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Religious Freedom: An Ecumenical Perspective PDF Print E-mail

Leonard Swidler
Journal of Ecumenical Studies

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

I would like to lay out in very cursory fashion what I think is the context in which our concerns for religious liberty need to be pursued. In a way it is indicated in the title of our conference with the words “New Millennium.” If there is one concept you take away from my remarks, think of it as dialogue. I am not talking about a surface sort of encounter but about something profound and utterly transforming.

Those scholars who earlier in the 20th century predicted the impending demise of Western civilization were dead wrong. After World War I in 1922, Oswald Spengler wrote his widely acclaimed book The Decline of the West. After the beginning of World War II, Petrium A. Serrocan published in 1941 his likewise popular book The Crises of Our Age. Given the massive worldwide scale of unprecedented destruction and horror of the world’s first global war, 1914-1918, and the even vastly greater destruction of the second global conflict, 1939-1945, the predictions of these scholars and others, and the great following they found, are understandable.

In fact, however, those vast world conflagrations were manifestations of the dark side of a unique breakthrough in the history of humankind—the modern development of Christendom that became Western civilization and is now becoming a global civilization. Never before had there been world wars. Likewise, never before had there been world political organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Never before did humanity possess the real possibility of destroying all human life, whether through nuclear or ecological catastrophe.

Still, I argue that there are solid empirical grounds for reasonable hope that the inherent life force of humankind will prevail over the parallel death force. The prophets of doom were correct in their perception that humanity is entering a radically new age. In the mid-1990s, Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University named a central contemporary reality when he argued that with the fading of the Cold War a new “clash of civilizations” is rising. Fundamentalisms of all sorts—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, nationalist, ethnic, tribal, and so forth—are tearing at the fabric of the new world order, even as it is being woven. In the 1990s we entered a state of cacophonous confusion and consequently are floundering. For example, think of Rwanda, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Middle East. The outbreaks of violence in these areas are only the most visible flash points of the contemporary malaise. The problems that they manifest run much deeper. They are cultural, ethical, religious, and spiritual. A world with clashing or potentially clashing cultures, religions, ethnic groups, and civilizations is the world of the end of the second millennium.

At the same time, the very antithesis of this clash is likewise a reality, and an increasing one. Humanity is also in the midst of a deep evolutionary shift toward a higher, communal, and dialogical way of life. This evolution of cultures and religions points toward a process essential to healing the deep problems that inhere in all aspects of our human cultures and threaten our very survival—namely, the awakening of human beings to the power of dialogue, of deep dialogue.

The future offers two alternatives: death or dialogue. That is, you might say, the Samuel Huntington or the Leonard Swidler view. I would suggest that this statement is not an over-dramatization. In the past it was possible, indeed unavoidable, for most humans to live out their lives in isolation from the vast majority of their fellows. We talked to our own cultural selves. We spoke with those who thought like us, or who should think like us. We engaged in monologue.

Until the edge of the present era, we humans lived in an age of monologue. That age is now passing. We are poised at the entrance to the age of dialogue. We can no longer ignore the other, but we can close our minds and spirits to them, looking at them with fear and misunderstanding, coming to resent them and even perhaps hate them.

Today, nuclear, biological, chemical, ecological, or other catastrophic devastation lies just a little farther down the path of monologue. It is only by struggling out of this self-centered monologic mind-set into dialogue with the others, as they really are and not as we have projected them in our monologues, that we can avoid such cataclysmic disasters. In brief, we must move from the age of monologue to the age of dialogue.

Deep dialogue is not simply a series of conversations. It is a whole new way of thinking and of seeing and reflecting on the world and its meaning. Deep dialogue is the encounter between two or more persons with differing views. The primary purpose of such an encounter is for each participant to learn from the other, so that he/she can change and grow. We enter into dialogue primarily so we can learn, change, and grow, not so we can force change on the other, which was the old, monologic way.

In the past, when we encountered those who differed from us, we did so usually to defeat them, as opponents, because we were convinced that we alone had the truth. But that is not what dialogue is. Dialogue is not debate. In dialogue, each partner must listen to the other as openly and sympathetically as possible in an attempt to understand the other’s position as precisely and, as it were, from within, as possible.

Why is this dramatic change occurring? Why should we pursue the truth by way of dialogue? Of course, there are many external factors that have appeared in the past two centuries that have contributed to the creation of what we today call the global village. Transportation is one, although it doesn’t always work. Communication is another. I do better with E-mail and the Web than I do on airplanes sometimes.

In addition to these external developments, there have been fundamental intellectual changes as well. Thomas Koon, who died recently, revolutionized our understanding of the development of scientific thinking with his notion of paradigm shifts. He painstakingly showed that fundamental paradigms, or exemplary models, are the large thought frames within which we place and interpret observed data. He also demonstrated that scientific advancement inevitably causes paradigm shifts. Examples are the shifts from geocentrisim to heliocentrism, or from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics. These shifts have always been vigorously resisted at first, as was the thought of Galileo, but they finally prevailed. This insight of Koon’s, however, is valid not only for the development of thought in the natural sciences but it is applicable to all major disciplines, including religious thought.

Here I would point to the work of my friend, Professor Hans Kung. I understand religion, in brief fashion, to be an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly based on some notion of the transcendent. Since the 18th-century Enlightenment, Christendom—Western and now the global civilization—has been undergoing a major paradigm shift in how we understand the process of understanding and the meaning and status of truth When I say truth I mean our statements about reality, or in other words, about our epistemology. This new epistemological paradigm increasingly determines how we perceive, conceive, think about, and subsequently decide and act on the world.

Whereas the Western notion of truth was largely absolute, static, monologic, and exclusive up to the past century, it has since become de-absolutized, dynamic, and dialogic. In a word, it has become relational. This new view of truth came about in six different, but closely related, ways.

In brief, our understanding of truth and reality now is becoming—in this new radical shift, one that understands reality, especially about the meaning of things—historical, intentional, perspectival, partial, interpretive, and dialogic. What is common to all these qualities is the idea of relationality. That is, all expressions, all understandings of reality are in some fundamental way related to the speaker, the knower, either in a historical context or by intention of what I want to study, as well as by my background (the fact that I am male, Caucasian, of a certain age, American, etc.).

By the very limits of our language we can only talk about some things at a certain time. The hermeneutic understanding of things means that everything is always interpreted. All knowledge is interpreted because knowledge means my knowing something, and it is the “my” that is the limiting factor. The fact is that we are always engaged in dialogue one way or another.

With this new and, I suggest, irreversible understanding of the meaning of truth resulting from these epistemological advances, culminating in the insight of the dialogic view of truth, the modern critical thinker has undergone a new Copernican turn. At the same time, with this de-absolutized view of truth, we come face to face with the specter of relativism, the opposite pole of absolutism. It can no longer be claimed that any statement of the truth is absolute or totally objective, because that claim does not square with our experience of reality. Remember that the very term absolute comes from the Latin absolutus—no limit, unlimited. Anything we say is always going to be limited. It can never be unlimited simply because we are limited creatures.

Because this is true, it is equally impossible to claim that every statement of the truth is completely relative, totally subjective. For that also does not square with our experience of reality. Indeed, it would be logically impossible for us to talk with each other if everything were totally relative.

For example, let’s imagine this pamphlet symbolizes human experience, and we are all humans and we all share in this commonality of humanity. We are all sitting around in a big circle, as it were sharing this, and here I am in my place in the world, and I experience human life. Now, if I am very careful, I can describe my experience of human life. I would then say my statement describing human life is true. It reflects reality as I experience it. Over here is a Chinese woman, Buddhist, 25 years old. This is her place in life. She experiences human life also. If she is careful she can describe human life. Her statement will be true. My statement is also true. They are both true. But they are not both the same. Neither is absolute. Neither is unlimited.

When that begins to sink in, then I do not say to my Buddhist sister, “You get it wrong when you describe reality the way you do, it is really this way,” which is the monologic approach. I begin to realize I had better be in dialogue with her so I can learn something about reality that I cannot experience and perceive from my perspective, and vice versa. Therefore, dialogue is necessary.

I wanted to talk about the second axial period. Let me do this in brief fashion. Karl Jaspers, some 50 years ago, wrote a book in which he came up with the concept of the axial period. He pointed out that in the years approximately 800 to 200 BC a fantastic shift took place in all of the then existing major civilizations of the world, China, the Middle East, the Near East, and Europe. They went from pre-axial, or primal consciousness, to axial and critical consciousness. Think for example of the consciousness and the religions before this period. They tended to focus heavily on ritual and on identity in the community or collective. They tended to follow the rhythm of nature and were very close to After the axial shift, think of Socrates, who talked about only the examined life being worth living. The shift was from the external to the internal, from identity with the collective to the individual person. Gautama, the Buddha, mapped out a way of personal salvation. From the Hebrew prophets you hear statements like “I do not want sacrifices, I want a pure heart”—not the external ritual, not the identity with the collective, but the internal, ethical behavior.

This was a radical shift, and this is where all the world religions as we know them today really got their shape. In Hinduism, this is when the Upanishads came, and in the Hebrew tradition, this is when the great prophets came. In the Hellenistic tradition this is when we got Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In the Indian religions this is the period of Gautama and Mahavera, the founder of Jainism. In China it is the time of Confucius and Lao-tsu.

This is when this all happens. This is the axial period. Things are radically different afterward. In the first axial shift, we lost much of the connection with nature’s rhythms.

There is now occurring what a colleague of mine calls a second axial period. We are undergoing a paradigm shift of equal magnitude to that of the first axial period. We are now entering the age of global dialogue. This is a radical reversal. We always spoke in monologic terms before. We were always provincial. One of the things that is happening in this new transition, this second axial period, is that we are recapitulating and redeeming our lost connection with nature through the ecological movement.

I just came from a conference at Harvard University on “Christianity and Ecology.” It is one of a whole series. They have also had one on “Buddhism and Ecology” and “Confucianism and Ecology.” They will have conferences on ecology and Islam, Judaism, and so forth. This is a reflection of what is happening in our age. Our concern for religious liberty and the pursuit of the spiritual life is one that must take place now and in the future in this new second axial period—a radical shift from the very beginning of human history to the age of global dialogue. Dialogue, again, is not simply a surface exchange of ideas. It is a profound, transforming, new way of thinking. If you want to learn a little bit more about how to understand it better, come and talk to me about my new Institute for Global Dialogue.