By Fr. Angelo S. Lazzarotto

Paper presented at an international Symposium on "Inter-Civilization Harmony and Creation", sponsored by the Zhejiang University: 16-19 April 2007. The Symposium was co-organized by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, and by the Institute of Christianity and Cross-Cultural Studies of the same Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou (China).

Many scholars think that the twentieth century has seen a progressive decline of the West, not so much a cultural decline but an economic one, coupled with a demographic one and with the end of imperial aspirations that a century before had reached unexpected levels, creating a sort of political globalization that could never be repeated. "Eurocentrism" has definitively come to an end.

Professor Samuel Huntington of Harward University opened a wide debate when in 1993 he wrote that world politics is entering a new phase, in which the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of international conflict will be cultural (See his essay "The Clash of Civilizations", in "Foreign Affairs", Summer 1993). After the Twin Towers tragedy Huntington wrote that an Islamic war era is developing, replacing the Cold War as a major form of international conflict and menace ("Newsweek", 27 December 2001). The new alarming phenomenon of terrorism has made the feeling of being vulnerable even more pressing, but a great variety of scholars and analysts are convinced that there are many other factors that will be playing a determining role in the shaping of our future.

Recent history has also shown that, to the waning of the European empires, it was Asia that came more prominently to the fore, with Japan growing to become a model of fast economic development, that was soon followed by other so called Asian "small dragons". And at the beginning of the 21st century China is emerging as a growth pole capable of competing with USA, Japan and Europe. Not surprisingly, at the annual World Economic Forums held in Davos (Switzerland), China is very naturally taking a central seat, with expectations that in the coming decades her economy would become the world’s biggest, far ahead of the USA, with India in the third place.

In shaping the new balance of world power, definitively economy is a determining factor. But there is a lack of shared ethical principles equal to the task of confronting global technology and economy. People are worried, because with money considered as the ‘universal pre-condition’ capable to satisfy any need and to produce any good, money ceases being a ‘means’, to become instead the principal aim of any activity.

Realizing that the world is becoming a "global village", many scholars looking at the future of mankind fear the impact of globalization on the life of individuals. People of the future, they predict, might feel terribly lonely and powerless in a blind world totally dominated by economic criteria. There is wide consensus on the urgent need to work for new forms of political organization in which public good and individual growth may have priority and be assured support and protection. And in this context, it is encouraging to see a growing number of people showing interest for spirituality and rediscovering the importance of religion.

Some people doubt that, to confront an economy that has become ‘global’, there may be an ethical standard acceptable to all, arguing that both the Western originated Christian-Jewish formulation as well as the positions held by secular scholars seem inadequate today. While the ghost of the above mentioned clash of civilizations or even of religions cannot be easily dispelled, the problem of finding ways leading to peace has become the primary concern of all responsible people. It is urgent to offer an answer to modern man who seems insecure about his future.

The economic and financial Asian crisis of 1998-99, which suddenly made 10 million people loose their jobs, came as a shock to many observers. Economist Robert J. Samuelson remarked that, in past years, global capitalism seemed able to offer prosperity to the world of the poor. But the negative experience showed how dangerous it was to favour heavy investments that would make certain countries totally dependant on foreign capitals, which can be withdrawn as soon as the positive trend ends.

In the ancient greek tradition we find two terms to indicate the law: nomos and physis. The first is the law written by men, the second is something that goes beyond our will, that is inscribed in the book of nature. Prof. Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, the present minister of Economics of the Italian government, discussed three years ago (13/3/04) at the Bari University, where he received a honorary degree, whether economy is governed by human or natural laws. The very fact that economy has been recognized as a science, he argued, shows that it contains a law of nature. But today we become aware of how vulnerable nature may be; this is evident even in the fields of physics and biology: the same holds true in the social field. It is imperative therefore, he concluded, that nomos (the human law) takes responsibility of the physis, to preserve physis from corruption in the sphere of economy.

Acknowledging the present absence of absolute ethical principles, the critical use of human reason and the unavoidable responsibility to others should be placed as basic points on which to build a new future. We live in a post-modern era, that has experienced the secularization process. According to Klaus Eder, who teaches sociology in Berlin, secularization has removed religion from the public sector of life, making it hardly audible. But today religion is coming back to public life in a sort of post-secular process. In fact today, argues Klaus Eder, in the secular societies more and more people are discussing questions attaining to spirituality, calling for pluralism, tolerance and inter-cultural openness. The human and sociological aspects as well as the spiritual dimension of globalization require priority attention.

A specific notion proposed by China and by other Asian countries appear to stress points that are of great relevance also for Western societies. Considering that Asia is the birth place of important world civilizations and religions, many observers are convinced that the important cultural riches that are proper to the Chinese millenarian civilization and to the Confucian ethics, may be precious for the future of mankind. The quest for harmony and peace is shared by the Taoist and by the Buddhist doctrines, although these argue from different concepts. A quasi- religious understanding of social harmony, respect for human dignity, strong feeling of family allegiance, stressing of personal uprightness, excluding personal profit from one’s personal responsibilities. Harmony is a supreme law of creation, and also a supreme ideal in both personal and social life.

Four hundred years ago, Italian missionary and scientist Matteo Ricci -Li Madou- (1552-1610) discovered and admired the great wisdom of the Chinese people, preserved and enhanced by Confucius. Ricci’s intuition was shared by several Chinese scholars of his time who became his disciples, like Feng Ying-ching, Li Zhizao, Yang Tingyun and Xu Guangqi. In the four centuries that have passed since then, many events may have complicated the relationship between the Christian communities and Chinese society. But today, following on Li Madou’s steps, the Catholic Church is clearly determined to do her share for the sake of Chinese society and of an harmonious new world.

In fact, today all Asian Christians, walking on the new horizons opened by the Vatican Council II (1962-1965), are paying growing attention to the needs of society at large and openness to dialogue with different cultures and religions. The Federation of the Catholic Asian Bishops Conferences is promoting cooperation for a world harmony with various initiatives. I recall particularly an encounter held ten years ago in a Taoist monastery at Lei Li-o, on the mountains in central Taiwan, to study the Confucian thought and the Taoist spirituality, in the quest of harmony in the universe and in human society.

It may not be a relevant question to determine whether Confucianism should be considered as a religion. We know that in the People’s Republic of China it is not, although there are scholars like prof. Li Shen of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who would argue that it is proper to talk of a "Confucian religion". It is out of question that Confucius himself did not intend to do any religious work; yet, as a matter of fact, when Chinese man was dominated by fear, Confucius helped him to discover that he was free. The human-centered doctrine taught by Confucius has as a central theme the quest for equilibrium and harmony.

In the past half century, attention to the riches of traditional Chinese wisdom has been gaining momentum among scholars both Chinese and Western: After the Manifesto for the revision of Sinology and the Future of Chinese Culture was published in 1958 in Taipei, various schools of thought developed among Chinese scholars (Umberto Bresciani, "Reinventing Confucianism. The New Confucian Movement", Ricci Institute Taipei , 2001, pp. 652), and in the Western cultural centres new interest is growing about Oriental philosophies and religions, including those originating from China.

Stressing this point, many educated Asians think that humanism should be considered a typical characteristic of the Asian traditions. They may be ready to recognize that humanism can be found also in the West, specially in the ancient Greek philosophy and the Italian Renaissance, but they do not see the explosive power of the doctrine brought by Jesus, with his "Good News" that we are all brothers because children of the one God who made the whole creation.

Many observers were surprised last year when it was reported that the China Central Television network had started broadcasting a new epic 12-part series titled: "The Rise of the Great Nations". The series, we were told, took an unusually clear eyed look at nine of the world’s main powers over the past 500 years, examining why they thrived. The programme did not attribute the success of these western countries to their wars and invasions of other countries, nor to political ideologies, stressing instead the human riches of each people. This, we think, is the right approach to work together towards a more harmonious future world.

Communication is essential in developing an effective inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. It requires an attitude of openness and respect, as well as an effort to increase mutual knowledge and become sensitive to other cultural (and religious) experiences. In the West it is widely felt today that the ancient Asian wisdom can give a substantial contribution to the building of an acceptable new world.

It is very encouraging to discover that in the past two decades some 30 academic institutions of the People’s Republic have established new Centres of research on philosophy and religion. The many scientific publications that are produced today by these Centres, besides dealing with theoretical questions, are also investigating the social impact of religion both in China and in the West. According to professor Edmond Tang, of Birmingham University, this development calls for a deeper consideration about "the moral and spiritual questions that are debated by the educated Chinese. This is where the real heartbeat of a new China can be found".

Would it be too hazardous to indicate this "real heartbeat of a new China" in the unexpected growth of people professing to be believers? A recent China Daily Online news item (7 February 2007) resounded as a surprise in the Western media, as it gave the results of a major survey on religious beliefs, conducted by professors Tong Shijun and Liu Zhongyu of Shanghai-based East China Normal University. The survey revealed that the number of people who describe themselves as religious is 300 million (31,4% of the total Chinese population), that is three times higher than the official estimate till now repeated; and of these, 12%, or 40 million, are Christian, with great interest shown by young people.

This may justify a simple consideration. Faced with corruption, violence and many social evils, a growing number of people are coming to realize the transforming power of benevolence that is taught by all religions, and specially of the golden rule proposed by Jesus: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets"(Mt. 7,12). I see, hopefully, in this realization the greatest contribution to dispel the wide-spread anxiety of people, who fear the predominance of money and of an over-powerful technique. The riches of ancient Eastern wisdom and of the Gospel of Jesus can contribute substantially to make progress more human.

Last February, meeting religious leaders in Beijing on the occasion of the New Year, Mr. Jia Qinglin, chairman of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, urged religious groups to regard boosting harmony as an important part of their work and to search for ways by which religion can serve society and the people. He advised them to "make a conscious effort to interpret the religious doctrines in a way that can promote social development". Mr Jia reminded them that "positive elements (from the religious doctrines) can help social harmony". He obviously referred to the ambitious and difficult task of building a ‘harmonious society’ set by president Hu Jintao. Religions can contribute a lot, if they are allowed to operate in a social context of mutual knowledge, acceptance and respect.

While discussing on how to foster this ambitious inter-civilization new reality, it may be worth recalling the high appreciation expressed towards the Chinese people by the late Pope John Paul II in the message he wrote for the fourth centenary of the arrival of Li Madou in Beijing (24 October 2001): "The Chinese people, especially in more recent times, have set themselves important objectives in the field of social progress. The Catholic Church for her part regards with respect this impressive thrust and far-sighted planning, and with discretion offers her own contribution in the promotion and defence of the human person, and of the person's values, spirituality and transcendent vocation. The Church has very much at heart the values and objectives which are of primary importance also to modern China: solidarity, peace, social justice, the wise management of the phenomenon of globalization, and the civil progress of all peoples".

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed similar appreciation and is expected to write a specific document fostering dialogue and mutual understanding for the good of China and of mankind.