidden sins (which would have been inappropriately addressed by social philanthropic intervention).  Oration 14 is thus a watershed in the history of social thought. It was the birth of Christian schemes of philanthropy, and  Gregory used this Oration to spear-head a major fund-raising project that eventually constructed a large Leprosarium in his Church of Cappadocia.

St Gregory the Theologian – From Oration 14

Love for our fellows is such a good thing. And here we take our example from Jesus who was ready to be called our brother, and even to suffer for our sake. There are many virtues and each is a pathway to salvation… but the love of the poor, compassion and pity for our fellows, is the most excellent of them all, for nothing serves God so faithfully as compassion. All the many wretched around us look towards our hands for help, just as we ourselves look to God; but the most wretched of all are the lepers who have been betrayed even by their own bodies. Who is there even among the most gracious and humane of men who does not habitually show himself hostile and inhumane to the leper ? This is the only case where we forget this is someone who is flesh like us, and must bear the same fragile body we have. We even feel pity when we come across a stinking corpse, and will carry it off for burial. And yet we all run away from a leper: what hardness of heart. Imagine the sorrow that the mother of such a one has to bear? What lamentation will she not raise when she sees her son before her very eyes like a living corpse. ‘O wretched son,’ she will say, ‘Of a tragic mother; stolen away from me by this disease. O pitiful child; son I can no longer recognise. You who must now live among wild animals in deserts and craggy mountains, with only rocks as your shelter; nevermore to see mankind except for the most holy among them…’ With cries such as this she pours out fountains of tears. How have we come to accept inhumanity as fit behaviour for a free society; while we scorn compassion as something to be ashamed of?

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