Candle in the Dark

THE town of Bled, Slovenia, on the Austrian border, is hardly a world or even regional crossroads. But under United Nations auspices, Bled hosted a remarkable gathering Oct. 28-30 of diverse thinkers who have not given up the belief that ``there is a spirit in humankind,'' despite the dark clouds of apathy, cynicism, and brutality over many in the post-cold-war era.

This ``Seminar on Ethical and Spiritual Dimensions of Social Progress'' is intended to inform the UN world summit on social development in Copenhagen this March. The group in Bled - engineers, philosophers, theologians, politicians - shared the view that any real social progress in coming years must derive from a deeper grasp of the spirit behind common values such as dignity and integrity.

It is remarkable that such a seminar could take place at all. Discussions of ethics and spirit usually get crowded or laughed out of UN circles. The end of the cold war has hardly brought automatic improvements in civility or social conditions, as Bosnia and Rwanda witness. Americans speak for the first time ever of a lack of a sense of the future.

Yet the persistent discussion in Bled, helped by longtime UN official Jacques Baudot, who is coordinating the Copenhagen summit, had it that ethics and spiritual light are as much a part of these times as the overwhelming problems of poverty and unemployment. As Stan Sanders, a black candidate for mayor in Los Angeles and a seminar participant, pointed out, his city has enormous wealth and enormous social disintegration. Yet the emptiness of the one and the chaos of the other are forcing people to higher ground.

The kind of spirit talked about in Bled did not come from some bored hot-tub set, or assorted crystal-consulting New Agers. It drew from the hard struggles and triumphs of individuals like Vaclav Havel, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Nelson Mandela.

The ``practicality'' of ethics and spiritual thinking was a main focus. A member of the Thai parliament, who had worked as an engineer on the American space program, told of being unable to complete the design of the landing gear for the Viking space probe. He literally went to the hills to pray, and in four days the idea for the design came to him in full.

Vaclav Havel will be asked to present the findings of the Bled seminar to the social summit in Copenhagen.

Responsible discussions of this type need to inform world thinking.

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