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Irreverence for life
Whither the world?

May 15, 2001
The Iranian

The year 2001 marks the turn of a new millennium. It is also the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. But civilizations do not talk to each other. People do on their behalf. No civilization is a homogenous entity. Each civilization has its own self-contradictions. Spokespersons for civilizations therefore inevitably present their own intellectual constructions of complex realities.

Realistically, there is no Christian or Islamic civilization. There are about two billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims representing radically different norms and behavior. Dialogue within civilizations is thus equally as important as dialogue among civilizations. There is a better chance for human solidarity and the development of a global civilization if we try to find the common values and norms that unite us in human suffering and aspirations.

In dialogue, it is more important to listen than to talk. Samuel Huntington has talked on behalf of secular Western civilization. Pope John Paul II is a never-tiring spokesman for Christian civilization. President Mohammad Khatami of Iran has ventured to speak on behalf of Islamic civilization. President Daisaku Ikeda of Soka Gakkai International has frequently addressed Buddhist concerns. So has Dalai Lama.

In the 1850s, a Native American leader Chief Seattle expressed the sense of despair of a vanishing civilization: "If I decide to accept [your offer to sell my indigenous lands], I will make one condition: the white man must treat the beasts of this land as brothers. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to live. What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth" (as quoted by Robin Daniels in Conversations with Menuhin).

If the 19th century America had no mercy for buffaloes, the 20th century world had no pity for humans. The 20th century may be justly called a Century of Death by Design. In a carefully tabulated study, Rudolph Rummel has demonstrated that the past century was the most secular and violent century in all human history. Over 170 million people were killed in the name of a number of "isms", including Fascism, Nazism, Communism, Liberalism, Hinduism, and Islamism. Governments were the main agents of "democide", killing not external enemies but their own citizens, not in wars but in domestic repression.

Is the 21st century continuing the same trends? The massacres in Rwanda-Burundi, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Palestine-Israel are not encouraging signs. In his annual peace proposals, Daisaku Ikeda poses a more fundamental question: Why has reverence for life declined so massively? His answer is deeply disturbing: "There is a sense that bonds between people, as well as the connection that we should sense with nature and the cosmos, are losing their reality and becoming increasingly 'virtual.' I sense that the spiritual malaise afflicting so many young people in Japan today -- isolation, withdrawal, extreme apathy, loss of expressive capacity, and collapse of personal identity -- can be cited as evidence of this phenomenon."

Ikeda need not have limited himself to the Japanese youth. The spreading violence at schools in the United States and in Europe against immigrants is equally alarming. As Max Weber and Emile Durkheim had recognized, accelerating modernity is disenchanting the world at an accelerated pace. In place of a timeless and invisible world of meaning that traditional religions offered, the new secular religions have subjected us to the tyranny of time and this-worldly progress.

In personal identity, this has produced two distinctly different types of fetishism. Subjected increasingly to the stupendous and anonymous forces of technology and bureaucracy, the individual seeks a false security in commodity or identity fetishism. Having weakened community connections, the modern world increasingly measures us in terms of what we have rather than what we are.

In the case of American society, David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone have shown how disintegrating families and communities drive the young and old toward commodity and identity fetishism. Possessions become the mark of security and distinction. But for those who cannot possess, a fetish of identity serves the same function as commodity fetishism.

According to the World Bank, over 1.2 billion people today live on less than $1 a day. At the same time, the deprived are being exposed to global advertising that whets their consumer appetites. Hence, market and religious fundamentalism are currently the two most powerful world religions. Is there a way out of this spiritual sterility?

Dogmas can no longer satisfy thoughtful persons. Neither can amassing commodities bring about ontological security and spiritual fulfillment. A new spirituality is emerging out of the current dialogue among and within different spiritual traditions ranging from shamanistic to humanist. It may be called the perennial wisdom of the ages. Some 2,500 year ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu expressed it most eloquently. The words read as fresh today (as translated by Witter Bynner):

"Those who would take over the earth
And shape it to their will
Never, I notice, succeed.
The earth is like a vessel so sacred
That at the mere approach of the profane
It is marred
And when they reach out their fingers it is gone.
For a time in the world some force themselves ahead
And some are left behind,
For a time in the world some make a great noise
And some are held silent,
For a time in the world some are puffed fat
And some are kept hungry,
For a time in the world some push aboard
And some are tipped out:
At no time in the world will a man who is sane
Over-reach himself,
Over-spend himself,
Over-rate himself."


Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the University of Hawaii and director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.

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