Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Pagan Response to the Parliament

by Andras Corban Arthen

Every Parliament of the World's Religions focuses on a collection of particular themes chosen for their relevance to the interfaith movement or to the world at large. A great many other topics are broached during the course of the event, to be sure, but Parliament presenters and attendees are encouraged to weave as many of the key themes as possible into their presentations and dialogues.

The overall focus of the 2009 Parliament was "Make a World of Difference: Hearing each Other, Healing the Earth," but this broad purpose was given a sharper definition through the following seven key themes:

  • Healing the Earth with Care and Concern
  • Reconciling with the Indigenous Peoples
  • Overcoming Poverty in an Unequal World
  • Providing Food and Water for All People
  • Building Peace in the Pursuit of Justice
  • Creating Social Cohesion in Village and City
  • Sharing Wisdom in the Search for Inner Peace

As explained in the Parliament's literature, "These sub-themes have emerged from the dialogues of previous Parliaments and continue to resonate as urgent matters to address in this time and place by the largest interreligious gathering in the world. Throughout the Parliament week, hundreds of programs will explore these critical issues through the lenses of richly diverse religious and spiritual perspectives. So what do the Bahá’ís tell us about social cohesion? How do Christians and Muslims view their responsibility to humanity’s most vulnerable? Can Confucianism guide our approach to peacebuilding in the modern world?"

As an aid in framing the exploration of these topics, the Parliament, together with the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (the same Sikh organization that provided the daily langar --- a free, vegetarian meal --- at the Barcelona event in 2004) organized two special displays at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre. One, located on the second floor of the Convention Centre, was entitled "Sacred Sites, Sacred Solidarity" and addressed the growing destruction of holy places around the world as a result of globalization, political and sectarian violence, and " the impact of urban, industrial and recreational development." The other one, on "Teachings of the Traditions," was situated inside the Exhibition Hall, amidst the dozens of booths which provided information about some of the various organizations (among them EarthSpirit) represented at the Parliament. Its aim was to highlight --- using the seven sub-themes as a context --- "the relevancy of religious perspectives on contemporary issues, as well as the successful efforts of spiritual communities to address these pressing concerns at local and global levels."

Prior to the Parliament, several people involved in the interfaith movement were asked to submit text and photographs which addressed the focus of each of the exhibits from their personal point of view, as informed by their respective spiritual traditions. For the exhibit on imperiled sacred sites, for instance, a Christian Orthodox representative warned about the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (built over the grotto in which Jesus supposedly was born), endangered by the imminent collapse of its roof due to the inability of its caretaking organizations to agree on how to proceed. A Diné woman wrote about Dook’o’osliid (otherwise known as the San Francisco Peaks, in Arizona), sacred not only to the Navajo but also to twelve other tribes, threatened with desecration and destruction by plans of the U.S. Forest Service and a private developer to expand the recreational resources of the Snow Bowl Ski Resort, located among the peaks. A Sikh described the impaired state of the Nankana Sahib Gurudwara, the birthplace of Guru Nanak in Pakistan, as a result of restrictions and prohibitions placed upon Sikhs by the Pakistani government, and of travel limitations due to border conflicts between India and Pakistan.

For the Teachings of the Traditions exhibit, a Bahá'í wrote on "Creating Social Cohesion between Village and City;" a Confucian discussed his tradition's approach toward "Building Peace in the Pursuit of Justice;" a Hindu told of Vedic hymns in praise of natural forces in addressing "Healing the Earth with Care and Concern;" a member of Shimji Shumeikai described their founder's development of Natural Agriculture as a spiritual practice in the context of "Providing Food and Water for All People."

I was asked to write about an endangered sacred site of particular concern to pagans, and to offer a pagan perspective on two themes, "Reconciling with Indigenous Peoples," and "Sharing Wisdom in the Search for Inner Peace." I was also asked to provide a selection of photographs relating to the three topics that I was writing about, so that the organizers of the exhibits could pick the most appropriate. Below are my responses to the three topics, as well as the chosen photographs:


The Hill of Tara, known in Irish as Teamhair na Rí (“The Hill of Kings”), is one of the most ancient and sacred sites in all of Ireland. Located in County Meath, approximately 50 km from Dublin, Tara appears to have been used as a religious centre starting some 6,000 years ago. Ceremonial structures on the hill include the Lia Fáil (“Stone of Destiny” ) – a phallic-shaped menhir that served as the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland – and the Dumha na nGiall (“Mound of the Hostages”), a Mesolithic passage grave built around 3000 BCE.

For the Indigenous pagan peoples of Ireland, the Land was their true sovereign, and the role of the sacred king was to act in the Land’s stead and manifest her sovereignty. After a series of trials to prove himself, he would become one with the Land through a ritual wedding, enabling him to rule. It was upon the Hill of Tara that this sacred marriage and subsequent coronation would be held, underscoring its position as the seat of spiritual and temporal power in Ireland. It continues to be regarded and used as a sacred site by many thousands of people today, including adherents of the Indigenous pagan religion of Ireland.

Despite its considerable spiritual, historical and archaeological importance, the Hill of Tara and the ancient underground structures surrounding it are currently endangered by the Irish government’s decision to build a major motorway less than a mile from the summit.

The Hill of Tara has been placed on the endangered sites lists of the World Monuments Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, and Sacred Sites International. An official application has also been filed with UNESCO to have Tara designated as one of its World Heritage Sites, but the Irish government has been withholding its prerequisite endorsement of the nomination until the motorway is completed.

To learn more about the current situation at the Hill of Tara and ways to stand in solidarity, please visit orr


There are many diverse ways in which spirituality manifests in the pagan traditions, but underlying all of them is a fundamental sense of experiencing the Sacred, the Great Mystery, through communion with the natural world. For pagans, Nature is our spiritual matrix, the means through which we may most directly connect with the Great Mystery that permeates every facet of our existence and surpasses the many identities, labels and theologies through which humans have attempted to represent it.

Nature is the most immediate and tangible manifestation of the Great Mystery. Like the Sacred, it contains us, but also transcends us. In cultivating a spiritual relationship with the natural world, we quickly come to realize that we are part of something much greater than ourselves, something so much more complex and far-reaching than we can begin to understand. We are as much a part of Nature as a tree, as a mountain, as a stream, as a meadowlark, as fire. Our sustenance, our very survival, depend upon it – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the wood and stone we use for shelter.

Through spiritual communion with the natural world, we experience ourselves as enmeshed in a vast, living web of interdependent relationships, where we are part of everything, and everything is part of us. This leads us to an understanding that all our actions matter, that all our actions have consequences which affect everything else. It also instills in us a sense of perspective, of proportion – that the universe does not exist exclusively for the benefit of us humans, that the rest of the natural world deserves our respect and consideration.

Pagan communion with Nature brings us face-to-face with the Sacred in all its mystery and power, and can induce in us a mystical experience of profound inner peace, in which we merge with the Sacred and are nurtured and formed by it.


Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been subjected to a multitude of long-standing injustices – such as the taking of ancestral land, abduction of women and children and the destruction of ancient ways of life – as a result of conquest and colonization.

Those who practice the pagan spiritual traditions have a unique perspective concerning this situation, in that some of our ancestors were colonists, while others were colonized Indigenous people. Pagans are particularly aware of the origins of this problem in a policy of religious manifest destiny, a foundation that is often disregarded or ignored today. “Paganism” is a collective term that most aptly defines the Indigenous cultures of pre-Christian Europe: the Celtic and Germanic tribes, the Balts, the Scandinavians, the Basques, the Slavs, and many others. The pagan peoples suffered, at the hands of fellow Europeans who had converted to Christianity, almost all of the same injustices that other Indigenous peoples were later subjected to by their European conquerors. The systematic obliteration of European pagan societies was so extensive, and its history so thoroughly suppressed, that it has become all but invisible despite the fact that some of the Indigenous pagan spiritual traditions have survived into the present.

It is very encouraging that the world – and in particular the interreligious movement – seems to be finally recognizing this problem and attempting to do something about it before it is too late.

Reconciliation begins with awareness – a realization of the many wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples and an understanding of the extent of the consequences those wrongs have in their lives. Awareness is followed by an acknowledgment of responsibility: while the people who originally perpetrated those wrongs are no longer alive, their descendants and inheritors continue to benefit from the deeds of their ancestors, while Indigenous populations still suffer the consequences.

The third and most important step is reparation – we cannot undo the past, but we can certainly change the present and the future. Reparation begins with apology, as the Australian government has commendably done. But an apology by itself has little meaning unless it is followed by a series of concrete and tangible actions to redress injustice. These steps can include the restitution of ancestral lands, or a fairly negotiated compensation for their taking; the restoration of sovereignty and autonomy; the repeal of discriminatory laws; the protection of Indigenous culture, religion and language; and the return of ancestors’ remains and sacred objects.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Letting Our Voices Be Heard

by Andras Corban Arthen

In the U.S., we are mostly used to hearing the word “parliament” in reference to governmental, legislative bodies, such as the British or Australian Parliaments. This at times leads to misunderstandings regarding the function of the Parliament of the World’s Religions --- some people seem to think it is a decision-making religious coalition, or an international body that arbitrates and settles disputes among the various religions, or a “congress” of faiths to which representatives must somehow be elected or appointed by their spiritual communities in order to participate in it.

The PWR is none of those things; it is, rather, an open forum, a vehicle for dialogue, drawing both its name and its focus from the original sense of the term “parliament,” the French parler, “to talk.” The Parliament’s goal is to bring together people from as many spiritual traditions as are willing to participate and, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and openness, discuss not only specifically religious issues, beliefs and practices, but also the perspectives of the various religions on how to address some of the major social problems facing us today.

The topics can range from the ordination of women into the priesthood, to the ethics of proselytism, how various religions view same-sex marriage, the best approaches to religious education, the eradication of poverty and racism, the protection of civil rights for minority religions, spiritual perspectives on the environment, the development of a gender-inclusive religious language, the plight of indigenous peoples, religion and reproductive rights, the creation of effective interfaith ceremonies, the waning role of religion in society, reclaiming a sense of the Sacred in an increasingly materialistic world, the elimination of religious violence and prejudice, etc.

These and many other topics are addressed through a wide range of modalities, including observances and ceremonies, lectures, intra- and inter-religious panel discussions, films, exhibits, demonstrations, and artistic performances. The ultimate aim of the discussions is not mere talk, of course, but rather, to turn all that talk into specific action that can have a positive effect in the world.

The fact that pagans and other minority religions have been included in these dialogues since the very first modern Parliament is a testament to the organization's willingness to include all points of view. In our community, the question is often raised --- generally with concern or mistrust --- as to "how could anyone possibly state the pagan point of view" on any of the many discussion topics, given the lack of centralized structure, homogeneity, or designated authority figures in the pagan movement.

The answer is quite simple and (one would hope) reassuring: no one does, because no one can --- there simply isn't such a thing as the pagan perspective on any issue. But, on the other hand, any one of us can offer a pagan perspective, a point of view shaped and informed by our own experiences of pagan spirituality. In fact, this is really not that different from what the majority of other religions do: at the Parliament, one seldom hears anyone professing to speak with complete authority on behalf of a particular religion. In the rare cases when such a thing happens, there will inevitably be dissenting voices from other members of that religion challenging the validity of a monolithic view.

By reaching deep within the richness of our spiritual traditions to articulate thoughtful and cohesive pagan perspectives, and by letting our voices be heard clearly on forums such as the Parliament, we can contribute something of value to the ongoing worldwide interreligious conversation and help to make some positive changes in the world.

In my next post, I will share three concrete examples in which I was asked to offer a pagan point of view on some of the key discussion topics of the Melbourne Parliament.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti needs relief

As we know, we are deeply connected to all beings and the fortunes or misfortunes of one affects us all.

The current disaster in Haiti is beyond comprehension - hundreds of thousands homeless, injured, orphaned or dead. An entire crowded and already destitute city destroyed. In our warm homes here, for which we are so grateful, we can all reach out now with compassion and generosity, sending practical help along with our energy and prayers to the many victims of this disaster.

I encourage everyone reading this to take just a few moments to open your hearts to the Haitian people and then to take action. Even a small contribution will join with others to make a difference.

You can do your own research, but I found a couple of easy ways to donate quickly with your cell phone:

Yele Haiti: donate $5 by texting “Yele” to 501501, which will automatically donate $5 to the Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund (it will be charged to your cell phone bill).

American Red Cross: Send a $10 Donation by Texting ‘Haiti’ to 90999.

You can find out how to do more through some of the many agencies working to get aid to Haiti at:

sent with love,

Deirdre Arthen

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Gods in Quarantine

by Andras Corban Arthen

Wande Abimbola is from Nigeria. He has been a professor of African cultures, religions and languages at several universities in his homeland, as well as in the U.S. He has also served as majority leader in the Nigerian Senate, and as a special advisor to his country’s president. In 1981, a council of respected babalawos from various parts of West Africa chose him as the Awise Awo Agbaye --- the official world spokesman for the more than 30 million practitioners of the traditional Yoruba religion. In other words, he’s quite a big deal.

I had met Abimbola a couple of years ago at the World Interreligious Encounter in Monterrey, México, where we both spoke. I was struck by his presence, his quiet dignity, and his obviously vast knowledge and experience of the Yoruban traditions. When the Parliament convened a task force to select international speakers for the Indigenous program track in Melbourne, Kusumita Pedersen (my colleague on both the task force and the Board of Trustees, who had also met Abimbola previously) and I immediately and enthusiastically nominated him as a representative of the African traditions, and impressed upon the other task force members, who were not familiar with him, how important it would be for us to bring him to Melbourne. Abimbola subsequently was named one of the Parliament’s major speakers.

On the day before the event was to start, two members of the Task Force went out to the airport to meet the Abimbola family’s plane and bring them to their hotel. They waited and waited, as other passengers from that flight gradually came through the Customs doors and made their way out of the terminal. Eventually, the arriving travelers trickled to a stop, with no sign of the Abimbolas. The greeters called the Parliament’s headquarters to see if there had been any message or other news about the missing guests; no one knew anything, so they were advised to wait a little longer and to try to find someone from the airline who might shed some light on the situation.

Finally, the metal doors of the Customs area parted one more time, and Wande Abimbola, his American-born wife Ifaboyede, and their eight-month-old son made their way into the terminal, looking troubled and dismayed.

“They have taken our deities away,” they informed their greeters.

The Abimbolas were scheduled to offer several presentations on the spiritual traditions of the Yoruba, and they were bringing with them several objects which manifested particular orisas, the ancestral spirits whose veneration is central to Yoruban religion. The objects are not considered to be mere symbolic representations, but extensions and abodes of the orisas themselves --- sacred emanations of sacred beings, to be treated with honor and respect. But this was obviously irrelevant to the Australian Customs agents in Melbourne, who unceremoniously confiscated the objects.

We had been warned that Australia has very restrictive and harsh policies regarding what may and may not be brought into the country, and even between one state and another. This is understandable, as many foreign species of animals and plants have been recklessly introduced into this land over the years, often with disastrous results. Rabbits and red foxes, brought over by European colonists in the 1800s for the purpose of “sports hunting” have become notorious pests throughout the countryside. The poisonous cane toad, introduced in the 1930s in an effort to eradicate the agriculturally-hazardous cane beetle, has proven to be far more of a liability than a blessing, eating just about anything in its path (except, it seems, cane beetles) and bringing a considerable number of other animals to the brink of extinction. Feral cats, descended from escaped or abandoned domestic animals, have become such a threat to other species that they are routinely poisoned, trapped or shot, and their pelts (heads included) are frequently sold as souvenirs at roadside stands along the Outback. Perhaps as a result of such disastrous and embarrassing examples, some local friends theorize, the Australian government has overcompensated with a vengeance to ensure that no invasive species of any sort will enter the country.

The Parliament had gone to great lengths to make sure that all our invited Indigenous speakers were clearly aware of the Australian restrictions, and also engaged early on in negotiations and conversations with the federal government and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) to let them know that we were bringing a number of international Indigenous spiritual leaders, many of whom would be transporting sacred objects. All of the Indigenous speakers received official letters of introduction from the Parliament specifically identifying them to customs and quarantine agents, and AQIS officials assured us that there was a special dispensation in their regulations which addressed the question of Indigenous dignitaries visiting Australia.

But this was of no help to the Abimbolas, whose deities had been impounded by government agents who apparently did not know or did not care about the negotiations and understandings that had been in place for months. After some amount of dickering, the Melbourne AQIS agents decided that one of the sacred objects could be allowed into the country, but only if it was first irradiated. The Abimbolas consulted the orisa involved, who had to be propitiated with an offering of gin before he would agree to the procedure. The other sacred images, they were told, would need to be irradiated much more thoroughly, at a cost of several hundred dollars; until the fee was paid and the irradiation completed, the gods would be kept in quarantine.

Needless to say, this news upset me greatly, as it did Kusumita Pedersen. It was not, admittedly, a blatant case of racism, or of cultural or religious discrimination --- there were far too many official regulations and protocols in place to provide a legal justification behind which such prejudices could safely hide --- but it certainly felt like it. One is hard-pressed to imagine, for instance, that a white Roman Catholic bishop bringing the relic of a saint to Australia would have been subjected to a similar ignominy. Later on, this sentiment was supported by comments from Australian friends and some local Parliament staffers regarding the intense racism present among some segments of Australian society not only toward the Aboriginal peoples of this country, but specifically also against African immigrants and visitors.

Kusumita and I, as the Abimbolas’ initial sponsors, felt a certain responsibility about this situation, so we attempted to do whatever we could to resolve it. We spoke with the Abimbolas, who told us they had already filled out the necessary form to retrieve their sacred objects, and had handed it to another member of the Indigenous Task Force; all that remained, apparently, was for someone to take the form to the airport with the required fee and rescue the quarantined deities. Kusumita and I offered to pay the fee out of our own pockets if necessary, and arrange to borrow a car to get them to Customs and back.

Then, we found out that the Task Force member who had the form had given it to someone else, who in turn gave it to another. We wound up spending two days trying to track down the paperwork and find a suitable time to get the thing done in the midst of the madhouse of conflicting schedules that is the Parliament. The next time I caught up with the Abimbolas, some three days into the event, it was evident that they had resigned themselves to carry on their programs without their captive orisas. They did so with grace and professionalism, and their style of shared presentations while taking turns caring for their young son provided an inspiring model of family collaboration.

I am happy to report that the Abimbolas were able to retrieve their orisas on their way out of the country without further incident. For me, though, this episode continues to ring a sour note in what was mostly a very harmonious event. It’s very easy, when attending a function such as the Parliament, to get so wrapped up in the beauty and idealism present all around us that we can forget some of the harsh realities that lie in wait just beyond these walls. The quarantined gods of the Yoruba were, this time, a constant reminder of the arrogance, the prejudice and the fear that continue to cause so much conflict among nations and cultures, and a reminder as well of how much we need to continue to talk, and teach, and learn from one another, as we do in the Parliament of the World’s Religions.