Insights on Religion, Spirituality and Global Governance

May 14, 2012 by

Report from Colin Hannaford, EducationViews British and Foreign Correspondent

Last week I attended a major conference in Oxford on ‘Religion, Spirituality and Global Governance’. The conference was convened by the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), the Centre for International Studies (CIS) of the University of Oxford and the Center for Sustainable Development & International Peace (SDIP) of the Korbel School of the University of Denver.

Its title is unfortunate, for it may persuade those already convinced that secret groups are planning total global dominance, together with a new global religion, that these were its aims.

I wish they were. But I saw no sign of either. It was simply a meeting of international scholars wishing to improve the future of the world. With great patience and remarkable kindness they allowed me to address them, even when my questions became increasingly outrageous.

I hope I planted a few useful ideas. This is hard to do in modern academia.

One of the paths leading from Oxford’s centre to the quiet corner in which their meeting took place is called Jowett’s Walk. It commemorates a famous theologian of the 19th century.

Much loved by his students, they teased him with this poem: ‘Here come I. ‘My name is Jowett. All there is to know, I know it. I am Master of this College, What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!

Dr Benjamin Jowett was a master of Balliol, still reputedly the most cerebral Oxford college. He would have had very little patience with the endless preoccupation of modern scholars to find more money from somewhere for more of their research.

Research!” he thundered: “a mere excuse for idleness. It has never achieved, and will never achieve, any results of the slightest value.”

Modern scholars have succeeded in turning his censure around. Despite the collapse of the most basic educational standards in schools in the US and in the UK: a collapse which has become a serious threat to their social cohesion and to their international authority, I have found that many senior educational academics, especially in the UK, view any proposal based on actual teaching experience as entirely valueless. They only value their own and their students’ own research. In this way they even manage to reverse David Hume’s famous dictum; like this: ‘Has it been shown for years to succeed superbly in practice; but it doesn’t fit your theory? Then consign it to the flames, for it will make your theory look absurd and will not attract a single dime for more research!’

These are two reasons why I have learnt to be cautious of modern academics. It is always something of a shock to discover that to have spent many years teaching in school is to many of them clear evidence of inferior intelligence, ambition, and low self-esteem.

It is like being regarded practically as sub-human, which is decidedly unpleasant.

And this is why I creep into academic conferences like a sniper, close to the ground.

A third reason is one of the first rules I learnt as a teacher: never to think myself as being more intelligent than my pupils. I should be more experienced. I could be more knowledgeable. I must never think of myself as more intelligent.

This has often saved me from making an ass of myself. Far more important, it has allowed me occasionally to experience one of teaching’s truly great joys: of learning from my pupils.

This may be understandably harder for someone lecturing year after year to young students who dare not interrupt or question. But a consequence of a lack of honest and direct rapport can be that some eminent scholars become monstrously self-absorbed, clearly expecting their listeners only to admire and applaud, delivering their wisdom like a drug-addled oracle in the depth of a cave.

Anatomists tell us that deep inside our brain is the brain of an ape, and underneath it is that of a reptile. Only a very thin layer, enclosing them both, is wholly human.

Mine must be even more divided.

The reptile’s brain was useful in training to be a sniper: in simply staying still.

The ape’s fear of leopards translates into my fear of holding onto any idea too long.

The thin human layer became a teacher. After a few hours, being a teacher, I began to assess the ability of the speakers. This depended on how well they spoke; on whether what was said appeared significant; whether their listeners enjoyed what they heard; whether it sent them to sleep.

It maybe interesting to readers to know the marks I awarded. I gave one 10 out of 10. He was excellent. I gave two others 9; two 8; one 7; one 6; one 2. The rest got zero.

Zero is really very, very bad. You may know that this mark was yours. Do not throw yourself into the river. Decide to do better. Your listeners may be more intelligent than you are.

The usual procedure in a conference like this is for a panel of scholars to deliver their opinions on a previously chosen topic, for a moderator to invite questions from the audience, for the panel then to respond to these questions.

Since the CIS will produce a formal report, there is no need for me to do the same. What my readers will want to know is what their own correspondent succeeded in contributing.

I must warn that their own correspondent became increasingly emotional and excited, that eventually he abandoned his – or the reptile’s or the ape’s – natural caution altogether.

` Almost all the first day was given to discussing the historical justification of many conflicts; whether conflicts of any kind could be prevented, and how; how societies might be reconstructed after a conflict has ended; what the survivors might hope for in their future.

After the panelists have spoken, the proper form is to ask them questions.

“Can you imagine solutions to these problems,” I asked, “without reference to history?”

The panel looked polite and puzzled. I hastened to explain.

Many conflicts are justified historically. But if history is taken away – for example from the Jews, Christians, Muslims – what would they argue about then?

There was no enthusiasm for this comical idea. Without history what would anyone argue about! A tart comment was made that Communists always wanted to abandon history.

Not so, I responded. They always identified their enemies historically: then killed them.

Still on my feet, I told of my experience in Northern Ireland: when I had argued with the government that using violence against violence would create only more violence, and of my reward of three weeks in a military psychiatric hospital ordered to treat me as mad.

History was certainly used in Ireland to justify killing. But, I again pointed out: Killing doesn’t really need justification. Killing is the ultimate thrill, the ultimate pleasure. Whilst politicians claimed that they had negotiated the peace: “in the end the pain became greater than the pleasure. The violence just burnt itself out.”

Such conflicts can also end when history becomes irrelevant.

On the second day a different panel was being moderated by a very distinguished scholar of international relations. I asked if I might question them before they began.

“Yesterday,” I explained, “I tried to remove history from your solutions. Now I want to ask you to do without the future.”

This produced a slight smile from their moderator. His panelists were even more puzzled by this second question than they had been by the first. One of the panelists had also been a diplomat. “No! No! No!” he shouted. Nothing could be more absurd.

Another had earlier described the enormous difficulty of persuading the UN to agree on anything, when at every level of every dispute every one could be expected to lie. For him the future would always be needed, simply in order – eventually – to decide the truth.

I still wanted them to realize for themselves that history and the future do not matter as much to everyone else. I asked them to notice a comment of Einstein, that problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness which has created them.

“What is the largest group in any society,” I asked them and the audience, “with no real interest in the history of their society, nor much in its future?”

There was silence, until a voice from the audience answered, “Children.”


Correct. This was useful advance. Could I build on it?

The final session, on the afternoon of the second day, was given over, as is usual, to summarizing what the conference had agreed.

It did not seem that much had been agreed. It had been proposed that if enough adults learnt inner peace and spiritual wholeness, they would bring peace to the world.

This seems true to me. Peace needs every bit of help it can get.

By now we were all tired. Everyone was slowing down. Three were asleep. The moderator signaled, rather reluctantly, that I might speak. This would be for the last time.

“Last week,” I told everyone, “I had a meeting with my spiritual director, who told me: ‘Colin, try to be KIND to everyone!’”

This was already outrageous. It got worse.

I continued. “I hope you have all noticed how kind I have been. But now I want to repeat the question that Cromwell once addressed to the presbyters of Scotland when they were in dispute. ‘I beg you to consider whether in the bowels of Christ, you may be wrong! 1

I should have been more direct.

I wanted them to understand that conflicts are not likely to be resolved by trying to interpret history so that different societies will agree. They won’t.

Nor will it help to construct a future which all the parties will want. They won’t.

It is children without knowledge of history, or concern for the future, who will have the different consciousness that is needed. They can be qualitatively different from any children who have ever lived before.

They only need to be taught that they have always a right to be honest, and that they always have a right to ask questions.

They will be the first messianic generation. They will never allow themselves to be misinformed into war, or misdirected into war, or lied into war.

This is what I should have said. Instead I blew it.

I tried to get them all to discover it themselves. I asked everyone: “Since this is a conference on religion and spirituality before it is about global governance, and since most of us here will have some belief in God or in spirituality, can you tell me: How is God inspiring all people now?”

One of the panellists at once began to describe how many people were differently inspired: how many were not inspired at all; how others …

My question was swamped by this deluge of unfortunate desires. Time was called. I had missed my chance.

Ten minutes later I was standing with a paper cup of coffee in my hand with many of the others at the reception to mark the conference’s end when I became aware of a beautiful girl on my left and beautiful young man on my right, and that the beautiful girl was asking: “What is it?”


“Your answer? How is God inspiring everyone now?”

“Oh, how kind of you” I responded feebly. “I was so dejected. Well, it’s a big question. And the answer’s very simple. But it took me thirty years to figure it out.”

“Yes, yes. Well, so, what is it?”



“It’s honesty. God inspires human beings, has inspired them historically, inspires us now, to be increasingly honest. But this is more than universal. It is cosmic. Evolution is not only advanced by the environment selecting what can best survive. Organisms vary themselves to attempt to fit their environment: neither, in a sense, attempting to cheat it nor delude themselves. In this sense they are also being honest.”

They both seemed impressed, but she wasn’t sure. “That’s alright,” I told her, “Just write me a thirty line rebuttal, and we’ll discuss it.”

But she still hadn’t finished. “And what else did you learn in that hospital. You said something about being inspired there.”

Did I? Oh dear. I said nothing. This was hardly a good time for revelations

“Oh, non; not another cliff-hanger! Just tell us!”

What red-blooded male can resist a passionate young girl?

I will call her Alice, since we are in Oxford; and the young man, Christian.

“Right,” I said. “Hold his coffee, and hold his plate.”

Surrounded then by others drinking coffee, eating sandwiches, I proceeded to give young Christian a demonstration of theophany. He seemed about the right age. To make it as realistic and authentic as possible, not so easy in these circumstances, I embraced him very hard, as violently as I could. This was also rather comic – since he taller by half a foot – but I told him as I did so of that wonderful declaration: “How can you be afraid? You are of me!”

“Was it a Christian god?” asked Alice.

“It was a warrior. I was a soldier.”

“Was it was so physical?” asked Christian. In answer I thumped him again on the chest, very hard; he is a very solid young man. “Yes, very.”

I told them that Bishop Robinson, whom they knew by reputation, had been the third person I had told thirty-seven years ago in Cambridge; that they might be the twentieth and twenty-first.

I told them that I had long mistaken a cosmic instruction for a personal one.

I had thought “Be honest” referred only to me. It is actually the song that the cosmos sings to all life everywhere. It is the law of its laws.

Then Alice said something that she need not have said.

“You must feel enormously privileged.”

Then I said what I should not have said. “Yes, it is an enormous privilege and an enormous responsibility. In the worst analysis it’s possible that not more than four or five others have known it in the whole of human history. It’s possible too that hundreds of thousands have known it, but that it has been just too terrifying, too dangerous, too difficult to talk about it. On all of those counts I have been more fortunate.

And in this moment I know that all this was true. Enormously privileged: enormously responsible: enormously fortunate: and I have kicked continually against the goad.

` The title I intended to give to my postscript of the essays that I have been writing for my Facebook friends was ‘Quo vadis?’ All the previous essays have also appeared here,

I thought that it meant: “Where now?” On checking I found a very different story.

Saint Peter was leaving Rome to escape execution when he met Jesus. ‘Quo vadis?’ was the question he asked Jesus, who replied:I am going to Rome, to be crucified again “.

Peter was so ashamed by this that he turned back, was arrested, and was crucified.

The truth is that I do not believe these stories. They are myths, and we should not need myths either understand the obvious.

Humankind has always needed freaks to teach it honesty.

The Buddha, to tell it that reality is a creation of the mind, changing as a mind changes; the Vedic messiahs, to describe the form of many gods, both creating and destroying, just as honesty can create and destroy; the Jewish prophets, settling on the existence of one god; Mohammed, the last of his line, calling everyone the children of that One.

I have always hated to be thought a messiah. To be called the messiah is not only a weakness of others, it is an invitation to be crucified all over again.

What the world needs now, as I have said already, is generations of children, a generation of messiahs, who know naturally all the tools of peace and who know how to use them.

They need to be told that they have the right to be honest and that the have the right to ask questions. They need to know history, but they must not be persuaded that any part of it is their history. They should not worry about the future. They will create their future.

As their mind and their reality changes, so will their understanding of honesty, and of what questions they need to ask. They will lose their innocence as they become individual.

The innocence of a child is a state of mind in which anything is permissible in order for it to get want it wants. In an adult the same state of mind is that of the psychopath.

Another kind of innocence is created by submission to the will of God to achieve social identification. In this state of collective innocence nothing is permissible within society that has not been formerly prescribed, whilst anything is permissible outside it to assert its prescriptions. Killing is certainly permissible, both individually and collectively.

The different forms of submission are the reasons why religions form. They are also the reason why they divide and will fight each other with merciless ferocity.

Much the same is true of nations identified as doing God’s will. It is generally forgotten that this how Hitler persuaded his countrymen that they could not fail; how Stalin made the defence of his own ruthless regime into a defence of holy Mother Russia.

Since the identity of their religion or nation has become the identity of every individual, any perceived slight to either the religion or the nation will be felt as a personal hurt.

All will react. Some will react individually. Some will react collectively.

Some will react like a child in tantrum hurling its plate at the wall. This may kill us all.


This was conference on Religion, Spirituality and Global Governance. Its main concern was to understand how social conflicts arise; to learn how to reduce their ferocity; and to learn how help societies to repair their damage they do.

My hope was to explain that their principal cause is obsessive identification by groups with their history, especially with religious history, and another is an equally obsessive determination – to some extent actually shown by the conference itself – to determine the future.

I tried to offer an alternative within the conference itself.

Perhaps this report will succeed where I failed.

Being aware of God’s will as a personal inspiration is entirely different from submitting to any prescription of it. It makes no claim on the future. It is instead an adventure: of the heart, of the mind, and, essentially, of the soul.

It is an adventure that takes many forms.

One of them, much bewildered by its own rhetoricians, is science.

All require free will.

Beware of those who tell you that yours does not exist.

They have not found theirs.

1 Actually he wrote: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

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