In the beginning, there was thought. Since the earliest times, man has contemplated the universe and wondered about his place within it. Every culture of the world is influenced by its ancestral memory of early mythologies passed down through oral and written histories. These evolving stories helped our forefathers find order in a chaotic world and define their role in it. It is from these original beliefs that our ideas about right and wrong, good and evil, and the concept of the Divine were born. These individual and collective philosophies are the foundations from which we judge ourselves and others. They are the cornerstones of our identity, traditions, laws, morality and our social psychology.
The continued celebration of distinct rites and customs helps us to feel connected to a group and frames interrelationships within and without. Regrettably, many of these inherited conventions have come to highlight and reinforce the differences between us. This need not be a bad thing, and rarely has much if anything to do with the traditions themselves, but the way in which they are externally perceived and interpreted. By doing more to share expressions of our heritage and the associated narratives, and by creating new ones together, we can forge and strengthen our relationship to one another and celebrate our shared place in the universe. We can come to know each other and live together in a way that we can now only dream possible.
The Value of Otherness
Long ago in the cold, rocky, windswept recesses of the North Atlantic, the way of life of my ancestors was in its twilight. Steady waves of invasion and resulting insurgence from wealthier, more powerful and technologically advanced peoples had left them on the verge of extinction. Not only life and land consuming wars, but the largely unconscious adoption of attractive cultural filaments from these others had left them struggling to hang on to what was left of their identity. Yet, they were influencing the newcomers as well, both groups adapting as they went along. Today we find that down through the centuries enough of these peoples survives to remember them and gain insight from what they left to us.
With every generation there is a new version of the school of thought positing that the answer to conflict is a global population with greater homogeneity of belief, language and behavior. Likely, there would be more cooperation, less destruction and violence; fewer fathers and sons lost in battle, atrocities against women and children scarcer. Still, the reality is more complex. In fact, the resolution of conflict frequently necessitates complimentary, and sometimes divergent systems of thought, in addition to congruent ones. Our evolving beliefs shape our convictions, and these in turn determine our attitudes and behavior. Striking a balance between what works for us and what works in correspondence with the outside world requires pushing beyond default thinking which supports assumptions that the worldview of our group is superior. Just as our bodies need differing components, e.g. blood and bone, respiration and digestion, exercise and rest, so the world requires variation and diversity in balance for health and wholeness. By way of illustration, I would like to offer one of the world’s best-loved traditions, a story.
Balance & Wholeness
A Creation Myth
Before time there was darkness, a darkness deeper than night, empty, infinite. And in that moment, the Creator had a thought, and the thought was light as it was opposite from darkness. It shimmered and swirled; it flowed through the expanse of emptiness. It stretched and arched its back and became the sky.
The sky sighed as wind, and shook as thunder, but there seemed to be no point in it as she was alone. So, she asked the Creator, what is my purpose? And, as the Creator contemplated the question there emerged another thought. And the thought was born as every winged creature. Their expression was solid in contrast to the elusory nature of light. Insects and birds and bats filled the air. They cried, and sang, and wheeled across the blue and the sky was filled with joy.
Before very long, the creatures of the sky became tired; so, they asked the Creator, is this all there is to our existence? And, as the Creator reflected on the question there emerged another thought. And the thought was born as the earth. Jungles and forests, mountains and plains, oceans and rivers and deserts appeared in succession, diverse from one another. And as the winged creatures settled into their new homes, they rejoiced.
But before long, the earth with all of her bounty and beauty asked the Creator, is this all there is to be? And, as the Creator pondered the question there emerged another thought. And the thought was born as every animal of the land and seas in counterbalance. And the world was good. But after a while, the world itself asked the Creator, is this the end? Is there to be nothing more? And, as the Creator considered the question there emerged another thought. And, the thought was born as mankind, containing aspects of all earlier creations, light and dark, earth, water and air, animal and something more. Blessed with will and imagination they were created as alike as they were to be contradictions of one another. And through their distinctions they began to discover and create, giving birth to a multitude of nations, all corresponding counterparts of one another. And, they are creating still.
Diversity & Divisive
Our simple acceptance of being part of a greater design has often overshadowed the interconnectedness, the implicit interdependence of creation allowing it to escape the scrutiny and attention that it demands. What is more remarkable than the differences human societies express are the similarities of our underlying mythologies. While these stories will reflect the social and ethnic conditions of a certain time or place, the ideas that they express hold a great deal in common. Every ancient belief system includes the confidence that we are a part of something greater and trust in an eternal parental-like concern that watches over humankind. They tell us that whether animist, poly or monotheistic, there is a Supreme Being interested in us, one which cares about the same things that we do. Just as we require a society from which to draw our individual identity, cultures took the measure of themselves by drawing comparisons between their actual behavior and behavior that they believed to be desired by their God or gods. For millennia, cultural and religious practices have unfolded following a course charted by these interpretations of the workings of the universe. Disagreements about and opposition against alternative beliefs, customs, sacred rites and observances have shaped civilizations, sparked and sustained wars, and guided our ideas about peace and justice, bringing the world as we know it into being.
It was once accepted that the Divine exists within everything that we can conceive of: stone, air, fire, animals, and people. Only later, even though recognized as having a divine spirit, did many people stop believing themselves or one another to be made up of Divine Spirit.
Once God was shifted to being wholly separate, and humans subject to, rather than a part of Divinity, it became common to endow the Creator with parental qualities, such as great love. Prompted and bolstered by observations that the world could be a destructive and unforgiving place where nature could make a mockery of man’s attempts to control his fate, this God was also assigned the role of an omnipotent, often definitively punitive, protector. In nearly all belief systems, God, or gods and goddesses are subject to human emotions. Herein emerged the threat of God’s jealousy, resentment, the withholding of favor and the wrath that could be expected as a result of perceived misdeeds.
A traditional hunter-gatherer clan may choose to amend any potentially environmentally damaging behaviors to ensure the gods of the wilderness will continue to provide game. A pious family might decide to help those in need partly to assure their everlasting salvation. Fear and anxiety associated with this all-powerful presence has often improved our relationship with one another and the world around us. Nevertheless, projecting God as a solely separate entity who is in charge can lead to expectations of particular bounty as a right; and sometimes, justification for questionable conduct without blame. For every action or outcome, accountability can be assigned to God, heinous, innocuous or benevolent.
Providing a person decides (and can convince others in the community) that God approves of a course of action, this allows for pardon from everything from the smallest social transgression to senseless carnage. In this state of mind, the needs of others can be ignored, and beliefs actively utilized as rationale to harm people, other living things, or even the fabric of the planet itself. These are the conditions under which humanity’s dearest and deepest conventions based in love and compassion are abandoned. These are the times when that which compels us to provide for the stranger as a guest, treat other beings as we wish to be treated, seek solutions to dispute with the intention to restore harmony through fairness, are relinquished.
Cultures continue to shift and grow through trade, mass communications, conquest, intentional and unintentional assimilation, manmade and natural disasters. All the while we consciously and unconsciously assess ourselves and others against our creed-driven values. It is the way we formulate our laws and advance our concepts about what constitutes a just society; it is the device by which we assign our duty to one another, the compass by which we choose our direction, and the method that we use to outline and anticipate boundaries. These comparisons serve to remind us what we have in common; i.e., all societies honor trust, kindness, generosity, honesty, respect; all belief systems include a reverence for living things, a commitment to elders, a duty to care for the weak and helpless, and shared responsibilities for the health, protection, and well-being of one another. And yet, in the doctrine of our ethnic and faith-affiliations, e.g. how we conclude if a behavior is acceptable, or what rules we use to define mutual obligation, the established moral and ethical barometers we have fashioned often pull us in opposing directions. Usually, the differences are a matter of degrees; most, so subtle in fact that they would be indistinguishable to the uninitiated.
Most of us have borne witness to respect, comradery and mutual support when it comes to instances of cooperation between people of differing spiritual traditions. Equally, we have witnessed how even the most typically tolerant of people can become rigid and uncompromising, even violent, when dogma surfaces.
The compulsion to fixate on contrasts is generated by our axial need to meet our confident suppositions about what it means to be in alignment with our interpretations of God, or the Divine, or the Tao. Many people would argue that because much of the world is now agnostic, this line of thinking no longer applies. However, every conversation we have with ourselves, every decision we deliberate, every choice we employ is based in precepts of what is right, what is acceptable, what is good. These struggles are all founded in our acculturation and teachings from childhood that have been transmitted through succeeding generations, grounded in ancient mores. This is why many people feel as though others’ cultures or beliefs systems are in opposition to their own. Because, ideological principles are (often unknowingly) rooted in the idea inherent to early beliefs that deviations from the Creator’ s expectations cannot be “right” and therefore, mustbe “wrong.” And consequently (from this viewpoint), to challenge this “wrong” by undermining discomfiting practices or beliefs of others must be “right.”
Our ancestors did not always opt for strategies that would be advantageous in the long term, but religious customs and cultural traditions that survived and remained venerated are those that made use of the sacred knowledge; that is, the obligation to connect with and participate in the lives of our larger human family, knowing that each is a child of Creation. Too often we don’t take advantage of opportunities to invite others to share in these practices with our families, to talk about what we honor and memorialize, when and how we celebrate.
Unity does not require uniformity. Societies depend upon the crosspollination of philosophies to live in accord and be resilient in an ever-changing world. There is a very real danger that policies motivated by the implied benefits of a more culturally-fixed global society will inadvertently contribute to the demise of what would make such a society viable – its diversity. Just as in-breeding weakens a species, without careful consideration as to how to protect and engender local and conceptual differences, humankind’s ability to adapt and thrive will be weakened. By discovering ways to identify and allow for the incorporation of meaningful, irreplaceable, distinctiveness into long-term strategy, policymakers can win over those individuals and groups fearful of losing their heritage, customs and identity, while guaranteeing the vitality of the emerging world community. More than any other, this is the reason why we must take the time to give of ourselves through the telling of our stories, including the spirit of our inherited customs, the place from which they come, the character they encompass, the meaning that they embody. This is a powerful and meaningful way to come to know each other and understand our relevance to one another.
Like puzzle pieces, it is at the places where we differ that we complement each other. Just as in the Creation Myth above, it is in balance that wholeness is created; that which distinguishes us gives us the context from which to acquire knowledge, develop and continue to create in ways that improve cohesion and wellbeing. Diversity does not have to mean divisiveness. It is not necessary that we understand one another’s values and practices completely. Yet, it is vital that we accept that variations should and must exist. Divine wisdom cannot be reduced by clerics and legal scholars. It is never petty, small minded, bigoted or aggressive. It does not ever endorse or condone prejudice or violence.
It is the Divine that we see when we look in the mirror, as well as what we see when we look into the eyes of another, a collective reflection of all mankind. It is our combined differences that make us whole. It is our traditions that allow us to reveal ourselves, make ourselves known, learn and celebrate that which inspires us anew, making for a more open and just world. We can do this with agility and humility; we can choose to live in harmony with grace.
By Dianna Wuagneux, Ph.D., Chair Emeritus, International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation’s Board of Directors; International Senior Policy Advisor & Subject Matter Expert.
Paper submitted to the 5th Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding held by the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation at Queens College, City University of New York, in partnership with the Center for Ethnic, Racial & Religious Understanding (CERRU).