The 2012 Charter Dialogues
A call to action in a time of turbulence and opportunity

By Diane Williams

The Dalai Lama has said that one of the most hopeful things about humankind is that our global awareness – our awareness of others beyond our families, friends, neighbors and communities – is growing. He believes this increased caring is the key to improving the world for everyone. It is this ultimate goal – creating a world that works for everyone – that is bringing together spiritual and religious leaders from around the world to Rome and Florence, Italy, in October 2012. The Dalai Lama is a member of the International Interreligious Peace Council (IIPC), which, along with the Association of Global New Thought (AGNT) and the Interreligious Engagement Project (IEP), will be hosting the 2012 Charter Dialogues.

The purpose of the Charter Dialogues is an ambitious one: to call attention to shifting paradigms in our world today- including concern for human rights and the environment - and help facilitate the religious and spiritual healing of the world. Men and women representing many of the world’s wisdom traditions will meet to explore the evolution of religion and spirituality in the 21st century. The Dialogues will model the harmony of the world’s great religious and spiritual communities – their common ground and the differences that give them unique identities.

IIPC member Sallie King is a professor of philosophy and religion and former president of the Society for Buddhist and Christian Studies. King asks, “Why has the world done so poorly in achieving the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations? These are goals that the world has the resources and ability to achieve – concrete goals in the areas of ending poverty and hunger, sustaining the environment, improving child and maternal health and others. The reasons that we are not meeting these goals are not economic or technical – they are moral and spiritual; we lack the will to make these goals real priorities. Why is this? This is a moral and spiritual question. The religions could help greatly with the motivation and determination to achieve these goals, if they so choose.”

Religion and spirituality have critical roles to play in helping to shift paradigms, says Dr. Kathy Hearn, Community Spiritual Leader for Centers for Spiritual Living and a member of the AGNT Leadership Council. “They give us abiding principles to stand in that are not subject to all of the upheaval and changes going on. I liken religion and spirituality to standing in the center of the wheel at the hub, which is unchanging when all around the edges everything is changing.”

 

Global awareness as a key to transformation

Developing global awareness will be one of the themes that will be discussed during the Dialogues. Paul Knitter, a professor of theology, world religions and culture and IIPC member, defines global awareness this way: “Global awareness is the growing realization that all of us sentient beings are, really and truly, in the same boat - a boat that is presently navigating perilous waters. Unless we work together, we will sink together.” IIPC Project Coordinator Jim Kenney, a leader in the global movement for interreligious and intercultural understanding, says that global awareness is grounded in a deep understanding of the interdependence of all existence. “Global awareness is the key to global citizenship, cherishing the complexities of our responsibilities to one another, to all cultures, and to all planetary life.” Knitter agrees, adding, “In their attempts to meet the global challenges facing humankind today - challenges of a possible collapse of the eco-sphere, of recurring violence due to the unequal distribution of power and of the goods of this earth - human beings, again and again, find themselves at the end of their resources. Spirituality can assure them that there are other resources to draw on.”

Living our life with a sense of global awareness can be a sacrament to God says Roman Catholic author, activist and IIPC member Sister Joan D. Chittister. “There are two ways to do anything: We can do it in order to make life ‘better for me’ or we can do it in order to make life better for someone else as well as for me. The first way gets the thing done. The second way gets the thing done and makes life a sacrament, a sign of the love of God, at the same time.”

Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder and spiritual director of Agape International Spiritual Center in Los Angeles, California, and president of AGNT is passionate about the Charter Dialogues and what can emerge from them. “The reason that gatherings like these Dialogues are so essential is that, unless we stop long enough to have the authentic conversation, there is no opportunity for a more enlightened paradigm to shift the context for our collective thought and behavior. Facing the critical issues of these times requires that conversations be encouraged among people reflecting great diversity and insight so that a new paradigm can emerge. A truly new paradigm sets a context for evolved patterns of acting and being. . . . World change comes through a network of synergistic conversations that deal with the essence of human desire and creativity. Changed minds lead to changing choices, especially when those leading the conversation are loved and respected by many different cultures of people who honor their spiritual guidance and expertise and find them trustworthy.”

This desire for diversity articulated by Beckwith is reflected in the list of invitees for the Dialogues. Invitees include the Dalai Lama; Deepak Chopra, Vandana Shiva of India, famed author and environmental activist; Bro. David Steindl-Rast, OSB, of USA and Austria, contemplative and author; Thom Hartman, social justice and transformation author and radio and TV host; Jennie Joe, a Navajo and professor at University of Arizona; Pir Zia Inayat Khan, president of Sufi Order International, and authors Lynne Twist and William Ury. Other invitees include Vatican officials, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Jains and Baha’is. Countries and regions represented include the U.S., Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Mexico. AGNT representatives on the list of invitees include Michael Bernard Beckwith, Dr. Carol Carnes of the Calgary Center for Spiritual Living Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell of The Unity Center, Rev. Argentina Glasgow of Mind of God Ministries, Rev. Mary Omwake, a Unity minister, Dr. Roger Teel, of MileHi Church of Religious Science, Dr. Kathy Hearn, Community Spiritual Leader of Centers for Spiritual Living and Tom Zender, president emeritus of Unity.

 

Honoring our unique beliefs

A key part of The Dialogues will be discussion on how to move into global awareness while honoring unique spiritual and religious beliefs. Dr. Barbara Fields, executive director of AGNT, says “Our unique spiritual and religious beliefs are among the most critical raw materials of global society; without this rich diversity, civilization as we know it would not exist. Our challenge is to celebrate the miracle of multiplicity while practicing new demonstrations of how our distinctive belief systems can complement one another in sustaining the human experience of the sacred, rather than perpetuating conflict and competition for one prevailing belief system over and above another.”

IIPC Chair Dr. Joseph Elder, a sociology professor and author, noted that while many boundaries (national, economic, political, ethnic, gender, etc.) exacerbate the global challenges we face, religion and spirituality provide channels for dialogues transcending those boundaries.

Issues of authority, pluralism (the possibility that more than one tradition can be fully valid and transformative), gender equity, religion and nonviolence, and religion and the planetary future will be among the key themes, Kenney believes. “The fact that such issues are even now opening up to discussion in almost every global religious community is itself a huge evolutionary change.” Where many in the world see conflict, Kenney sees an opportunity to transcend our boundaries through global awareness. “The religious and/or spiritual dimensions of human life and culture embody our self-reflection and our most profound engagement with one another. The greatest challenges of our time must be faced by a global community – in unprecedented harmony. That is the challenge facing every religious/spiritual community on Earth.”

Fields adds, “Religious and spiritual belief systems shape worldviews that, in turn, determine cultural norms. A powerful argument for genuine cultural evolution is that prevailing human values, assumptions and behaviors are moving us steadily toward a planet-wide values shift, with profound implications for religion, spirituality and personal development. Emerging are ways in which our wisdom traditions can interface with the world’s critical issues, gradually allowing us to discard outmoded interpretations of ‘religious isolationism’ and the destructive patterns it has sometimes unleashed.”

 

Transforming vision to action

Bringing together representatives of various wisdom traditions to discuss how to transcend our boundaries is only one part of the vision for The Dialogues. The Dialogues are designed to help participants move from vision to action and understand that local action is an essential component of global consciousness. The Charter Dialogues Proposal states, “Vision without action is a fantasy; action without vision is chaos.”

Two-hundred people will be invited as members of an Action Group, which will make up the audience for the Dialogues. The Action Group will participate in sessions and take part in training/working sessions to help to shape action plans for local and regional programs in their own communities and areas of expertise. This feature of The Dialogues, moving from talk to action, is one of the most exciting for Dr. Hearn. She says, “There is such a deep yearning within people to act and make a difference in this world. I know when we look at the world and put our heads and our hearts and our principles together we can take transformative actions that lead to our spiritual evolution.”

It is expected that the work of the Dialogues will be carried forth in communities around the world by “evolutionary activists” whom Kenney describes as “enlightening beings,” people who, “believe in and are committed to cultural evolution; the shift in dominant human values toward a closer fit with reality. They work to nurture that change in self, others, society and institutions.” Dr. Fields adds, “For activism to be evolutionary, it must proceed through intentional practices of inner wisdom, personal transformation, community-building, interfaith, intercultural and interdisciplinary understanding, strategic nonviolence education and compassionate service that embraces the whole human family.”

The Charter Dialogues will be, in part, a continuation of a legacy AGNT has already initiated. With His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, as a key participant, AGNT convened The Synthesis Dialogues I, II and III, a series of intercultural, interdisciplinary gatherings among a select group of global religious and secular leaders exploring new models for social healing. The Synthesis Dialogues were inaugurated in Dharamsala, India, in 1999, at the Norbulingka Institute. Synthesis II was held in 2001 near Trent, in northeastern Italy. AGNT convened the third Synthesis Dialogues in 2004 at Castelgandolfo in the Roman Hills, at the Pope’s summer residence.

 

The dawning of the evolutionary age

Turning talk to action that will shape a kinder, gentler world is one way that the organizers hope to help usher in what is being called, “The Evolutionary Age.” For Dr. Hearn, that means coming to a full realization of Oneness – the unity of all life – not just as a concept but as a living reality. “The promise of the Evolutionary Age is that we realize that there is no separation and we are all in this together. The natural disasters are throwing us together and our hearts are cracking open in a way they never have before and it’s part of the process. We are seeing diminishing returns around war, violence and conflict. People are realizing these things are not going to get us where we want to go. We have to move toward cooperation and collaboration. I like to say that war is an idea whose time passed a long time ago.”

IIPC member Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, an Anglican Vicar and longtime interfaith advocate, describes the experience of Oneness this way: “The mystical experience of Oneness with all life creates a sense of compassion for all living beings and creates the spiritual bond between people in all their variety, which is essential in a world which travel, communications and the global economy have made physically one.”

That we are in a unique period of transformation in human history cannot be denied, and while some see only conflict and confusion, others see this as an opportunity to transcend our boundaries and take transformative action leading to spiritual and religious healing of the world. That is the goal of The 2012 Charter Dialogues.