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Symposium 2013

Proposal - Dialogue of Life, not the Clash of Cultures

The Challenge

Many global problems such as climate change require global solutions that will often involve the provision of costly public goods. While the benefits outweigh the costs at the global level, this may n ...

Many global problems such as climate change require global solutions that will often involve the provision of costly public goods. While the benefits outweigh the costs at the global level, this may not be the case in every country or for every social group. Accordingly, individuals – as voters, consumers, investors or politicians – are more likely to support costly global solutions if they care more strongly about the global common good than about themselves or their nation, social or religious group.

The western economic and political model is in crisis. This creates an opportunity for the major world religions to exert greater influence within the needed transformation process, because their visions are based on radically different foundational beliefs and outlooks.

It remains difficult to assess just how much the new Pope Francis will change the Church. One thing has already become clear, however. Despite the decline in membership of the Catholic Church, particularly in Europe, the head of the world’s almost 1.2 billion Catholics enjoys a high degree of acceptance as a moral authority. It is also clear that he will be listened to, for the very reason that he does not get lost in noncommittal, diplomatic utterances, or feel the need to put forward arguments designed to suit lobbies or achieve compromises. Not infrequently the Church, with its ethical perspective shaped by its experiences of faith and God, and the texts of Holy Scripture, sets a marked counterpart to the dominant perspective of ‘more and more, and further and further’, which places the logic of economics to the fore. This is the spirit in which Pope Francis, speaking recently on the island of Sardinia, castigated the lack of support for the unemployed. ‘Where there is no work there is no dignity’, said Francis. He explained that unemployment was not an act of Providence, but often rather the result of a system of greed for profit and the idolatry of money, to which all else is subordinated. He pointed out that it was not money which God placed at the centre, but man and woman, who should be able to live from their own labour. The Pope criticised an exclusion of the elderly and the sick who would supposedly be standing in the way of the prevailing utilitarian mindset, and demanded: ‘We want a just system that helps everyone. We don’t want this globalised economic system which does us so much harm’.

What makes such statements so impactful is the fact that the head of the Church bases them on a vision of the human person which is quite different to that of many politicians and business leaders. Here we might recall the famous dictum of Martin Buber, the philosopher of religion: ‘Success is not one of the names of God’. From this we can conclude that what is important for a flourishing and ‘blessed’ life are things that are quite different from ‘success’.

For it is not at all about proving something before God. It is rather about using the means available to us, and with a warm heart helping shape the world in a way that declares justice and a decent life for all to be the guiding principle of action. The regular Prayers for Peace in the World initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1986, in which representatives of all world religions take part, are one impressive example of how religions can help solve global problems, for the very reason that they are based on radically different foundational beliefs and outlooks than those held by parliaments and corporate managers. Religions place only the human person, and the dignity conferred on the human person by having been created in God’s image, at the centre. At the same time, this means that the rationale for political action must be based on the interests of all the people on this earth. And it means that all citizens – women and men alike – must have the opportunity to take an active part in shaping the future and solving the many pressing global problems, instead of running the risk of coming off worst in the struggle for power and resources driven by particular interests.

This is why religion and Church take a firm stance for instance against the view – which has now become mainstream – that threats such as climate change or hunger in the poorest parts of the world can best be contained through money, technology and sophisticated marketing methods. It is broadly accepted that a fundamental global transformation process is needed in order to steward creation and ensure that living conditions will remain sustainable for future generations. Even so, it remains the dominant view that this can best be tackled through more technology and more efficient economic approaches.

Yet although the body of technical knowledge continues to grow, we are short of knowledge that could provide guidance. How should we decide what is wrong, and what is right? What is just? What is the right balance? How do I measure well-being and happiness? How do we intend to live, and how will we live? It is evident that technological solutions will not be adequate for tackling the complex problems that exist between rich countries, emerging economies and developing countries. Manifold political, social and confessional divisions remain prominent, and yawning gaps between some regions and population groups are becoming even wider. In many places the pressure generated by ‘modern’ influences is causing a loss of cultural diversity, leading to a loss of identity. The experience of being on the ‘losing side’ in cultural, political and/or economic terms, and being at the mercy of powerful global processes, is probably one significant factor that helps breed violence, hatred and terrorism. A new agenda for global development and sustainability must seek to eradicate poverty worldwide, but must also bring about a fundamental change in our way of life and our economic system that takes due account of our planetary limits. To achieve this we need fresh visions of a different good life which manages the goods of the earth in a more moderate way and with greater humility. In the modern societies of the West, the role played by religious beliefs in shaping everyday life has declined continuously in recent decades. In place of these beliefs, a proliferating diversity of opportunities for consumption have been propagated as guiding visions for a good life. Within this logic, the religious denominations have been left with the primary role of mitigating negative developments and taking care of the losers under the prevailing system.

Now the western economic and political model is in crisis – which creates an opportunity for the Churches to make a greater impact with their alternative models. Conditions are perfectly conducive: with their grand narratives, their culturally rooted canons of values and their immense social engagement, world religions can make valuable contributions toward a new basic orientation of society, and motivate society to become more active in this sense. They must identify shortcomings and undesirable developments, and call into question things that may appear self-evident. This will take place in a positive awareness of global solidarity. Christians cannot be nationalists. Their strength lies in their bonds of partnership within the Universal Church, and in the fact that like the tortoise and the hare, they are always already there – in the farthest corners of this world. Their motto might be ‘dialogue of life, not the clash of cultures’ or ‘integration, not exclusion’. Church-based development agencies in particular are called upon to build bridges, and facilitate a ‘dialogue of life’ in practical cooperation between different denominations and cultures. People-centred development cooperation guided by ethics and values can help break down mistrust and alienation, and build mutual trust.


However: as important as the role of religions in solving global problems can be, we must not gloss over their dark sides. The experience of history clearly demonstrates the ambivalence of religions. The legitimation of war and violence, links to power and oppression, and the exclusion and persecution of others are all sources of guilt that religions have incurred. This shows that certain conditions must first be met if religions are to unfold their power to transform: respect for human rights, a capacity for self-critique, mutual tolerance and respect, empathy and an openness to intercultural exchange.

The most crucial criterion, though, remains humbleness and humility. Not everything is feasible, not everything can be made a matter of calculation, human beings cannot achieve everything alone.

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