Donald Lehr / (212) 967-8200
By Charles Taylor
What role does spiritual thinking have in the 21st Century? One of the roles it will undoubtedly have continues a trend of the 20th Century: all the great spiritual traditions will go on being rethought and reformulated in order to speak to the issues and spiritual hungers of the coming age. And at the same time, these reformulations will often be criticized and denounced as deviations, even betrayals by many who see themselves as the true "conservatives" of these same traditions.
Ironically, these "conservative" reactions will often themselves be the source of much innovative thinking. There is a certain pathos attending what people often call "fundamentalist" movements those that really want to go back to the origins that they find themselves generating unprecedented forms and practices that wouldn't even have been understood, let alone condoned in earlier ages: like Biblical literalism in the Christian case, or Islamism as an ideology of mass mobilization.
So spiritual thinking will be the source of a great deal of struggle, and sometimes conflict and destruction. But it can also help us find the path to a better world, whether or not we end up taking this path. It has often been said that an indispensable condition of world peace lies in a mutual understanding and acceptance between the great world religions. This cannot be a sufficient condition, but I believe it is a necessary one. All of the great traditions have been struggling with this: how to accept the fact of spiritual plurality, how to live it in a mode of mutual respect, while being true to their own core insights and practices, to their own kerygma, if I may use this Christian term. It is easy to come together if we all agree to flatten our message into minor variations on some universal theme, but this would mean abandoning the depths, the sources of spiritual discipline and growth in each tradition. As the Dalai Lama once put it, "you can't put a sheep's head on a yak's body."
But even if we avoid this, there is a second great challenge. A peaceful world order, if we are fortunate enough to achieve this, will inevitably be very focused on the procedures and structures of government, of adjudication; it will be concerned with economic prosperity and equality within the narrow limits of toleration of our damaged planet; it will be concerned with the control of violence. We will in many ways be living lives under even greater discipline than today. One thing we have learned from our development in the West is the ease with which such (necessary) social disciplines can eclipse the needs and aspirations of the spirit. We are going to need more than ever trail-blazers, who will open new or retrieve forgotten modes of prayer, meditation, friendship, solidarity and compassionate action.