Santa Clara University

Making Sense of the 21st Century by making sense of oneself

Conventional wisdom holds that SCU's mission and commitment to interfaith dialog creates an environment conducive to preparing students to meet effectively the global political, economic, military, and communication challenges of the 21st century. But we still have some distance to go, according to Professor Eric Hanson.

Everything is connected in life. The point is to know it and to understand it.” So read the postcard sent from Europe by one of my former students. That postcard became the frontispiece for the syllabus of my upper-division course, Religion and Politics in the Developing World. This course, which covers China, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Latin America, has naturally attracted many Santa Clara students with family from these regions, from Vietnam to India to Mexico to the Philippines. The resulting class discussions inspired research for my latest book, Religion and Politics in the International System Today (Cambridge University Press, December 2005). This book offers a new post-Cold War paradigm based on the interaction between the contemporary globalization of the political, economic, military, and communication systems and the increasing role of religion in influencing world politics. The above four systems are becoming not just more global individually, but they are also rapidly integrating among themselves. Financial resources foster military might, political campaigns, and media concentration. Armies protect weapons of mass destruction, oil fields, and language schools. Television develops product demand and disposes populations to support or to oppose military intervention. Advances in contemporary technology like satellites and cell phones should thus be termed “quadruple use” for their political, economic, military, and communication aspects.

These four global systems constantly create new environments in which individuals and societies must rapidly make very complicated choices on the basis of their perceived personal and communal identities. The second half of the new paradigm explains the differing roles of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Maoist Marxism in world politics. Religion is defined as “that pattern of beliefs and activities that expresses ultimate meaning in a person’s life,” so the concept of “God” is not necessary to the definition of religion used in the book, as it was not for young Maoist Red Guards in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Nazism did, and contemporary Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and American nationalisms at times do fulfill similar quasi-religious roles.

 The research demonstrates the political usefulness of various types of interfaith dialogue for such a world. For example, it is difficult to imagine a lessening of tensions in the Middle East without greater mutual understanding among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The great ideological and institutional differences between and within religious traditions means, however, that there is no global religious system comparable to the political, economic, military, and communication systems. For religious understanding, then, no objective systemic approach suffices. One is forced back upon one’s self, to examine the depth of one’s own spiritual experience within one’s religious tradition and then to relate that experience to the contemporary world.

The opportunities and stresses of today's student

Two issues stand out when I compare the life challenges faced by my generation in the 1960s, to those my twenty- and thirty-something daughters faced in the 1990s and to those faced by today’s students. First, today’s students are blessed with incomparable opportunities. Many Santa Clara students enter college with significant academic, linguistic, and experiential portfolios. Advanced placement courses, second languages, trips to Europe and Asia, and service learning have all become fairly commonplace in the student experience of at least suburban high school graduates. When these students get to Santa Clara, the International Programs staff can help send them to more than 100 placements in forty-five different countries. And these placements can be tailored to their special interests, for example, environmental studies in either Costa Rica or Kenya.

Quote from Eric O. Hanson

Second, and less ideal from the students’ perspective, today’s twenty-two-year-olds face extraordinary stresses in integrating myriad types of knowledge and experience in the face of rapid technological change and incredible global poverty, environmental damage, illness, and chaos. No single technology, academic discipline, or geographic area makes sense without relating it to many other technologies, disciplines and geographic areas. Today’s students must become experts in their areas of specialization for both financial and humane reasons. Yet if they focus exclusively on a single technology, discipline, or region, they risk becoming exclusivists and a part of the problem of ever-increasing global fragmentation. The revision of the Santa Clara Core Curriculum in the mid-1990s not only added requirements in laboratory science, technology, non-Western culture, and the United States, but also engaged students in relating their Core requirements to each other, to their majors, to their electives, and to their extracurricular experiences. And in the intervening years, the University has put significant efforts into aligning the living and academic experiences at Santa Clara through Residential Learning Communities in which students take core classes and live with others who have similar interests


The University devoted the entire academic year of 2002-03 to the topic of globalization. Globalization takes place in a world with a single superpower, so the quality of U.S. leadership and the health of American society remain disproportionately important for the entire globe. Today’s secular university education has woefully under-prepared American elites to understand the role of religion in contemporary international affairs. In fact, this lack of global religious understanding constitutes the greatest deficit in American analyses of international affairs. The Defense Department, for example, grossly underestimated the importance of Islam in the initial Iraqi political and economic reconstruction. More and more public commentators are slowly coming to the realization that our nation needs to reexamine seriously the role of religion in education and in American public life. Recent examples include “The Christian Paradox” by Bill McKibben in Harper’s; “Faith Full: When the Religious Right Was Left” by E.J. Dionne, Jr., in The New Republic; and the New York Times bestseller God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis, an Evangelical. Americans in general retain a pervasive national unease about splitting the country into Red and Blue States of consciousness and a sense that religion might be part of the problem and/or part of the solution.

Quote from Eric O. Hanson

The topic of the public role of American religion has not yet threatened to surpass the Chinese economic threat, the future of Social Security, or the rising price of gas in newspaper column inches, but it has begun to be an issue for intellectuals and politicians, most of whom struggle with an overly secular background. We should not be too hard on Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, but the Book of Job is not in the New Testament. George W. Bush’s embrace of Jesus as “his favorite philosopher” might not guarantee a righteous prophetic nation on the issues of national and international poverty and the lack of global peacemaking. And Pat Robertson’s recent advocacy of the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez demonstrates again the civilizational dangers of “political monks” and “pious politicians.”

Spirituality Lite

The temptation at Catholic universities such as Santa Clara is to assign the national problem of “spirituality lite” to the three core religious studies courses, and move on to mimic our secular counterparts in all other matters. Perhaps we assume that graduates of our Jesuit University are exceptions to the general lack of religious knowledge and experience among American elites. I wish it were that simple. Santa Clara’s three religious studies courses are a necessary beginning, and the majority of the faculty reaffirmed their place during the revision of the SCU Core Curriculum, but these classes constitute opportunities for understanding and growth, not guarantees of spiritual maturity and connection. Santa Clara, as an institution, also devotes significant general resources to investigating religious issues. All three of the Centers of Distinction (Ignatian, Markkula, and Science, Technology, and Society) focus on ethical and spiritual issues. Markkula, for example, permanently hosts the Architects of Peace exhibit, which features photographs of many Nobel Peace Prize winners and others as examples. It also brought Swiss theologian Hans Kung and his Global Ethics Project to campus last year. Campus Ministry serves students from diverse religious traditions, not just Roman Catholics. Professor Philip Boo Riley has capitalized on the great religious diversity of Silicon Valley to inaugurate a Local Religion Project, which aims to explore and document the religious diversity of the Silicon Valley. Santa Clara conducts the El Salvador Immersion Program for the twenty-eight American Jesuit universities. SCU gardeners and students create and maintain a beautiful, peaceful campus where contemplation is at least possible. But all of these efforts and many others constitute opportunities for religious growth, not guarantees thereof. Our students can still graduate remarkably insensitive to religious experience and ethical values.

Secularism or pluralism?

Some may argue that secular graduates would not be such a bad thing after all. Western political leaders and intellectuals chose the Westphalian paradigm after the Thirty Years War (1618-48) precisely because such a paradigm seemed the safe choice for national and world stability. We can all cite examples of the nefarious uses of religion, from Catholic and Protestant anti-Semitism to Japanese Buddhist support for the 1937 invasion of China. India’s Hindu nationalism and Islamist terrorism constitute contemporary global political challenges. “Religious” persons have committed so many horrendous public acts that no religious tradition approaches interfaith dialogue even remotely sinless. Any twenty-first-century solution to this problem must maintain the Enlightenment value of religious freedom, a position not fully embraced by the Catholic Church until Vatican Council II (1962-65). But leaving the public square empty is no solution either. It is no accident that the religious terrorism of the 1995 Aum Shinrikro subway sarin gas attack occurred in the world’s most secular nation, Japan. Young people look for spiritual inspiration and some will seek it in death cults if it is not available in its true forms. In this essay, I advocate pluralistic toleration, not cultish religion nor fundamentalist secularism like a French la cité that does not allow Muslim women to wear scarves in its militantly secular classrooms. In the post-Cold War period, changes in international political, economic, military, and communication systems mean that pluralism, not secularism, is the better global political choice. The American educational system remains far too secular to prepare its graduates for the real world of Iraq, India, China, and Latin America.

The greatest international political success of the twentieth century was the reunification of Europe after two grievous world wars. This achievement required great human sacrifice by “the Greatest Generation” of North Americans and Europeans, especially Americans and Russians. The key to reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall was the postwar rapprochement of France and Germany. Christianity played a major role in fostering forgiveness and in framing the vision of a united Europe. Postwar Christian Democratic parties, ecumenical groupings of Protestants and Catholics, led the unification project, which also received strong bipartisan support from Social Democratic parties. The grassroots spiritual backing for such a pan-European orientation came from religious leaders like the Swiss Protestant theologian, Brother Roger Schultz, who founded an ecumenical community at Taizé in France in 1940. Lutheran, Anglican, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox believers have all become monks in this community, which stresses world peace, ecumenical dialogue, and the deepening of European spirituality. When Brother Roger was murdered this past August, his friend, Pope Benedict XVI, was among the many who grieved. Survey research has demonstrated that the recent weakening of religion in Europe means that the European Union receives less grassroots support, and the extreme anti-immigrant parties of both the left and the right receive more.

Religious Maturity

Requiring three religious studies courses at Yale and at the campuses of the University of California for example, would not by itself solve the problem of American religious illiteracy. No superficial knowledge of religion, nor even a superficial belief or non-belief, can substitute for spiritual integrity and depth, religious or agnostic. Even if my book’s paradigm captures the essence of the post-Cold War political, economic, military, and communication systems, that objective statement does not guarantee mutual understanding among religious and secular citizens and leaders. Interfaith dialogue requires, above all, that participants have experienced what they are talking or being silent about. Sprinkling a little “spirituality lite” on a leadership class will not help. Only the mature person, with grace, can affect his/her own spiritual integrity and depth. Religious maturity remains serious work for dedicated persons with developed senses of humor. As the Bible tells us: “Unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The role of spirituality

Faced with my own limited understanding and experience of what’s needed, I consulted the writings of the twentieth century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915-68). The convert Merton seems to have had the relevant mystical experience, studied and prayed over the history of Christian spirituality all his religious life, and conducted significant dialogues with “great souls” in other traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. In fact, although he studied Shakespeare, Eliot, and Blake under Mark Van Doren at Columbia University, it was a Hindu ascetic who first introduced him to the Christian spiritual classics, Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Merton also carried on a long friendship and writing project with Daisetz T. Suzuki, the most important Zen master of early twentieth-century America. Merton wrote one of his most revelatory spiritual letters to a Pakistani Sufi. No wonder, one month prior to his death, Merton wrote, “I think we have now reached a stage of (long overdue) religious maturity at which it might be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment and yet to learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline and experience. I believe that some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life and even to help in the task of monastic renewal which has been undertaken within the Western Church.”

Quote from Eric O. Hanson

My choice of Merton as a guide (specifically the book Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: the Essential Writings), of course, reflects my Catholic faith. If I were a Muslim, I would choose The Heart of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and I did ground my book’s discussion of Islam with this book. Nasr, for example, suggests that all members of the religions of the book should study the influence of the great Islamic philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) on the equally great medieval Jewish and Christian philosopher-theologians, Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas. All three great minds faced the challenge of integrating Greek wisdom with their religious traditions. Buddhists, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox, and Hindus would choose spiritual writers from their own traditions.

Defining a 21st century education

What is a true education then? At the end of the my SCU course, Religion and Politics in the Developing World, I give students Merton’s essay on just that topic, and it states: “The function of a university is, then, first of all to help the student discover himself: to recognize himself, and to identify who it is that chooses.” An education for the twenty-first century must foster both intelligence and spirituality, both global and local visions, both technological and traditional forms of expression, and lifelong learning for service and for its own sake. And all these dichotomies find their unity in the person’s discovery of self. In my course’s small group discussions, we ask whether these four university years would be better spent in a corporate training program, a Zen (or Christian) monastery, online education, or in a service learning setting like the Arrupe placements or Santa Clara’s program in El Salvador. Hopefully, a Santa Clara education integrates elements of each model.

I began this essay with a genuinely sympathetic affirmation of the great challenges faced by our current students in making sense of the twenty-first century. Our sixties generation could depend on the relative simplicity of the Cold War paradigm, however horrible the realities of the Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars. Today’s graduates must understand so much more than even those who graduated in the 1990s did. They must relate multiple technologies, academic disciplines, and geographic areas to each other and to a deep and integral personal spirituality. Objective knowledge, even encyclopedic objective knowledge, gets them only part of the way. Man does not live by data processing capacity alone. Contemporary life also demands a greater spiritual integrity and depth that motivates communal action on behalf of humanity. Merton became not only a solitary contemplative, but he participated in the great social movements of his era, from civil rights to peacemaking (the SAC bombers used to fly over his Kentucky hermitage).

Education—like life, love, and politics—is always an act of faith. The individual’s spirit, according to Merton, “sees God precisely by understanding that He [or She] is utterly invisible to it.” That intuitive leap, devoid of content, constitutes the basic foundation for, among other gifts, human service and a strong defense against the ravages of false religion. Such a leap leaves us spiritually “naked.” Merton adds, “Spiritual nakedness, on the other hand, is far too stark to be useful. It strips life down to the root where life and death are equal, and this is what nobody likes to look at. But it is where freedom really begins: the freedom that cannot be guaranteed by the death of somebody else.” May the next generation of Santa Clara students become truly educated, finding their spiritual depth in contemplation and in the true practical wisdom of contributing to more just and peaceful societies in our increasingly complicated and troubled world. I both envy and do not envy them!  

-- Eric O. Hanson, Patrick A. Donohoe, S.J., Professor of Political Science, has taught at Santa Clara University for thirty years after completing five years’ study in East Asia and a doctorate in Chinese politics from Stanford University. He directed the revision of the current Core Curriculum, 1992-97, and received the 1992 University Brutacao and 2003 College Logothetti teaching awards. Religion and Politics in the International System Today is his third book. In an act of full disclosure, Eric states that his brother Kirk is the director of SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
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