Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Abandoning development (and religion)

Three fascinating days at Wilton Park discussing religion, change and development with a diverse, engaging, and thoughtful group (and Wilton Park is a truly hospitable place).

Much of the discussion was highly valuable in thinking through how 'secular' development agencies can effectively engage with faith based organizations and religious groups to promote meaningful change.

However, it occurred to me that both the framing words: religion and development are problematic.

First, development and as I pointed out when was the last time you asked a person, a community or a country whether they had developed recently? The focus ought to be on realities that people can recognise: their own flourishing, well-being and their living in a state and place where justice obtains.

Second, religion and as Martin Buber celebrated it was not a word that existed in his own Jewish tradition. Religion is not itself a reality to which we should tend. It can only describe a matrix that enables (or disables) our achievement of human flourishing and real justice and it as often divides us away from a realization of what one of our speaker's called our 'transcendent humanism' than it enables us to celebrate it.

Both too have a tendency towards 'instrumentality' (and as Buber recognised necessary as this is: an I-It relationship to the world), it needs to be framed by a valuing of the world in and for itself - and that much of what we most remember and value in our lives 'in development' is when we witness/participate in moments that reflect people's intrinsic value, 'just so-ness'!

I recalled a time when I went with a women's group in Colombia with their children to the sea (on a nerve wrackingly rickety bus). They were 'blowing' all their group's savings (and no doubt could have spent it more 'sensibly') but to see the children dance into a sea that none (including their parents) had ever seen, the culmination of the expedition, was to participate in joy.

If (as St Irenaeus says) the glory of God is most truly present when a human being is fully alive, then those women and children on the beach were truly God's glory and in God's glory the need for both development and religion fall away (at least for the time the aliveness lasts).

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