Responses and Reflections on the Plight of Humanity in the 21st Century - A Dialogue between Islam, Confucianism and Christianity

Beijing Forum, October 15, 2013

The present article is a condensed version of a staged public conversation that was held at the sixth Beijing Forum involving Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Tu Weiming and Peter J. Katzenstein, who took the perspectives of Islam, Confucianism and Christianity respectively. This discussion was carried formerly in the column entitled “East Sea and West Sea” in the China Readers Post.

The Importance of Cultural Pluralism and Dialogue among Civilizations

Nasr: As a researcher into oriental thinking, I have a keen interest in Chinese traditional thought and have spent a considerable amount of time reading Laotzu, Chuang-tzu and Confucius. In the early 1990s, Tu Weiming and I attended a conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, and on that occasion he showed me one of his theses, the argument of which I found very enlightening: Trends in the academic world in recent decades have suggested that a dialogue between Islam and Confucianism is unavoidable. In the 19th century, thinkers were eager to make comparisons between Asian civilizations and western civilizations, specifically between Indian thought and western thought, and between the Chinese civilization and western civilizations, and so forth. However, a dialogue between exclusively eastern civilizations would be of greater interest because their geographical proximity facilitates an easier exchange of thought. At long last, and after many setbacks, I had a conversation with Tu Weiming in which I learned about the Neo-Confucians. Taken together, Islam and Confucianism influence approximately half of the world’s population. A dialogue between Islam and Confucianism would not only explore the relationship between the extensive Islamic and Confucian worlds, it would also entail a discussion about the reciprocal influences that occur in the interactions between Islam and Confucianism.

For many reasons, it is appropriate to provide a full account of the historic exchanges that have taken place between Islam and China in all of their many and various aspects, from science to astronomy to philosophy. One important reason for this is that the exchanges between these two civilizations will no doubt provide valuable insights into two of the richest and most impressive sources of the world’s cultural history. In addition, the long tradition of cooperative exchanges that have occurred between Islam and China have played a constructive role in maintaining the harmony between the two civilizations, and whatever serves the purpose of preserving harmony in the world is well worth our consideration.

Tu Weiming: In this incredibly complex world, we should not simply reduce our thinking about culture to the designations of “East” and “West,” but look at the world’s civilizations from a variety of perspectives. China’s history is closely linked to the Indian civilization, and it is hard to imagine what China would be like today without the spread of Buddhism from India. The Persian culture that entered China during the Tang Dynasty has also exerted a profound influence upon Chinese civilization. Throughout its long history, China has been indefatigable in its efforts to explore and to learn from other civilizations. Wang Daiyu, a Muslim scholar of the Ming and Qing Dynasties wrote Muslim University, and Liu Zhi, a scholar of the Hui ethnic group, wrote Tianfang Xingli, both early Chinese texts that offer us valuable insights into Islam and Confucianism. The thoughts of these two Muslim scholars are as significant to Chinese culture as those of the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, but their achievements have been largely overlooked by most academic writers on early Chinese texts. Many people study classical Chinese because they believe that it is a special language that will teach them about Chinese history and thought, but they fail to pay sufficient attention to the research and information on other civilizations that is available in the Chinese language. It is important not to neglect the many early classical Chinese texts that contain important commentaries on Islamic civilization. Generally speaking, western society in the Middle Ages received a great many innovations from the Islamic world that have gone relatively unacknowledged. From a global point of view, we may rightfully ask ourselves if the spirit of the Arabian culture had failed to take root in the West, would there have been a Renaissance. Would there have been Enlightenment? And what would today’s western society look like? In order to keep alive this tradition of cultural exchange in the 21st century, we need to restart the conversation among the various civilizations of the world, including Islam, Confucianism and the Indian civilization.

Katzenstein: The conservatives argue that civilizations are comprised of distinctive hierarchies within a series of cultural paradigms, the core values of which are unassailable. The liberalists assert that judgments on whether or not specific human conduct is appropriate and “civilized” can be determined by reference to the direct and indisputable code of liberalism. My personal point of view on cultural diversity, however, is markedly different from the opinions just expressed by my distinguished colleagues. The monism that can be found in bothconservative and liberalist thinking originated in 18th century Europe, and by the19th century it had become the only accepted code of civilization. In his work, Samuel P. Huntington promoted this outmoded monistic view of civilization, and it continues to enjoy considerable popularity in today’s major civilizations, including the United States, Europe, Russia, India, China, Japan, and the Islamic world. However, unlike the theorists in the academies, the common people around the world live on unaware and untroubled by Huntington’s exaggeration of the cause and locus of conflicts between civilizations. Recently, a wealth of analysis and review has convincingly demonstrated that most conflicts occur within civilizations rather than among them.

The supporters of the monistic view of civilization are scattered far and wide in different countries and in different regions of the world, and they belong to different ideological camps, but the monism that they sanction is almost certain to be the direct cause of cultural misunderstanding and political discontent. I want to argue that civilization is pluralistic. The opinion that the “West” has an unchanged collective identity that has endured from ancient to modern times, and that it has always benefited from cultural cohesion is simply indefensible. A distinctive feature of the western world is that democratic, capitalist regimes are diversified, so it follows logically that the West is pluralistic. It is the same with other civilizations. For example, the Chinese civilization is not a culture that has at its core the fixed and final doctrines of Confucius, or a uniquely Asian outlook on value. In fact, like the United States, China has undergone a myriad of conflicts that have centered on competing arguments for nature of truth, and these disputes attest to the pluralism of the Chinese civilization, and to the macro-environment in which it is located.

The pluralism of a civilization in itself is enhanced by its macro environment. Here, the term “macro environment” does not mean the international market or the international system in which nations are distinct entities, but rather the “global homeland,” or the global system as a vehicle for human knowledge and practice. What is conveyed by the concept of a global homeland is not a set of universal standards, but an accommodating understanding of the wide range of values and notions that are shared by human beings, including dialectical viewpoints which can achieve harmony despite their differences. Such an accommodating understanding and acceptance of the values shared by mankind is centered on the wellbeing of all people in both the material and the spiritual dimensions. Therefore, the human rights and the “wellbeing” of all people can no longer be regarded as the privileges won for them, and for them alone, by one or more civilizations, political organizations or ideologies. On the contrary, the code of human rights and the precise means by which human wellbeing is achieved take on a vitality of their own and serve as reference models for all civilizations. Although people may break away from this set of models, it nevertheless constitutes the basis of political and legal authority for all civilizations in today’s world. Every government, nation and empire claims that it alone has the ability to ensure its people’s wellbeing, while outside of its borders the principle that everyone should be granted inalienable rights aspires to universal recognition. Under these circumstances, the pluralism inherent in civilizations is strengthened, and as the continuity and coherence of traditional ways of life are lost to modernity, the iron grip of political despotism is weakened and the moral basis for the abuse of power is eroded.

Traditional Civilization and Modernity

Nasr: One point of particular note is that the intellectuals in China, India and the Islamic world responded to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in different ways. The Chinese academy absorbed the concept of the “Secular Sense” that came out of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking between the 19th and the20th centuries, and integrated it into its academic curriculum, which marked the beginning of the secularization of the Chinese tradition. In the academic circles in India in the 19th century, only a small number of scholars accepted the secular notions of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. However, in the Islamic world, the overwhelming majority of those in the academic circles in the 18th and the19th centuries were antagonistic to secularization, and it was only in the mid20th century that secular thinking began to gain a modicum of support by some scholars on the margins of academia.

I would like to explain the reasons for these important differences. Before the spread of Enlightenment thought, the Chinese and the Islamic societies shared a great deal in common, such as the belief that the Law of Nature governs all things, that human conduct should adhere to high morals and values because it affects the shared universe, and that good people reverence seniors, support their families and obey the law. Moreover, like the Muslims, the Chinese people observed the golden mean and behaved in a restrained and peaceful manner.

Tu Weiming: A scholar named Peter Borger has enumerated four types of responses to the challenges posed by the western world or by Enlightenment thought. The first is intense antagonism. The antagonists claim that the Enlightenment has introduced attitudes and behaviors that are far too extreme when compared with their own cultural norms, and that to entertain them without a careful consideration of their long-term effects would be dangerous. This is the position subscribed to by the Islamic world. At the other end of the spectrum are those who advocate a near wholesale westernization of their culture. This position holds that the price of modernization is the indiscriminate adoption of western ways and the elimination of outmoded cultural traditions. For example, the “May Fourth Movement” in China inspired a great many powerful ideas, but the widespread effort to abolish traditional ways of life was also an important part of the legacy left behind by the Movement. This is Peter Borger’s second type of response to the Enlightenment. The third type of reaction is to allow western culture to coexist side by side with traditional culture, an uneasy combination thathas not always met with the general approval of the people. The final responses of course to simply blend the two cultures. Many attempts have been made to combine a traditional culture with the so-called modernity of the West, but so far I have not seen a successful mixture of the two.

In the 17th and the 18th centuries, but especially in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the powerful ideology inherent in the western tradition gave rise to capitalism, socialism, democratic politics and the free market economy. At present, the main concern is whether any of these movements can be relied upon to lead humanity into the 21st century? And, we all know that this outcome is unlikely. In the middle of the 19th century in China, the urban intellectual elite became more and more radicalized because they were convinced that only the revolutionary spirit could save China from imperialism and colonialism, so they were determined to adopt western ways and abandon their own traditional culture. A strong sense of purpose ensued, and two powerful factions emerged, one seeking reform through the eradication of tradition, the other through the spread of nationalism and patriotism. The opposition between these two groups was apparent, and it arose primarily from both the conviction that progress was contingent upon learning from the West, and the discovery that a foreign culture was not so easy to digest. Thus, ardent nationalism and patriotism coexisted in China for a long time beside the equally passionate determination to rid the country of its backward customs and traditions, and this division has been difficult to reconcile.

My criticism of the Enlightenment is that, even though it advocated positive values on the surface, such as freedom, equality, rule of law, human rights, individual dignity and common sense, and even though these values have helped us to understand the world of the 20th and 21st centuries, it was severely deficient in two respects: For one thing, the criticism of the Enlightenment penetrated into human spiritual world when it criticized the doctrines of Christianity, and it made the spiritual world accessible to man only through a transcendence of the constraints of the human world, effectively reducing Enlightenment thought to Secular Humanism. The second shortcoming of the Enlightenment was that it lacked a strong critical stance on the relationship between Man and Nature. Since the time of Francis Bacon, the aphorism that knowledge is power has been applied to the apprehension and the control of the natural world as well as the human world, so that Nature has been regarded merely as a physical dimension under the rightful management of human beings. This attitude towards Nature is one of the root causes of the grave ecological problems that face mankind today.

Katzenstein: Civilization is not a precondition of human existence; it has evolved through human practice. All who claim to be civilized have an unenlightened past and they cannot guarantee that they will not slip back into an earlier barbaric state. Humanity’s accumulation of practice in its evolution has given rise to the civilizations described in the terms “Americanization” and “Sinoization.” In the passage of time, humans have continuously shaped and reshaped the territory of human behavior, and in the present age, these evolutions have emerged into the modern civilizations of the world.

In the vast arena of human practices, it is not difficult to discover cross-cultural encounters and exchanges among civilizations. Some of these human interactions are internal and occur within civilizations, while others are external and take place between the nations themselves, and all of them are marked by arguments and disputes. One of the results of international conflict is cultural imperialism,a process by which one civilization imposes its customs and rituals upon an alien culture to the extent that the customs and rituals of the weaker nation are discredited or destroyed. Another result of cultural hegemony is that often the cultural exports that are received by a submissive nation are simply hollow shells that have been emptied of much of the rich cultural meaning and power that they originally possessed in their native context. One more possible result of cultural dominance is that a compliant and adaptable civilization might selectively assimilate the customs and rituals of its host nation into the local culture, a not uncommon practice that can be discerned in the interrelationships between many of the major civilizations.

The Human Dilemma and Conflicts between Tradition and Modernity

Nasr: As philosophers, we all have our own individual criticisms of the Enlightenment. And as contemporary philosophers, we have to admit that the word “truth” is not in the lexicon of modern philosophy. However, in traditional philosophy, the quest for “truth” was the philosopher’s highest calling. So, the question that we are investigating at this moment is whether our hypotheses about the intricate relationship between Man and Nature are accurate? This, then, is the ultimate question we need to answer.

Can human society survive with a flawed outlook on the world? Here again we need to ask the question about the relationship between Man and Nature. Francis Bacon is regarded by many as the father of modern science because ofhis notion of a scientific academy, and he expressed his belief that the study of science endowed one with knowledge and power. In modern science, empirical experiments that are conducted by scientists in an attempt to learn how tocontrol nature are man’s endeavors to probe into the secrets of the natural world. According to Einstein, science is not a discipline that seeks to reach specific ends, but rather an enterprise that begins in directionless activity. Some scientists claim that the purpose of science is to learn about nature, not to control it, an attitude towards nature that is similar to the Chinese outlook. However, the notion that science can be used to control and manipulate the natural world has been current since the birth of modern science, and historically its primary function has been profit and the improvement of military weaponry. Indeed, if the funding for the research and development of newer and better armaments and military hardware were suddenly discontinued, all of the American scientific academies, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, would have to close their doors. Modern science will never be able to deal with Nature as a spiritual force, and academic books on science will never attempt to offer a clear account of the spiritual relationship that should exist between Man and Nature.Between the 17th and the 20th centuries, nature was exploited by mankind principally as a material resource, not as a fount of spiritual strength and wellbeing. When this insensitive and functional attitude towards nature is coupled with human greed, the disastrous result is clear evidence that man is the sole enemy of nature on this planet, and the Enlightenment offers no recourse for this type of human greed. Man’s command of science and his enslavement to his own greed has carried the human race to the brink of extinction. I can recall that when I was graduating from Harvard, my keen interest in physics, religion and philosophy gave me a strong feeling of apprehension that the world might soon be facing a major catastrophe. My book entitled Man and Nature came out in 1966, and it was the first publication to predict an imminent global environmental crisis. Shortly after this in 1971, a friend of mine working in Stockholm, Sweden, inaugurated “World Day” in order to remind people that they need to honor and celebrate Nature.

The current environmental crisis involves far more than just the environment, the economy, and isolated conservation technologies since it is a far-reaching disaster that signals a serious breakdown in the relationship between Man and Nature. For a long time, people in many countries have abused the mountains, the forests and the rivers without stopping to consider that one day the rivers would be polluted tothe extent that the water would be undrinkable, and that there would be insufficient food for the burgeoning population of the world. We continue to ignore our precarious state in the natural world while we are fixated on secondary issues like wage going down. But it does not matter how many dollars the American government prints, the environmental crisis will not be averted unless we change our understanding of who we are, what we are doing, and where our exploitation of nature is taking us.

Confucius once said that everything has its rules and its rights in the world. Arabs value truth and Allah, with the former being the name of the latter. They accept that everything in the universe is entitled to its portion of being. A floweris entitled to its domain, as are the animals, the plants, the mountains, the rivers and the forests. When these individual “entitlements” are ignored, an imbalance is created in nature, but we are not in a position to make the final say on how to restore the balance. If confronted by a Magnitude 8 earthquake, human beings can do nothing at all. In comparison with the power and the resilience of nature, human beings are fragile. We all need to pay attention to the power of Nature and the frailty of Man, and this is the message that I have been trying to get across over the last five decades.

Tu Weiming: Basically, there are two sciences in the world. One seeks to understand nature and to discover the truth, and Einstein is the embodiment of this scientific spirit. The second type of science wants to conquer and to quantify the physical world, an approach to nature that has led us to the grave environmental crisis we are currently facing. The great cultural historian and “geologian,”Thomas Berry once said that “we should not just take nature as a conglomeration of objects that are subject to human exploitation because it is actually a collective of many entities.” Therefore, it makes sense that we allow each object to follow its own inherent law.

I recently conducted a survey of students at Peking University. The participants were asked to complete a questionnaire in which they were to choose between two alternatives. One of the questions was: “Economic development or ecological balance, which is more important?” To my pleasant surprise, only four students selected economic development, while the other 100-plus students chose ecological balance. Despite the preference of the overwhelming majority of students for the ecological option, I think that this response represents only an abstract wish on their part because the biggest concern in their day-to-day lives is undoubtedly economic. In the world today, economic development is still the leading factor that determines both governmental policy and our individual lifestyles, but there is a growing awareness among ordinary people, as well as among scientists, that we are doomed if we don’t do something to restore the environmental equilibrium. Be this as it may, our increasing awareness of our ecological predicament may be too little too late to reverse our course and avoid disaster.

Katzenstein: In the world of pluralistic civilizations, the friendly contact and the cross-cultural communications between civilized nations has been the rule,while armed conflict between civilizations has been the exception, and this is clearly evidenced in the peaceful relationship that has existed between the two major powers of China and the United States over the past thirty years. Therefore,the agendas of the Conservatives and the Liberalists in both the eastern and the western hemispheres have been misleading, and their deep-seated prejudices will certainly retard our efforts to construct a better and more diversified world in which civilizations can draw upon each other’s strengths to offset their deficiencies. If we allow the Conservatives and the Liberals to implement their policies, they will lead us into a world full of suspicion and panic; a world in which civilizations are in constant confrontation and conflict, not at peace, and where weak nations will be the prey of those puffed up with their own selfimportance.We are living in a world full of challenges. Just one year ago, the world economy was on the verge of collapse, a near disaster brought on by the unscrupulous activities of a handful of aggressive and greedy power-brokers and mercenary institutions. The large-scale intervention in the world marketplace by the governments of the major nations prevented global capitalism from disintegrating, but it could not prevent the terrible pains that the crisis inflicted upon tens of millions of people. As far as the origins of the monetary crisis are concerned, there are striking similarities between the 2008 Financial Crisis in the United States and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. Prior to 1997, quick money flooded out of Tokyo to other destinations around Asia seeking higher returns than those that were obtainable in Japan. Before 2008, Wall Street sold its newly invented financial products throughout the world to trusting investors who believed that these financial products were free of all economic risks. In viewing both of these cases, the different economic systems and the various measures different nations implemented to stabilize their respective economies did not worsen the effects ofthe financial tragedy. The co-existence of pluralistic civilizations at multiple levels provides a legitimate basis for a wide variety of institutions and practices. This isthe advantage of pluralism. No single type of market economy, whether it operates in the United States, Europe, India, Islam, Japan or China, can make a claim to total effectiveness and universal justice. A single economic logic cannot satisfy all parties in such an intricate world. The very diversity of civilizations in both form and nature serves as a buffer to international relationships, and this plurality encourages cooperation, not conflict, within the world economic order.

The Prospect for Human Civilizations: the Possibilities Ahead

Nasr: Anyone who is truly concerned about the quality of human life must know that the turmoil that followed in the wake of the financial crisis permeated virtually all aspects of our lives, from our individual philosophical, psychological and spiritual conditions to our collective social, economic, political and environmental relationships. The world has become a cold and disheartening place because people have learned to put their own private interests first, and in the struggle for more, the strongest oppress the weak. Given the current conditions, the idea ofachieving harmony within civilizations and harmony among civilizations is justan illusion, but for many people this dream is the only possible way for the world to avert catastrophe. If we are to avoid this dreadful end, we must first strengthenour bonds within our own communities. This means that we must seek better relationships not only with those people who resemble ourselves, but also withthe visible minorities, and while we need to pursue better relations with those whoshare our homeland, we must extend the hand of friendship to those who dwell inforeign lands as well. In this way we can nurture the organic connections between all human beings.

No matter what culture we call our own, we must cultivate the comprehensive vision of life that is at the core of our separate wisdom traditions in order to achieve a harmonious state within ourselves, and a harmonious union with others. By sharing its spiritual wealth with other civilizations, each of our cultural traditions can make a unique contribution in a collaborative effort to resolve the current crisis.

Let us take the first step together, and then strive with hope and determination to complete the arduous journey of a thousand miles that lies ahead of us, bringing the caravan of our civilizations safely home to the end of our travels where we will find the abode of peace and harmony.

Tu Weiming: This reminds me of the view of the earth as it was reflected in the naked eyes of the first astronaut in the 1960s. The great philosopher of the 20thcentury Wittgenstein once said that you can really only know the true value of life once you have nearly lost it. Similarly, I would argue that you can only see how fragile and precious everything on the earth is, including the soil, the water and theair, and how dependent we are on all of these elements, once you have observed the planet as a whole entity from outer space. According to an African aphorism “The earth is not a gift left to us by our ancestors, it is a treasure entrusted to us for its preservation by our descendants.” But most people simply take the earth as a gift to themselves with absolutely no regard for their descendants. I must confess that I cannot see any relief in the ongoing conflict between Man and Nature. Given this impasse, I would like to speak as a humanist on the spiritual stance of Confucianism. Confucianism concerns itself with both humanity and the universe, not only the relationship between the individual and the physical world, but Man and Nature in its entirety. It raises questions such as: What is the ultimate meaning of life? And: How can we achieve a harmonious and sustainable relationship with Nature? These are the type of profound questions we need to ask ourselves continuously. Buddhism emphasizes sympathy and mercy, but we should not concentrate only on the present moment; more importantly, we should concern ourselves with the future of mankind. In my opinion, this is the underlying purpose of our dialogue, and it is also the way out of our current crisis.

Katzenstein: Mankind may be facing a new challenge today, and that is to what extent the earth can continue to endure the ever increasing burden of human development? Here we need to employ Toynbee’s concept of “Civilization,” withthe word capitalized and in the singular form. To be specific, in order to cope with this new concern for nature’s resilience to man’s misuse we need the cooperation of the world’s collective “Civilization,” as well as the participation of all the living creatures in the world. The exact meaning of the word “Civilization” may stimulate some social and political discussions about the ultimate destiny of the human community. Despite the grave challenges that face “Civilization,” the political issues that prevail at virtually all levels of society, education and science continue to dominate the conversation. To devise a viable strategy to safeguard “Civilization” requires the participation of each country and each nation because the solution to this problem depends upon the ingenuity and the wisdom of every constituent civilization within the collective “Civilization.”