The Spires of Renewal

PRAGUE - A dominant feature of Prague is the Gothic tower of the Cathedral of St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert. That tower is now wrapped in scaffolding because – for the first time ever and, so to speak, at the eleventh hour – it is being renovated. Temporarily, the scaffold conceals the tower’s beauty. That concealment, however, is designed to preserve this beauty forever.

Perhaps this scaffolding serves as an analogy for all postcommunist countries. If some of our best features are not quite visible for the time being, it is because our societies are covered by scaffolding as they undergo reconstruction, striving anew – this time in complete freedom – to rediscover and restore our true identities.

Perhaps this analogy should also be applied even more generally, in the hope that, behind some of the unsightly features of today's world, seeds of an endeavor to save, preserve and creatively develop the values offered to us by the history of nature and the human race can be found.

An unprecedented feature of our global civilization is that it is basically atheistic, notwithstanding the billions of people who profess, whether actively or passively, to believe in a religion. Indeed, the underlying values of our global civilization rarely, if ever, relate to eternity, to the infinite and absolute. Everywhere there is a decline in concern for that which will come after us, and for the common interest.

Humanity depletes non-renewable natural resources and interferes with the planet’s climate. Humanity becomes estranged from itself by gradually liquidating appreciable human communities and human proportions. Humanity tolerates a cult of material gain as the highest value to which all must yield and before which even the democratic will must sometimes fall to its knees. Creating wealth, indeed, has ceased to correspond with creating real and meaningful values.

This denaturing of the spirit means that our civilization is wrought with paradoxes. It is opened to possibilities that, until recently, were mere fairy-tales. On the other hand, it holds only a limited ability to avert developments that infuse these possibilities with danger, or result in outright abuse. Our civilization, for example, is pressured toward uniformity, but the fact that we are drawn ever closer to one another gives rise to an urge to emphasize our otherness, which can grow into callous ethnic or religious fanaticism.

New sophisticated types of criminal activities, organized crime and terrorism, are emerging. Corruption flourishes. The gap between rich and poor grows deeper, and while people die of starvation in some parts of the world, other places see waste as a type of social obligation.

Various government and non-governmental organizations attempt, of course, to resolve these problems. Yet I am afraid that the measures undertaken will not lead to any reversal unless something changes in the root thinking from which contemporary human behavior grows.

For example, we often hear about the need to restructure the economies of poor countries, about wealthier nations being duty-bound to help in this. But it is even more important that we begin to think about another restructuring, a restructuring of the system of values that forms the basis of today’s civilization. This is of greatest urgency for those who are better off in material terms.

The course of today's global civilization, indeed, has been determined by the wealthiest and most advanced nations. For this reason, they cannot be relieved of the necessity to engage in a critical reflection.

We know that it is possible to devise ingenious regulatory instruments to protect the Earth’s climate, non-renewable resources, and biological diversity; to find ways to ensure that resources are used accountably at the places of their origin and that cultural identities and a human dimensions for development is maintained. Many people and institutions are actively working toward this end.

But the crucial task now being neglected involves strengthening a system of universally shared moral standards that will make it impossible, on a truly global scale, for rules to be circumvented time and again. Only universal moral standards can generate natural respect for the rules we develop. Actions which jeopardize humanity’s future should not only be punishable but regarded as disgraceful.

This will not happen unless we all find, within ourselves, the courage to forge an order of values that, despite all the world’s diversity, can be jointly embraced and jointly respected. This will not happen unless we relate these values to something that lies beyond the horizon of our immediate personal or group interest.

How can this be achieved without a new and powerful advance in human spirituality? What can be done to encourage such an advance?

Whatever our convictions, we are all threatened by our shortsightedness. None of us can escape our common destiny. Given this, we have only one possibility: to search inside ourselves as well as around us, for a sense of responsibility for the world; for mutual understanding and solidarity; for humility before the miracle of Being; for the ability to restrain ourselves in the general interest and to perform good deeds even if they remain unseen and unrecognized.

Allow me to return to the Cathedral of Saint Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert. Why, in bygone ages, did people construct so costly an edifice, one with little use by today's standards? One explanation is that there were periods in history when material gain was not the highest value; when humanity knew that there were mysteries never to be understood, and before which people could only stand in humble amazement and perhaps project that amazement into structures whose spires point upwards.

Upwards to be seen far and wide, highlighting to everyone that which is worth looking up to. Upwards, across the borders of ages. Upwards, to that which is beyond our sight – that which, by its silent existence, precludes -- for all of us -- any right to treat the world as an endless source of short-term profit and which calls for solidarity with all who dwell under its mysterious vault. To begin to address some of the world’s deepest problems, we too must lift our eyes upwards as we bow our heads in humility.

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