Western civilization finds itself in a new scene, and in troubled times. But though there are conflicts within its soul, it can look forward to a brilliant future, if only it can exploit the resources, both spiritual and secular, which lie both within and beyond the Western mind. This book, which has grown out of the Gifford Lectures which I delivered in the University of Edinburgh in the winter of 1979 to 1980, is an attempt to bring certain insights drawn from the history of religions to bear on the task of framing a worldview which synthesizes important ingredients both from East and West and from individual experience and secular politics. We live in a planetary place now, a kind of global city, in which communications have bound the world into a tight ball, and in which the great cultures of the past, and the differing cultures and political systems of the present, are in continuing and intimate interplay.
To the end of weaving together a worldview, I first survey the situation of the religions and ideologies of the contemporary planet. I make use of history-of-religions ideas, such as the analysis of myth, in order to illuminate the nature of the secular ideologies, notably varieties of nationalism and of Marxism. They are like the traditional religious symbol-systems and philosophies of action. It is true that their style is more ‘modern’ — but modernity itself is part of the contemporary Western symbol-system. It is true too that they do not typically have that transcendental reference — that pointing to the sacred Beyond — which typifies traditional faiths. But that itself invites us to consider what the critique from the Beyond means in our world. My view is that the critique from the regions of the divine or ultimate light (which shines both through Christian and Buddhist thoughts) is important for the secular ideologies — liberalism needs the concept of the sanctity of the person and the notion that politics is in the end about happiness (but why is the person sacred? and what is ultimate happiness?); while Marxist collectivism needs a theory of history to justify the sacrifice of individualism (but what faith beyond reason does this involve? and what after all is the nature of human history?). I see therefore the transcendental stance as one which continues the questioning which is such an integral part of modern experience, since science itself has flourished out of the critical questioning searching spirit.
Thus also in our global city traditional religions and modern ideologies all need to consider how they relate to science: it is not that religion reduces to science or that politics is exhausted by scientific knowledge of human behaviour. But rather the human being has to put her heart where her mind is, and her mind where her heart is. Existential questions cannot be answered in a void as though science has not produced its own magic, both in its mysterious unravelling of nature into tiny threads and squirts of energy and fantastical evolutions of living forms, and in its applications which mean that we now no longer sacrifice hecatombs to Poseidon or plead cheerfully with the Earth Mother, but instead do deference to electrical energy. Thus another theme which I treat is the relation of religion East and West to the scientific outlook. Briefly I see Christianity and Buddhism, here reinterpreted as complementary, combining with a critical personalism as being highly congruous with the spirit of science; while Marxism and some forms of traditional religion have in differing ways a severe difficulty in adjusting to the open world of scientific humanism. This is one reason why a new world-view, more planetary than just Western but drawing heavily upon Western ideas, has a more brilliant future than the tired forms of Marxism which are currently still so politically powerful and than the spiritually vital but intellectually problematic authoritarianism of some older religions.
Of all the secular ideologies in the modern world nationalism in its varied forms has been the most compelling. Out of the nation and the state human beings have fashioned a sense of identity. Marxism and Islam — both international in scope — have, especially the former, served as wider ideologies which can yet help to recreate national pride. Thus Maoism in China, Ho’s Marxism in Vietnam, the Marxisms of Cuba, Angola and Mozambique, Titoism — these have been used in the service of nation building and nation rebuilding. But once such liberation has occurred, that is liberation from foreign rule, other questions begin to emerge, about individual destiny and meaning. And the transcendental religions raise too a question mark over the new collectivism of the national idea, especially when reinforced by the dogmatic solidarity of the socialist system. The desire to maintain cultural identity is itself the engine often through which older values are subverted.
In a way, what I here describe and reflect on is the varieties of religious and symbolic identity. Partly out of piety towards William James, whose The Varieties of Religious Experience must be the most famous presentation in the Gifford Lectures series, I originally called this book The Varieties of Religious Identity. For if we take religion in its widest sense to mean the response to our cosmic and personal environment, then indeed at the heart of religion lies a kind of quest for identity: and so too at the heart of secular worldviews there lies a reflection about what the identity of the human being consists in. For it is for such worldviews that people are often summoned to sacrifice their lives and their happiness.
The liberal West has its own identity problems. Glorying in self-criticism it yet sometimes seems to wallow in confusion and doubt. But there is sense which can be made out of the West’s tradition and its modernity. Both its religious past — its once existence as Christendom — and its critical spirit can be brought together: and its modest creation the history of religions can provide a basis for reflecting upon a new synthesis of East and West.
The spiritual ideology which I here outline is already implicit in much of the West’s thinking and experience; and some of it derives from the new encounter with Asia. It is I believe a vital alternative to (though it need not always remain hostile towards) the other main universalisms of the planet, namely Marxism and Islam. It also is something which with its power and pluralism can find a place for the many small traditions scattered through the Third World which have to struggle against the vast threats, sometimes too the great cruelties, of the forces from the North. If I had to find a brief name for the ideology here described it would be ‘transcendental pluralism’: transcendental because the sorrows and happinesses of humans, the quest for identity in individual and in group, are illuminated by what lies Beyond, whether looked at from the angle of the Christian tradition or from the Eastern and Buddhist tradition. It is a kind of pluralism because the desires of persons are respected, the creativity which comes from many different flavours of thought and feeling is prized, and the security which comes from tolerant acknowledgement of different ethnic, national and spiritual traditions conserves vital resources from the past in the outward adventure of the future.
In California, it is easy to think of such a transcendental humanism as something which overleaps the great ocean: what we need after all is that which can be dubbed ‘the Pacific mind’. With luck it might even embrace tamed versions of the hard line monodoxies which act as alternatives and challenges to the Western and the Asian outlooks. For those who are not authoritarian have to find a place in their world for those who are, and that is the strength of the Pacific mind.