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The Role of Religion in World Peace

            The main idea I want to propose—a religious peace proposal—is that religious peace in the world requires that religions accord sovereignty to God alone, and not attempt to exercise sovereignty over one another.  Geopolitical progress will bring closer the goal of world peace through world law, but religion has a role to play in the achievement of world peace.

            I will focus on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—prophetic religions.  They characteristically proclaim God as the Creator, the sovereign of the universe and of this world—its past, its present, and its future.  God not only transcends human understanding, but God also uses human language to reveal his will and his way to us.  God speaks through the prophets, and the holy book is the treasure-chest of these revelations.  Revelation has a marvelous capacity to focalize human religious loyalties and also a tendency to promote intolerance, which can turn to persecution and religious war.

            It is certain that Jews and Christians and Muslims will easily agree that God alone is sovereign.  It is not so easy to see what is involved in relinquishing the idea of sovereignty over other religions.

            The word sovereign  means: not subject to any other; supreme; dominant.

            If a religion assumes it is in some way superior to all others and if it claims exclusive authority over other religions, then the stage is set for trouble.  If religions exist in freedom and equality and acknowledge no higher sovereignty over themselves, then they will sooner or later fall into the human temptation to try out their power to prevail over others. 

            Is this requirement for peace logically possible?  Does it mean that a believer must not regard his or her doctrine as superior to any other doctrine that directly contradicts it?  This would indeed be absurd.  But the proposal does not require intellectual or theological uniformity.  Religion is deeper than theology.  The river bed is not the river.  The institutions and doctrines of religion are not the flowing stream of spiritual life itself.  Religion is an activation of living relationships with God and with all creation in the light of the primary relationship with God.  The water that flows in one riverbed is not superior to the water that flows elsewhere.

            Is psychologically possible for people to experience religious peace?  The proposal is based on an appeal to a truth that all the monotheistic traditions would easily agree to; but it involves a requirement which is subtle and at times elusive in its psychological demands.  We are all too ready to play the “Mine is better than yours” game.  For example, we, who understand the need for tolerance, are better than those others.  Having been involved in organizing many conferences of world religions, again and again I saw the same experience: without pressure to agree with one another, after a few minutes of slight awkwardness, the majority of panelists were caught up in a spiritual unity that was so evident that the audience could see the light in their eyes, could feel the dance of their sharing.  People did not maintain themselves in ironclad religious identities; they enjoyed a smorgasbord of the spirit.  They focused on goals, not creeds.  And there was one rule: that there be no attack on other religions.

            That rule is commonly violated, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously.  I would like to propose that we use our language more carefully and our concepts more thoughtfully.  The term fundamentalist should be used to indicate a conservative theological position, which does not necessarily involve fanaticism or intolerance.  The term enthusiastic could be used to characterize supreme personal devotion.  Let the term fanatic connote a mindset where religious morality is exalted in isolation from the scientific mental attitude, to a critical philosophy, to art, and to diverse types of spiritual experience.  We could use the term evangelistic to describe those who proclaim, even aggressively, the message of salvation of their particular religious group.  And we need a different term from each of these to name an imperialist disposition which is intolerant of other religions and seeks domination.  Moreover, someone could be an active defender of his or her tradition without being aggressive.  And hostility is a psychological disposition independent of each of these other characteristics.  There are no necessary connections between these concepts, but we usually lump them together.

            Is the hope for religious peace historically possible?  Every tradition has its adventures with the evolutionary factors of superstition and fear and ignorance and hostility and vanity and struggle for domination.  But the right kind of religious leadership can indeed help us move in the right way.  For example, the Iranian religious teacher Ali Shari’ati had a large following before his death in 1977; and he emphasized, among other things, the brotherhood of all men and the equality of man and woman.

            One crucial implication of this concept of brotherhood is that it includes those who are not religious believers.  Secularism in the West was a reaction to the cultural imperialism of the medieval church, to the expansion of science, and to the revulsion against religious wars—wars between Protestants and Catholics, and, to some extent, wars between Christians and those of other religions.  Secularists and religionists need to cooperate to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

            We can call for sisterly and brotherly understanding and tolerance and cooperation and love.  But injuries in human relationships are inevitable.  The call to love one another should not blind us to the hostility that we conceal and carry within.  The true healing, the true religious unity is not a product of self-restraint of aggressive impulses.  It is the gift of God.  We facilitate the mercy process, I believe, by the following steps: Be just, and work for group understanding.  Be fair, and work for mutual appreciation.  Be patient, and work toward brotherly and sisterly fellowship.  Be kind, and enjoy spiritual communion.  Show mercy, and enjoy divine harmony.

Jeffrey Wattles, revised 18 September 2001