Diversity: The Challenge of the Spiritual Dimension

August 9, 2017

(Note: The two concept papers, Diversity and Spirituality, and Diversity: The Challenge of the Spiritual Dimension, helped frame the issues that led in 1995 to the birth of the Diversity and Spirituality Network (DSN), an emergent community that explores the diversity and spirituality nexus.)

The Challenge of the Spiritual Dimension
Zachary G. Green, Ph.D.
The Alexander Institute

Diversity Training: The Now of It
In recent years there has been a rich rush to receive “diversity training” of some form or another. Public and private agencies have purchased training and consultation packages to learn how to be more sensitive to that different “other.” The need for such efforts stems from the reality that the workforce is changing. Population demographics dictate that Americans learn to work together in the face of, and perhaps despite of, their differences if the country is to remain competitive in an increasingly interdependent global economy. Most of what is termed diversity training gives focus to the most fundamental differences. Gender communications workshops, sexual harassment prevention seminars, racial bias forums, and sexual orientation panels are typical products that are offered to help people learn something about those who are different. In many instances, a member of such groups speaks about his or her experiences so that those of “privilege”can be passively educated about what not to do to offend some group or another. Often in the final analysis, what is taught is mish-mash of politically correct language and tips to demonstrate a degree of tolerance. The internal experience seldom shifts in any fundamental manner, primarily because issues of power and the feelings associated with a shift in that power are seldom directly addressed. In this light, diversity training becomes a tool to sustain the status quo, despite the obvious need to make a difference.

As people scurry to receive their certificates to illustrate their competence in managing the multicultural world, the basic question that remains present for each person to ponder is “Who am I.” Diversity training gives focus to the other fundamental question, “Who are you.” This focus, on the other, while necessary, also serves to block some individuals from recognizing themselves in relationship to another. Most importantly, there is little attention paid in many diversity training models for means that allow individuals to recognize elements that link them one to another. Intermingled in the questions of `who am I’ and `who are you’ may be one that by it’s nature precedes—“How did we get here in the first place.” Each person, for the self and in terms of the other, grapples with the basic question of existence. Coupled with this question is that of nonexistence. Regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, ethnicity, or nationality, everyone faces these existential questions. One could argue that fundamental to human consciousness is the question of what we understand about how we have come to be. Quite often the answer is in how people know themselves to be. Ultimately, beyond place of birth and beneath color skin is the identity we share as spiritual beings.

Religious Rhetoric and Spiritual Practice

We can see evidence throughout history that differences in religious practice have been the source of centuries of conflict. When a person comes to know who they are, central to this identity is a belief system about the unseen and unknown. While conflict arises when one is not recognized by another, this conflict is exacerbated when there is no common ground with regards to beliefs. Religion is the name given to these beliefs and religion is used to justify carnage and violence in the name of some being greater than ourselves. The name of God, in
all of its forms, is invoked as a way to understand the conflict, actually an internal,
psychological one, about existence. Indeed, if others exist who believe that we exist for another purpose, then my/our belief about existence may be wrong. If they are defeated, then my “God” is more powerful and I/we are correct. Left out of this process is the terror with which people attempt to deny their concerns about “What happens after I am gone.” Religion, while often related to spirituality, is but one expression of and one direction of this inquiry. In a spiritual journey, one seeks to come to terms with existence in an ineffable fashion that transcends the conventions of religion. The important consideration in terms of diversity is that religions provide routes to the spiritual awakening and enlightenment. The religions provide these routes because of their commonalties: the fact the routes ultimately provide a similar outcome in the spiritual search: a closer relationship with God, the universe, the All.

The Need for a New Paradigm

The unfortunate reality is that nations and peoples have been at war in the name of religion for millennia. The reality of linkage in the spiritual realm does not stop people from fighting about the fundamentals of religious practice. The wars continue because the alternating need to dominate and to remember atrocity at the hands of some other faith lingers. No paradigm exists that allows people to recognize and respect differences in spiritual practice primarily because each religion claims to hold the reins of spiritual legacy, and often, life in the life hereafter. Any new paradigm that creates a climate for communication amid
diversity must begin with the focus on the “here and now” of spiritual experience.The place of connection stems from the seeds of sharing something of the sacred held by us all. Given the closeness to the soul each may hold their religious practice, the learning comes in the observing rather than the converting of those who are different and those who seek the spiritual in and unfamiliar fashion. Empathy is created in this process when others are able to hear the stories and defer the critique. In doing so the atmosphere for a collective experience of the spiritual emerges. Those who enter such a process run the risk of developing a sort of intimacy that transcends the temporal or the sensual. Such an experience, by all rights, could and most likely will, create a regression into the familiar of fundamental faith practices. The distancing in such diversity creates the safety needed so as to preserve the paradigm of viewing the world through a religious rather than spiritual perspective. More important, the regression preserves the power that each faith practice sustains from controlling
its corner of the world. The new paradigm must begin with two or more gathering together with their beliefs and ability to tolerate the ambiguity of another valid view of the spiritual. An invitation to enter the practices of the other and to share that which comes to be known becomes the new shared reality. Such a process moves beyond faith; it cherishes the difference to create a new whole. 

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