By Thomas Berry
A Statement of the Occasion of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the United Nations at the Spiritual Summit Conference.
October 24, 1975.
San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006
On this thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations we wish to indicate to you our esteem for the work you have accomplished. For thirty years this body has carried within itself many of the larger hopes and destinies of humankind. We remember the moment, some thirty years ago, when this body first assembled after a period of tragedy and devastation on a scale that humans had never witnessed before. To heal this devastation and assist in guiding humankind into a better future the United Nations with its related agencies set itself to work. To fulfill its high purposes this space outside of all nations was set up to provide a context in which all can meet on equal terms no matter how tense the human situation may be.
We come here because we too feel a responsibility for the human community. To preserve and develop a human quality of life is the common responsibility of us all. It is not fitting that those concerned with the various aspects of the human be alienated from each other. Both you and ourselves represent forces too profound and aim at objectives too significant for either of us to succeed completely without the assistance of the other. The urgency of our work impels us to get on with our common task lest a new period of disaster erupt over the Earth.
To expect your work to succeed by utopian standards would not be fair to your work at this highest and most complicated level of human affairs. But to be satisfied with what has so far been achieved would be a betrayal of the human venture that urges us to press onward lest the ever-threatening world situation engulf the human venture once again in another inhuman swirl of global violence. This might result from the incapacity of the human community to adjust to its own inner tensions or from an incapacity of adjusting to the ecological demands of the Earth system itself.
Here the human community gathers on a comprehensive scale, human as creator and destroyer, human as peacemaker and as antagonist, human as the finest production of the Earth and as the greatest threat to the Earth. These antagonisms, dangerous as they are in any period of history, are a thousand fold more threatening at this time because of the new range of power that is available to the nations. Through space exploration and nuclear technology, the acceleration of movement and communication, new instruments of creativity and destruction have evolved. At the same time poverty, hunger and starvation have increased for millions of people throughout the world. From a large planet of overwhelming magnitude, unlimited resources and endless mystery, the Earth has suddenly become a small planet, thoroughly explored, limited in resources, and reduced in mystery.
According to this new scale of measurement the human community is seen as too large for such a small planet. From this there arises both a sense of common destiny and a feeling of rivalry for possession. Excessive population, increasing per capita energy consumption, group rivalries for land; all of these aggravate the capacity of individuals and peoples to live comfortably with each other. At the same time the sense of a common home, a common mode of being, a common origin from the Earth, a common destiny, and a common heritage is increasing. It is precisely these perils and this newly emerging consciousness that have brought about this assembly and that now bring about this meeting between ourselves. Our challenge is to turn our perils into opportunities and to bring about an intensification of life rather than a turning of life against itself.
Concerning the present world tensions, our hope is not that these stresses all be removed but that they become creative rather than destructive. Tension within and among nations can have its salutary effects. It is not something to be totally avoided or completely eliminated lest humankind sink into an uncreative equilibrium. It is only in a high pitch of creative tension that we will get on with our work. Our fear for the present lies not precisely in the tensions but in our limited ability to deal creatively with our tensions. We take this attitude because impatience with existing world tensions and a relentless drive toward utopian objectives constitute a main cause of humanity’s recent difficulty. Unwilling to accept the fallible nature of humans with our inherent limitations, iconoclastic attitudes arise which often lead us to destroy what fragile structures have been erected against total chaos in the illusory hope of establishing some flawless but unreal world. How to work effectively toward improvement of the human situation without such upset requires wisdom and restraint as well as courage and power. These qualities are rarely found but are now demanded if we are to move into the next phase of human development.
Here a new difficulty arises, for after years and generations of effort toward a less perilous human mode of being, and seeing one crisis succeed another with disappointing regularity, we often take a negative attitude toward such larger values. There is the temptation to believe that nothing can be done, that the cosmic as well as the human process is inevitably drawn back into chaos, that the world is without meaning. Such attitudes as this have brought about widespread enervation, apathy, a feeling of resignation to what will be. This leads even to that disastrous drift in the economic and political orders as well as in the cultural and spiritual spheres which can often be observed.
At this time we who speak out of the spiritual traditions of humankind wish to offer to this Assembly all the support of which we are capable in sustaining a livable world over against the threatening chaos. This support also comes from the multitude of peoples throughout the world with whom we are in some manner in contact. Numinous and cosmic as well as primordial human forces are available in guiding the process of human development if only we will become sensitive to this guidance. Without an awareness of such numinous forces we might feel that the United Nations is merely the design of a few politically conscious personalities manipulating the larger community for their own advantage or for national power and prestige.
How to take cognizance of these deeper forces, however, is a problem of some magnitude in a world that has been torn with dissension in both the spiritual and political realms. If in recent centuries it has been found that an independence of the political and spiritual from each other is to their mutual advantage, a greater interdependence always remains. So with the United Nations, alienation from the deeper dynamics of Earth’s history and human culture, can only lead to uncertainty concerning the political process itself. Isolation has its limits, particularly when more profound problems arise that concern our integral destiny.
The human as an indivisible being is a centering of many forces each of which depends on the others. The spiritual and the political destinies of humans are necessarily related to each other even while each in its own sphere has a certain unique roll to fulfill. It is hardly possible for the political function of the United Nations to be achieved when there is a profound disillusionment with the human process itself because of a lack of satisfaction or of an adequate life orientation. When human existence itself has lost all meaning then the political function cannot have any serious significance or any effective power or any sustained direction.
Especially at this time of personal enervation, of political instability, of economic hardship, and of ecological peril, it is important to recall those ancient visions that still provide for many humans a basic life meaning. These orientations constitute reliable spiritual and psychic power for many in facing the instabilities of the present and the uncertainties of the future. Just as we depend on the Earth’s minerals, fuels, seas, and atmosphere and all the life forms constructed over billions of years for our physical survival, so in the human and spiritual order we depend on these primordial visions and religious experiences throughout the past for the energies whereby we are sustained in the heroic effort needed to bring the Earth system and human history to fulfill their deepest purposes.
We realize, of course, that many divisions and antagonisms arise from a faulty spirituality and inadequate religiosity and that we who speak here bear a heavy responsibility for the present perils of humanity and the Earth process. We are committed to establishing a more acceptable spiritual context within which the nations and peoples of Earth can effectively experience the higher meaning of the human venture, live in harmony with the Earth, and reconcile their differences. All this while sharing multiform spiritual traditions now available to the human community. To be in the presence of this Assembly is to us an awakening to our own human responsibilities even as, we hope, our presence to you may offer some encouragement and communicate something of our own confidence in the work you are doing.
The inner power of humans has traditionally derived from the numinous, or awe inspiring, experiences of ultimate reality at the origin of the multiple cultures that are represented here. Such formative experiences are expressed in key religious symbols. We consider one of the most effective ways for establishing the larger human context for sustaining the work of the United Nations is in the renewal of contact with these ancient symbols manifested in such terms as Absolute Reality (Brahman), and Self (Atman) in the Hindu world, the Nirvana experience and the Buddha-nature in the Buddhist tradition, Heaven (T’ien) and the Way (Tao) in the Confucian and Taoist world, Yahweh and Christ in the Biblical world, Allah in the Islamic world, and the Great Spirit, (Wakan Tanka), in the indigenous Lakota world of North America. These are, of course, only a few of the many names whereby humans have entered into the world of sacred power and through which they attain both a healing of life’s pains and the psychic energies needed to push on toward those transforming experiences that provide existence with ultimate meaning.
While this numinous, awe inspiring world cannot substitute for the world of political activities, as these take place among the nations, it is a much needed presence in all human affairs lest the world of time and its concerns become empty of any final human meaning and eventually dissolve in a process of inflation or of trivialization. This is the point we wish to make most clearly at this time not only for our present gathering but for the entire human community. Formation of this community is a human and spiritual as well as a political event in the Earth process.
To attain peace among the nations in any dynamic or enduring form requires not simply political negotiation but a new mode of consciousness. The magnitude of this change is in the order of religious conversion or of spiritual rebirth rather than of treaty processes or even of inter-cultural understanding. Simply to recognize the basic nature and dimension of the issues we face is already an advance. But if a peaceful world is beyond politics it is also beyond religions as these presently exist. A change is needed in every phase of human life. This lies mainly in recognition that the micro phase, the particular or national traditions, must find their context and fulfillment in the macro phase, the global or panhuman phase of human existence. The future rests in the religious, political, economic and cultural capacity of humans to establish this larger context in which the particular traditions will find both support and fulfillment in a functional global community.
Even while we recognize the limitations of our own wisdom in human affairs we do consider the times so urgent and the occasion so appropriate that we offer the following observations. These emerge from our own reflections on the present needs of the world community which must constantly be called to mind lest humans become so occupied with lesser issues that they forget the greater disasters that threaten — not simply one nation or group of nations, but the entire human community.
Our first observation is that this gathering of nations into the United Nations must not be considered merely a pragmatic human endeavor but to some degree at least as manifestation of the ultimate mystery whereby the multiplicity of phenomena are gathered into an intimate communion with each other to make present in the world of time and change the numinous depths of the real. If all intercommunion of the real carries within it a high form of spiritual significance this must be said especially of an assembly which carries such significance for human affairs at this critical moment in history.
That the United Nations came into being and has functioned in a secular period of human’s development and might not wish to be anything overtly spiritual cannot obscure the fact that it does have a trans-political significance and itself depends for its efficacy on the trans-political dynamics of human affairs. It might also be recognized that the human finality of the United Nations is not simply within the phenomenal order. A realization of this larger context of its work can be a sustaining force in the complex of crises that seem to increase rather than diminish in the course of the years.
The second observation we make is that our present crisis must itself be seen as a numinous moment in human affairs inspiring both awe and terror. All basic transformation moments possess a certain numinous, sacred quality such as the dawn and dusk, seasonal change throughout the year, and the moments of passage in human life, from birth through maturity. So too moments of great historical change are numinous moments and must be seen as such.
Only at a special numinous moment in history could the United Nations have been founded. So now it is only by responding adequately to this moment of historical change in its historical existence that the United Nations can survive with the efficacy it should have. That the present can be viewed as such a significant moment is evident from the vast transformation in human consciousness that is taking place. A radical shift is taking place within the entire Earth system. Human intelligence is taking upon itself an extensive control and direction of the Earth system that it has never before exercised. This has repercussions throughout the entire religious and spiritual worlds as well as the political, economic, and cultural processes that have so far given the basic meaning and value to human life. If we fail to grasp the dimensions of what is happening we will find ourselves caught in a whirlwind of destruction rather than entering a period of soaring achievement.
Our third observation concerns the need that each nation has for the other nations of the world. Each must discover anew its special place and function within the community of nations. Until nations realize that to injure another nation is to injure itself and that to harm the human community is to destroy itself, then little can be done to better the human condition; the human process can only move toward an increase of explosive tensions which may well build up into events of terrifying dimensions, especially in light of nuclear weapons.
But here again the political order by itself has limited capacity to deal directly with the change of mind and emotions that is required. Religions also have in the past revealed their own limitations in this regard. Yet it is clear that within the cultural and spiritual phases of human traditions there are powerful teachings and extensive resources that can be efficacious if they are brought to bear on the situation. Inter-human communion is taught by all religious, spiritual and humanist traditions and these can make a significant contribution to developing the depth communion among humans that is needed. If we have no total assurance of success in any aspect of our human endeavors, we can feel that we do have the resources and even the numinous assistance that we need. The entire Earth process will support us if we commit ourselves to the task.
We might well believe that the law of universal gravitation whereby each physical reality attracts and is attracted to every other physical reality has its correspondence in the hidden or overt attraction of all human beings and all human societies to each other. This attraction takes place within a functional balance of tensions whereby each is sustained in its existence by all the others even as each sustains the others in existence. This seems to be demonstrated in the extensive and continuing efforts of humans to encounter each other and to establish a universal network of communication throughout the human order.
As our fourth observation we indicate the need to protect the Earth system as the matrix within which the human community has emerged and without which human existence is unthinkable. The Earth with its layers of land and water and air provides the space within which all living things are nurtured and the context within which humans attain their identity. If in the excitement of a secular technology reverence for the Earth has diminished in the past, especially in the western world, humans now experience a sudden shock at the devastation they have wrought on their own habitation. The ancient human-Earth relationship must be recovered in a new context, in its mystical as well as in its physical functioning. There is need for awareness that the mountains and rivers and all living things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds all constitute a healing, sustaining sacred presence for humans which they need as much for their psychic integrity as for their physical nourishment. This presence whether experienced as Allah, as Atman, as Sunyata, or as the Buddha-nature or as Bodhisattva; whether as Tao or as the One or as the Divine Feminine, is the atmosphere in which humans breathe deepest and without which they eventually suffocate. That the United Nations itself exists within the United Earth Community is of utmost importance for itself as well as for other living beings. Concern for this Earth Community must itself bring about a deeper sense of the Community of peoples upon the Earth.
As our final observation we note that the greatest danger to the human community may be loss of its will to carry on the cosmic and numinous intentions within itself. The danger is the loss of internal vitality and a cooling down of life energies. It is precisely at this time that these energies are needed in a new vigor of expression. This can be done only by a new infusion of the life and ideals that animated this institution at its earliest foundation and that derive ultimately from the realization of the numinous goals toward which human effort has aimed from the beginning. If in the necessarily heroic course of the institution these ideals are set aside as incompatible with the hard facts of life — with what are called “political realities” or “economic urgencies” – this would be like destroying the sails or the power system of a great ship and expecting to paddle it to its designated port. Little wonder that the human effort would soon be exhausted. The real skill is to raise the sails and to catch the power of the wind as it passes by.