European Commissioner Chris Patten spoke recently about the moral vacuum at the heart of political life in many European countries. The theme of this conference is very timely. And the moral vacuum is not only in political life but in too much family life.
The hope that the coming together of world religions in friendship would reaffirm moral values and bring an end to war has inspired the interfaith movement from the beginning. Charles Bonney in his opening presidential address to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 - usually seen as the start of organised interfaith activity - voiced his hope that 'when the religious faiths of the world recognise each others as ... children of one Father, whom all profess to love and serve, then, and not till then, will the nations of the earth yield to the Spirit of concord and learn war no more' Bonney called for religions to unite around the Golden Rule. One hundred years later Professor Hans Küng ended his influential book Global Responsibility with the slogan 'no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.' Küng linked this with a call for a 'world ethic for the nations.'
For getting on for forty years, I have been engaged in trying to build up understanding and co-operation between people of different religions. But this has never been a purely religious interest, but springs from the conviction that society needs to be based on spiritual and ethical values, but that in our modern world these cannot be based on the teaching of one religion, but on the moral values which the religions share.
Yet for this to happen, much else has been required- and the variouss stages are also on-going tasks.
(1) Dispelling ignorance and prejudice - e.g. Christians have learned to stop blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus. Many groups, however, still suffer from prejudice
(2) Encouraging people of different faiths to meet - especially young people. Such personal encounter can be life changing, because
(3) It leads us to rethink our beliefs. In my case, as a student in India, I met some saintly Hindus. This made me realise that Christianity has no monopoly on goodness or salvation. The Churches need to leave behind exclusive attitudes. The God of love whom Jesus reveals has to be a God whose love is for all people.
(4) As the sense of fellowship with people of other faiths develops there is a growing awareness of the values which we share and a desire to work together to relieve poverty, to protect human rights, to affirm moral values, to seek justic eand peace and to treasure our environment.
Much of this came together at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions, which was held at Chicago. It was a time of fierce conflict in former Yugoslavia. The Parliament wished to show that religions could be a force for unity rather than division. A Declaration Toward a Global Ethic was prepared and endorsed by many religious leaders. It affirms that key moral values are taught by all the great religions.
Subsequently there has been the attempt to see how these values can be applied and at the 1999 Cape Town Parliament there was 'A Call to the Guiding Instituions' inviting politicians, educationalists, the media, economists etc to engage in dialogue about the underlying moral values of their work and of society.
Increasingly, this is starting to happen. In 1998 a meeting on 'World Faiths and Development' was held at Lambeth Palace, London, jointly chaired by James D Wolfensohn President of the World Bank and by Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury. From this emerged World Faiths Development Dialogue. Then in the summer of 2000 a great number of religious and spiritual leaders gathered at the United Nations for the Millennium Meeting for Peace. It was clear that UN officers were looking to faith communities to encourage popular support for the UN's work.
In recent months, I have been invited to a number of gatherings which bring together people from many disciplines. Last October the Twelfth International Anti-Corruption Conference was held in Prague. For the first time there was a panel on the contribution of faith-based organisations to the struggles against bribery and corruption which does so much to undermine the economies and stability of many countries. Then in December with the Chief Rabbi and the Muslim leader Dr Zaki Badawi, I was asked to speak to the new Commission on Globalization which the State of the World Forum is establishing.
What then are the values affirmed in the Declaration Toward A Global Ethic.
The basic principle is that 'every human being must be treated humanely...'
From that are derived The Four Commitments.
1. To a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
But there are serious questions:
Not everyone is persuaded that the religions do agree on basic ethical principles. Some people thought the whole project was 'too western.' Others do not think moral teaching can be separated from the beliefs of the religion of which it is a part.
It was because of this that Peggy Morgan and I edited the book Testing the Global Ethic in which we asked members of different faiths to say how far their own faith tradition supported the general principles. Book designed for discussion groups, especially of young people.
Increasingly, however, I think we need to pay attention to the values of the home and of good parenting, as well as to more formal moral eductation in schools and colleges.
The roots of violence and compassion go back to childhood and the parenting we received. As Charlene Spretnak points out in her book States of Grace, 'Studies of the childhoods of Nazi leaders have found that they were often made to feel inherently unlovable and undeserving and were granted only a harsh, extremely conditional acceptance; beatings were common. In contrast, a study of rescuers in Nazi Europe found that, unlike the control group in the study, the rescuers had almost no memories of being punished gratuitously and had rarely been punished physically. There was generally one parent or parental figure who, in the child's eyes, embodied very high standards of ethical behaviour. The child witnessed and experienced a life lived with the truth of interconnectedness'.
There is in many homes and in wider society a dangerous moral vacuum. Religions need to affirm those values which they share and to seek to engage with all those who have a serious concern for the future in helping to build a world order based on those values.