Towards a Symphony of Civilizations
01 October 1998

Paul Williams attends an inter-generational conversation on ethics for the next century.

How can we prepare for the 21st century when we don't know what it will bring? One bridge, of course, is those who will live a significant proportion of their lives in both the present and the next centuries. They can, to some extent, prepare themselves.

This was one of the recurring themes of the final session of this year's Caux conferences, 'Aims and values for the next century -- a conversation'. As one of the convenors pointed out, there is nothing magical about the year 2000 itself, but it offers us a chance to evaluate where we stand, and to pause to think where we want to go.

Many have voiced the hope that the 21st century will see a totally new and constructive dialogue between the major faiths. The Rev Peter Wittwer is already addressing this in Zurich as chairman of the Swiss working group for inter- religious dialogue. He told the conference that it would often be necessary for those from the majority faith to initiate any exchanges. Minority faith communities were unlikely to start the process. He appealed for dialogue to be carried out from the committed heart of the churches -- not left to those on the fringes of religious belief.

Without unity, humanity would not survive said Russian philosopher Grigory Pomerants -- but he hoped that did not mean uniformity. 'The great task of the 21st century is to overcome the arrogance of the different cultural and religious civilizations and produce a symphony of civilizations,' he said. The roots of the great religious traditions were too deep for there to be one text or one image. But there could be a union 'of all the forces that strive for the kingdom of the spirit'.

Prof Pomerants said that, if he lived long enough, one of his great aims for the next century would be to see television become a positive spiritual force -- 'and not something that destroys the sense of God'.

If the next century is to blossom, the present signs of a backlash against 'the cancer of corruption' -- in Time magazine's phrase -- will need to gather momentum. Time, which recently took the explosion of corruption as its cover story, called it 'a disease that is everybody's business'. One of those dedicated to turning the tide in Italy is Maria Teresa Brassiolo, President of the Italian section of Transparency International, which she and her husband founded. 'There is a price to be paid if we want a world community,' she said. 'Corruption is a great source of injustice. Those who can pay get their way.'

Prof Xavier Pintado, an economist and Vice-Rector of the Catholic University of Lisbon, said that it had now been established that corruption could drastically reduce a country's economic performance. Economists today viewed corruption not as another form of tax but as a major brake on development.

Inese Voika, an investigative journalist from Riga in Latvia, believed that the level of corruption in former communist countries was a product of the unnatural relationship between the individual and the state. Resisting the state and cheating the state had been almost synonymous. She announced that she was part of a group launching a Latvian section of Transparency International the next week.

Another struggle which needs to be carried into the next century is that for the universal recognition of human rights. Ambassador Urs Ziswiler, head of the Human Rights Division at the Swiss Department of External Affairs, called them 'a central moral value for the next century'. Human rights included the banning of torture, modern forms of slavery, genocide, summary executions, kidnappings and 'disappearances'. He warned that 'some voices were denying the universality of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, saying they were a product of the West, applied artificially to other countries, sometimes to their cost'.

Finally, if the human race is to survive at all in the next century, the preservation of the planet itself has to be a priority. Perhaps the biggest question in this context was how the developing world would develop, said Prof Peter Chen of the Technical University in Zurich. 'The US and West European economies have the technology to contain pollution. Will the developing countries develop with environmental controls or without them? The technology is available, so the option is there. But how generous will the developed world be in transferring it? And will the developing world accept to use it?'

In countries such as Switzerland 'green' chemistry was good politics and good business, but there was always the temptation to relocate to areas of the world where cheaper 'dirty' technology offered lower production costs, he said.

'We need to link these initiatives on corruption, pollution and human rights to a historic design where there is the same sort of long-term vision that the founders of the European Community had after World War II,' said Giovanni Bersani, who has been a long-term member of both the Italian and European Parliaments. 'We need to be able to dream for the future -- and then build the networks of people prepared to work hard and long, patiently overcoming set-backs and problems, to turn the dream into reality.'
Paul Williams

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