In 1996, Caux's 50th anniversary, there was an international symposium on the theme An Agenda For Reconciliation, co-hosted with the National Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA) in Tokyo and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. At a meeting in Strasbourg in March 1998, representatives of twelve countries decided to launch Agenda for Reconciliation as a means to co-ordinate this work. For more on this, see here.
With the millennium approaching, the Dalai Lama and other `prophet voices' met in Caux for a session on `forging the future' in August 1996. The future is, by definition, unknown. `In politics,' former Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone once remarked, `if you step out an inch ahead it's pitch black.' Can we prepare for the next century - or do we just have to wait for it to happen to us?
This was the question behind a fascinating three-day event entitled, `Forging the future - preparing for the 21st century'. It attempted to bring together people who might have something to say about the future - philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, journalists - and those who would live the greater part of their lives in it - the young. It was significant that an imaginative three-day programme leading up to the event was conceived and run by young men and women from 12 countries.
So what did the `prophet voices', have to say? The Dalai Lama was upbeat: `If this has been a century of war and conflict, the next will be the century of dialogue.' He saw signs of hope on the horizon: a rising standard of living, more concern for the environment, a growing accent on non-violence, greater equality, better health and education, increased interest in meditation and a greater awareness of the `spiritual dimension' of science.
`There can be no guarantee about the future,' he went on, `but our survival is based on hope. Hope sustains our spirit. If hope goes, so does our determination and our desire to continue.'
Cardinal Franz König, former Archbishop of Vienna, was not so hopeful. It was true that people were once again asking the `big' questions about God and the meaning of life. (`People are trying once again to disinterpret the divine spirit behind life.') But he foresaw that things could go badly wrong in the next century if humanity tried to go it alone without God. `There is a serious danger that progress in technology and communications will destroy mankind and his world.' He quoted Einstein as saying that the danger is not the atom bomb but the human heart. `So much depends on changing our heart and thinking,' he concluded.
Both the Rev Heinrich Rusterholz, President of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, and Rabbi Dr Marc Gopin, Professor of Religion and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Washington DC, saw working together as the key to the next century. `The fundamental essence of freedom is freedom to work together with God, not independently from him,' said Rusterholz. `This freedom gives us an understanding of, and the possibility of working with, other religions. We cannot go it alone any more.'
`The spiritual discovery of others in the 21st century will be the greatest challenge and the greatest gift for the human race,' said Gopin. `Some of us will resist this as a threat to identity. Others will welcome this meeting in the future as a completion of identity, the discovery of long-lost cousins and their worlds.' The key to the discovery of others, he said, was humility. `It is also the key to peace-making and the key to the compassionate aid of those who suffer.'
Wholeness would be another important concept for the next century, suggested Professor Grigori Pomerants from Moscow. `We live in an atomized world with no sense of a centre and no place for God,' said the noted orientalist and essayist. `We have lost the feeling of the invisible common Father and with it the concept of brotherhood.' He stressed the need in the new century for `rooted people' who would have links with what was deep, with silence, with great thinking. They would help `restore a culture of silence where the important can return to the surface'.
Community, relationship, dialogue were all emerging from the discussions as being vital for the next century. But they need not lead to loss of identity, said Dr Milowit Kuninski from the Institute of Philosophy of the Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Awareness of one's own culture could encourage a creative interest in the cultures of others and eventually insight into `the spiritual spring from which all cultures and religions flow', he suggested. He went on to give an honest and moving account of the relations between Poles and Jews in this century.
The Dalai Lama underlined that having one's own identity need not be a threat to others. `We have a right to keep our cultural identity - we did not come from the sky! But there is an inter-connectedness between our diverse cultures and our wider common humanity.'
Indian research professor and author, Rajmohan Gandhi, pointed out that, in a world of myths and prejudices, it was one thing to be given objective facts but another to be able to accept them. He quoted an Indian politician who was wrongly convinced that a minority community was behind everything that had gone wrong. `You can give me all the evidence but I will believe what I want to believe,' he had said. Education needed to be supplemented by the things that touched hearts and opened eyes, said Gandhi. Another key to next century, he suggested, was how the rest of the world would react to incidents of oppression and slaughter. Would the world have the will to respond, and an instrument with which to respond, he asked.
Jean-Pierre Ribaut, Chairman of the Council of Europe's Committee on Conservation and Husbandry of Creation, asked: would the next century see an end to the destruction of the environment and the extermination of irreplaceable species? Ecology must now be considered in all plans for growth and development. `Simply getting a quick return without considering the environmental consequences can't be the best way of doing things,' he argued.
German industrialist Friedrich Schock agreed to some extent. `No country can afford to build their economy on environmental exploitation,' he said. But Schock, whose firm makes plastic products for the building and furniture industry, was worried that environmental laws could push up costs and lead to job losses. `The creation of jobs in an environmentally sustainable economy is the biggest challenge facing us today,' he claimed.
An Asian view of the same problems was given by N Nithiyanathan, Treasurer of Malaysia's Environmental Protection Society. He saw the keys as being, `the political will to act in the developed countries and more willingness in the developing countries to consider environmental factors'. It was vital for individuals to act. `We should look for ways to promote love for the environment at an early age in the home and at school,' he said.
How could the measures that must be taken to preserve creation be funded? With so many demands already on national budgets, a drop in the West's standard of living might have to be considered, suggested Schock. But would people have the will to face both the personal and structural changes required, he asked.
This was just one of the challenges necessarily left hanging in the air for the crowded conference. To paraphrase König, so much will depend on the degree to which people's hearts and thinking change.
by Paul Williams, © For A Change magazine, October/November 1996