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Enhancing Connectivity: A Q&A with Dr. Menahem Blondheim

Peace as a Religious Counter-World

July 21, 2016 • By Menahem Blondheim Peace as a Religious Counter-World

I recently began working on a new project that I think belongs in the Enhancing Life framework. It’s about religion, and about war and peace, namely—I hope this doesn’t sound too melodramatic—it’s about the mere possibility of living a life to be enhanced. The project is concerned with the potential role of religion in bringing about peace and harmony to our strife-ridden world. After some context I’ll present the possibly naïve rationale of the project, and then report on a twist it has recently taken, by encountering a part of the world that was heretofore under my radar: Japan. In April I unexpectedly found myself spending two weeks on this project in Japan; I returned to Japan for another two weeks of work on the project in June, and expect to be there again for another month early next year.

A puppet of the god Sambaso on a yatai, a large ornate float, in the Takayama spring matsuri (festival). The festival dates back to the 16th-17th century. It is centered on the Hie shrine and is held to pray for a good harvest.The puppet is operated by strings and push rods. Photo and caption by Yagi Morris.

But first some background. I serve as head of the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace (in Japan that can sound like a macabre misnomer). Established in 1965, Truman is the Middle East’s first and largest peace institute. Its more than 100 current researchers are experiencing the Institute’s grand tradition of frustration, futility, and failure—failure in bringing peace to our world, to our region, to our country, even to our city. For instance, the Oslo accords were based on a plan developed at Truman, but they don’t seem to have solved anything. Nevertheless, the effort goes on: the situation on the ground confirms it’s imperative to keep trying out new ideas and approaches, notwithstanding our heritage of failure. 

The god Daikokuten, Kyoto. His origins are in the fierce Hindu god, Mahakala "The Great Dark One". Japanese medieval Buddhist texts portray him as a demon who steals the vital essence of people and who feeds on human blood and flesh. During the Edo period Daikokuten was transformed into a god of fortune and wealth, associated with the household and particularly with the kitchen. As such he is portrayed as a smiling pot-bellied figure standing upon two bales of rice, indicating his role as a god of five cereals. Photo and caption by Yagi Morris.

In the past few years, Truman has specialized in focusing on the most counter-intuitive ideas for advancing peace—since the straightforward ones seem to have all flopped. This present project is one such venture that flouts common sense. Conventional wisdom, almost universally held by statesmen and scholars, policy circles and media savants, holds that in order to give peace a chance, religion must be avoided, sidestepped, neutralized. That, for instance, is the fundamental position of Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiators in the last round of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

After all, religions are mutually exclusive and inflexible total systems. Since the resolution of conflict requires compromise, pragmatism, and experimentation, religion can only represent an obstacle to peace. And indeed, the role of religion in exacerbating human conflict and bringing about violence and death is no longer looked at as an irony, a paradoxical aberration. History aside, our daily news headlines sadly demonstrate why linking religion with conflict, war and death has become commonplace.

Yet “it ain’t necessarily so.” All world religions emphatically carry a vision of harmony and peace as a religious ideal, even a godly virtue. World harmony may well be seen as a universal religious spiritual aspiration, and living in peace a fulfillment of spiritual laws. True, some religionists may believe that this godly peace can be achieved only once the nonbelievers have been converted or eradicated, but there usually are other possibilities too. The purpose of the project is to try to uncover and extract the fundamental elements of this universal religious vision of peace, through careful analysis of religious notions of political peace and social harmony. In ELP terminology, this project intends to construct peace as a counter-world, where many of its elements are common to a variety of world religions.

A modern sculpture of the god Okuninushi no mikoto at Izumo Grand Shrine, Shimane prefecture. According to the early myths, Okuninushi is identified as the grandchild of the sun goddess Amatersau o-mikami and is considered the creator god of Japan, who handed the country to Ninigi-no-mikoto. In reward, it is said that Amaterasu presented him with Izumo Grand Shrine. Izumo is one of the most ancient and most important shrines in Japan. Photo and caption by Yagi Morris.

But this project can also attempt to transcend theoretical constructions; we can consider how it might be practically applied. For that to happen, we need to consider a series of problems: Can religious notions of peace be translated into real-world programs for promoting it and enhancing the notions of peace held by people of different religions? Can we crystalize a religiously-based universal vision of a counter-world of peace? How can it be shared and communicated? What forms of dialogue can yield these notions and promote them?

Ema ("horse pictures") at Izumo Shrine. The name of these wooden plaques, through which one delivers his wishes to the gods in writing, derives from dedicatory pictures of horses that replaced the Nara period custom of offering live-horses to shrines. These small-size wooden plaques first appeared in the Edo period and are highly popular to this day. Photo and caption by Yagi Morris.

My focus in this project has most naturally been on religion and conflict in the Middle East and to a lesser extent in Europe. But I stumbled upon some possible first steps towards opening these questions through a serendipitous encounter with religion in Japan. Like biblical Judaism, Shinto is a national, not universal, religion. However, the ironies of history have juxtaposed these two particularistic religions quite strikingly: Japan, for centuries a free nation whose independence was predicated on an effective war machine, has become since WWII a model of a peaceful, practically pacifist, nation. The Jews in contrast were a powerless nation depending on peace for survival for many centuries prior to WWII, after which the Jews of Israel became a warring nation. Geopolitical circumstances aside, in both cases we can see the same religion sustaining notions of holy war but also of peace and even pacifism, with historical circumstances bringing out one or the other. This relativism, the flexibility of spiritual aspirations, is probably true not only of Judaism and Shintoism but of other world religions as well.

Wands of white paper streamers (gohei) and branches of sasaki (Cleyera japonica) on a wall at Ise Shrine, where Amaterasu Omikami, the high goddess of the Shinto pantheon is enshrined. The gohei and sasaki are used for purification and also as markers of the presence of a god. Photo and caption by Yagi Morris.

Oscar Wilde touring Canada was apparently underwhelmed by the Niagara Falls. He is said to have said that it would be much more impressive had the waters flowed in the opposite direction, up the falls rather than down. The spiritual aspiration of religions to either war or to a counter-world of peace has historically been determined, or at least influenced, by shifts in geopolitics, as in the case of Shintoism and Judaism.  But can we possibly counter the direction of the stream, and go from engineering change in a religion’s ecology of spiritual laws to its real-world orientation on questions of war and peace?  

If so, this ELP-inspired project on religion and peace might yet bring about a world of good to a world at war. 

All photos courtesy of Yagi Morris.