Perhaps every generation believes that it has reached a turning point of history, but our problems seem intractable and our future uncertain. Many of our difficulties mask a deeper spiritual crisis. During the 20th century, we saw the eruption of violence on an unprecedented scale.
Sadly, our ability to murder one another has kept pace with our extraordinary scientific progress. The explosion of the first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki laid bare the nihilistic self-destruction at the heart of our modern culture. Unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that can keep abreast of our technological genius, it is unlikely that we will save our planet.
A purely rational education will not suffice. A great university can exist in the same vicinity of a concentration camp. Auschwitz, Rwanda, Bosnia, and 9/11 were all dark epiphanies that revealed what can happen when the sense of the sacred inviolability of every single human being is lost.
I believe that we can find inspiration from the great sages of the past. From 900-200 BC, the great world traditions that have continued to guide humanity came into being: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophic rationalism in Greece. This was the period of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Mencius, and Euripides. Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all latter-day flowering of this extraordinary period.
These sages were so advanced and their vision so radical that later generations diluted it. Because of this, they produced the religiosity that these sages wanted to get rid of. For example, it is often assumed that faith is a matter of believing certain propositions. Indeed, it is common to call religious people "believers".
But most of these sages had no interest in doctrine. A person's theological beliefs were a matter of total indifference to somebody like Buddha. They argued that it was immature, unrealistic, and perverse to look for the kind of absolute certainty that most people expect religion to provide.
These sages did not seek to impose their own views on other people. Quite the contrary, nobody, they believed, should ever take religious teaching on faith or at second hand. It was essential to question everything and to test any teaching against your personal experience. If Confucius had been asked whether he believed in God, he would probably have explained that this was not an appropriate question. This was because what mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved.
The only way to encounter 'God', 'Nirvana', 'Brahman', or the 'Way' was to live a compassionate life. Indeed, religion was compassion. All the sages preached a spirituality of empathy and compassion; they insisted that people must abandon their egotism and greed, their violence and unkindness. Each tradition developed its own formulation of the Golden Rule - do not do unto others what you would not have done to you.
We need to rediscover this ethos. In our global village, we can no longer afford an exclusive vision. We must learn to behave as though people of different religions from our own are as important as ourselves. The great sages of the past have laid the foundations upon which others could build. Each generation would try to adapt these original insights to their own peculiar circumstances, and that must be our task today.