The Words of the Kaufmann Family

Religion and Dialogue Among Civilizations

Frank Kaufmann, Ph.D.

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Prepared for the Conference: Dialogue and Harmony Among Civilizations (IIFWP/WANGO, New York, NY, January 2001)

UN Mottos

This paper (prepared for inclusion in the proceedings of the Dialogue and Harmony Among Civilizations conference is an abbreviated introduction to a more fully developed thesis.)

United Nations mottos function in a great many ways and reflect several aspects of UN life. They almost always carry "universal" messages insofar as, to the untrained eye they seem to declare ideals against which it would be impossible to argue. For those more familiar with UN life, mottos reflect the politics and compromise which constitute the clash of ideological agendas within the UN, and between the UN and other centers of moral and political influence. Such is also the case with the year 2001 motto Dialogue Among Civilizations.

Embedded within the motto is the intense contemporary debate known in the Western academy as having to do with "multi-culturalism." Part of what saves this particular program, in my opinion, is that it can trace its origins to a point away from the Western Academy. Ideologues from the Western academy are often blind to their participation in the various hegemonies they decry for a living.

I argue in this paper that this motto is different in kind from all previous UN mottos, and is path-breaking. I argue that it re-defines the very institution of the UN, and does so in such a way that it may in fact "save" the organization. Finally I present two key ways in which religion is essential and indispensable to the realization of the ideals implied by the motto.

The Work of the UN

The UN by its name and definition envisions two things: a) an ideal relationship, and b) a unit of human social organization. The social unit is, of course, nations. The ideal relationship envisioned for these entities is that they be somehow united.

For a little over 50 years, the UN has endeavored to promote the realization of this ideal based on a theory of relationality presumably appropriate to such things (i.e., nations). Nations are essentially political and economic constructs. As such, efforts to cooperation and reconciliation followed dynamics of negotiation. Negotiation is only moderately cooperative. Parties approach the encounter primarily driven by self interest.

For 50 years this massive, hugely funded global organization has sought to position itself as an agent of peace, justice, and co-prosperity under the dynamics generated by the twinned concepts of a) humans are organized primarily as nation-states, and b) unity sought through negotiation.

As a result we achieved what many have called "a century of war," we end up with UN troops, a world wide mercenary program with absorbing a massive percentage of UN monies, and a 50th anniversary with the UN on the brink of fiscal, and PR disaster.

Secretary General Kofi Anan has worked marvelously to respond to these crises, especially with his frank assessment of the state of the UN, his honest call for renewal, and the outstanding vision expressed in We the Peoples. In the years since the 50th anniversary, the star of the UN has been rising, despite some rough spots for its "peacekeepers" here and there.

More Radical Than Meets the Eye

Year by year the UN adopts mottos to reflect the center of gravity, and primary thrust or direction for that year; The Year of the Ocean, The Year of Older Persons, The Year of Volunteers, The Year of the Culture of Peace, and so forth.

It is the position of this writer that The Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations is fundamentally different, different in kind, from previous "Years of ..." This "Year of..." potentially redefines the UN at its very core, in both aspects of its foundational twinned concepts. Dialogue redefines negotiation, and civilization redefines nation. Thus Dialogue Among Civilizations, has the potential to re-found the United Nations!


The concept of dialogue arose originally within the ecumenical and interfaith movements. It is essentially the path toward harmony among religions and denominations. It differs from negotiation (a political and economic dynamic) because religion is precisely the place in human affairs where compromise is inappropriate. That which is held dear in matters of religion is (rightfully) "non-negotiable."

Since "unity" or harmony is not to be sought in the cattle trading and compromise appropriate to political and economic wheeling and dealing, religionists had to develop different foundations upon which to build peaceful and harmonious relationships with their fellows who differ in areas where no compromise is possible.

The idea behind dialogue presumes an eternal (as distinct from ‘infinite’) side of being human, and presumes that ‘uniting’ yields unknown and unanticipated (immeasurable) benefits. This approach to the other is incompatible and inapplicable when reducing human social organization to its mere political and economic elements.

For this reason a different concept for human social organization is required; one that embraces the eternal and intangible qualities of being human. This is Civilization

Nation and Civilization

Interestingly, the shift in orientation implicit in the shift to civilization brings to our attention to yet another recent turn in UN awareness, that being the role of civil society.

Here again UN premises implicitly are questioned at their core. It increasingly is coming to be realized that the elite status of nations in UN affairs has led virtually nowhere in the advance toward peace and shared prosperity. Coupled with that realization has grown a movement which at first sought to elevate the contribution of what was called "the NGO community," but has since shifted in terminology to be called "civil society."

Not many realize that the very concept of nation states is ideological, and in important ways a challenge to those views of human social identification which presume spiritual roots. Kenneth L. Grasso helps provide important insights into the notion of civil society when he refers to

that whole range of groups and institutions that stand between the individual and the state... communities of memory and mutual aide ... groups whose ties are solidaristic rather than instrumental or contractrian. Such groups include the family and the neighborhood, as well as religious, cultural, social, and fraternal associations.

It is interesting, but not surprising if viewed closely, that President George W Bush, and the Ayatollah Khatami of Iran should both spawn sea changes which acknowledge the cardinal and integral center of those institutions (called "civil society") to renewal and restoration. On January 29th, President George W. Bush made good on his controversial promise to establish a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

On April 2, 1998, H.E. Mr. Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, offered the following:

The guiding principles of our foreign policy are set by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khatami. He has eloquently presented three principles for our foreign policy. Roughly translating, they are "Dignity", "Wisdom" and "Interest". This means that in our policy formulation, preservation of our dignity reigns supreme, never to be compromised. Our foreign policy decisions are made on the basis of wisdom and rationality and finally, we pursue our interests accordingly.
These guiding principles form the basis of President Khatami's foreign policy objective of minimizing international tensions and promoting friendly cooperation in general, and with those nations which respect our independence and recognize a balance of mutual interests and practice non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, in particular. Iran seeks peace and security at the international level, friendship and cooperation among all peoples, and dialogue among all cultures and civilizations free from imposition and hegemony. The Iranian people and the Iranian government have endeavored against all odds to work towards realization of these objectives and ideals, and are determined to continue along this path. To this end, they are well disposed to reciprocate genuine gestures of goodwill.

People who view leadership with superficial categories might imagine these two leaders to be as fully, diametrically opposed to one another as possible. Fact is though, both recognize an urgent need to restore the mediating institutions which rescue civil society from the market and the state. Both insist that "man (sic) in his inner most nature is a social being from whose dynamic orientation toward the realization of his own nature flows a whole array of social relations." [Grasso: 28]

In this array of "vocational, professional, educational, and religious institutions, man (sic) lives for his final, transcendent destiny." [Grasso: 29] Civilization embraces the transcendent. This is what makes dialogue the appropriate dynamic for encounters among civilizations. Civilization (born of the "necessary communities" of family, of faith, education and so forth) approaches human social organization in such a way that our identities and our treasures are the fodder for eternal learning and discourse, and not for compromise.

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