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Prospects for Co-operation to Defend Religious Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Leonard Swidler
Journal for Ecumenical Studies

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

Those scholars who earlier in the twentieth century predicted the impending demise of Western civilization, I believe, were dead wrong. In 1922, after World War I, Oswald Spengler wrote his widely acclaimed book, The Decline of the West. In 1941, after the beginning of World War II, Pitirim Alexandrovich Soroken published his likewise popular book, The Crises of Our Age. Given the massive worldwide scale of the unprecedented destruction and horror of the world’s first global war (1914-18), and the even vastly greater destruction of the second global conflict (1939-45), the pessimistic predictions of these scholars and the great following that they found were understandable.

In fact, however, those vast world conflagrations were manifestations, I believe, of the dark side of a unique breakthrough in the history of humankind. This breakthrough involved the modern development of Christendom, which has become Western civilization, and is now becoming global civilization. Never before had there been world wars. Likewise, never before had there been world political organizations. Never before did humanity possess the real possibility of destroying all human life, whether through nuclear or ecological catastrophe. Still, there are solid empirical grounds, I believe, for reasonable hope that the inherent life force of humankind will nevertheless prevail over the parallel death force.

Some will recall that in the mid-1990s Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University named a central contemporary reality, when he argued that the fading cold war was being replaced by the rise of what he called a clash of civilizations. Fundamentalisms of all sorts—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, nationalist, ethnic, and tribal—are tearing at the fabric of the so-called new world order, even as it is being woven. Therefore, a world with clashing or potentially clashing cultures, religious and ethnic groups, and civilizations, is the world of the end of the second millennium.

However, that is not all it is. Its very antithesis is, likewise, an increasing reality. Humanity is in the midst of a deep evolutionary shift toward a higher communal and dialogical way of life. This evolution of cultures and religion point toward a process that, I believe, is essential to healing the deep problems that inhere in all aspects of our human cultures, and at times even threaten our very survival, namely the awakening of human beings to the power of dialogue.

I believe the future fundamentally offers two alternatives: death or dialogue. I do not believe this statement is an overdramatization. In the past, it was possible, indeed, unavoidable for most of us human beings to live out our lives in isolation from the vast majority of our fellows. We talked to our own cultural selves. That is, we spoke with those who thought like us, or who should think like us. Put briefly, until the edge of the present era we humans lived in the age of monologue. That age is now passing. We are now poised at the entrance to the age of dialogue.

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

Why, we might ask, this dramatic change? Why should we pursue the truth by way of dialogue? Of course, we know there are many external reasons and factors that have appeared in the past two centuries which have contributed to the creation of what we call today a global village. However, there were also many fundamental intellectual changes as well.

Thomas Kuhn 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 all observed data. He also demonstrated that scientific advancement inevitably brings about eventual paradigm shifts. Examples are the shifts from geocentricism to heleocentrism or from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics. Such a paradigm shift, of course, is always vigorously resisted at first—as was the thought, for example, of Galileo—but the shift finally prevails.

This insight of Kuhn’s, however, is not only valid for the development of thought in the natural sciences. It also applies to all major disciplines of human thought, including religious thought. Religion here being in my mind, and in any case, understood as an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live according to that explanation. . . .

I am very short on time, and I have a number of specifics on how this shift has taken place in the last two hundred years. So, I am going to try to give you a quick example of how we are coming to realize that all of our understanding of truth—our statements about reality—are no longer to be understood as absolute.

The word absolute means unlimited, or absolvere in Latin. Imagine this book symbolizes human life, and all humans share this in common. It is as if we are all sitting around the globe in various places, cultures, religions, ethnic groups, etc. We all have our place in the world. We all share human life. Now, here I am. I can describe my place in the world. I am a male, Caucasian, American, Catholic, Christian, theologian, etc. etc. This is my place in the world. I experience human life. If I am careful, I can describe that human life experience accurately. Then, I would say that my statement is true. It accurately describes human life as I experience it. Over here is a 25 year old Chinese, Buddhist, woman, etc., etc. She, likewise, describes her place in the world. She also experiences human life. If she is careful in her description, her statement about her experiencing human life will be true. It will really describe human life as she experiences it. Her statement will be true. My statement will be true. They are both true, but they are not both the same. Each is limited. Each is de-absolutized, if you will.

Now, the next point, a second axial period. It was Karl Jaspers who pointed out the significance of the huge paradigm shift, which occurred in the period from 800 to 200 BCE. He named that period the Axial Period, because the change was so radical that it affected all aspects of culture. It transformed consciousness itself. It was within the horizons of this form of consciousness that the great civilizations of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe developed. It was this form of consciousness that spread to other regions, through migration and exploration, thus becoming the dominant, though not exclusive, form of consciousness in the world. To this day we all bear the structure of consciousness that was shaped in this Axial Period, whether or not it came from China, India, the Middle East, or Europe, the major centers of consciousness back in that period.

Prior to the Axial Period, the dominant form of consciousness was cosmic, tribal, mythic, and ritualistic. The consciousness of the tribal cultures was intimately connected with the cosmos and the fertility of human nature. The Axial period, on the other hand, moved from a consciousness that was connected with nature, to one that was analytical and abstract. Think, for example, of the development of philosophy in the area of Greece, and similar sorts of developments in India, the period of the Upanishads, and so on. Here you have a very different kind of consciousness.

This was the shift, from the primal consciousness of one’s identity being in the collective, to the individual. Think, for example, of the shift represented by Gautama Buddha who mapped out a way of individual spiritual salvation, Nirvana. Think of the great Hebrew prophets who said, “I do not want sacrifice. I want you to live with a pure heart and walk in justice before your God.” The shift was also away from the external, or ritualistic in similar kind of fashion. So it was that the great world religions developed in this period.

Let me say then that we have been moving through a series of paradigm shifts in all of human history. We experienced, at a global level, a major paradigm shift in this first axial period that radically changed much of the consciousness of the whole world, releasing huge amounts of energies. It has also had certain disadvantages as well. Certain things were forgotten, or suppressed. But, in any case, we now are moving into an age which a colleague of mine by the name of Edward Cousins points out is really a period of a paradigm shift of magnitude equal to that of the first axial period. Hence, he refers to our being in a second Axial period.

Just as the earlier shift was from a collective to an individual consciousness, our consciousness is now becoming global. Our very conference here is an indication of that. We turn on the television, and the whole world comes into our living rooms. Our whole life is becoming one of global consciousness. There is another characteristic of globalization in this contemporary second axial period: we are becoming vertically global. We are rediscovering our roots in this earth. The whole ecological movement is one which is now attempting to recover that connectedness with nature, much of which was lost from the primal consciousness, but is now being brought together with the analytic understanding that we have developed in the meanwhile.

I would add that the forces of history, up until very recently, have been forces of divergence. Now we are entering a situation of convergence. The very shape of the globe indicated that, eventually, with the population explosion, we would move in the direction of convergence. However, this is not only physical, not only economic, and other ways externally. It is also a convergence of consciousness. This is why dialogue is not only a possibility, but an absolute necessity. If we do not engage in serious dialogue, we are going to find ourselves, as I suggested before, in a situation where we will destroy ourselves, spiritually and physically.

It seems to me that what we must do is focus on developing a way of entering into dialogue with those who differ from us. Please realize, however, that the word dialogue, which has become very popular these days, does not mean simply having a conversation with somebody who is different from us, whereby we listen to the other person to be polite, and then try to persuade him of our position. This is not dialogue at all. This is just the old debate version in a soft sell approach. The result will be precisely the same, namely, defensiveness on the part of our partner, who will not really be listening to us because she or he will perceive that we are trying to put him or her in our pocket. However, if we come to the conversation primarily to learn; if now I say to my Chinese Buddhist friend, “Tell me about your perception of life, so that I can learn something about it that I cannot learn from my perspective I need to be in dialogue with you, so I can learn more about reality, and you with me,” then we can in fact develop a kind of world which will become more fully human.