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A Religious Vision for the 21st Century
by Earl D.C. Brewer, Jul 30, 1986
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VISION: A new religious vision is needed
to address the global problems left on the
agenda for the twenty-first century.


The twentieth century so far is leaving millions of people hungry and homeless and hopeless. Nightly television shows the pathetic pictures of bloated stomachs, bodies distorted by disease, and the agonies of death by starvation. These dark images of misery and degradation stand in stark contrast to equally deplorable images of the overfed, overweight, and overindulged devotees of consumer religion espoused by those in overdeveloped countries.

The extremes of economic disparities run around the globe. The poor have always had a special place in the thoughts and practice of major religions. Yet, as deprivations grow, traditional religions have limited themselves largely to making statements and providing temporary handouts. They have seldom tackled the systemic economic changes required in the world at the end of this century.


SOLUTIONS: While some religious groups
limit their aid attempts to handouts, others
are beginning to deal with the systemic changes
needed to correct global economic disparities.


In addition to the stark realities of a majority of the world population being ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed while a minority suffers from over consumption, the twentieth century is leaving other items on the agenda of the coming twenty-first century. These include the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust, the tragic consequence of two world wars and scores of smaller ones, the capitalist-communist global conflict, the population explosion, the raping and pollution of the life-giving resources of earth, the dominance of secular sciences and technology as the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries comes to flower, and the growing global communications technology that is devoid of messages of wisdom and hope to communicate. The list could go on. This century will doubtless be assessed as one of great achievements and even greater crises.

Religion's Role in Solving Global Crises

Traditionally, religions have engaged in several strategies of dealing with crises. For example, leaders have theologized and verbalized issues in an attempt to relate the religious traditions to the crises at hand. Such an approach may be helpful in moral and ethical development, but it would seem historically to have had only limited success.

A second strategy of religions is ameliorative action, such as charity to the poor, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and so on. This band-aid approach may salve guilty consciences and give temporary symptomatic aid to victims but does not attend to structural and institutional causes of the crises.

A third strategy is direct action around selected problems. This may be seen in the civil rights movement among blacks in the United States and elsewhere, nuclear protest groups, revolutionary action of conservative Muslims and radical Marxists, religious wars, and so on. Such religious and ideological actions seem to be increasing, whether for good or ill, and may be expected to continue into the next century.

A fourth action of religions is inaction -- withdrawing from the crucial issues of the world. Such disengagement often takes the form of religious communities, parishes, monasteries, and so on. Here, religious values and practices are cultivated in ghettos of communal privacy, cast off from the mainstream of human concerns. This religious disengagement may be expected to grow in the face of earth's megacrises.


IMPOTENT: Religions are probably
the weakest and the most divided of the
forces pushing toward or away
from world community.


These and similar strategies on the part of religious groups are likely to continue into the next century. They would seem to be largely impotent and powerless to constructively influence the world's ills and issues. They may, indeed, be more a part of the problem than of the solution. To reverse such trends among religious groups and their leaders, major transformations and paradigm shifts are needed. World religions may resist and withdraw from such changes, or they may embrace them and provide ethical and moral leadership. The options taken here may be portentous for both religions and societies.

Religion and the World Community

The role of religion in addressing the global crises of the twenty-first century needs to be examined in the context of local and global communities. The tragic issues and dislocations may be seen as evidence of gigantic struggles toward a higher, global level of community and human organization.

Think of Mother Earth as in painful labor, giving birth to a world community. The various attending "midwives" are local communities, national communities, scientific-economic communities, and religious communities. These midwives desperately need attention. Some may seem to obstruct rather than facilitate the birth process. Surely major paradigm shifts are needed in the midwives as well as in pregnant Mother Earth.

Local Communities

A transformation in the local communities around the world is the foundation for all other changes. The local community is the source of the primary relations of peoples. Local communities may range from small nomadic groups covering large semi-desert areas to large urban populations crowded into small, densely settled spaces.

All human births occur in local communities, and Mother Earth gives birth to all life forms in local ecological niches. Such niches overlap and interrelate until each is connected with every other one. So it is with local communities of human beings.

There are at least two basic tasks for local communities. One is to become fully local in uniqueness and integrity, and the other is to become interconnected with all others in the world community. Out of this dynamic interflow could come fruitful midwifery in the birth process of the world community.

National Communities

National communities are both the greatest hope and the worst hindrance as midwives for the birth of the world community. The earth's land, sea, and air are carved into more than 150 separate nations. Each claims absolute sovereignty within its borders and goes to great lengths to protect them.

The supernations nearly hold a monopoly on nuclear weapons and espouse policies that threaten all human life and civilizations. Yet they have the opportunity to eliminate such weapons and to turn peaceful uses of nuclear power over to an international agency. The governments of nations hold the legal power of life and death over their citizens. The styles of government may vary from dictatorship to democracy. Nations have the power to set up international arrangements such as the United Nations, the World Court, and so on.

Nations could move world community significantly ahead, but this would require them to give up some claims of sovereignty to world agencies. The United Nations could be reorganized as an effective instrument of world community if nations would be satisfied with limited sovereignty, much like the states of the United States and the republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Then, nations could become hopeful and helpful midwives in Mother Earth's bearing of the global community.

Scientific-Economic Communities

Scientific-economic communities that emerged with the Industrial Revolution have become dominant forces throughout the world, and they are now transforming into global agencies. Multinational corporations spread economic power around the world, but profits go primarily to developed countries. This system could be transformed into a world economic community that provides adequate food, clothing, housing, and other necessities for all people everywhere.

Science as a search for truth has international significance. Though scientists work for limited objectives in national communities, they offer hope for the world community. Science and technology have transformed the earth, with positive as well as negative impacts. The positive results include much greater knowledge about the earth and its processes. Technology has provided untold wealth in food, goods, and services. On the dark side is the uneven distribution of food, exploitation and pollution of natural resources, and the dangers of nuclear war.

These economic, scientific, and technological advances have often been harnessed and shackled to narrow nationalisms and ideologies with resulting disparities in food, goods, and services between rich and poor countries. Obviously this midwife needs the transforming power of ethical and moral concerns on a global basis for all people. Then it could contribute immensely to Mother Earth's struggle toward world community.

Religious Communities

The religious communities make up the final attendant at the birthing. They are probably, the weakest and the most divided of the forces rushing toward or away from world community.

Traditionally, religious communities have been the sources spirituality and morality. They have condoned the positive values and condemned the negative values of societies. They have produced a wealth of wisdom and universal conceptions. They have also sponsored wars and persecutions and have condoned evil forces in the names of divinities. In the modern world they tend to represent outmoded beliefs and practices that have little impact on the struggles for justice, peace, and plenty. For religions to become helpful midwives at the birth of world community, they need to undergo vast transformations.


COMMUNITY: Religious communities
should unite to help Mother Earth create
a world community for the 21st century.


Religions are more divided and broken than nations. They splinter into thousands of communities of all sizes and shapes. Many of these claim exclusive roads to spiritual realities. Often competition, religious wars, and destructive behaviors characterize religious relationships, both within a major religious expression and between religions. Yet the cultural values espoused by most religions center around such universals as love, peace, hope, enlightenment, simplicity, and sharing.

Can religions today be transformed to maximize these universal values and minimize negative beliefs and actions? What follows is an optimistic scenario of possibilities. Whether it or something like it will come about only the unwinding of the unwinding of the twenty-first century can reveal.

Religion and the Transformation

Judaism is probably the oldest religion of the West that has significant present-day, influence. In the Hebrew scriptures there is a dream of Jerusalem as the City of Peace to which all nations may be drawn. If modem Judaism could heal its own internal splits and join with the State of Israel in bringing to reality this ancient dream, Jerusalem could be declared a universal city. The United Nations, the World Court, and other international economic and scientific institutions could be relocated there.

Judaism is related historically to both Christianity and Islam. Through these three there are interrelations around the world with most major religious organizations. Invitations could go out to all religious bodies to an exploration meeting in Jerusalem. The purpose would be to develop some level of cooperative relationships in the face of Mother Earth's painful struggle toward world community.

It might take 40 days or 40 years, but something that might be called United Religions (other names might be more appropriate) could come into being. The nature, processes, and structures of such an entity would evolve. Its aim would be to provide visions and moral power through which other world-level organizations could function for the good of all. Such a dialogue among the world's major faiths could clarify and enhance global goals.

The United Nations and the world economic and scientific communities and others could devise operational goals and strategies for their accomplishment. This would include universal education in local communities around the world. Each community or organization from local to global would work together at all levels as transformed midwives attending the struggle of Mother Earth to give birth to the world community. The result could be a world level of debate and decision about the critical issues -- especially nuclear holocaust and starvation -- left on the global agenda of the twentieth century.

This religious vision for the twenty-first century could be spun out in much fuller detail. The pessimistic alternative, depicted by, Frank Herbert in Dune,may be more probable, however. In Dune, a Commission of Ecumenical Translators in a distant future labors to bring unity and love to all the peoples of the universe. The result is a galactic Holy War.

Instead, may the optimistic vision prevail during the twenty-first century. May it be known to historians as One Hundred Years of Holy Peace and Plenty.

Copyright 1986 by Earl Brewer. This article is adapted from The Future of Global Economic Disparities: World Religious Perspectives, edited by Thomas R. McPaul (Joint Strategy and Action Committee Inc., 1985).

The late Dr. Earl D.C. Brewer was the founding father of religious futures research. As the director of Center for Religious Research and professor emeritus of religion and society at Emory University (Chandler School of Theology) until 1993, he authored more than one hundred books and articles on the future of religion. He also served as the director of Research at the National Council of Churches and was the first to offer a course on religion and the future in America's theological schools. The article above is typical of the window of inspiration he created for humanity. It first appeared in "The Futurist" magazine, July-August 1986, pp. 14 - 18.



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