Berkley Forum

Faith, Health, and Education

Responding to Religion and World Order

Tom Banchoff sees four areas where religion has the potential to shape future global affairs: the politics of human rights, controversies over global inequality, the struggle against terrorism, and the rise of regionalism (or, more bluntly, clashing civilizations). The list could do with two additions. At least as important in shaping the future are education and health and in both the weight of religious beliefs and the attitudes they reflect weigh heavily in ways that are not always well appreciated. Both are marked by their characteristic of reaching from the most local level to the most global. Education and health are as integral to lived daily reality as they are to shaping civilizational values, demography, and human relationships.

Granted, education and health fit uncomfortably in a discussion framed as world politics or international affairs. And granted also, each of Banchoff’s challenges relates to education and health in a complex web of ways (notably in the disparities that are the essence of inequality). But the argument I make is that human welfare is what will truly make the difference in world affairs, even if the diplomats see matters differently. And the capacity of great religious leaders and traditions to keep pace and respond to rapid changes especially in the realms that affect how people live can be seen as a make or break question for the future.

When the Treaty of Vienna was framed, few would have hesitated to assign to religious institutions the primary role in running schools and universities, providing such health care as was then available, and assigning proper roles to men and women, in families and in society. Education and health care systems were for the most part geared to the social and economic elites. The heat of industrialization, scientific advances, ideological challenges of all sorts, and the crumbling of cultural and national boundaries changed that situation dramatically. Education and health are seen today as basic human rights and a responsibility of the state. Religious institutions play greater roles than is generally understood but rarely at the leading edge. For example much religiously run education and health care has limped behind in recognizing the revolution of women’s equality. But at their finest religious institutions press to reach the disadvantaged and to serve “the least among us.”

The world order has been transformed (and is still being transformed) by extraordinary increases of population numbers and life expectancy, fueled by the health care revolution, and by the remarkable improvement in human development that is in large measure seen in dramatic changes in school and university attendance. It will be shaped in the future by the ways in which education systems adapt so that they transmit the best of core human values (which indeed are reflected in the core understandings of human rights) and keep their spirit alive. That presents a quintessentially religious challenge, not religious alone, but with religious institutions serving as part of a multi-faceted, constantly challenging balancing of the pragmatic and the ideal, the local and the universal, and diversity with a shared sense of humanity on a common planet. Religious beliefs, leaders, and institutions have vital roles to play as prophets whose vision is focused on individual and community, linking what is local with what is global. And it is in the realm of human welfare, exemplified by education and health, that these ideals will be put to the test.
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