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Issue 247
March/April 2008
Long Live Biodiversity!

Reviews

21st Century Writing
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Cover: Blue button jellyfish. Photograph: David Liittschwager/ National Geographic

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21st Century Writing

Spirituality as a Public Good Luk Bouckaert & Laszlo Zsolnai Garant, Belgium, 2007, €14.00

ONE OF THE most fecund moments in European history took place in Andalusia, Spain in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Astonishing breakthroughs were made in the fields of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, commerce (it’s here that the dark art of double-entry bookkeeping originated!), botany and philosophy. Arabs, Jews and Christians all piled in together to engineer this extraordinary flowering of knowledge and cultural co-operation.

However, as David Peat goes on to explain in his interesting essay in this collection, “What is particularly significant about this period is that the source of this collaboration between religions and cultures was not founded upon what today would be termed ‘inter-religious dialogue’. Rather it was based upon a deep and genuine desire on the part of scholars to explore and share new areas of knowledge.”

By any standards, therefore, a bona fide ‘public good’. And that’s helpful, because although this collection is incredibly well-endowed with definitions of spirituality (if ever you needed to garner a few handy quotes to explain the difference between religion, spirituality and ethics, look no further), it almost wilfully fails to lay out exactly what it means by “the public good”, let alone demonstrate how a more spiritual orientation (embedded in a “spiritual-based economy”) would be able to serve that public good.

It’s not as if we are short of such challenges. Between them, accelerating climate change, worsening inequity (and, yes, I do mean worsening – nearly two-thirds of humankind lives in countries where the gaps between the rich and the poor are growing, not diminishing), collapsing ecosystems and global insecurity constitute a cluster of threats to the collective public good that are crying out for urgent and collaborative redress. What’s more, it’s perfectly clear to all but the most fanatical materialists that contemporary secular interventions on that score are patently inadequate.

But nowhere in this collection will you find a compelling rationale as to why a spiritual orientation might be better placed to deliver that desperately needed public good than a secular orientation. And that is symptomatic of a deeper failing: Spirituality as a Public Good does not actually hang together editorially. A clear narrative (as in “here is our hypothesis, and now we are going to elaborate it and rigorously test it”) is entirely lacking.

For instance, no-one is more enthusiastically predisposed than I am to support the claim that spiritual mindsets and practice help move people “from separation to interconnectedness” more expeditiously than secular mindsets and practice. But simply asserting that is not enough, especially in a world where our established religions are doing their level best, day after day, to undermine connectedness and reinforce ‘cultures of otherness’ in ways that imperil global security as never before. The rather truncated section on ‘World Religions and their Economic Teachings’ provides a lot of signposts to alternative directions, but inconclusively.

Happily, there are a number of contributions that stimulate and inform in their own right. The idea that there really might be a spiritually inspired model of “servant leadership” in business is sufficiently counter-intuitive in today’s profit-maximising world to challenge any preconceptions one might have as to the potential role of business. The case studies are, it has to be said, a little thin, and the contrast made between ‘homo economicus’ on the one hand and ‘homo spiritualis’ on the other (offered as proof of a deep “ontological tension” at the heart of contemporary models of wealth creation) inevitably betrays a resilient dualism that I think this collection might have done more to expose. But the warnings against the instrumental use of spiritual values by big business or policymakers certainly ring true.

For instance, I often used to wonder exactly what the World Bank imagined it was doing in establishing a programme of faith-based courses and lectures for all World Bank staff in Washington, when its practice as an institution was inextricably implicated in environment-trashing, inequity-inducing, spirit-crushing behaviours which I believe history will look back on in appalled astonishment.

In the end, I was not persuaded that the editors themselves actually believe that a “spiritual-based economy” is currently available to us. After all, the realpolitik of today’s global economy shows us that the sustained manifestation of spiritual practice in countries such as India, Thailand, Indonesia and Burma is doing little if anything to temper the collective insanity of pursuing economic growth at literally all costs.

As a result, for me at least, what is really missing from Spirituality as a Public Good is any sense of a definitive ‘call to arms’ to a more militant, 21st-century spirituality, with the public good absolutely and unapologetically at its heart. If spirituality has any collective societal significance, over and above the succour it brings countless individuals in their pursuit of deeper meaning and purpose, then now is the time to demonstrate it.

Jonathon Porritt is a Founder Director of Forum for the Future, Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission and author ofCapitalism as if the World Matters. www.sd-commission.org.uk and www.forumforthefuture.org.uk

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