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Can survival of our planet be assumed? Political, religious leaders gather to mull man's global obligations

``Please join me for a while in meditating on our spaceship earth. ...'' The audience at Oxford's Town Hall last week might have been hearing a line from Captain Kirk of ``Star Trek'' fame as he and his crew of the Enterprise witnessed some fictional destruction of their earth-home in the aftermath of inter-galactic battle.

But this was not science fiction, though the potential for planetary destruction was on everyone's minds. It was a meeting on global survival, and the invitation for silent prayer was from Masao Ichishima, a Buddhist priest from Japan.

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The High Priest of Togo's Sacred Forest, Aveglui Ameganvi, bowed his head for several minutes. So did Luise Ahrens, president of the Maryknoll Sisters in New York; along with the Khambo Lama of Mongolia; Muhammad Abdul Rauf of the International Islamic University in Malaysia; the Metropolitan Vladimir of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow; Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Jerusalem; and the chief rabbi of Romania, Rabbi Moses Rosen.

So did other religious leaders from every major faith on the planet along with parliamentarians from 41 countries.

This group of priests and rabbis, imams and lamas, senators and congressmen, gathered at Oxford's Christ Church College for meditation and dialogue because, in the words of Oxford University Chancellor Roy Jenkins, ``Global survival has ceased to be an easy, natural assumption.''

The problems are familiar, even if Lord Roy's observation has not registered with most people. The threat of nuclear war, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the disappearance of tropical rain forests do not appear to affect the daily routine of most of the world's 5 billion inhabitants. But these and other crises, including the global population explosion, the spread of AIDS, and the inadequacies of education in preparing young people for the future, are nevertheless urgent.

American astronomer Carl Sagan observed that there are no merely local solutions to these problems. Neither are there short-term solutions nor military solutions. He admitted that science and technology offer only partial answers. What is required, Dr. Sagan said, was a ``rethinking of our global obligations.''

``There is a sense in which the key questions are not being addressed and the urgency is not clear, even in those [developed] countries in which extensive communications are available,'' Sagan told the Monitor.

Other participants at the Oxford meeting pointed to the intangible world of attitudes and beliefs as the causes of conflict and self-destructive behavior. The time has come, said Sri Lankan journalist Tarzie Vittachi, ``to take a second hard look at the values which have brought us to this dangerous brink.''

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Organized by the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival, a nonprofit group based in New York, the Oxford meeting had predictable undercurrents of disagreement. Few used the occasion to advance their own causes. The meeting's executive coordinator, Akio Matsumura, had rejected pleas from religious leaders to give a brief presentation of their views.

But Mother Teresa of Calcutta mixed her message of love and care for the world's poor with a sharp attack on abortion and the use of contraceptives. Her talk provoked many of the parliamentarians who disagree with the position of the Roman Catholic Church which opposes the use of contraceptives in family planning programs around the world.

``It behooves the Catholic Church to engage in introspection to see if their doctrines can be brought current,'' said James Scheuer, United States congressman from the Bronx, told the Monitor.

But the spirit at Oxford was not contentious. It was one of listening and reflecting, a process the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, called ``mutual reckoning.'' At issue were questions of how to change habits which have brought mankind a host of problems which escape the capacity of national and international organizations to solve.

Indonesia's Soedjatmoko, former rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo, said that the world's institutions are inadequate to meet its problems. Where human suffering is at its greatest, human institutions are often at their weakest.

``This pervasive problem of the inadequacy and growing obsolescence of our presently known systems of governance is one of the most pressing problems on the human agenda,'' said Mr. Soedjatmoko. He predicted that initiatives on many global issues will come from grass-roots movements.

Soedjatmoko said that future generations must be educated to think globally, to extend their moral horizons to include the whole of mankind, and to learn to deal with complexities in society and not take refuge in oversimplification or religious and political dogmatism.

Parliamentarians and religious leaders should talk to one another to reestablish links between public policy and ethics and between political power and morality, he said.

For too long experts have defined problems in narrow, materialistic terms. ``It is imperative that parliamentarians do not legislate until they have heard and considered what the problem they are dealing with looks like when defined from a moral perspective,'' said the Indonesian scholar.

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