Review: Can religion cure "inhumane global governance?"

Toward a Global Civilization? The Contribution of Religions
Edited by Patricia M. Mische and Melissa Merkling
Peter Lang
New York

As Richard Falk points out in a recent essay, religion has generally been excluded from the serious study and practice of governance over the last several hundred years, and especially in recent attempts to forge some sort of new world order.

"The exclusion is definitely a consequence of the European Enlightenment and its endorsement of autonomous reason as the only reliable guide for human affairs," he writes in an essay entitled "The Religious Foundations for Humane Governance."

The essay appears in a new book, Toward a Global Civilization? The Contribution of Religions, edited by Patricia M. Mische and Melissa Merkling. In it, Prof. Falk goes on to say that religion has much to contribute to the subject - a fact that the book itself goes far in demonstrating.

A collection of some 21 essays by religious believers representing virtually every major religious tradition - along with a few secular specialists on world order like Prof. Falk - Toward a Global Civilization? seeks to examine what and how religions might contribute to the creation of a peaceful and just international order.

The result is, as co-editor Mische notes in her introduction, "a rainbow-hued mosaic of human experience," offering "a composite picture as seen from diverse perspectives and a great variety of traditions."

Indeed, with essays from believers representing the Baha'i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Judaism, as well as African indigenous traditions, the book covers a wide ground.

Following guidelines set by the book's editors, the essayists seek to identify those teachings and principles from their religious traditions that offer the most to the world at large in four general areas: "working toward a shared global ethic," building "just world systems," collaborating with the United Nations and its agencies, and "developing multireligious initiatives."

And although the essayists differ in their precise conception of world order and exactly how religions should contribute to it, there is nevertheless a certain harmony in the presentations, inasmuch as all are able to argue quite persuasively that the world's religious traditions have much to contribute in terms of helping the world to create, as Prof. Falk calls it, a system for "humane global governance."

In some respects, Prof. Falk's essay, presented as the opening article, is the foundation on which the book is built. A noted secular expert on international affairs and world order at Princeton University, Prof. Falk argues that while "dominant trends are converging in such a way as to generate a more integrated form of governance at the global level," that form is currently shaping up as "a variant of 'inhumane governance.'"

Prof. Falk focuses on the impact of globalization, arguing that while it has fostered positive trends like the diminishing likelihood of large-scale nuclear war and overall poverty alleviation, on the whole it has neglected the plight of the most vulnerable, placed non-sustainable burdens on the environment, and promoted an "ethos of consumerism that forecloses the most fulfilling forms of individual and social self-realization."

The remedy, he suggests, is an energetic civil society movement of "globalization-from-below," which would resist such trends. Such a movement, he argues, must be strengthened by religious commitments.

"Among the surprises of the last several decades has been a multifaceted worldwide resurgence of religion as a potent force in human affairs, suggesting a relevance to the concerns of the public sphere as well as the private sphere," writes Prof. Falk.

"It is, in the end, this possibility of a religiously grounded transnational movement for a just world order that alone gives hope that humane global governance can become a reality sometime early in the twenty-first century."

The essays by religious believers largely echo this notion, with each author offering the teachings and principles of his or her tradition as key elements in a peaceful and just world order. The diversity of views and richness of ideas is too great to present fully here, so a sampling will have to suffice.

In presenting a Jain view, for example, P.N. (Bawa) Jain suggests that Jainism's overarching principle of non-violence, coupled with its relativist view of truth, offer key principles for the development of "social, ethical, national and international harmony."

"In reality, even the highest knowledge acquired by an embodied soul in this vast world is limited, imperfect and one-sided," writes Mr. Jain, elaborating the Jain doctrine of "multiplicity of truth," known as anekanta. "It is not possible for persons to comprehend simultaneously the infinite qualities of an object.

"The doctrine of anekanta paves the way for harmony and removal of conflicts," continues Mr. Jain, who is the UN representative of the International Mahavir Jain Mission and served as Secretary General of last year's Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the UN. "There is an element of truth in every statement, and it is possible to dissolve the conflict in a straightforward manner by understanding that element of truth."

Presenting an Islamic view, Saleha Mahmood-Abedin suggests that the Islamic idea of ummah, or the "community of believers," could provide a "global structure to operationalize a civic society."

"The ummah in Islam is not fractured by national boundaries and territorial sovereignty," writes Mr. Mahmood-Abedin, who is director of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. "It is not exclusive to particular peoples, races or classes.

"With such a tradition of universality, extending beyond Islam to reach out to peoples of all other faith traditions is but an exercise on familiar territory; for if one can transcend all barriers of language, culture, and lifestyle and discover the essence of unity and brotherhood in Islam, one can move further and stretch to include all mankind" writes Mr. Mahmood-Abedin.

Presenting the Baha'i view, John Woodall points out that the goal of world unity is "the animating purpose that underlies the teachings of Baha'u'llah," the Founder of the Baha'i Faith. "To Baha'i thinking, efforts that promote this principle move in accordance with the will of God and are destined to prevail."

"Each of the world's religious traditions provides humanity with the means whereby these goals might be achieved," continues Dr. Woodall, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School. "To Baha'i thinking, it is because humanity has matured sufficiently in its collective life that it can now more fully understand and implement on a global scale the eternal truths of all religions."

Further, Dr. Woodall suggests, specific Baha'i teachings on the equality of women and men, economic justice, and human dignity provide key elements for global development and the creation of a peaceful world - and its community of some five million believers is a model for how to put this into practice.

"[W]orld order issues are at the heart of the entire Baha'i experience," writes Dr. Woodall. "In each locality where Baha'is reside around the world, efforts are exerted to proclaim the oneness of humanity..."

While a number of books in recent years have addressed how religions approach issues of sustainable development, poverty alleviation and human rights, this is among the first to address overall how religions approach the issues of world order and relations with the United Nations. In this regard the volume is a much needed and valuable contribution to the fields of international relations and interfaith studies.