Quest for a sacred presence [1]

[ Thu. Jan. 17. 2008 ]

IN a couple of days, Obama mania will reach new heights.

The US President-elect will gaze across to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and deliver his inaugural speech, grandly titled the New Birth of Freedom.

The speech will certainly contain multiple references to change and hope for a better world.

It will undoubtedly be an event of monumental historical significance - nothing can match a US presidential inauguration for star-studded razzmatazz and fulsome displays of faith. But will anything really change?

Possibly. The cynics may disagree, but Barak Obama seems capable of inspiring the world right now. He reaches out to something deep seated in human nature - the need to believe, hope and love.

Obama's job won't be easy. In the words of writer Ron Rolheiser, we are a culture rich in everything except clarity.

We are drowning in information, discoveries, competing ideologies and values and personal options. Our psyches and souls are shaped by the explosion of technology and information that renders almost everything we learn almost immediately obsolete. Nothing seems permanent.

Anyone who watches Oprah or Jerry Springer knows the culture - long on openness, but short on trust.

We are a world suffering allergies. About a third of us are allergic to cat fur, peanuts, dust mites, seafood, selected chemicals or something else. There's a lot to fear.

The Edge, a website that regularly poses big questions, recently asked a select group of thinkers: What will change everything?

The scientists, philosophers and writers came up with some interesting answers.

Some argued that everything would change with the invention of cheap and powerful artificial intelligence that would improve itself.

Others opted for advances in molecular technology, discovery of intelligent life elsewhere, an end to war and human misery, mastering death, accidental nuclear war, a web-powered revolution, the breakdown of all computers and the invention of a laptop quantum computer.

A playwright suggested nothing needed to happen to bring about change; real changes, he said, had always happened, and always would.

Actor Alan Alda said: "I find it hard to believe that anything will change everything. The only exception might be if we suddenly learned how to live with one another. But, does anyone think that will come about in a foreseeable lifetime?

"Even if we were visited by weird little people from another planet and were forced to band together, I doubt if it would be long before we'd find ways to break into factions again, identifying those among us who are not quite people."

American author and philosopher Sam Keen believes real change comes when we thoughtfully question our existence.

Keen calls himself a recovering Presbyterian and a trustful agnostic. He wears a question mark rather than a cross around his neck.

He believes the path of spirituality is not the path of religion. Religion begins with the answers, but spirituality begins with the questions.

In his view, you never arrive at the end of this journey. Human life is a journey whose end is not in sight.

Keen says to maintain our sanity in today's world, we all need a spiritual bulldust detector.

"In a world of cults, gurus, and self-help programs, we need to be mindful of how accepted beliefs often get in the way of true understanding," he says. As he sees it, real wisdom is born of "epistemological humility" of bewilderment in the face of life's enduring mysteries.

Keen recognises a worldwide longing for answers that cannot be satisfied by traditional religion. And the statistics seem to confirm his view.

Church attendances are down, but spiritual searchers - those who want something more than paying lip service to God or attending a church on the weekend - are increasing.

"The spiritual craving of our time is triggered by the perennial human need to connect with something that transcends the fragile self, to surrender to something bigger and more lasting than our brief moment in history," he writes in his book Hymns to an Unknown God.

"Spirituality is in," he writes. "Millions who have become disillusioned with a secular view of life, but are unmoved by established religion in any of its institutional forms, are setting out on a quest for something - some missing value, some absent purpose, some new meaning, some presence of the sacred."