Today and yesterday were the days of Pentecost. The days that many churches around the world commemorate the descend of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other followers of Jesus. Though for many development professionals from Western societies this reality is something from a distant past, it represents spiritual capital that many other countries still have in abundance.
I was pointed to the term spiritual capital by a colleague involved in the third SDG status report of the Netherlands. The report mentions having a philosophy of life as an important driving force for action. It was acknowledged that attention to this aspect has long been overlooked in sustainable development policy-making. Interest in spiritual capital is on the rise according to the authors of the report. Religions have traditions of poverty reduction, healthcare and education. Pope Fransiscus and 'green Patriarch' Bartholomeüs were mentioned in relation to their call on believers and non-believers for ecological and social responsibility.
Back in 2014 the Dalai Lama paid a visit to our country with a message about education of the heart which challenged the way our education systems are wired. According to the Dalai Lama our educational systems are oriented mainly toward material values and training one’s understanding. But reality teaches us that we do not come to reason through understanding alone. We should place greater emphasis on inner values.
Faith may also be an obstructing force as was mentioned in the same SDG report, as women and girls are often denied opportunities for self efficiacy as a result of religious norms. In my own church denomination in the Netherlands for instance only this year functions like pastor, elder or deacon were opened up for women. Though for some this illustrates the slow pace for change within faith systems, it also demonstrates that emancipatory forces do not by-pass the church. Change will come inevitably. The question is: do we have spiritual literacy to mobilise spiritual capital for achieving sustainable development outcomes? Knowing that 80% of the world's population would call themselves religious this seems to me a very relevant question.
Religion and development
The Amsterdam Centre for Religion and Sustainable Development at the Free University will bring out an annual report on religion and development under leadership of Prof. Dr. Azza Karam. Dr. Karam served recently as senior advisor on social and cultural development at UNFPA, where she coordinated the outreach with faith-based partners. The Dutch-Egyptian influencer was also chairing the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development that brings out an annual report on Faith linkages to the UN containing an impressive list of resources.
‘At present our educational systems are oriented mainly toward material values and training one’s understanding. But reality teaches us that we do not come to reason through understanding alone. We should place greater emphasis on inner values' Dalai Lama
It seems the Netherlands is just waking up to the potential of its spiritual capital. For long faith-based NGOs were treated with some healthy suspicion as they were known for missions intertwined with proselytism, which remains a key-exclusion phrase in allocating government subsidies. However, what spiritual capital did we lose in the process? Could faith be an entry point for change? Which values are formed and what behavior is learned and what new insights are gained in the realm of faith that can be leveraged for sustainable development?
UNFPA has since long recognized the need to engage with faith actors when it comes to issues around family planning, stigma and discrimination, sexuality education and the like. In 2009 they developed guidelines to help their staff engaging with faith based organizations as agents of change, which they considered vital for implementing the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. More recently a new Partnership for Religion and Development (PaRD) has been created, providing for an interface between faith-based NGOs and the donor community.
Putting spiritual capital to use
There is a danger however in mobilizing spiritual capital for developmental purposes. In a sense organizing special conferences or side-events around religion and development could contribute to a siloed approach to faith-based development as a special track, with a separate (often private) funding base and corresponding private accountability requirements. Lack of checks and balances within the church for instance caused religious clergy to exploit their constitutencies for their own material gain or to increase the wealth of the church administration. Many basilics across Europe testify to it. This has turned the church into one of the material power houses of this world. Today this orientation may still be found in Orthodox as well as Evangelical corners of the Christian landscape, from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church collecting from the general public for their majestic church buildings to the Evangelical Prosperity mega Churches in Nigeria that are very influential in West-African Christianity. However, the spiritual capital in most may be burried in the process. Christian communities could rediscover their spiritual capital and put it to use for the community as it has been there right from the beginning from the days of Pentecost: "They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need" (Acts 2:45). The purpose of giving clearly was not the church but were people in need. It is not that they sold everything, but they did get rid of abundance in order to provide for the needy and these initiatives spiraled out of control in the end becoming an existential threat to the Roman Empire.
Praying in spirit and truth
Studying contemporary and historic Christianity through these lenses helps to rediscover the spiritual capital hidden in faith itself. It requires religious literacy which in my case I somehow received in my Christian upbringing (with of course some terrific blind spots for potential contributions from Buddhism, Humanism, Islam and the like). For instance in the gospel story of John, where Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well in Samaria. Not only is it quite unusual that he speaks to a woman, it is even a woman from a different ethnic group (the Samaritans) with whom the Jews of his days were not on speaking terms. However, the conversation quickly tells her that she is talking to a prophet, which makes her ask the burning religious question of those days: Where to pray? In Jerusalem or in Samaria? Jesus' answer is even more remarkable and still carries meaning for our days of pentecost: True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. These words go way deeper than an answer to an obvious relevant question at the time. This answer helps me even today reaching out to other faiths and world religions. In fact while living in India and Egypt and later in Ethiopia I have discovered praying in spirit and truth is potentially available to every human being, even if it takes the shape of a curse or condemnation.
Creation or evolution, a matter of truth or spirit?
In the past year, within our church community, some people had quite an issue with a sermon that our pastor held in September 2017 combining the story of Genesis with evolutionary approaches in helping us to further our understanding of the first chapters of the Bible. Not by comparing and contrasting them to finally point to one option. But to accept both the revealing power of the Holy Scripture confirming God's acts of creation as well as acknowledging years of scientific studies into evolutionary principles and academic insights derived from it. Not so long ago a sermon like this would confront the believer with a choice for either the creation story or the evolution theory. Nowadays, both perspectives may co-exist, with academic insights complementing theological perspectives and even deepening appreciation of the complexity of creation and the evolutionary processes that are part of it. Knowledge and faith going together mutually re-enforcing each other.
How to bring spiritual resources on board?
Having worked with a wide variety of development actors I have sensed the Spirit at work in many hearts of committed colleagues, disregarding their religious background or personal convictions. I have no difficulty in finding common cause with a progressive humanist who would be at the barricades for the acceptance of sexual minorities nor with a Muslim colleague working for a humanitarian aid agency.
I am in favour of a radical inclusive approach. My ideal international development organization would include people from all walks of life engaged both in aid provision or development work, working side by side, each tapping their own personality, intellect, skills and spiritual resources being able to connect to different groups in society. Also on the receiving end I would like to see people regaining dignity and rediscovering their god-given potential and therefore local capacity (from whatever ethnic, social or religious grouping) would always need to receive primacy over external technical support. That support should be indiscriminatory, knowledge driven and culturally-sensitive, value based and implemented in accordance with internationally recognized standards of impartiality and aid effectiveness, in particular when it comes to humanitarian aid. I belief I have recently joined such an agency, that I am happy to be part of and contribute my perspective to while learning from others.
My name is Reinier van Hoffen.
Click here for a summary.
Also find the text of a lecture Dr. Achterhuis held at the 2012 Bilderberg conference.