Last week I had the great pleasure of attending the ISEP (INSEAD Social Enterprise Program) international conference and alumni reunion in Jakarta and Bali in Indonesia. The event brings together prominent social entrepreneurs from around the world to share and connect with each while learning about the latest innovations and academic developments in the relatively new and volatile field of social enterprise. Great work is being done and solutions are being wrought out in the fields of poverty alleviation, environmental protection, intercultural cohesion and a host of other neglected areas. Rubbing shoulders with such remarkable people on the beaches of Bali, it's hard not to feel upbeat about the future. In fact the entire experience has left me feeling that the next big revolution could well be spiritual.
The theme of the conference was "Social Economy 4.0", a reference to the influential book Capitalism 4.0 by British Economist Anatole Kaletsky. Using Kaletsy's model of the developing stages in capitalism over the last 100 years, Hans Wahl, ISEP's director, has made a series of parallels to social enterprise and the social sector at large. In Wahl's model, the Social Economy 4.0 aims to achieve greater innovation, increasing integration of institutions, higher degrees of collaboration and a shifting of social responsibility towards greater balance between the public and private sector.
Many of my ISEP colleagues have achieved significant impact in their fields. Sadaffe Abid helped to build a micro-finance organisation that has provided life-changing financial services to over 300,000 rural poor in Pakistan. Eduardo Ipe runs an organisation that works to prevent environmental degradation and to support indigenous communities in Brazil by offering innovative agriculture, biodiversity and training projects. Michael Goedeke's training programs in Germany offer thousands of disadvantaged youth a pathway from an uncertain future to apprenticeships, skills and jobs.
Such pioneering individuals and their enterprising solutions are certainly inspiring and leave me wondering - where are the corresponding developments in religion and spirituality? There's certainly no shortage of issues requiring solutions in the space, from rising fundamentalism and sectarian violence on one hand to high levels of disregard for religion and spirituality on the other. Where are the problem solvers, the spiritual entrepreneurs, where indeed is the innovation in Theology?
I ask this knowing that many well-intentioned religious folk will be quick to protest; firing back that God (or Truth, depending on their persuasion) is timeless, eternal and rigidly unchanging. Religious orthodoxy denounces any suggestion that theology can be done better, in terms ranging from foolish heresy to dangerous blasphemy. Of course, when folks insist that theology is perfect and beyond upgrading, they are invariably talking about their theology. Usually, they're referring specifically to their current personal views and beliefs, not including their own views of yesteryear and not open to how they may see things tomorrow.
God may well be unchanging but human ideas about him certainly aren't.
We live in an era of rapid scientific and technological advancement that is driving an increasingly integrated and interconnected world community. We are seeing the gradual amalgamation of political states and economic markets while religion, philosophy and culture are forced to compete in the global marketplace of ideas. Against this backdrop of exponential change it is no wonder that theology rooted in the middle-ages is becoming seriously obsolete.
Unlike products and politicians however, religion isn't a popularity contest. The institutional Catholic Church makes the point that it doesn't exist to respond to the changing whims of popular culture. This idea may have some merit, and yet, when deprived of the rigorous feedback provided by the need to stay viable in the marketplace, the dangers of religious institutions losing touch and getting it wrong are very real indeed. Lacking an iteration process that leads to constant improvement in design, the evolution of theology now critically lags behind other social advancements. On the ocean of human history, religious institutions are continent-sized tankers that take an age to turn.
Of course there are lots of good things happening. The Parliament of the World's Religions continues to be a leader in the vibrant, global interfaith movement. Emerging leaders in protestant Christianity are defying the prevailing cultural inertia and attempting to get back to the actual teachings of Jesus as opposed to being stuck on the church's teachings about Jesus. The former has the potential to be radically inclusive while the later tends to exclusivity. There are many impressive small to medium groups within the Catholic Church demonstrating a firm commitment to both social justice and the ecumenical spirit of the 2nd Vatican Council (1962 -1965). The energetic Focalari movement which seeks to promote peace and unity between all the world's cultures is one example among dozens.
Socially engaged Buddhism has recently left the safe harbors of established tradition. For these pioneering followers of Buddha, desiring a better reincarnation or aspiring to Nirvana is not enough - they are working valiantly in this life to improve the physical, social and spiritual conditions of this world. Similarly in Islam, forward thinking groups such as the Gülen movement are bringing their considerable resources to bear in the fields of education, aid, intercultural dialogue and peace-building.
Most of these initiatives are not considered newsworthy by the global media industry and so fly under the radar. And while it is good to acknowledge positive developments, the fact is that so much more needs to happen. The interfaith movement must find a way to go beyond the insular stage of preaching to the choir (each other) and begin to present a unified and powerfully visible face to the world. The Catholic Church, mired in scandal and on a trajectory of decreasing relevance must turn anew to the spirit of honesty, optimism, and courage that peaked at Vatican II. Fifty years on the impetus promised by that gathering remains so largely unfulfilled. The world needs good religion for many reasons, - to offer guidance and inform values, to give perspective, hope, humility, meaning, self-mastery, connection, compassion, inspiration and insight; it affords space for reflection, pathways to peace and balance for an overly materialistic worldview. The world needs good religion more than ever and right now there are too few examples of it.
The evolution of religion needs a shot-in-the-arm. Evolution doesn't mean doing away with the past; it involves building on and refining what is already there.The seeds of a sustainable spiritual renaissance will spring up from within the fertile ground of our great religious traditions rather than from completely outside them. A new breed of spiritual leaders must be as diligent in preserving existing meanings and values as they are enthusiastic to discover new ones; zeal must be matched by wisdom. The hippy counter-culture of the 1960s stands as an important example of a non-sustainable spiritual enterprise with little or no roots in religion.
From the business world and technology and the social space we learn that innovation, while generally coming from within the field, often comes from left of field. Pioneering spiritual leadership in the 21st century is less likely to be provided by the major institutions than by the religious equivalent of SMEs. It is these small-to-medium spiritual enterprises, welling up from within the world's religions to boldly challenge and sustainably transform the institutions, where so much hope for spiritual renewal lays.
Locked away in millennia of tradition, the world's spiritual resources are vast beyond measure. In Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism et al. we have all the inspiration and wisdom we could ever need. The most foolish mistake of all would be to ignore it. History's great spiritual visionaries from Isaiah to Rumi, Martin Luther King and Ten Thousand Others, stand ready to inspire us forward, ever onwards, towards a new earth, a promised land, a pure land. We won't be getting there in our lifetime, but it is our destiny to move the needle far enough to give future generations a fighting chance. We had the industrial revolution, the political revolutions, economic, social, technological revolutions; we've even had the information revolution - now it's time for a global spiritual revolution that is ripe for the taking.
So what would it look like? The precise nature of how theology can evolve is a subject that can and ought to be vigorously discussed. It's increasingly clear that institutions refusing to change will eventually cease to be. The goal however is not change for change's sake - we need to be heading in a good direction. Drawing inspiration from the world's most famous carpenter, we should evaluate religions (know them) not by their claims but by their fruits. If a credible way could be devised of measuring value in religion by its social and spiritual productivity then we would have a feedback mechanism to assist the evolutionary process. Instead of competing on creed, religions could strive to have the biggest impact on the biggest issues within their domain. The religions of this new impulse would be more expansive and nurturing, more at ease with the ongoing discoveries of science, more comfortable with one another in a pluralistic world of many cultures, more adaptable, more inspiring, more humble and open to new learning, more spiritual, less political and more genuinely self-critical of their past and present stages.
Such developments could form the basis for the sometime redemption of religion in the western world. Thinking men and women might be prompted to take another look at faith, to search again for the pearl of great price and come to claim possession of their spiritual inheritance. And if enough people did that, for long enough, with enough sincerity and enough conviction and enough follow through, we'd soon exit this modern dark-age of secular materialism and enter a new spiritual enlightenment, the scale of which has not been seen before.