BENNINGTON — A local author's book about fundamental values world religions have in common comes during a time of division when such basic concerns as truth and compassion are distorted or ignored.
Such values are universally important because they are how we live together successfully.
"Basically the book looks at different values that are shared by all of the world's major religions," said Nancy J. Thompson, of Bennington, a professor of comparative religion.
The book's epigraph, a quote by John Lennon, sets the tone: "I believe that what Jesus and Mohammad and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It's just that the translations have gone wrong."
The title is "Touching the Elephant: Values the World's Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us," published in 2019 by Zio Apollo Press in San Diego. Thompson will be presenting from her book on Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Second Congregational Church on Hillside Street.
Eight core values
The eight shared values she examines in the book are effort, compassion, generosity, order, acknowledgement, truth, mindfulness and humility.
People like to take ownership of such values: "Oh, this is part of my religion," Thompson said. "And really what I'm trying to do here is say 'No, when you get down to these kind of core values, they're in all of the world's religions. Here's where we see them.'"
Going deeper, she asked why. "Why is it, as different as the world's religions are — and they really are — why are they all stressing these particular values?
"And for me, that was the fun of writing the book. It was all about sort of pulling things apart and saying 'what does this really mean in the world?'" she said. "The one thing I didn't want to say in the book is 'people need to get religion.'"
Thompson doesn't care if people get religion. "For me the takeaway is not that you need to get religion to be a so-called 'good person,'" she said, "but that the religions care about these values because these values are how we live together. That's the crux of it."
One of the most important values for right now is truth, she said.
"I think we're surrounded by much more theater than we are truth-telling right now," she said. "When we can't trust each other and we can't take certain things as certain, then we really have a problem because then how do we relate to each other? How do we depend on each other? If we're all going to be flaming lies all over the place, how do we depend on each other? It's huge."
Her spiritual journey
Thompson has taught comparative religion on and off for about 20 years, including for Southern Vermont College and Johnson State University, now NVU-Johnson. She bought a house in Bennington in 2010. Raised as a Catholic, she is now a Buddhist and also a board member of Congregation Beth El in Bennington.
"Sometimes I like to joke with people and say I was born a Buddhist, it just took me a long time to figure it out," she said. "When I stumbled on Buddhism, and I really did stumble on it, I had this sort of epiphany and said, 'wait, that's what I believe, that's what I think, that's where all my ideas are.'"
However, it took her a long time to take her Buddhist vows. "But when I did, I never looked back," she said. "Then I came to Bennington."
When she moved to town, someone told her that if one wanted to meet people and become connected she needed to go to a church. This didn't set well with her, as she had given up church. There didn't seem to be a Buddhist group locally she could join. She knew about Congregation Beth El, however,
"At the heart of it, we have a lot in common," she said. "And the rest is history. I walked in the door and said 'here's who I am, can I hang out with you guys?' And they have been so welcoming to me. I'm actually on their board now, I'm their treasurer, which is a little strange and funny. But to me also very very very heartwarming. I like to think of myself as the resident alien at the synagogue."
Judaism has a long tradition of such resident aliens, "of the people who live amongst the tribe and do what the tribe does but they're not really a part of the tribe, and I would say that's where I am. I love Judaism."
Took nine years
Thompson wrote the first draft of "Touching the Elephant" in about six months, but it has taken nine years to get it published. "The first draft was very fast, and then all the hard work came," she said with a laugh.
"It's funny because I think if I felt differently about this book, I may have just given up," she said. "I know the publisher. He decided he was going to get into the publishing business. He had seen the first draft. And he said to me, 'you know, I can't get that book out of my head. And I want to publish it.' The rest is history. It's taken him two years to get it out."
The title comes from an old story about men who are blind and are each touching a different part of an elephant and describing what an elephant is based on the part that they're touching. "And to me, when we talk about religion, that's exactly what we do," Thompson said.
"We don't necessarily know anything about what anybody else believes, but we say that because 'this is what I know, this is what I believe, this is the way it is.' And we don't look further than that," she said.
Thompson is not "saying everybody should believe everything, but there's good reasons to respect each other and to respect these ideas that we share."
Regardless of what we look like or where we're from or what religion we practice, "at the end of the day, we pretty much want the same thing, right? We want to be alive, we want shelter, we want to be fed and we want happiness at whatever level our situation can give it to us."
Two people who have read the book have emailed her about how current and timely it is.
"I don't want to make this too extreme, but I think we have to look at ourselves right now and look at our societies and say 'are we being the best we can be, are we really being our best selves?'" she said. "And is our best self being mean-spirited? Is our best self watching people suffer or ignoring people suffering and being OK with that?"
At CCV Thompson has taught a class on the Holocaust and this is always at the front of her mind. She emphasized that she doesn't want to dramatize the current situation and say we're at the verge of genocide — she doesn't believe that.
"When things start to go really bad is when people are OK with just being bystanders, and they're OK with seeing things that are not OK and do nothing about it," she said. "If I can push back on that in any kind of small way with this book and say 'no, you want to be generous, not necessarily in goods, but in what you can do for others and in how you see others and what you think about others and how you treat others.'"
"It all comes down to the fact that in every religion in the world there is some version of the Golden Rule and a reason for it," she said.
Mark Rondeau is the Banner's night editor and religion editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org