Responsibility and the Spirit

PRAGUE - A paradox of our era is that, though humanity knows well the dangers it faces -- in overpopulation, environmental exhaustion, nuclear proliferation, the pathologies of crime and social alienation -- it does almost nothing to confront or divert them. How preoccupied we are with catastrophic prognoses; how little we take them into account in our lives!

It would be unfair, of course, to deny the existence of numerous projects for averting this or that peril. However, all attempts of this kind have one thing in common: they do not touch the basic trends from which these threats arise, but merely regulate their impact. Typical examples of this are laws, ordinances, or international treaties stipulating how much toxic waste this or that plant may discharge into the environment. I am not criticizing such safeguards; quite the opposite: I am glad that actions like this are taken at all. I only claim that these are technical tricks that reduce some unfavourable impact but do not, in the end, effect or address the substance of the matter.

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What is this substance? What indeed could change the tendencies of today's civilization? It is my deep conviction that the only option is for something to change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience, in the actual attitude of man towards the world and his understanding of himself and his place in the overall order of existence. Inventing new machines, new regulations, new institutions will not suffice. Whenever I encounter a deep civilizational problem anywhere in the world -- be it logging in rain forests, ethnic or religious intolerance, or the brutal destruction of a centuries-old cultural landscape -- somewhere at the end of the chain of causes I always find one and the same first cause: a lack of accountability to the world and responsibility for it.

There are countless types of responsibility. We feel responsible to ourselves or for ourselves, for our health, our performance, our welfare; we feel responsible for our families, our companies, our communities, our professions, political parties, churches, regions, nations or countries. Somewhere in the background of all these feelings there is, in every one of us, a small feeling of responsibility for the world and for its future. Do we not all feel that the world does not end at the moment of our death and that it is wrong to act as if we do not care if the floods come after we are gone?

And yet we live in a world which seems to legitimize, strongly, all kinds of possible and impossible interests, but which seems unable to legitimize universal interests, those which reach beyond the framework of the family, company, party, state or current generation. Those who pursue such interests -- not superficially and only verbally, but sincerely -- are pushed to the margins of society as idealists standing apart from the real state of affairs.

The atheistic nature of today’s civilization (ours is the first atheistic civilization in the history of humankind and also the first civilization that embraces the whole planet) coincides deeply, I believe, with the hypertrophic pursuit of individual interests and individual responsibilities together with the crisis of global responsibilities. Could the fact that humanity thinks only within the limits of what lies in its field of vision, and is incapable of remembering also what lies beyond, not but be the result of the loss of metaphysical certitude, of the loss of God?

Even more succinctly, could not today’s crisis of responsibility and accountability for the world as a whole and for its future be the logical consequence of the modern concept of the world as controlled by scientifically identifiable laws, formulated for God-knows- what purpose -- that is, a concept which does not question or seek the deeper meaning of existence and renounces any and all metaphysics?

But how to restore in the human mind a shared attitude to what is above us if people across the globe have a different image of that which is above, if people everywhere feel the need to stress their "otherness"? Is there any sense in trying to turn the human mind to the heavens when such a turn would only aggravate the conflicts on earth among the followers of our various deities?

I am not an expert on various religions, but from all that I know about the main ones I have the indelible impression that they have much more in common than they admit or are willing to admit. Start from the basic point of departure -- that this world and our existence are not a freak chance of nature having little meaning but are part of a mysterious, yet integral, act whose sources, direction and purpose are difficult for us to perceive in their entirety. Continue, then. to the moral imperatives of faith. Both these fundamental facets of the spiritual life unite the various religious systems. The specific aspects of religious traditions, accents, liturgies and interpretations remain immensely important, but are, in the end, truly not a dominant factor.

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Only in a search for common sources, principles, certitude, aspirations and imperatives -- a common spiritual and moral minimum -- may we find a way out of today’s bleak situation. But must we be provoked by some unprecedented disaster before beginning the search for a universal recovery of the human spirit and human responsibility for the world, what I once called the "existential revolution"? Or is it within the power of wise people to bring this about by their wills and by joining forces, without the need for any appalling impulse from the outside? That is our hope, and our rebuke.

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