Chapter 11: Conclusion
Service of a world in need requires more than help to individuals. It demands a transformation of world society, that is based on the ethical and spiritual values of the world faiths. This is why a mystical awareness and social activism are linked together. John V. Taylor, a former Bishop of Winchester, wrote, ‘The unique and authentic opening of the eyes by the Spirit of creativity within the heart of all things produces that double exposure by which what is and what might be are seen together in a single vision.’ Thomas Merton, in a paper given in Bangkok on the day of his death, said that the monk ‘is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude towards the contemporary world and its structures.’ Daniel Berrigan, a priest who was active in his opposition to the Vietnam War, went further. ‘The time will shortly be upon us’, he wrote, ‘if it is not already here, when the pursuit of contemplation will become a strictly subversive activity.’
It is encouraging, therefore, that increasingly people of different faiths are beginning to address together the urgent issues that face humankind. The 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions was, to my mind, a turning point in interfaith work. The question was no longer whether people of faith could or should meet together, but what could they do together for the benefit of the world. Of course some interfaith activists had asked that long before. There was, for example, in the eighties an Interfaith Colloquium against Apartheid and there were various interfaith gatherings on ecological issues as well as interfaith prayer and work for peace, but the Parliament for a moment captured the attention of the world and sought to show, at a time of intense conflict in former Yugoslavia and of communal troubles in India, that religions need not be a cause of division but could unite on certain basic ethical teachings.
At the 1993 Parliament, most members of the Assembly signed a document called ‘Toward a Global Ethic.’ They agreed that a Global Ethic, based on the fundamental demand that every human being must be treated humanely, offered the possibility of a better life for individuals and a new global order. The document emphasized ‘Four Irrevocable Directives’:
1. Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
2. Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order
3. Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness
4. Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.
In the years since 1993, the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions has attempted to see how these ethical demands can affect the life of our whole society. At the 1999 Cape Town Parliament ‘A Call to Our Guiding Institutions’ was issued. This invited those engaged in government, business, education, arts and media, science and medicine, intergovernmental organizations and the organizations of civil society, as well as those in positions of religious and spiritual leadership, to ‘build new, reliable, and more imaginative partnerships towards the shaping of a better world.’ It was a call to find new ways to co-operate with one another and to reflect together on the moral and ethical dimension of their work. It was a pity that too few leading members of the Guiding Institutions were there, because dialogue now needs to be inter-disciplinary as well as interfaith.
At the same time as the focus of much interfaith activity has become more practical, those in positions of leadership in the political and economic spheres are both recognizing the importance of religion in shaping the modern world and acknowledging that there is a spiritual and ethical dimension to the major problems facing humankind. There is space only to give a few examples of this development.
Since 1993, UNESCO has held several conferences addressing the role of religion in conflict situations and at the 1994 conference in Barcelona issued a ‘Declaration on the Role of Religion in the Promotion of a Culture of Peace’. UNESCO has established an International Interreligious Advisory Committee and with the UN launched the year 2000 as ‘the International Year for a Culture of Peace.’
In 1998 a meeting on ‘World Faiths and Development’ was held at Lambeth Palace, London, jointly chaired by James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, and by Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury. From this emerged World Faiths Development Dialogue. This has brought together two actors on the development scene, the religious communities and the multilateral development agencies, which until now have gone their own way with considerable mutual suspicion. Now the hope is to bring together those who possess expertise in technical issues and faith communities which stand closer than any others to the world’s poorest people. Such a conscious step to forge an alliance should lead, in the words of Dr. Carey and James D. Wolfensohn, ‘to inspiration and learning among people from all sides and to ways of making some real changes in favor of those who most need them.’
In 2001, for the first time, The World Economic Forum, an independent foundation that engages business, political and other leaders of society seeking to improve the state of the world, invited religious leaders to share in their deliberations on globalization. It was recognized that ‘religious traditions have a unique contribution to offer . . . particularly in emphasizing human values and the spiritual and moral dimension of economic and political life.’ In the same year, the 12th Anti-Corruption International Conference, which was held at Prague, for the first time included a panel -- in which I was invited to participate -- about the contribution of faith based organizations to the struggle against corruption.
The most striking example of the new seriousness with which international decision makers are taking the contribution of faith communities was the historic Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which met in UN General Assembly Hall in August 2000. Partly because of the opposition of Communist countries, The United Nations has kept itself at some distance from faith communities, although Religious NGOs have, for many years, made a contribution at certain levels, in particular to specialist agencies. The meeting, which issued a ‘Commitment to Global Peace’, was, therefore, of great symbolic significance. Subsequently the possibility of a Religious Advisory Council to the United Nations -- an idea suggested as long ago as 1943 by Bishop George Bell of Chichester -- has become the subject of active discussion.
Further, at national and local level in many countries there is growing emphasis on interfaith understanding and practical co-operation, although in all too many places religious differences embitter existing conflict.
This co-operation is very important and the great suffering in our world makes it urgent. I wonder, however, if it will be sustained without a sense of human unity that the mystical vision inspires. Paul Knitter in his One Earth, Many Religions emphasizes the priority of ‘the dialogue of action’ in response ‘to the widespread human and ecological suffering and injustice that are threatening our species and our planet’ but he recognizes that ‘unless the voices of the mystic and the scholar are also heard, the conversation will lose its religious content or it will be turned into a tool for purposes that can only discredit all the participants.’ I felt that to some extent this happened at the UN Peace Summit. Some leaders seemed mainly interested in promoting their own religious tradition and there was little listening. I was also not sure whether the spiritual leaders were being enlisted to support the UN agenda or whether the UN was really open to critique and dialogue.
Further, the emphasis on the practical may allow faith communities to avoid the challenge to their traditional exclusivism which a mystic vision implies. The Hinduism from which I have learned teaches the spiritual oneness of all people, although too much of Hinduism today in India is caught up with communalism and political rivalries. That oneness, which springs from a sense of oneness with the Divine, inspires compassion and concern for all people and indeed for all living beings. As Hindu teachers sometimes say, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself, because he is yourself.’ Many of the great Hindu teachers of the twentieth century have emphasized that a mystic awareness should inspire practical service to the poor. Indeed the Gita teaches that ‘when a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.’ (6, 32).
The ancient Vedic tradition speaks of unity and compassion. It is appropriate to end this book with two prayers from the Hindu tradition that can be an inspiration to all people of faith.
O God, let us be united;
Let us speak in harmony;
Common be our prayer;
Common be the end of our assembly;
Alike be our feelings;
Unified be our hearts;
Common be our intentions;
Perfect be our unity.
Let your soul lend its ear to every cry of pain
like as a lotus bares its heart to drink the morning sun.
Let not the fierce sun dry one tear of pain
before you yourself have wiped it from the sufferer’s eye.
Rather, let each burning human tear fall on your heart
and there remain nor ever brush it off,
until the pain that caused it is removed.