There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.
The distinguishing features of transitional periods are a mixing and blending of cultures and a plurality or parallelism of intellectual and spiritual worlds. These are periods when all consistent value systems collapse, when cultures distant in time and space are discovered or rediscovered. New meaning is gradually born from the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements.
Today, this state of mind, or of the human world, is called post-modernism. For me, a symbol of that state is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel’s back.
I am not ridiculing this, nor am I shedding an intellectual tear over the commercial expansion of the West that destroys alien cultures. I see it as a typical expression of this multicultural era, a signal that an amalgamation of cultures is taking place. I see it as proof that something is being born, that we are in a phase when one age is succeeding another, when everything is possible. Yes, everything is possible because our civilization does not have its own spirit, its own esthetic.
This is related to the crisis, or to the transformation, of science as the basis of the modern conception of the world. The dizzying development of science, with its unconditional faith in objective reality and complete dependency on general and rationally knowable laws, led to the birth of modern technological civilization. It is the first civilization that spans the entire globe and binds together all societies, submitting them to a common global destiny.
At the same time, the relationship to the world that modern science fostered and shaped appears to have exhausted its potential. The relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It produces a state of schizophrenia: man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.
Classical modern science described only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality. And the more dogmatically science treated it as the only dimension, as the very essence of reality, the more misleading it became. We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.
The same thing is true of nature and of ourselves. The more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure and the biochemical reactions that take place within them, are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique self. Thus, we enjoy all the achievements of modern civilization that have made our physical existence easier in so many important ways. Yet we do not know exactly what to do with ourselves, where to turn.
The world of our experiences seems chaotic, confusing. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. We live in the post-modern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.
This state of affairs has its social and political consequences. The planetary civilization to which we all belong confronts us with global challenges. We stand helpless before them because our civilization has essentially globalized only the surface of our lives. But our inner self continues to have a life of its own. And the fewer answers the era of rational knowledge provides to the basic questions of human being, the more deeply it would seem that people, behind its back as it were, cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe.
Because of this, individual cultures, increasingly lumped together by contemporary civilization, are realizing with new urgency their own inner autonomy and the inner differences of others. Cultural conflicts are increasing and are more dangerous today than at any other time in history.
Politicians are rightly worried by the problem of finding the key to insure the survival of a civilization that is global and multicultural: how respected mechanisms of peaceful co-existence can be set up and on what set of principles they are to be established.
These questions have been highlighted with particular urgency by the two most important political events in the second half of the 20th century: the collapse of colonial hegemony and the fall of Communism.
The artificial world order of the past decades has collapsed and a new, more just order has not yet emerged. The central political task of the final years of this century, then, is the creation of a new model of co-existence among the various cultures, peoples, races and religious spheres within a single interconnected civilization.
Many believe this can be accomplished through technical means — the invention of now organizational, political and diplomatic instruments. Yes, it is clearly necessary to invent organizational structures appropriate to the multicultural age. But such efforts are doomed to failure if they do not grow out of something deeper, out of generally held values.
In searching for the most natural source for the creation of a new world order, we usually look to an area that is the traditional foundation of modern justice and a great achievement of the modern age: to a set of values that were first declared in this building. I am referring to respect for the unique human being and his or her liberties and inalienable rights, and the principle that all power derives from the people. I am referring to the fundamental ideas of modern democracy. Even these ideas are not enough. We must go farther and deeper.
Today, we are in a different place and facing a different situation, one to which classically modern solutions do not give a satisfactory response. After all, the very principle of inalienable human rights, conferred on man by the Creator, grew out of the typically modern notion that man — as a being capable of knowing nature and the world — was the pinnacle of creation and lord of the world.
This modern anthropocentrism inevitably meant that He who allegedly endowed man with his inalienable rights began to disappear from the world: He was so far beyond the grasp of modern science that He was gradually pushed into a sphere of privacy of sorts, if not directly into a sphere of private fancy — that is, to a place where public obligations no longer apply. The existence of a higher authority than man himself simply began to get in the way of human aspirations.
The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order. Yet I think it must be anchored in a different place, and in a different way, than has been the case so far.
Paradoxically, inspiration for the renewal of this lost integrity can once again be found in science. In a science that is new — post-modern — a science producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits. I will give two examples.
The “anthropic cosmological principle” brings us to an idea, perhaps as old as humanity itself, that we are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tiny particle whirling in the endless depths of the universe. Instead, we are mysteriously connected to the universe, we are mirrored in it, just as the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us.
The moment it begins to appear that we are deeply connected to the entire universe, science reaches the outer limits of its powers.
With the “anthropic cosmological principle,” science has found itself on the border between science and myth. In that, however, science has returned, in a roundabout way, to man, and offers him his lost integrity. It does so by anchoring him once more in the cosmos.
The second example is the “Gaia hypothesis.” This theory brings together proof that the dense network of mutual interactions between the organic and inorganic portions of the Earth’s surface form a single system, a kind of mega-organism, a living planet, Gaia, named after an ancient goddess recognizable as an archetype of the Earth Mother in perhaps all religions.
According to the Gaia hypothesis, we are parts of a greater whole. Our destiny is not dependent merely on what we do for ourselves but also on what we do for Gaia as a whole. If we endanger her, she will dispense with us in the interests of a higher value — life itself.
What makes the “anthropic principle” and the “Gala hypothesis” so inspiring? One simple thing: Both remind us of what we have long suspected, of what we have long projected into our forgotten myths and what perhaps has always lain dormant within us as archetypes. That is, the awareness of our being anchored in the Earth and the universe, the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone but that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme.
This forgotten awareness is encoded in all religions. All cultures anticipate it in various forms. It is one of the things that form the basis of man’s understanding of himself, of his place in the world and ultimately of the world as such.
The only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and, at the same time, the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence.
Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence.
Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors and thus honor their rights as well.
It follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to peaceful co-existence and creative cooperation must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds then political opinion, convictions, antipathies or sympathies: it must be rooted in self-transcendence.
The Declaration of Independence, adopted 218 years ago in this building, states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.