Politics And Re-enchantment

Religious differences are driving many of the world’s most intractable conflicts, but spirituality could play a radically different role in the future, say the authors – an advisor to the European Commission and a former US diplomat

The world's diverse religions will play an increasingly important role in 21st Century world affairs. That's what André Malraux, the author who became France's Minister of Culture, said shortly before he died. Others are making similar predictions. If they're right, what kinds of conflicts are most likely to occur in the century just ahead?

Our guess is the source of most conflicts will not be either (a) organized religions colliding in the historic “clash of civilizations” envisaged in the recent writings of Samuel Huntington, or (b) politics inside and between nations reverting to another historical precedent, the struggle between clerical and secular authority – that is, between “premodern” and “modern.”

But a third kind of clash is now making its way to center stage. It is the split within each religious tradition between “fundamentalists” and “transmoderns.” They both reject the “modern” worldview, for very different reasons.

Fundamentalists of many faiths – in Eric Hoffer's language, “true believers” – often feel threatened by modern society. They see their traditional scriptures and teachings as absolute, dividing humankind into irreconcilable believers and infidels.

Transmoderns are more inclined to see their ancient traditions or new spiritual insights as raw material for wider human reconciliation, as the basis for an intensified search for common purpose among people of differing races, creeds, and national origins. The emerging transmodern image is a round table, around which people of both genders and all races, cultures, and faiths consider and negotiate about how to manage our common planetary home – in ways responsible not only to its current inhabitants but to our grandchildren's grandchildren as well.

There is plenty of room in this pluralistic scene for striving toward an ultimate, universal Truth. But the search requires tolerance of other peoples' paths to the elusive goal, and of the differing liturgies with which they celebrate the goal and describe their search. And it doesn't require any seeker to concede that any of the other seekers has already found the Holy Grail – or that the universal/pluralistic search can now be called off.

“The goal,” says John Gardner about communities large and small, “is to achieve wholeness incorporating diversity. That is the transcendental task for our generation.”

The modern crisis of “development”

Most political analysts these days wrap their writings around only two worldviews, a “good” one and a “bad” one. The good one is “modern,” accepting the rule of (Western) law and the superiority of rational, linear thinking over intuition, poetry, or spirituality as the index of “progress” and “development” – measured by economic growth and freedom of trade.

Most humans are not able to live up to such standards of civilization. Attached to an obsolete paradigm, that means they are “backward,” “underdeveloped,” or at best “developing,” striving toward modernity. In this view, the aim of politics worldwide is clear: to encourage more and more people to leave the bad vision and embark on the good one called “progress.”

In some parts of the world, and the nether parts of every society, the great hopes for “development” have been tainted by the failure of trickle-down growth theories and the continuous enrichment of the already rich. For a despairing majority of the world's people, modernity doesn't yet seem a great future. That's why a return to “agrarian” cultural roots is so much in evidence. It's also why so many intellectuals, especially in Asia and Africa, are looking so critically at the crisis of modernity that is still not obvious to most of those in the midst of it.

The modern crisis of spirit

The pedestal of Reason has in this century been eroded by the experience that scientific discovery and technological innovation can lead not only to miracles of constructive change but also to unprecedented dirt, damage, and disease – and to repeated demonstrations that rational planning can take us efficiently to where we don't want to be when we get there.

New kinds of science, such as chaos theory, seem to depend as much on intuition as on reasoning; some scientists are talking about how much they don't know and can only pray to understand.

What once seemed the rational ways to organize human cooperation – hierarchies, pyramids, bureaucracies – are increasingly in disrepute.

As Max Weber explained long ago, modernity was bound to disenchant the world. The meaning of our individual and collective lives was radically secularized; life and death were explained as rational processes; our souls were separated from our brains and our hearts.

Now a new way of thinking is presenting itself as a genuine option: the healing notion that body, brain, mind, and spirit are integrated parts of a human whole; that a logic different from modernity is not only conceivable but attractive; that both sacred books and present-day spiritual insights are valid sources of transmodern philosophy.

Re-enchantment's double-edged sword

Re-enchantment is the discovery in our individual and collective lives that the suffering of separateness brought on by modernity is coming to an end. But re-enchantment is ambiguous; two of this century's re-enchanters were Hitler and Stalin, who presumed to provide people's lives with meaning by connecting them with something larger – so large that it excluded alternatives.

What is emerging as the contrasting transmodern mindset tolerates, even celebrates, diversity. It embraces the openness that modern information technologies make possible, even necessary. It holds that protection of the physical environment has to be a central concern for every human being. It includes the dawning realization that scientific discovery and technological innovation have made human beings the dominant actors in their own future evolution. It is open to spiritual guidance as relevant to both “private” behavior and “public” policy. And it moves away from vertical authority systems toward more “horizontal” organizations and more consensual decision-making.

The transmodern way of thinking is still a minority mindset, but it can no longer be discounted as a negligible fringe. Recent survey research suggests that it is gaining ground with astonishing speed. And in one country after another, more and more women are among the front-runners: women's choices are changing social mores, fashioning new electoral majorities, and bringing female voices into leadership roles.

Truth telling
Since the end of the Cold War, we have left behind a period of eerie stability, and have passed in to a time of unusually rapid historical change. The transmodern mindset promises a dialogue among polities, cultures, and religions that, as a starting point, avoids trying to persuade the not-yet-modern to “modernize.”

To begin a constructive dialogue with cultures different from those of the industrialized West, we might do well to start with a moment of truth-telling, along these lines:

We are products of a secular industrial society. But we realize that we can no longer discuss political futures without also discussing questions of meaning, spirituality, and cultural identity. We are therefore asking you to join us in a serious effort to envision mutually advantageous futures for our societies. To do this, we will all have to set aside our superiority complexes, our intolerances – whether based on scientific rationalism or on spiritual tradition – and our dreams of having our views prevail worldwide.

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