It was a century of violence of a scale without precedence in human history. There were two world wars, hundreds of more localised conflicts, with genocidal struggles altogether claiming a hundred million lives. Weapons of mass destruction were manufactured on an industrial scale - sufficient to wipe out earth’s population several times over - all in the name of peace and security. The pollution of the earth, air and seas, the plundering and wanton destruction of the biosphere occurred to such an extent that the future of life on earth as we know it begins to look uncertain.
Yet, it was also a century of encounter and breakthrough between people of different cultures and convictions, of monumental collaborations in science and industry spanning the planet on a scale envisaged only by a few prophetic dreamers at the outset. It was a time of exponential expansion in knowledge and understanding about humankind and all other species of life and the environment, a time of new scientific disciplines and philosophies enabling us to envisage the interconnectedness of all the parts and the whole of existence.
Science and technology made possible huge steps forward in the quality of life of billions of people, yet this was not achieved universally. The gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is as wide as it ever was, if not wider, despite some improvements for the majority of people in comparison with life a century ago. In a disturbing way, progress in human development has proved possible to halt and even to reverse due to unmanageable conflict, and the resurgence of ancient hatreds in situations where social progress masked but did not eliminate tribalism. Recognition is growing that the intellectual and social evolution of humankind has not been matched by moral and spiritual development.
At the same time, a huge decline in the numbers of people supporting both Christian and other faith communities was recorded, especially in developed and industrialised cultures. The old theocentric, religious world-views were supplanted by a world view dominated by scientific method and technical know-how. Religious and spiritual perspectives came no longer to be owned in common, but were marginalised and reduced to being no more than the option and concern of the private individual. Churches struggled to cope with decline, by responses within a range of extremes. On the one hand they tended to retreat into exclusive conservative groups of committed members for security from which to mount a crusade against secularism, or on the other hand, they modernised their belief and practice in an effort to appear more relevant to the age in ways which de-valued their spiritual core and their distinct identity.
Nevertheless, remarkable, influential holy people and teachers appeared in many religious traditions during the century. Their presence or actions raised them above the dichotomy appearing in religious communities, influencing the faithful, the lapsed, and even those for whom religion had played no part in their lives. Religious communities in the less developed countries of the world continued to play a major part in enabling their faithful members to resist deprivation and injustice, and to work through faith and hope to improve their lot.
Towards the end of the century a widespread dissatisfaction began to emerge, in part of the developed world with the achievements and experience of living with a merely functional and materialistic world view. More and more people began to speak of a hunger and a quest for spirituality in their lives, and to express a willingness to explore beyond the giveness of their original culture and tradition for something that would address their inner need. A new age of pilgrimage emerged in the barren land of secular materialism.
While division and destruction raged, the desire for real peace and human unity was bringing to birth a new consciousness of the interdependence and equal value of all people and their environment, and the unity of physical, spiritual, moral and social aspects of human existence. In post-war ruins, in the gulags, under the yoke of apartheid, neo-colonialism, and dictatorial regimes, a new sense of responsibility began to emerge for forging a common human destiny, ensuring planetary survival with trust-building and co-operation instead of violent conflict.
New political institutions like the European Community, inter-governmental and humanitarian agencies began to develop as means to work for peace, justice and equity for all. Church denominations, long isolated from each other and antagonistic towards each other, despite, or because of their decline and shaken self confidence, began to open themselves to dialogue within and across the divides of faith and culture. Mutual respect and understanding began to lead to their collaboration on moral and spiritual issues like global poverty, peace-making, human rights and environmental protection.
A remarkable feature of the years bridging the end of the century was the international Jubilee 2000 campaign to rid the world’s most heavily indebted poor countries from their crippling burden of accumulated un-repayable loans. The movement began with a small Christian ecumenical third world action group, and quickly spread to involve people from other faith communities, humanitarian and political organisations around the world. As a result the advice of world religious community leaders on the social implications of economic issues is now being widely sought by leaders of international financial institutions.
In the second half of the twentieth century, movements for peace and for the renewal of the earth and all its living inhabitants began to contend more confidently with the inherited culture of violence and exploitation, that has for so long dominated the way human beings deal with each other. Political and religious leaders began to exhort their followers to make resolves that would foster a new world view and culture of non-violence, mutual inter-dependence and collaboration.
The Geneva Spiritual Appeal proclaimed and signed by leaders of humanitarian organisations and religious communities on United Nations day 1999, represent a growing convergence on essential convictions around which people of all faiths and ideologies can unite. These are an expression of the new global consciousness that has been emerging through the dark and violent times of the past century.
“Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common a respect for the integrity of humankind -
Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common a rejection of hatred and violence -
Because our personal convictions or the religions to which we owe allegiance have in common the hope for a better and more just world -
Representing religious communities and civil society we appeal to the leaders of this world, whatever their field of influence, to adhere strictly to the following three principles :
A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual power to justify violence of any kind,
A refusal to invoke a religious or spiritual source to justify discrimination and exclusion ;
A refusal to exploit or dominate others by means of strength, intellectual capacity or spiritual persuasion, wealth or social status.
Grounded in the Genevan tradition of welcome, refuge and compassion, our appeal is open to all whose convictions are in accordance with these three demands.”
In Britain the Millennium Resolution was published at the end of 1999, with the backing of political and church leaders.
“Let there be :
Respect for the earth
Peace for its people
Love in our lives
Delight in the good
Forgiveness for past wrongs
and from now on a new start.”
Although much simpler in content, together with the Geneva Spiritual Appeal, this represents an important creative moral impulse arising at the end of the twentieth century, to be carried forward into the new millennium. They represent the broad vision of a non-violent society in which peace and right relationships are goals towards which people resolve to work They require great strength of understanding and commitment on the part of all participants in the community of nations - both leaders and the led. They raise the question: from whence now comes the strength, the wisdom, the inspiration, the understanding needed to succeed?
In the past century, old religious institutions, political ideologies were tried and found lacking by multitudes of their adherents. The moral and spiritual movement towards a non-violent social order has arisen from great individuals who participated in the old institutions and ideologies but transcended them with the quality of their own integrity, inner resolve and faithfulness to the spirit and intention of their belief systems. As we recognise the wisdom and value of their contribution to human progress, how do we apply and advance their work? What sort of moral and spiritual education is required for rising generations to be aware of the roots of the horrific errors of past human behaviour? What kind of religious institutions and communities are needed to celebrate and nurture this spirituality and ethic? Are existing institutions capable of being converted, so that their essential role and task is honoured, and so that they are no longer pre-occupied with their history, status, protocols and other issues inessential to the work of reconciliation, peace-making, healing and community building?
Many people in religious institutions, both Christian and no-Christian appear to be trapped within a conflict of understanding and interests determined by conservative or liberal attitudes to doctrine and faith practice. All are concerned with making a right and proper response to one question : How can I be loyal to the ideals and precepts of the God whose worship gives my life meaning and purpose? The problem is that there are differences in the way God and the divine will and purpose are being understood, between world religious communities, but within those communities themselves. Differences are exacerbated by ignorance and distorted perception of each other’s true experience and situation.
In the era of international travel and communications, of the ‘global village’, people of different faiths and cultures are now living and working alongside each other and getting to know about each other’s beliefs and religious practices. Mutual knowledge and acceptance can lead to trust and respect, a willingness to learn from each other and see one’s own life and spiritual journey in the life of the other person’s. As a result, for some people, an awareness is growing of common experiences of living their faith in God, and of spiritual exploration that leaps over the ancient divides of denomination, religion, culture and even the contemporary conservative – liberal divide.
Religious believers of all kinds find themselves immersed in a sea of secularism in daily life, surrounded by others for whom the spiritual pilgrimage means little. Instinctively they realise that they have more in common with someone whose value system derives from their faith. Even though they may disagree on issues, they find themselves more at home with the follower of another religious faith than they would feel with someone whose values are determined by egotistic secular materialism. A shared value system and ethic depends ultimately on a deep common experience of what it means to be human, that goes beyond culture or conditioning, to the extent that external beliefs and behaviours become irrelevant.
The past few centuries produced some people of high moral and spiritual qualities who found that the beliefs and institutions of religion are not necessary to their personal development. They are in a class apart from those whose denial and rejection of traditional concepts of God and morality were an expression of rebellion against society, and a pretext for evil doing. Denying a place for any concept of God and a pre-defined religious and moral order was part of a quest for truth and authentic living within the limits of their own perception and reason. The idea of ‘religionless’ spirituality, a humanism that excludes transcendence and theism was of itself an expression of an urge to transcend the limitations and compromises of given social and religious norms. It takes and detaches an important aspect of traditional spiritual thinking – the apophatic, via negativa, in order to give it proper attention and extend the human capacity for reasoning about the essential values and principles of life. However, it still needs to draw from the pool of conceptual language generated by religious thinking to communicate its insights and precepts.
Pure reasoning needs to be clothed in the symbolism of art, poetry and music to be effective, and ‘religious’ spirituality has been a powerful source of inspiration in the creation of the complex world of symbols we rely upon to share meanings with each other in depth. A sense of kinship can exist between a person of religious faith, and one who has no place for religion in their lives if they are bonded by a shared experience of higher consciousness in their common search for the truth of existence. This search for truth continues wherever the struggle for renewal of our humanity goes on, in the face of the betrayals, bewilderments, terrors and tragedies of everyday life.
We have arrived from the twentieth century with a sobering sense of what the consequences are of religious and social institutions settling for something less than the truth. Dangerous partial understandings, as well blatantly false and foolish notions of what it means to be human, held governments and religious communities captive, under fascism, communism, and neo-fundamentalism. More recently a range of new quasi-religious movements have appeared all over the world in developed and underdeveloped countries alike. These are pessimistic about the future, obsessed with the possibility of the world being rescued from its fate by extra-terrestrials – whether they be new messiahs, angels, or technologically superior beings from other galaxies. The promise of a fix-all solution, or an ultimate rescue from the mess we have created for ourselves, each in their different ways, detract from everyone taking responsibility for themselves and their share in the fate of the world. In many instances the promises of the leaders of these movements have proved not only to be false but fatal to their adherents. This has helped increase distrust in any kind of religious movement that asserts its position with authority and confidence. Both authentic and inauthentic religious communities are challenged as a result.
As we look to the future, fully aware of the world’s problems, and the responsibility all share for tackling them, there are special lessons to carry forward from our most recent history, simply because huge changes have taken place through industry, science and technology which were scarcely imaginable a century ago. Most importantly, the emerging sense of inter-connectedness, interdependence and mutual responsibility among many in the end-of-century generation is nurtured by world travel and global telecommunications. We are perhaps in the midst of another great paradigm shift, like that of the renaissance, the first industrial revolution, or the era of Einstein, Freud and Jung.
Any great universal change in the way people look at and talk about their world is preceded by the accumulation of a wealth of information which cannot be interpreted by existing means. As yet there is no universal theory of interpretation that succeeds, in the sense that it has influenced the language, ideas and shared symbols of people world wide. Almost everywhere on earth there is evidence of international commerce and mobility. This has brought about widespread changes of awareness and understanding, but so far this unites some, but not all of the human race. People are still divided into political and economic blocks striving for supremacy or survival, rather than for co-existence, harmony and partnership. Unifying the world’s population depends upon what can be done to overcome the unjust imbalance between sections of the population, and what can be done to repair the damage to the planet, and restore right relationships between people and their environment.
Putting an end to the fear and insecurity, on which all exploitation and injustice thrive, seems impossible. It has to happen at an individual as well as a collective level to succeed. Force has manifestly failed to achieve this. Non-violence, by methods of persuasion, motivating and reconciling, has shown it can succeed where it is allowed to operate. It springs from the heart of the religious and spiritual quest for truth – sometimes at the very point where it causes discomfort to ordinary religious institutions with a taste for the comfort of general acceptance and tolerance.
At its best religious and spiritual quest for truth is a creative irritant to religious institutions and stimulates change. Religious history, however, contains both ancient foundations which have mutated through reform, and a succession of new institutions, born of a need to make a space for the inspirations of the day to flourish on their own terms. For example, the development of Christian monasticism at several stages from the fourth to the twentieth century represents different desires to live the faith in new ways without the compromises made necessary by living entirely within the existing status quo.
Monasticism, and missionary movements in the history of Christianity have sought to re-state and reclaim the founding vision of faith to communicate to people in their own time and circumstances. The individuals who articulated the vision served as a gathering point for their contemporaries. They did not set out to create new institutions but, by their expression of the spiritual quest in their age, they became builders of new communities in worship and service, for their contemporaries and their inheritors.
Wherever teaching about God is expressed in a way that is genuine and in touch with the spiritual hunger of the age, the outcome is manifested in new faith-communities that express their values and respond to issues of most concern to contemporaries. Sometimes this occurs within existing church institutions alert to the ‘signs of the times’. Sometimes a ‘new creation’ emerges from the search for truth, or a response to crisis. The relationship between established and innovative expressions of community has often been a problem.
As the paradigm shift occurs, setting the tone for global consciousness, reconciled diversity, mutual interdependence and collaboration in human affairs, what will happen to current, and already declining religious institutions? Will they keep fighting old battles, occupying themselves with the detail of their identity, defending their territory and their insights against emerging communities with different agenda? Do they see themselves as preserving old ways for as long as extinction takes, and no more? Or will they opt for openness, exchange, and dialogue, understanding that the quest for knowledge of and faithfulness to God is equally precious to every spiritually seeking person, and worthy of affirmation? These questions underlie the crisis of established religious institutions at a time which is most propitious for experiment, adventure and innovation.
The need to explore new ways of being a community centred upon religious faith is very strong today. It exists because of changes taking place in global society, which are still not properly interpreted or understood. There are many expressions of spiritual hunger around, seeking a home in new faith-communities. But sowing the seeds for their emergence is important not just for today, but also for tomorrow. Clearing the ground, making space for the spiritual and moral evolution of humankind where our descendents may feel free and creative to make their own lives as community of the Spirit, is a major project for the beginning of the new millennium
Both good and bad habits are learned from our forebears. We have an opportunity to consider carefully what we want to hand on to those who succeed us, that will enable them to live by justice and peace with each other and in harmony with the earth. Rules, codes, ideals and philosophies all have their place in the scheme of things, but all are secondary to the lived experience of being with people united across the differences of religioun, race, class and culture by a common desire to seek God, and to live together in justice, compassion, truth and peace, conscious of being God’s children.
What are the distinguishing marks of this kind of community expressing the shape of the ‘church’ to come, at the beginning of the twenty-first century?