Book Review:Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama explores paths beyond religion to increase compassion in society.


[This review of Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama was originally published in Bulletin No 38, March 2012 BIAMS Journal]

The core theme of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s latest book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World is that humanity, as a whole, must become more internally ethically-motivated by undergoing a more rigorous ‘education of the heart’. His words ‘The longer I live, and the more I reflect on humanity’s problems and achievements, the more convinced I become that we have to find a way of thinking beyond religion altogether…’ suggest that this ‘education of the heart’ requires a universalist mindset where religion must open its own heart and cooperate in the task of global ethical conscientisation beyond the strictures of its own particular dogma (if necessary) if humanity is to flourish and indeed, survive.

Philosophically-grounded in the Dalai Lama’s own spiritual tradition of Mahayana Buddhism this book is nonetheless very accessible and readable. He describes our ‘inner spiritual core’ which predisposes us to compassion, kindness and altruism as being like water – essential to life. This, he believes, is distinct from ‘religion-based spirituality’ which is culturally-learned and, like tea, is not essential to life but does greatly enhance it, in the same way that tea enhances the enjoyment of water. Thus, the book takes as its starting point the concept of ‘natural spirituality’ as a logical basis for a shared secular ethical framework.

The book is divided into two parts; the first part presents the Dalai Lama’s vision and rationale for a global secular ethic. Set against the briefly-sketched backdrop of global war, poverty, environmental degradation and the challenges of unlimited capitalist growth in an increasingly interconnected world, he underscores the essential unity of both humanity’s common needs and experience of life (rooted in a briefly explored theory of the mind). His contention is that this biological unity should transcend any distinctions of culture, religion or politics in the quest for developing a globally-espoused set of secular ethics rooted, not in the European tradition of anti-theism and religious antagonism but rather in the Indian tradition of religious tolerance.

The second part of the book turns to address in more detail the practical task of ‘educating the heart through the training of the mind’ as a means to cultivating and maintaining a more ethical mind-set based on ‘principles of inner self-regulation [which] promote those aspects of our nature [which are] conducive to our own well-being and that of others.’ (p.18). The rationale and practice of cultivating mindfulness and other core values such as patience, contentment and generosity whilst at the same time dealing with destructive emotions such as anger, competitiveness and selfishness are simply described accompanied by anecdotal illustrations. The book closes with a chapter describing the art and discipline of meditation as a vital transformative tool which the reader is enjoined to practise little and often in order to ‘become[a] more compassionate human being.’ (p.183)

Beyond Religion speaks urgently and practically of the need to develop a more rigorous global ethical consciousness. The Dalai Lama invokes our ultimate unity as reasoning, biological beings as sufficient reason to mobilise for the common good and affirms the ‘water’ of our natural spirituality as the medium through which we may cultivate ethical flourishing. His writing is sincere and littered with scientific rationales, replete with homilies and proverbial wisdom and is unashamedly practical in his orientation. Yet, the book retains as its core, the serious academic thesis that humanity needs to move towards a future of ‘being’ which is both tolerant of the particular flavours of religion and culture and which affirms, uncompromisingly, the cultivation of mind-sets which are most likely to promote life and happiness for all. Of particular note is the Dalai Lama’s insistence that compassion must be the foundational element of ethical action to promote justice. In much the same vein of thought (though in considerably less depth and detail) as the Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff[1] (who maintains that love and justice in their truest forms are inseparable), the Dalai Lama insists that ‘the exercise of justice, far from being at odds with the principle of compassion, should be informed by a compassionate approach” (p.64).

Readers may be disappointed if they are looking for a deeper analysis of the unethical ‘corporate’ mind-sets which predispose to structural injustice or the imbalances of power inherent in institutionalised religion, politics and government which corrupt and pervert the course of justice; the Dalai Lama’s treatment of such issues is entirely secondary to his focus on the cultivation of individual ethics. As such, it is a book which is rooted in the conviction that justice flourishes slowly, but surely, in the disciplined path of education – of both mind and heart of each individual.

[1] Wolterstorff, N., (2011) Justice in Love, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

Book Review: Global Church: reshaping our conversations, renewing our mission, revitalising our churches


In Global Church: reshaping our conversations, renewing our mission, revitalising our churches, Graham Hill nails his thesis firmly on the doors of the Western Church and Academy:

Those of us in the West need a new narrative. It’s time to abandon our flawed Eurocentric and Americentric worldviews. We need a new, global and missional narrative. We must turn to the churches of Majority World and indigenous cultures. They can help us explore what it means to be a global missional community. (Hill,16).

Scot McKnight observes in his introduction to Global Church that ‘there is no one more alert to the global and theological shape of missions today than Graham Hill’ (McKnight, Forward p 11). This book demonstrates that alertness resourced by twenty-seven years of personal enquiry, immersion and practise. Global Church threads the stories of personal encounter and observation with rigorous scholarship and presents the reader with a set of proposals to chew over which demand our engaged and considered response. I doubt that this book will be without its critics and this is a good feature of it- that it invites an ongoing conversation; the outcomes of that ongoing conversation depend on all of us.

In Global Church Graham Hill engages us with the reasons he believes that the Western Church needs to integrate a new narrative or worldview which explores what it might look like to be a ‘global missional community’. He set out clearly in what ways Majority World Christians are redefining Twenty First century Christianity and how he thinks the Western Church needs to take this into serious consideration. Numerically, 61% of the world’s Christians now live in the global south or Majority World and he cites Phillip Jenkin’s prediction that by 2025 two-thirds of Christians will live in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Graham Hill is emphatic that it is time to stop marginalizing and ignoring the voices of the Majority World Churches.

Global Church follows Graham Hill’s Salt, Light and a city: Introducing missional ecclesiology and develops his proposals of how to integrate and learn from non-Western missional reflections and practices using Mark’s three powerful images of the Church as salt, light and a city. It is a book of considerable scope which introduces, in Part 1, Reshaping our conversations, the need to move beyond the Western academy legacy to embrace ‘glocal conversations…dialogue, learning and partnership… [with] Majority World, indigenous and Western thinkers…activists, communities and ordinary believers.’ (p25) It moves on in Part 2, Renewing our Mission to develop interesting and important topics such hospitality, care for creation and ethical living alongside a review of liberation theologies, pneumatologies and contextual theologies of the Majority World. In Part 3, Revitalising our Churches, the book concludes with an expansive review of the resources which the Majority Church has to offer to scripture engagement, education, models for servant leadership, community building, spirituality and discipleship. The final chapter closes the book with a reassertion of its central emphasis:

Global missional theology challenges that historical and inherited way of doing theology. It challenges its dominance and myopia and cultural superiority. It challenges the assumption that our inherited Western so-called canons of theology are universal and true for all times and all places. That assumption is false. The voices of the global church-its communities and leaders and theologians-challenge these western theological canons and assumptions. They highlight their shortcomings. They emphasise the need for global theological conversations. (Hill, 422)

This book offers very good engagement and material for students, practitioners and educationalists alike. The breadth of its focus is supplemented by clear chapter end summaries, a study guide and an invitation to access the GlobalChurch project video series. It serves both as a mandate for reform and a helpful survey of Majority Church contributions to the glocal conversation.  The content is thorough in its breadth but not exhaustive in its analysis which keeps the considerable volume of material moving forwards at a reasonable pace but which inevitably means that some important conversations which emerge from Graham Hill’s proposals are not explored in more depth-maybe material for the next book! The style is passionate and assertive which for some readers may be somewhat exhausting whilst for others it will be an exhilarating and motivating read.

As someone who is also passionate about truly glocal conversations in mission I warmly recommend this excellent book.


jusTice update – July 2014

Dear friends and supporters of jusTice,

We have just returned from Chennai, India. It’s our second trip to India in partnership with International Justice Mission (IJM) to engage church pastors in thinking around issues of justice from a biblical and theological perspective.

It is always a huge privilege to be invited to take part in a conversation around issues of justice and faith but it is also deeply humbling to hear first-hand the stories of how much it costs to ‘do the right thing’ in contexts where biblical concepts of equality and fairness are very far from the norm. In addition to the stories of bonded slavery there were also personal stories of how seeking to do the right thing makes life so much harder; like the father who took the risk of sacrificing his son’s entry to further education because he refused to cooperate with systemic corruption, or the professional who had blown the whistle on workplace injustice and been sidelined for promotion and eventually forced out of their job.

Seeking to do the right thing is often slow, hard work; there are very few ‘efficient’ short cuts. It is painful to see the woundedness of those who leave the comfort of the cultural highway to forge a new path through the thickets…pioneering a new way of being human…transgressing culturally-accepted norms which don’t measure up with the biblical picture of shalom; the well-being and flourishing of both human and non-human creation.

IJM’s focus is specifically on assisting marginalised individuals and communities in accessing legal justice and in Chennai much of that work revolves around issues of bonded slavery, where generations have been enslaved to ‘pay back’ a small debt. Biblical concepts like the year of jubilee are deeply relevant in such contexts and yet they are far away from the public imagination. The radical scope of the biblical vision in the contexts of many of our empire-building and unequal cultures is breath-taking. It begs the question…how can we dare to hope for change?

At the heart of the biblical vision for justice is the hope in the goodness and faithfulness of God to complete His work of reconciling and renewing all things. That reconciling work came by the way of the cross, and in contexts such as India it is particularly easy to see the sufferings which accompany the kind of faithful discipleship of which the apostle Peter speaks in 1 Peter 4:12-13.

One of the starting points of a journey of justice is the recognition of injustice in our world and lament is an appropriate response to the chronic and sometimes severe and brutal effects of injustice in our communities. As we engaged in some teaching around themes of lament one pastor shared how his wife was a composer and a number of her songs of lament were written from the perspective of the abused and disabled children they worked with. She sings these songs of lament in churches and schools and often teachers and children weep as they hear them. Changes of perspective and attitude take place which begins to change the culture of the school environment. Lament had turned hearts of stone into hearts of flesh…compassion opened the way for a tangible change.

Howard Zinn emphasises the ‘infinite succession of presents’ in which our actions determine the future…

 ‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.’

Other news

1. Carnival Kingdom: biblical justice for global communities book

Last year saw publication of Carnival Kingdom which we co-edited with Jonathan Ingleby & Marijke Hoek. Sales continue to be encouraging, but we know that there are many more places where we would like to see the book made available and publicised.

More information can be found here: Publisher: Wide Margin, Facebook Page: Carnival Kingdom

If you would like to buy a copy, or more, for your organisation, please contact us, as we can offer discounts on multiple copies. We are beginning to think through some further book projects for the next couple of years, including a booklet on biblical advocacy.

2. jusTice on the road

In addition to the recent India trip, we presented internal research findings at Latin Link’s international assembly in Ecuador in February, within a keynote talk on the biblical and missional imperative for justice, along with a couple of seminars to explore issues that missionaries are engaging with on the ground. This followed our engagement at mission-net, Europe’s largest youth mission congress, in Germany at the start of the year, where we coordinated the justice stream, including contributions from Micah Challenge and A Rocha. In early July (8th) we speak at the Justshare network at St. Mary-le-Bow (, and In late August we lead a justice retreat near Madrid, Spain.

 3. Redcliffe College – Justice MA programme

  • Redcliffe’s new Contemporary Missiology MA retains the justice modules as a specialist stream within the programme. If you are interested in further study, more information can be accessed on Redcliffe’s website at
  • The next Environment Day conference, in collaboration with the John Ray Initiative and A Rocha, is set for 7th March 2015 at Redcliffe College, on the topic of climate change. Andy will be leading a seminar on the effects of climate-induced migration, exploring the role of the church in mitigating/adapting to this increasing reality and being a conduit of hope
  • We hope a post for a ‘scholar in residence’ at Redcliffe College could be available in the next couple of years – if you know of anyone interested, particularly from the Global South, then please encourage them to contact us. We are also looking for placement opportunities for undergraduate students and also research possibilities, both for students at Redcliffe College and the initiative more generally

 4. Resourcing and social media

Please pray that we will be able to secure the funding needed to continue to develop the initiative. It is a faith-based ministry; if you would like more information on our financial needs, or would like to give, please let us know. You can follow us on twitter (@just_mission), subscribe to our blog at, like our facebook pages (jusTice initiative and Carnival Kingdom), or check out our website ( This August, we plan to do some more thinking and planning for the initiative’s work in the coming academic year, and in particular hope to develop our social media presence further., interest and support.

Thank you for your ongoing interest and support

Andy & Carol 

Reflecting on Education and the formation of a Just Society (Part II)

In a fiery speech to an auditorium full of students a few weeks ago, Professor Cornel West warns them here saying:

“…Don’t get caught to make big, big, big money and find yourself in a condition of spiritual malnutrition and moral constipation- when you know that what is right is just stuck in too much greed and it won’t come out! Don’t get locked into that truncated apathy, that truncated imagination. Historically, young people have played a disproportionate role in democratic awakening and if we don’t awaken now, we are sliding down a slippery slope into not just chaos but social strife…”

His is a passionate concern about a generation’s “soul” being diverted by “weapons of mass distraction” (of modern materialistic culture) leading to moral and ethical abdication.  In his critique of John Rawl’s version of liberalism, Harvard Professor Michael Sandel noted here  in references to his book Liberalism and Limited Justice that:

“Contemporary liberalism didn’t take adequate account of the role of moral and spiritual questions in political life and conceived the individual too narrowly, as not sufficiently bound up with claims of community and history and tradition.”

Sandel’s insights might also explain why our education systems appear to be buying into (or maybe more accurately are being bought by!) “too narrow” a conception of education. It does seem that we are significantly at risk of being driven by a success-oriented ($$’s) pragmatism which undermines or distracts civil society from rigorous ethical enactment.

Christian Aid has just published a report called “Mapping Future Trends in Global economic and Political Power” and in it they note the projected increase in significance of the role played by civic society in influencing policy and public morality. The report notes that:-

“Civil society actors must recognise that despite increasing complexity there will be new opportunities for civil society to shape the agendas of business and governments in significant and unexpected ways through coordinated advocacy, presenting alternative visions to the norm and speaking with moral authority on issues of injustice.”

The importance of educating  for moral integrity and social reform is urgent it seems to me, at a time in history when paradigms of “success” which have shaped the modern era have been revealed as having exploitative and immoral consequences.

Cornel West notes in his book The American Evasion of Philosophy a contrast to a paradigm of success-driven pragmatism:

“Prophetic pragmatism is located in the Christian tradition for two basic reasons. First, on the existential level, the self-understanding and self-identity that flow from this tradition’s insights into the crisis and traumas of life are indispensable for me to remain sane. It holds at bay the sheer absurdity so evident in life, without erasing or eliding the tragedy of life. like Kierkegaard, whose reflections on Christian faith were so profound yet often so frustrating, I do not think it is possible to put forward rational defences of one’s faith that verify its veracity or even persuade one’s critics. Yet, it is possible to convey to others the sense of deep emptiness and pervasive meaningless one feels if one is not critically aligned with an enabling tradition. One risks not logical inconsistency but actual insanity, the issue is not reason and irrationality but life or death.” (West, 1989)

What say you?

Carol Kingston-Smith

Reflecting on education and the formation of a just society

Something which has increasingly troubled me as I’ve watched my children pass through Western-styled education (both in Latin America and in the UK) and reflected on its qualities is how this education has largely rewarded a very narrow band of intellectual achievement at the expense of rewarding the development of more rounded, moral and ethical character.

“Evil genius” is not a label I would jump to pin on anyone but I have often been disturbed by the way schools through to universities (and some notably more than others) seem to make reason a figurehead and reward it handsomely in spite of the glaring character flaws and moral deficits exhibited by some of its “protagonists”.  Inside sources into our flag-ship universities further convince me of the need for concern; stories of academics whose own lives and mental health are sacrificed literally to the goal of academic success be it for prestige, career or financial reward.  The combination of the rule of reason and the industrial maxim of competitive pragmatism and efficiency is a potentially dangerous one which threatens to squeeze out reflective morality and praxis.

I wonder to what extent educational bias towards rewarding academic success has played a part in the development of horizons in technology, science, media (just look a the recent News of the World debacle) and so on which appear to be less and less guided by ethical and moral considerations and more and more propelled by the impulse of success, innovation, and power?

I observe the fruits of this success-driven culture in the young people in our churches; in some it manifests in the drive to succeed (at any cost) within the framework of their education establishments and to “get ahead”, especially now when times are hard and jobs are more difficult to come by. In others, I see disappointed disengagement, a de-spiritedness. I also observe (and read of) a shocking rise in the medications being prescribed for young people by mental health professionals for sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression…what is this telling us? Perhaps they sense the worth they bring to the education establishment is a good grade and nothing more and this is both a pressure and a dissatisfaction.

Both extremes (and of course I am speaking of polarities but ones which I believe do exist and which are indicative of an imbalance in the system) bring with them compromise at the crucial points in the development of character and faith. Unhealthy competition, the lack of ability or motivation to reflect and weigh some of our epoch’s biggest moral questions or a laissez faire “what’s the point” disengagement all compromise the development of faith and character which contribute to a just and sane society.

The path of wisdom which builds a healthy and just society is a slow one and it seems that we have chosen the fast track.

I am both worried where that fast track will take us and hopeful of the resilience of wisdom.

Carol Kingston-Smith