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Sacred Web Conference contemplates the role of religion in a secular age

"If you ask the fish, 'what is water?', he will ask: 'How can I tell you what water is?' Everything is sacred," said renowned religious scholar and writer Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who delivered the keynote address at a remarkable conference. 

Photo of Seyyed Hossein Nasr by Jenny Uechi

"When we lose sight of the sacred, we can't see each other but as dust," said Vancouver-based trial lawyer and writer M. Ali Lakhani, at the Sacred Web conference in the Segal Building on Granville Street. He spoke of a haunting remark made by a survivor of 9-11, who said: 'We were as dust in their (the terrorists') eyes." The comment underscored the complexity of religion today. 

Lakhani, founder of Sacred Web -- a favourite journal of Prince Charles, who gave a video message to kick off the event -- said he convened the conference this year for two main reasons. The first was to celebrate the life and work of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an acclaimed religious scholar and author of over 50 books (including Islamic Art and Spirituality, a compelling introduction to Islamic art),  the event's keynote speaker.

Photo of M. Ali Lakhani by Jenny Uechi

The second, he said, was to deal with the "secularist drift in society" and how religion was being besieged by "attacks from both without and within". In addition to the rise of Islamophobia and the release of best-selling books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, he said there were corrosive influences within religion itself.

Sadly, he said, there were "homogenizers" and "fundamentalists" who imposed their views on others and attacked anyone who didn't conform to their beliefs, as well as "diluters" who adapted their chosen religion to suit their personal whims. 

"The homogenizers and diluters feed off each other, and lost in all this is the centre -- what is the sacred?" 

Lakhani, an eloquent speaker who recited poetry by E.E. Cummings, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot from memory, spoke about the sense of 'wholeness' at the centre of religion and how the loss of it results in hardened views and a loss of connection with nature. Interestingly, as he spoke, a major anti Keystone-XL protest was underway in Washington, where Sundance Chief from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Rueben George, was delivering a speech about the need to protect "sacred" water and earth from oil pipelines. 

"We're losing our sense of the sacred, we're losing our sense of the centre," Lakhani said. "We've forgotten how to see the magic of nature, of creation, all about us. So we must rediscover the sacred...we need to revive faith through a deeper meaning, a sense of connectedness, a sense of beauty and harmony." 

The role of art in creating a sense of the sacred  

The audience stood up to applaud when Lakhani turned to introduce Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who came to Vancouver shortly after his 81st birthday. 

In his speech, Nasr began by outlining how the notion of a world without God is a new concept and that many languages around the world have no equivalent for the word "secularism".

He told a story of an Indigenous man being asked what was sacred in his view, who responded with the following: 

"If you ask the fish, 'What is water?', he will ask: 'How can I tell you what water is?' Everything is sacred," he said. 

Religious beliefs aside, Nasr said human beings need something to believe in, something hallowed and greater than themselves.  

"Something is sacred for everyone -- for some people, it's their cat, for others, baseball," he said. "They've transferred the sacred to a worldly being."

In his view, the sacred is what lies at the core of a person's being, after "peel[ing] off all the false eyes with which we view ourselves."

He said people's sense of "divorce" from their inner selves caused them to have a blinkered view of the outside world.

Nasr spoke of the key role of art in bringing a sense of God to the world and noted that even in relatively secular countries such as France, people flocked to listen to great Sufi musicians (including Kurdish/Iranian music legend Shahram Nazeri, who was performing at the Orpheum with his son Hafez that very evening). Even the End of Faith author Sam Harris, for instance, has professed that the songs of the late Sufist musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are among his favourites.

He spoke about the importance of beauty in things ranging from architecture to cityscapes and, like Lakhani, stressed that truly beautiful things made people aware of its source. As mentioned in Islamic Art, beautiful art is meant to be a crystallization of the spirit and an echo of the other world (al-akhirah) beyond the temporal existence of the human world (al-dunya).

Nasr took the idea one step further, urging people to find the beautiful even in an ugly world, and said "everything in the world that is not human is beautiful", implying that the natural environment retained a sense of wholeness that some people have lost in modern times.  

Nasr said the "arts will play a big role in the future" to further the "preservation of the sacred in nature" at a time of unrestrained industrial development. 

The conference continues today at the Segal Building on 500 Granville Street. 

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