Perlman, Washer and Wolfe: Faith in the 21st century

Faith is now becoming the new currency with which international relations are dealt. Boundaries based on culture, identity, even nationhood are wearing out. Religious faith, perennially crucial to so many people’s identity, might outlast secular faith in ethnicity or culture, which have not provided a sustainable cohesive effect within or among societies.

In a new, globalizing world, where the cliché of a global community becomes a political, economic and social reality, the serious acknowledgement of and engagement with religious faith will be crucial to the future of international relations — just as industrialization might have been to nationalism in the post-Westphalian (1648) or post-Viennese (1815) comity of nation-states.

Whereas ideologies, chiefly secular, framed much of the 20th century — fascism, communism, Nazism, to name a few — it is quite possible that faith might shape the 21st. Whereas the 20th century gave rise to a need to manage nations and nationalisms through a League of Nations and the United Nations, the 21st might require some “league of faiths” or a global engagement with increasingly significant religious identities that supersede national affiliations.

In general, religions seem to be much more suited to the world of the 21st century than our nation-states have been thus far. The future of the nation-state as the ultimate arbiter of justice and good in the world appears more and more doubtful.

In his recent book “The Shield of Achilles,” American thinker Philip Bobbitt writes that we have even already passed beyond the nation-state into what he calls the “market state” — a supranational entity driven by economic desires and commercial expansion to export a national “brand” on a transnational level. States tend to think local and act global; religions think global and act local. That is to say, the nation-state has the tendency to think within its own local framework before embarking on global decision-making, whereas religion reflects upon its global worldview and brings its implications to its adherents in local contexts. In an era of globalization, the latter outlook has profound implications for the forces driving international harmony.

Yet, as the battle between left and right over national markets continues to give way to a more general fight between moderation and extremism, openness and closedness — and as globalization pushes nations together — many maintain faith will end up pulling them apart.

At first, it appears they might. Once uniquely religious or doctrinal problems become politicized in ethno-national conflicts — and vice versa — they appear insoluble: Where compromise in politics is a virtue, in religion, it’s a vice. That is to say, compromise, while crucial to political reconciliation, is often wrongly discouraged in religious convictions.

But whereas within a single religious tradition compromise can be regarded as blasphemous or somehow undermining the integrity of the faith, among various religions compromise opens feasible and necessary avenues for faith to operate as a positive force, without necessarily undermining each religion discretely.

Fundamental to any reconciliation in politicized religious conflicts, therefore, is a commitment to openness over closedness to the moral imperatives common to all faiths within in a globalized world. Parallel claims to truth and salvation need not clash; people can operate side by side in a system of mutual respect without necessarily believing the same thing. The fault line lies between religions that accept their differences on claims to fundamental truth and those who allow these differences to consume them, causing their identity to be as much, if not more, about what they do not, rather than what they do, believe.

As Tony Blair recently commented during his first visit to the Faith and Globalization seminar at Yale, there are essential steps we need to take in order to maximize the positive role faith can play in a globalized world.

First, despite the exclusivity of faiths, we must define a space of common values in which to interact; universal claims to social justice and the “do unto others…” creed are not bad starts. Second, we must have a frank debate about the proper public role of faith groups in politics; there is a right for faith to speak and be heard, but not to dictate. Third, we must create and engage in active programs to understand “the other.” One must need to be involved with others without fearing it somehow threatens their own faith.

Fourth, we must acknowledge our own limitations in fully understanding God. It is through this process that we gain the humility that leads to respect of others and other religions. Fifth, we must actively utilize the power of faith to mobilize people for the common good, through groups such as the Red Cross, the Red Crescent or Islamic Relief, Hindu Aid and SEWA International, World Jewish Relief and Khalsa Aid.

Sixth, we must get people to understand religion as a dialectical process of evolution rather than a set of ossified dogmas and traditions. Religion ought not to be stuck in time, but rather, flowing with time, reason and knowledge. It ought to be informed by science and technology and not antagonistic toward it, as well as driving those discoveries toward practical humanitarian concerns and their ethical implementation.

And, last, faith is more likely to be a positive force if values are not confused with explicit policies. What faith can do is to give values by which to approach decision-making; it alone cannot make the right decision for you. One must distinguish, therefore, through dialogue, exactly what faith can and cannot do in certain contexts.

As we move forward toward an increasingly global community, it is imperative that we keep faith in the forefront of our discussion. It’s only through active work toward cooperation, understanding and openness that this next century might undo the injustices of the past — in the name of religious rather than secular ideologies.

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