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1980s: Ayatollah, Pope embody rise of religion

As this planet enters the 1980s, the two most charismatic figures on earth are both religious, even though the public image of each is very different in the West. The are Pope John Paul II and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

This may well be a portent that religion rather than politics will more obviously influence the course of human events in the coming decade.

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The response in their respective parts of the world to the Pope and the Ayatollah indicates that each meets a contemporary human need.

In a perceptive lecture at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, in the English Cotswolds in November, Conor Cruise O'Brien, the sometimes controversial editor of the Observer of London, identified the need as stemming from "a kind of spiritual vacuum" at the heart of Western society. (He was reffering particularly to the impact of the Pope on "thoroughly secularized people, both in Britain and America.")

Call it a spritual vacuum, call it a loss of spritual moorings, it stems from the threat to individual identity and purpose from the breathtaking material progress and revolutionary change wrought by the human race over the past two centuries -- the full impact of which has begun to be felt only over the past two decades.

The Pope and the Ayatollah are symbols within two of the world's great monotheistic religions of the deep-rooted certainties of the past which in earlier centuries gave men strength, hope, and security.

In the words of Egyptian journalist Mohammed Heikal, writing in the London Sunday Times after a recent visit to Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini is "a seventh-century man crashing into the twentieth century with the speed of a bullet -- a bullet propelled by the forces of the past. Who knows what that bullet will shatter in the present or future? That is the crisis."

Pope John Paul II belongs more to the present. Most of his adult life prior to coming to the Vatican was spent in dealing constantly and skillfully with a very contemporary phenomenon: a communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe.

But having established himself in the papacy as an individual of conspicuous human goodness, he is reaching backward to tradition in an effort to strengthen his church in today's tumultuous and troubled world. He is disciplining or threatening to discipline two of his church's modern, liberal theologians, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx.

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British journalist Patrick O'Donovan says that to the modernists' desire to be contemporary and relevant, the Pope "has applied the same remedy that the Council of Trent [1545- 63] applied to the Reformation. And that was called the Counter-Reformation." Mr. O'Donovan adds: "I suspect most Catholics will be glad to be back in a confident, optimistic, cheerful, and dogmatic church."

Ayatollah Khomeini's commitment to seventh-century Shia Muslim tradition is complicated by a strictly Persian component in the revolutionary upheaval in Iran. Yet in the broader mainstream of Islam, not least among educated youth in a society as open to the rest of the world as Egypt's, there is a reaching back to what is perceived as the uncorrupted purity of basic Muslim tradition. It is a thread common to the whole arc of Islam, which reaches from the Atlantic through the Middle East to the Indies.

This reaching back to fundamentals within the mainstream of traditional religions was to be expected after a century of almost unbelievable material, scientific, and technological progress has failed perceptibly to advance mankind toward what British historian Arnold Toynbee once described as "human nature's goal."

That goal, he wrote two decades ago in his Study of History, is "to transcend the intellectual and moral limitations that [human nature's] relativity imposes on it. Its intellectual goal is to see the Universe as it is in the sight of God, instead of seing it with the distorted vision of one of God's self-centered creatures. Human nature's moral goal is to make the self's will coincide with God's will instead of pursuing self-regarding purposes of its own."

The chapter in which this observation appears is entitled, "The Next Ledge." It is an attempt by the author to look into the next stage in the history of our civilization, in the sense that that history represents the ascent of a mountain where it is impossible to know what will be on the next ledge before mankind reaches it.

He does not expect "human nature's goal" to change, no matter what language or terms may be fashionable at anytime to describe it. What he does think likely is that men and women may resort to one of two ways to pursue it: either the "rough and narrow" way of the saints (as he describes it), or the "easy" way of being "'conditioned' to be incapable of choosing to do anything else." Mr. Toynbee describes the latter course as the "way of the social insects on Earth." As for the saint's goal, he sees it as "not to sterilize his spiritual freedom, but to put it to work in God's service. This service is perfect freedom if it is perfectly performed. . . ."

The tendency toward "conditioning" in today's world is clear for all to see -- whether it be in the "scientific socialism" of militantly atheistic Marxist societies or in the cults (often invoking the Deity) which have blossomed in the Western world over the past couple of decades. Some may raise the question of whether traditional religious fundamentalism of any kind is "conditioning."

In earlier ages, and even today, secular authority sought to strengthen its hold on society by identifying church with state. But as Mr. O'Brien put it in his Cheltenham lecture, "A larger part of the history of our Western civilization is the dissolution of those bonds, divorcing religion from political life, and emancipating the written word from either religious of political control." Yet, he added, this left "an unsatisfied need, the need for oneness, for the sacred, for God."

This carries with it a risk. To quote Mr. O'Brien again: "Those who diagnose the existence of a spiritual void, and call for it to be filled may not be all that pleased when some rough beast shambles in to fill it."

Politicis without religion would seem to invite that. Yet politics with religion, at least in the sense of traditional ecclesiasticism, would seem to invite the tyranny of hierarchies and dynasties.

If one takes a close look at the work of the Founding Fathers of the United States, one might conlude that they were aware of exactly those two dilemmas. Was that why they constitutionally separated church from state, yet paradoxically and very delibirately drew up a blueprint for the government of future generations in the New World based unprecedentedly on universal principles? These surely are the basis of religion in its purest form.


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