IT WAS a conference of almost all the world's main religions.
There were Daoists and Confucians from China, Muslims from
Indonesia and England, Hindus and Sikhs from India, Buddhists from
Sri Lanka, Lutherans from Scandinavia, Baptists from the United
States, Anglicans and Roman Catholics from Africa, and Shinto
priests from Japan. Yet the two most inspiring speeches came from
Earlier this month, I was in Ise, a Shinto shrine in Japan, for
a conference at which the United Nations had invited faith input
into the shaping of the Sustainable Development Goals, which, the
UN hopes, will take over as a new international benchmark when the
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire at the end of 2015.
Keynote speeches were given by two outsiders. Olav Kjørven, the
UN's Assistant Secretary-General, began by asking the religious
leaders what got them up in the morning. "This is the kind of
question we don't generally ask at the United Nations," he said.
"It's part of the things that we lose sight of." The MDGs had been
drafted by technocrats and economists whose focus was materialist.
But, if the world was to survive, it needed some new yardsticks,
which embodied deeper spiritual values.
The Daoist concept of yin and yang, and the need for balancing
the earthly and the heavenly, offered insights into how we should
treat the environment, he said. The Sikh tradition of providing
food for all, without conditions, could teach us how to address the
rising inequalities in the world. St Paul's insistence that "If I
have no love, I am but a noisy gong," should be applied to the love
of God's creation.
It was ideas, not technology, that would bring about real change
in our world, said Ian Johnson, the Secretary General of the Club
of Rome - which, 40 years ago, produced the pioneering report
The Limits of Growth. "As a world, we are wealthier than
we've ever been, and yet we are not providing enough jobs, and two
billion people still live in absolute poverty," he said, pointing
to several disconnects. "The financial sector has gone its own way,
and is not serving the needs of the economy. And our economy has
become divorced from our ecology." Both must be reversed.
As proof that values can be more transformative than
technologies, he cited three recent examples of change. Attitudes
and practices on drink-driving and recycling have altered radically
only because of a significant shift in people's value-judgements.
"People are now doing the right thing, and for its own sake," he
said. He detected the beginning of a similar change on attitudes to
the way we waste food. "There's an appetite in society for a new
values-based approach on a range of issues. Faith organisations can
be crucial in helping to change and raise expectations."
The conference, organised by the Alliance for Religion and
Conservation, was named "Tradition for the Future". The challenge
is how traditional religious ideas about transcendence, community,
service, and self-sacrifice can be reimagined to gain traction in a
Paul Vallely is Senior Research Fellow at the Brooks World
Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester.