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Union of Intelligible Associations

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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Governance: The spiritual challenge

Global Strategies Project


In 1993 the Millennium Institute, with the support of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, prepared a report on the critical issues facing the 21st century. Entitled Global 2000 Revisited: what shall we do?, it was written by Gerald Barney who had directed preparation of The Global 2000 Report to the President of the USA in 1980. The spiritual leaders of some 200 religions were represented at the Parliament in Chicago where the report formed part of the keynote speech. The report is unusual in that it challenges the faiths on their own spiritual ground to provide a more adequate response to the many apparently secular challenges faced by humanity and the planet. These are very realistically and powerfully summarized in the report.

1. Religion as a strategy

It is useful to consider each religion as a strategy, and even as the ultimate form of strategy. Religion explicitly links "local", through the individual, to "global" and "universal". It motivates and provides, often detailed, guidelines for action. It holds out the hope of a better future, if its discipline is observed. And it seeks to bind people into community in collective pursuit of its objectives. Often it calls for, and enables, a paradigm shift as essential to its effectiveness.

Faced with a multiplicity of religions, which have long resisted any effective integration, the set of religions as strategies poses challenges parallel to those posed by the ill-coordinated set of secular strategies.

2. Challenge for religion

But, as the report notes: "What faith is now not involved in acts of hatred and violence in one or more of the 48 religious and ethnic wars now in progress?" (p. 73). It cites one secular view that: "Religion must die. It is the fundamental cause of virtually all social, economic, and ecological problems and much of the violence in the world" (p. xiv).

It points out that: "virtually every faith tradition is being criticized today for not having a thoughtful, informed, penetrating analysis of the issues facing Earth and Earth's human community..." (p. xv). And: "Life for billions will be more precarious in the 21st century than it is now -- unless the faith traditions of the world lead the nations and peoples of Earth to act decisively to alter current beliefs and policies" (p. 1).

3. Nature of the "common ground"

For religions, as communities of shared culture and values, the challenge is to articulate the nature of the common ground that they are called upon to protect (p. xii). The report argues that "we lack a set of common moral values on which to base collective action" (p. 4). Unfortunately the Parliament of the World's Religions engaged in the crudest of processes to ensure adoption of a Global Ethic in order to respond to this need. Perhaps not surprisingly, this document already appears to have been forgotten.

The difficulty is that each religion already has such a set of moral values and has a heavy investment in a particular understanding of the common ground. It is the incompatible, even incommensurable, nature of such understandings which have prevented any progress. Laudable efforts may be made to capture commonalities in a new text, but this cannot be accepted as superseding understanding derived from sacred scriptures.

The challenge of "common ground" in relation to religion is very similar to that of "universal language" in relation to the many individual languages. It is indeed possible to promote Esperanto as a solution to communication and translation challenges, but it is important to learn from the marginalization of Esperanto and the reasons for it. And what of the many other artificial languages?

The report accepts that the challenge facing humanity is "fundamentally spiritual in nature" (p. 5) and poses challenging questions of the religious traditions. But it fails to suggestpossibilities for framing and holding the new understanding required. A conventional text is unlikely to be the vehicle.

4. Barriers to action

The report identifies seven barriers to taking the necessary political action for planetary recovery and survival barriers which it believes are currently more limiting and daunting than the extraordinary economic, engineering and management skills called for. These barriers are:

  • excusing inaction for reasons of uncertainty;
  • disbelieving and denying the evidence;
  • believing in human exceptionalism (a species not bound by ecological laws);
  • trusting adaptation as an sufficient response to impending changes;
  • failing to raise adequate awareness amongst leaders and people generally; and
  • despairing of action in the face of the enormity of the challenge.

But the "real problem", and the overriding barrier to action, is identified as failing to sustain a common development model.

5. Failure of the developmental model

The report argues strongly that "Our shared moral basis for a sustained cooperative effort -- our development model -- has failed. We are now a people -- a species -- without a vision. This is our real problem" (p. 60).

And further: "The Western concept of development is essentially a secularized version of the millennial dream: a rising above the human condition not through spiritual development, but through ruthless control and manipulation of nature" (p. 61). Elsewhere: "our concept of progress has failed" (p. 4). This model is viewed as "having crumbled to dust", notably because of its failure to respond effectively to the needs of the South, to the female half of the population, or to the biosphere. Moreover, the report sees most faith traditions as having accepted the legitimacy of the reigning development model and its underlying assumptions.

6. "The new model"

Unfortunately the report is insensitive to the epistemological and theological challenges of enunciating any new development model to spiritual leaders. It asserts that "The first principle of the new model must be that humans and Earth be in a mutually enhancing relationship. Without this principle as a starting point, no model of development, no vision of progress is sustainable" (p. 63). And: "The task ahead is to reexamine, reconsider, and reformulate every human institution to ensure that it fosters and supports our first principle..." (p. 63).

The difficulty is that all spiritual leaders have good reason to be in on the process of formulating first principles and "the model". It is they who recognize the challenge to understanding and a shift in awareness. As a "fundamentally spiritual" challenge, it is totally counterproductive to predetermine the results of this process or how it is to be undertaken. But religion itself is counterproductive, to the extent that each claims to adequately articulate "the answer" -- however necessary this claim may be at any one time.

Giving form to first principles is a continuing process in which humanity will be hopefully engaged in ever subtler ways until the end of its days -- with whatever spiritual inspiration it is accorded. The challenge is not how to build on a momentary product of this process but how to allow this process to imbue and interrelate new understandings of development.7. Naming the Way: misplaced concreteness

Ironically the report is flawed because it effectively "names the way", thus dissociating itself from the epistemological and spiritual challenges to understanding integral to human development. For example, the opening line of the Tao Te Ching reads: "The Way that can be defined is not the Eternal Way".

Most of the challenges to integrating strategic approaches derive from what amounts to misplaced concreteness. It is the easy assumption that subtle understandings of approaches to complexity can be rendered in simple text without evoking disclaimers and alternative formulations.

Many religions recognize the paradoxical quality of the understanding required. It is at this level that the epistemological challenges of fundamental science accord with those of religion. It is extremely unfortunate that those concerned with the challenges of development assume arrogantly that they are not faced with equivalent challenges.

As in many quests and rites of passage, the gate through which humanity must seemingly pass, if it is to avoid disaster, poses a major challenge to understanding. Defining the gate in any conventional terms is tantamount to barring passage. It is the very process of defining which creates what is experienced as a closed door. The way through calls for reframing not defining -- namely a different and more dyanmic relationship to the gateway. It is the paradoxical subtlety of the process of reframing which opens the gate and effectively creates the way.

8. Changing course

The report argues that "Earth is careening toward the spiritual equivalent of a stone wall" (p. 81). "Changing course will require an immense amount of energy. Not energy that comes from coal, gas, oil, or even nuclear fuel, but rather spiritual and emotional energy, enough to change the thinking and lives of more than 5 billion people" (p. 81).

Unfortunately many religions have long devoted considerable resources to ensure that people change their thinking. This is central to their proselytizing mission. Unfortunately the views seem to reinforce the many ongoing religious conflicts and exploitation of the environment.

It is therefore regrettable that the report frames the challenge in this way. For, given the track record of religions in competition with each other, the probability of success is uncomfortably low.

9. Reframing the challenge

Rather than define the challenge in terms of "an immense amount of energy", it might more fruitfully be assumed that very little change in thinking is required, if any. In many traditions the shift of attitude required is a very simple one -- although there is much difficulty in giving meaningful expression to this simplicity in a complex society. If, as each spiritual tradition firmly believes, it is correct in its understanding, then a more feasible challenge is to discover the framework which legitimates a multiplicity of apparently conflicting views.

The report cites the Pope's argument in recognizing in 1992 the Church's error in convicting Galileo: "The lesson, therefore, is that often beyond two partial and contrasting perceptions there exists a wider perception that includes them and goes beyond both of them" (p. 84). This is seen as a basis for a new approach to interreligious dialogue. It could also be seen as a basis for any new approach to development.

To respect the different religious views, it is vital however to recognize in all humility that there are profound epistemological, cultural and religious justifications for understandings that need to be comprehended as simultaneously both "complete" and "partial". It is maybe only the latest insights from mathematics and philosophy that could reconcile such paradoxically conflicting part/whole perceptions through appropriately complex forms (perhaps best understood with computer-assisted graphics).

As with the Bose-Einstein form of matter, demonstrated in 1995 for the first time, there are profoundly different ways in which seemingly incompatible perceptions can be related. It is amongst such higher forms of order that any "new model" of "development" can usefully be sought if they are to be adequate to the integrative challenge.

It is to be expected that such unusual forms would be intuitively compatible with the deepest religious insight and their real challenges to comprehension.

10. Questions for spiritual leaders

The report addressed the following questions to the spiritual leaders assembled at the Parliament of the World's Religions:

  • What are the traditional teachings -- and the range of other opinions -- within your faith on how to meet the legitimate needs of the growing human community without destroying the ability of Earth to support the community of all life? More specifically it also asked: How are the needs and wants of humans to be weighed relative to the survival of other forms of life?
  • What are the traditional teachings -- and the range of other opinions -- within your faith on the meaning of "progress" and how it is to be achieved? More specifically it also asked: What does your tradition teach concerning the destiny of followers of other traditions?
  • What are the traditional teachings -- and the range of other opinions -- within your faith tradition concerning a proper relationship with those who differ in race or gender (conditions one cannot change), or culture, politics, or faith? More specifically it also asked: How does your faith tradition characterize the teachings and followers of other faiths? Do some adherents of your tradition hold that the teachings and followers of other faiths are evil, dangerous, misguided? Is there any possibility that your faith tradition can derive wisdom, truth, or insight from the teachings of another faith?
  • What are the traditional teachings -- and the range of other opinions -- within your faith on the possibility of criticism, correction, reinterpretation, and even rejection of ancient traditional assumptions and "truth" in light of new understandings and revelations?

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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