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Diversity in Unity

 September 5 - November 10, 1994                            Washington, D.C.



The Problem


This Century could be read as a dialectic of unity and diversity. The first half of the century engaged the enthusiasm of peoples in major, indeed terrorizing, campaigns of unification. Totalitarian systems took hold from the Atlantic across Europe and Asia to the Pacific; through pogroms, death camps and mass deportations when deemed opportune all was homogenized. In North America the melting pot approach to immigrants made differences an impediment and a personal shame. Over distant lands nets of empire--political and commercial--were cast.

Unity came to reign so supreme and with so heavy a hand that the last 50 years have been preoccupied largely with breaking its stranglehold over the life of mankind. These have been the major markers of our memory: the war against Fascist totalitarianism; the breakup of the empires; the recognition of the rights of minorities, whether ethnic, national, gender; and the collapse from within of the forced communist uniformism.

Where does this leave us at this transition between millennia; has the 20th century been wasted in a difficult, indeed deadly and as yet unresolved, isometric of unity and diversity? In fact, the agenda of conflict at the present time: from the reactions against immigrants in Western Europe or against other races in America, to massive attacks upon whole peoples in Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, India, etc., etc., could lead one to despair of human harmony. The deadly dilemma of our day is that the assertion of one's own distinctiveness seems too easily to imply attacking others simply because they differ, ignoring and destroying all bonds of unity; whereas the effort to achieve unity is interpreted as requiring the suppression of the access of peoples to the cultural and religious wellsprings of their identity and thereby the very roots of their sense of unity with others.


The Challenge


Must the coming century be a replay of the last or, worse still, the perpetuation of our present quandary, marked by a collapse of mutual respect, the destruction of the roots of a person's values, virtues and goals, and a breakdown of civil cohesion? Or is it possible to see the very diversity of persons and peoples as the resource enabling us to related more intimately, to cooperated more actively and to create more profusely what lies within the unfulfilled agenda of human hopes. If so diversity must be turned into cooperation and unity into empowerment so that the lion might lie down with the lamb, swords be beaten into plowshares, and new horizons of human progress can beckon us beyond conflict to new levels of unity.

In our present condition this is not a formula but a destiny, not an ideology but a task, not an utopia but a direction. What is needed in order to take up our task and to move in the direction of our hopes is concentrated effort drawing upon both the experience and values of the many cultures and religions, and the scientific rigor of the empirical sciences. The two must be bonded through the development of theoretical interpretations which make it possible to see diversity as a key to unity and unity as enabling diversity. How can this be achieved?


I. The Diversity of Persons and Peoples


In the aftermath of forced processes of assimilation and uniformity the value and importance of diversity has come vividly to the consciousness in our times. In Central Europe, in the afterglow of the revolutions which signalled the collapse of Communist universalism, people have begun to celebrate their uniqueness and diversity. In Western Europe the project of unity is being delayed until the reality of national and even regional differences can be taken into accounted. In North America the melting pot has been followed by a recognition that at bottom we are a nation of minorities whose history has ever lain primarily in the process of assimilating new and increasingly different immigrant groups. What had been the vast empire of the Soviet Union is now undergoing a process of redefinition and reorganization according to the differences of its peoples.

With this celebration of freedom comes pride in the accomplishments of our people, renewed commitment to the values they have shaped and new ways of exercising the virtues they have formed. But with the good comes also evil, and this process has unearthed ancient prejudices and even antipathies, memories of oppression and even of atrocities. Close upon the flush of new awareness of freedom there has followed the fear of new menaces. Defensive reactions, in turn, now lead to failure of the will to cooperate and even to a downward spiral into a pit of suspicion, rejection and mutual attack which seems without bottom.

Hence, the eruption of human freedom in our day presents a double challenge. On the one hand, it means new recognition of the difference and distinctness of peoples. If peoples are to realize their humanity this diversity must be not only tolerated but promoted. Progress will consist in the ability to harvest the results of the creativity this unleashes.

This project must be realized in such manner that diversity does not end in conflict. Differences must be channeled toward interchange of peoples with a view to cooperation and mutual promotion.

What are the ultimate cultural and religious principles for diversity which can promote such cooperation; what are its psychological and sociological mechanisms; how can these be protected and promoted in legal and political structures.

All this is the urgent task of this seminar, and indeed, of our day.


II. The Unity of Cultures and Religions

At the end of this millenium we face a twin dilemma. On the one hand, the contemporary resurgence of the sense of cultural identity calls for attention to, and promotion of, the diversity of peoples. But, as the senses of freedom, distinctiveness and diversity emerge ever more vividly in human consciousness, we experience the ways in which diversity can, and indeed has already begun to degenerate into conflict--into Hobbes' savage state in which man is wolf to man. On the other hand, the emergence of technology and the intensification of economic interchange call for ever greater unity and even uniformity. Indeed, we know that peace and harmony are the conditions of growth and development, whether of a child or of a people. But from the first half of this century we know how the call for unity can entail suppression of the freedom, identity and diversity of peoples.

Hence, the increase of the pressure of numbers, of the interdependence of workers and nations in industry and commerce, and of the penetration of the media of communication into the very households of the world, make it ever more urgent that progress in developing a more subtle sense of unity be kept in step with the development of the new sense of diversity.

Concretely, the challenges are multiple. What are the possibilities and requirements of peace and cooperation in families and neighborhoods? What are the conditions of just collaboration between the many groups and sectors of a complex, pluralistic enterprise of nation? Both nationally and internationally, what are the bases for reaching beyond self centered interest in order to live in harmony with peoples of notably different cultures and traditions? More deeply still, are the philosophical and religious roots of the various cultures able not only to be compatible one with another, but to inspire peoples to reach out beyond themselves with respect and concern for what others are and would make of their future?

We cannot suppose that these issues have ready answers, for the questions themselves are being raised in new manners and with ever greater scope and intensity. The sense of diversity is held with new passion, the range of diverse peoples and cultures has new extent, their interaction is more intense and pervasive. Hence, unity in diversity cannot be achieved merely by new techniques; it requires a more refined appreciation of psychological and social dynamisms, as well as a new and penetrating understanding through the humanities and religious sciences of the well springs of human meaning and aspirations.

The exploration of these challenges will be the work of this seminar.


The Response


For this there are significant and promising resources. The humanities (history and literature) can uncover the values of the various cultures. The social sciences (psychology, sociology and economics) can contribute understanding of the structures of the world in which we live. Above all, it will be necessary with these to think together, in order to understand the way in which human freedom is open rather than closed, and how self-assertion consists in reaching out to others.






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