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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

What are the most pressing challenges within your faith group in the 21st century?

August 5, 2010

The Ottawa Citizen
August 3, 2010

Rabbi REUVEN BULKA is head of Congregation
Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and host of Sunday
night with Rabbi Bulka on 580 CFRA.

Quantity and quality.

Entering the 21st century, in a world that has
almost seven billion people, there are maybe 13.5
million Jews, and they are spread out over many
places. In Canada, for example, there are maybe
350,000 Jews; in the U.S., a bit under six million.

But as a faith community, we are probably the
only one whose natural numbers are not
increasing. The birth rate within the Jewish
community is around zero population growth.

Our numbers are diminishing, and we already are a
microdot on the demographic map, even though you
would not know it from the news coverage the
Jewish community gets, for better or for worse.

Consider that about 2,000 years ago, the Jewish
population worldwide was probably not that far
off the 13 million of today, and you begin to
realize what has happened over the centuries.
Under normal circumstances, absent mass murders
century by century, our numbers should by now be in the billions.

So, one of the most pressing challenges is to
produce more Jews, plain and simple; but not so easy.

A second major challenge deals with quality.
Being Jewish is quite expensive. If you add on to
the general cost of raising children the
additional cost of a Jewish education, membership
in a synagogue, keeping the Jewish affirmations,
including the much more expensive kosher diet,
the price tag for being Jewish is quite high, and for many simply unaffordable.

The conundrum reads like this -- even if we were
successful in producing more Jews, how can we be
sure that these Jews will be able to afford being Jewish?

The irony is that we are living in arguably the
best of times for the Jewish people. Which
country in history comes even close to being as
welcoming and embracing as Canada today? Yet, we
have these imposing, gigantic challenges. How to
handle prosperity is sometimes more difficult
than how to survive in miserable conditions. But
I prefer the prosperity challenges any time.

KEVIN SMITH is on the board of directors for the
Centre for Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for
humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.

It would appear that believers are talking
atheism more than atheists. With the rise of the
"new atheist" movement (we are out and proud and
here to stay), people of the religious persuasion
are speaking out about the challenges of an increasingly god-less society.

Just a few weeks ago, a gentleman wrote to the
Citizen warning of the dangers of non-belief --
"a recipe for consumerism, selfishness, power and
pleasure seeking.” He forget one of the key
ingredients -- the complete moral decay of
society; that’s what the vitriolic pulpit pounders tell me.

These kinds of blasphemous assumptions -- from
those who profess to "love thy neighbour" -- are
some of the most pervasive (and perverse)
anti-atheist stereotypes regarding foundations of morality.

I am amused at the facial contortions and
head-snapped-back reactions of some when I tell
them I am a devout atheist; as if my good nature
and kindness is a prerequisite for an exclusive
membership into the theist club.

With or without God, humans have much in common.
We are just as moral, or immoral for that matter,
as theists. We have helped one another to survive
because of our shared human values. Curiosity
about the wonders of our existence provides us
with many questions and a sense of humility.

While both sides of the God debate have had
philosophical battles of biblical proportions,
the biggest challenge facing each divide is to
try and build bridges. As citizens of a precious
planet, we need to work together to protect her for future generations.

I recently met two mad-for- each-other young
newlyweds. One is as committed to Islam as the
other is to atheism. They intend to live their
lives, together, until death do them part — based
on a mutual respect and love for each other. This
should be a model to inspire us to celebrate our
shared humanity, regardless of our beliefs.

Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest
and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first
lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.

The most troublesome is the threat of destruction
by hostile political forces, primarily in the
unstable countries of southeast Asia. Most of us
are aware of the terrible suffering wrought by
the Chinese government as they take control of
Tibet. Because Tibet has had a Buddhist
government, this has lead to persecution and
deaths of many monks and the dispersion of the
spiritual hierarchy. Many may not be aware that
extremist Islamist groups in countries like
Thailand have targeted Buddhists as “godless
infidels”and are murdering monks at an alarming
rate. In other countries, extremist Christian
groups misrepresent and attack (less lethally) the Dharma and its supporters.

The second challenge is the development of
westernized schools of Dharma. As Buddhism
continues to thrive in Western countries, it has
to speak in a common way to both immigrant ethnic
Buddhists as well as "convert" Buddhists. Each
group has different philosophical and practice
needs and so far, Dharma groups have met only one side or the other.

Thirdly, there is danger of irrelevance through
co-optation. We have already seen the
sophisticated and wider teachings of yoga and tai
chi blurred, watered down and even lost as
Westerners, with their typical consumerist
values, borrow what appeals to them, replacing it
with a bland and impotent version. This is
already happening with Buddhism. One needn’t look
any further than advertising’s misappropriation
of terms like “zen” and “nirvana.” Many
professional and amateur psychologists admire the
mind practices of Buddhism, ignorantly skimming
away all the other ritual and doctrinal content
as merely cultural or primitive. Buddhism may be
reduced to another lifestyle fad.

Finally, Buddhism faces the same challenge as all
faiths, irrelevance through secularization. In a
world increasingly dominated by the realms of
materialism and scientism, people are ignoring
the spiritual dimensions of their lives and our
universe. As we settle for those two tiny worlds,
the voices and vehicles, which allow us to
connect to the spiritual, including Buddhism, may be become inaudible.

ABDUL RASHID is a member of the Ottawa Muslim
community, the Christian Muslim Dialogue and the
Capital Region Interfaith Council.

There are more than a billion and a half Muslims
spread across the globe. It is therefore not
surprising that I am not qualified to discuss, or
even list, the varied challenges they face.

I have witnessed the growth of my faith community
in Ottawa (and in Canada) several folds during
the past 45 years. My views or opinions about the
challenges faced by this community are strictly
personal and may or may not be shared by others.

Muslims in Canada have the advantage of above
average education. On the whole, they are
reasonably well off. There are no Muslim ghettoes
anywhere. The first generation of Muslims was
busy in establishing their roots through
establishment of local organizations and building of mosques and other centres.

They are now increasingly involved in social
projects that concern all citizens of Canada.
They are active in, for example, food drives,
housing for the disadvantaged and municipal, provincial and federal politics.

At present, Muslims are subject to constant
suspicion and doubt. Some of it stems from
ignorance. But the primary source is the vast
campaign driven by the Islamophobia. Any violent
act anywhere in the world by a Muslim is not only
placed at the door step of every Muslim, but is
immediately associated with their faith itself.

It will be a major challenge for Muslims not to
be distracted by the negative media coverage, no
matter how repugnant. Instead, I am confident
that we will adhere to the Divine command: “Help
one another in righteousness and piety and do not
help one another in sin and rancour” (Holy
Qur’an, 5:2) This co-operation extending to all,
irrespective of differences of faith, sex, age or
ethnicity, will augment their contribution to the
well-being of Canada, their country.

Rev. RICK REED is senior pastor at the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa.

There are many challenges facing Christians in
the 21st century. Rather than giving you a list,
I’ll highlight one of the most pressing problems
of all — especially for North American Christians.

The challenge is getting Christians to develop an
eternal perspective, an outlook that sees earthly
life in light of eternity. Paul had this
viewpoint when he wrote: “So we fix our eyes not
on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what
is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

One of my seminary professors, Howard Hendricks,
used to tell us that if we didn’t help people
gain an eternal perspective, we’d waste 90 per cent of our efforts with them.

Without an eternal perspective, Christians become
near-sighted. We live for the here and now. We
get focused on accumulating earthly treasures,
which wind up eaten by moths or stolen by thieves (Matthew 6:19-21).

What’s worse, we lose our passion to help others
get ready to meet their Maker. We block out the
looming reality of God’s coming judgment: “Just
as man is destined to die once, and after that
face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). We lose the
urgency to pass on the good news Jesus announced
when He said: “I tell you the truth, whoever
hears my word and believes Him who sent me has
eternal life and will not be condemned” (John 5:24).

Some may worry an eternal perspective will make
Christians so heavenly minded they’ll be of no
earthly good. Actually, it works the opposite
way. C.S. Lewis observed that the “Christians who
did most for the present world, were those who
thought the most about the next ... Aim at heaven
and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

BALPREET SINGH is legal counsel and acting
executive director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

In a word, the challenge is education. Sikhs are
a very visible minority. A Sikh wearing a turban
and other Sikh articles of faith will stick out
in a crowd. This distinct identity stands as a
reminder of Sikh ideals such as devotion to God,
equality and compassion. Unfortunately, for some,
the Sikh image is associated with suspicion and fear. That has to change.

In an April 2009 poll in Maclean’s magazine, only
30 per cent of respondents said they had a
favourable opinion of Sikhs and 12 per cent said
they had a good understanding of the Sikh faith.
These figures show that the Sikh community needs
to do a better job of letting others know who we are and what we believe.

The Sikh faith has universal and inclusive
beliefs. Most people don’t know that the Sikh
faith believes in complete equality for men and
women. Sikhs believe that all people have a right
to freely practise their religion, regardless of
what their religion may be. Working for the
well-being of all of humanity is a tenet of the
Sikh faith and something Sikhs pray for twice a
day. These are beliefs most people would agree with and respect.

Sikhs have firm roots in Canada and have been
here for more than 100 years. Whether raising
millions of dollars for Canadian hospitals,
sending volunteer teams to Haiti, setting up food
kitchens to feed the homeless, or organizing
blood drives, Canadian Sikhs are deeply engaged
in social activism across the country. Sikhs are
proud to call Canada home because so many Sikh
values are in fact Canadian values. Despite our
distinct appearance, we share a lot in common
with other Canadians. We need to do a better job
of putting the real face of Canadian Sikhs in the spotlight.

JACK MCLEAN is a Baha’i scholar, teacher,
essayist and poet published in the fields of
spirituality, Baha’i theology and poetry.

As the youngest of the world’s great religions,
the Baha’i Faith is currently experiencing a
world-wide expansion which poses many pressing
organizational challenges in itself. (I will
return to this challenge below). However, for
Baha’is residing in those countries that enjoy
genuine human rights, one of the most anxious
immediate concerns is the plight of the Baha’i
community in Iran, the land of its birth (1844-).

We are working to witness the happy day that will
see the Baha’i faith freed from the fetters of
the fanatical orthodoxy that rules the Islamic
Republic of Iran. Its priest-dominated theocracy
continues to systematically persecute this
progressive and law-abiding community. The seven
national representatives of the Iranian Baha’i
community (five men and two women) continue to
languish in a high-security section of Evin
prison, known as section 209, even though the
prisoners pose no threat to the state. In
addition to constant psychological pressures, and
other harsh disciplinary measures, their meal
portions have been reduced considerably, which
has seriously undermined their health. Prison
authorities refuse to permit the prisoners’
families to provide the provisions that would
enable them to sustain the brutal conditions of
their imprisonment, which include sleeping on
concrete floors in small cells. Other imprisoned Baha’is share the same fate.

It has become a platitude to say that we live in
an age of ongoing crises, crises that continue to
threaten the very fabric of world civilization.
The life-giving teachings of Bahá’u’lláh have
proven to act as an antidote to many of the
afflictions that assail the world body politic.
So a second pressing need is for the Baha’i
community to continue to find the most effective
ways to offer these superlative teachings and to
help apply them, by collaborating with
like-minded individuals and agencies, to resolve
the global challenges facing a world-come-of-age.

A third pressing challenge would be to continue
to raise up the competent teachers and community
workers who can engage in the adult study
circles, children’s classes, devotional meetings
and service projects that constitute the
universal action-oriented Baha’i curriculum.

Ask the Religion Experts is compiled by Stephanie
Murphy. Write to Ask the Religion Experts, c/o
The Ottawa Citizen, 1101 Baxter Rd., Ottawa,
Ont., K2C 3M4. E-mail submissions to
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