Perspective: The invisible new movement

Rapid change is among the hallmarks of our modern era. In the last decade alone, the development of the internet, the end of the Cold War, and the acceleration of globalization have transformed our world.

Unnoticed against this backdrop may well be one of the greatest and, ultimately, most paradigm-shattering changes of all: the dramatic coming together of the world's religions and the development of a worldwide interfaith movement for social progress.

Although this movement is in many respects still in its infancy and will no doubt undergo many tests and trials, the distance it has traveled already is remarkable, given the world's long history of religious division and rivalry.

For thousands of years, religious differences were more often the cause of war than peace. Even today, many of the 50 mostly small-scale wars still boiling around the world have roots in religious strife.

All the more remarkable, then, that religious leaders at the highest levels have begun not only to meet and "dialogue," but have managed to produce consensus documents that set out common positions on significant social, economic and moral issues.

In this issue of ONE COUNTRY, we report on two such meetings and their output - the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions (PWR) and its final document "A Call to Our Guiding Institutions," and the second high-level meeting of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and its remarkable statement "Poverty and Development: An Interfaith Perspective."

As Thomas Lachs, a representative of the Reform Jewish Community to the WFDD, put it: "I feel it is sensational, that so many of the leaders of the world's faiths can get together and issue a common document. Don't forget that the normal relationship between religions over the centuries has been war."

A careful reading of the Parliament's "Call" and the WFDD's "Perspective" tells much about the directions of this new movement and its implications. Both documents speak of the interdependence of the world's peoples. The Perspective views "the whole of humankind as a family," and the Call emphasizes the need for "robust cooperation within the human family" and an ethic of "world citizenship."

Both documents also underscore the commonality of moral virtues and their role in contributing to a lasting solution to global social problems.

"No society can be truly developed until the people within it have made their own the attributes which are commonly known as 'virtues,'" states the Perspective. "These include trust, solidarity, altruism, companionship, honesty, respect for others, tolerance, forgiveness and mercy."

The Call speaks of the "strength" of such values, noting that they are "held in common by the world's religious and spiritual communities."

The two documents emphasize and underscore the social principles that have become the hallmarks of progressive thought in our age. Both documents emphasize the need for women's equality and the full implementation of "universal human rights." They stress the importance of recognizing and tolerating diversity, the necessity of promoting sustainable development, and the identification of justice as a prerequisite for peace. They both call for urgent action to eradicate poverty.

Taken together, these precepts constitute a new global ethic - a term used at the Parliament to describe the set of values religionists are striving to promote.

At first glance, agreement on all of these ideas might not seem new. Of late, we have become used to hearing progressive thinkers and activists promoting such values and ideals. Historically speaking, however, the world's religious communities have not always upheld these principles in practice; indeed, religious leaders through the ages have often drawn opposite interpretations from their scriptures.

So the emergence of agreement on these values and ideals from interfaith consultations is of enormous significance.

In the first place, the theological meaning is tremendous. By implication, agreement on fundamental values suggests that God is one and His reflection in the human spirit is universally manifest. For, surely, if there were more than one God, then one would expect instead the emergence of a multiplicity of definitions of good and evil.

In other words, recognition of fundamental and universal spiritual values is philosophically synonymous with recognition of the oneness of God. Religious scholars will no doubt be forced increasingly to ponder this point.

More important to the secular world, however, is this observation: If the world's religious communities have essentially agreed that certain progressive ideals and moral virtues are universal and represent the definition of "good," such an agreement gives a huge moral impulse to these ideals.

The global ethic identified in these documents in many ways echoes the social principles that have emerged from the major United Nations conferences of this decade, as well as parallel statements and plans by secular civil society. Yet no one could argue that anyone - the UN, governments, or civil society at large - has yet fully implemented these principles anywhere.

Religion has a long acknowledged and special role in promoting and instilling values - and so it is especially meaningful that the world's religious communities are now coming together around the promotion of this new global ethic, which, in the face of pervasive materialism and deep-rooted prejudices, still has detractors and opponents in many quarters.

Religious belief and the individual quest to understand spiritual reality lie at the foundation of human motivation and social transformation for the majority of the world's peoples, who are religious believers.

Although interfaith organizations like the Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions and the World Faiths Development Dialogue are usually careful to avoid any specific recognition of religious unity, the degree to which the world's religions have in these recent documents identified a commonality of purpose and values suggests an underlying process of convergence that goes beyond simple notions of tolerance and mutual respect.

In the long run, such a convergence of ideals and values - not to mention teachings and spiritual vision - has the capacity to revitalize the role of religion in world affairs, returning it to its rightful place as one of the guiding instruments for human progress.

"The central purpose of the divine religions is the establishment of peace and unity among mankind," said 'Abdu'l-Bahá in the early part of the twentieth century. "The foundations of all the divine religions are peace and agreement, but misunderstandings and ignorance have developed. If these are caused to disappear, you will see that all the religious agencies will work for peace and promulgate the oneness of humankind. For the foundation of all is reality, and reality is not multiple or divisible."