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Religion and Society

Broadening not Juxtaposing: the New Step Forward for Oasis

‘There exists the possibility of making the same identical discourse about Arabs and for Arabs'1. With this bold statement Samir Kassir ended his preface to the pamphlet Considérations sur le malheur arabe shortly before losing his life by assassination in June 2005. With a not-taken-for-granted adaptation of ‘Arabs’ to ‘Muslims’, I believe that this phrase well expresses one of the wagers of these first nine years of Oasis. It is not necessary to have an ad extra discourse for Muslims – in the furrow of ‘dialogue’ and courtesy – and another ad intra discourse for the Christian communities of the West and the East. The questions that the faithful of these two religions now have to address are sufficiently shared to allow mutual comprehensibility, on the condition, naturally enough, that there is the intention and the cultural instruments to do this.

 

In truth, this discovery only emerged for us gradually. At the beginning, indeed, the emphasis was placed above all else on the tie of communion that unites the Christian communities of the West and of the East. It appeared (and it still appears) essential to make the different ways of living Christian faith (what I have called ‘the cultural interpretations of faith’) interact in mutual enrichment. This remains the generative point of the whole of our undertaking: to explore the dimensions of Christian life through a dialogue between the various forms of expression that it takes, offering where possible support of a cultural character to those that are most in difficulty. However, in this idea there was already contained in nuce the subsequent opening towards Muslim believers, that ‘speaking about them and with them’ to which Kassir referred. The way of living one’s own faith, indeed, cannot be separated from a consideration of the context in which it is to be found. This, when applied to the Middle East, means: it is not possible to separate the Christian minorities from the Muslims societies in which they live. It seems to me that this is one of the profound reasons why dialogue between believers cannot be reduced to ‘an optional extra’ but, rather, constitutes a ‘vital necessity’, to employ the words spoken by Benedict XVI in Cologne2. Today in Tunis a further broadening of perspective has taken place. Indeed this is the first time that Oasis has approached a reality where the Church is very small in numerical terms and in large measure made up of foreigners. Here encounter with Islam appears ineluctable: the temptation of the fence or of ‘splendid isolation’, which at times can appear in the Levant, does not take place, and this because of the simple fact there is no island to which to withdraw and no fence behind which one can take refuge.

 

However, ‘stage two’ of the encounter with Muslim societies already leads on to the subsequent development: a ‘stage three’ effectively expressed in the sub-title of our meeting: ‘Tunisia Challenges the West’. Here I believe that the apparent paradoxical character of our meeting escapes nobody. If we want to add to our analysis the subject of the West, why should the meeting of our committee be held in Tunis? Indeed, this choice would not find a real justification if the new horizon to be explored, in parallel with ‘Christianity in the East’, were something like ‘Islam in the West’. Then our meeting would indeed be out of place. But the whole of our initiative would be out of place because we would end up by juxtaposing one subject with another. But such is not the case once we have clarified the real subject, which is addressed from the same generative point by an internal dynamic, which for us is the mestizaje of civilisations and cultures. As regards this challenge, as I will seek to demonstrate, Christian and Muslims of every latitude can enlighten each other.

 

A Sense of Being Lost

 

 

‘Do not ask us for the formula that can open worlds to you,/ just a few syllables, knotted and dry like a branch./ This, today, is all that we can tell you,/what we are not, what we do not want’3. When Eugenio Montale wrote these verses, in the collection Cuttlefish Bones (one of the poetic high points of the Italian twentieth century), he probably had fascism in mind as a first reference point. It was 1923 and the impossibility of saying only ‘what we are not, what we do not want’ denounced not so much the police control of the regime of Mussolini and its censorship, which at that time was rather bland, but the crisis within Western thought which had opened up the road to that regime. No different today, it seems to me, is the existential crisis of very many people in the West. ‘What we do not want’ is very clear: we do not want the crisis, we do not want to lose our jobs, we do not want to end up in insignificance and loneliness. Perhaps we can stutter something of a positive character: we want more authentic relationships, people who reassure us, and we still hold the family dear, as I was able to feel personally in a striking way during the world meeting that was held in Milan. But we do not know how to give flesh and bones to these wishes because it is difficult for us to say in a positive sense ‘what we are’. At a practical level, namely that of the life of a people, and although taking into account the existence of minorities that escape this unforgiving diagnosis, this can be seen as the ultimate effect of a process that began centuries ago: the crisis of the universal.

 

In the West the crisis of the universal is first of all the crisis of religion, indeed more precisely the crisis of a very specific religion, or to put it better of the predominant cultural interpretation that it acquired during the course of the medieval period: the crisis of sacral Christendom which after the Reformation divided into two opposing camps which were committed to fighting each other in a series of wars that were devastating for the continent. The first steps of modern philosophy can also be read, amongst other things, as an attempt to preserve the universal of Christianity without Christianity. Subjective intentions may also be of the best. I may think of the example of Leibniz who had the illusion, with his philosophy, of having found a ‘rational’ explanation for the Eucharist on which Catholics and Protestants could agree. However, the result was a frontal attack on the universal value of the singularity of Christianity. While faith was reduced to a private matter, other secularised universals made their appearance: Science, Reason, Law and History, then more crudely Race, Class and the Market4. The criticism that these universals made of religion has had devastating effects for religion (the Blessed Newman summarised the prayer of the typical liberal theologian of his time in the following way: ‘God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul’) and cannot be liquidated with an improbable return to the ancient. But at the same time it is evident today that these secularised universals have not kept their promises. Hence a certain return of the religious in the West, but above all else the spread of an attitude of ‘gay resignation’5, a pleased forgoing of the universal and thus of the search for a human meaning to one’s existence. Until, that is, the economic-financial crisis broke, a crisis which removed gaiety and left us only resignation6. How can we exit from this situation?

 

 

A New Insistence

 

 

Even though the historical pathway that I have merely alluded to is certainly not unknown to the Muslim world, and above all to its regions, such as Tunisia, which have for some time been in contact with the West, it remains true that for the great majority of these populations Islam continues to perform the function of being a universal reference point. This is what was also demonstrated by the election of 2011 with the success of the parties of a religious basis. ‘What we are’, therefore, is rather clear to most: Muslims. Furthermore the Arab revolutions, in their great diversity, strongly launched the question of freedom. Indeed, one can say that there is today disagreement about everything in these countries with the exception of one thing: there is no desire to return to the ‘culture of authoritarianism’ which was expressed for a large number of decades. Even though it is clear that the demand for freedom is a constant for every civilisation in every epoch, the insistence on stressing it nonetheless appears to me to be new in this phase of transition.

 

However, political freedom brings with it a risk: it can also acquire the not very attractive face of fragmentation and Babelism. “Liberty, yes, but up to a certain point”, thus argue some people who are worried about the attack on the universal that they see looming on the horizon. Attention then moves to the conquest of a hegemony that will exercise a levelling function in order to assure a minimum common denominator for society. The problem, however, is what happens to religion at the end of this process: does it not perhaps run the risk of mutating into pure and simple ideology? As the Iranian thinker Dariush Shayegan asks himself: ‘Revolution or Islam? Is it religion that changes the revolution, sanctifies it and re-sacralises it? Or is it, in contrary fashion, the revolution that historicises religion, that makes it an engaged religion, in short: a political ideology?’7. Fundamentalism, in whatever form it takes in the various civilisations of the world, here reveals its subordination to modernity. It is a part of the problem and not its solution.

 

 

The Person and his Freedom

 

 

Twenty years after the poem of Montale, the whole of the destructive power of fascism was manifested in Italy. The illusion that there could be a way by which to restore ancient values was eclipsed. Despite the initial ingenuous illusions, the opposite was the case: ancient values had been subordinated to the will to power and the worship of the leader. In the Catholic field, one of the first people to perceive the fatal outcome of this parabola was Jacques Maritain in his Integral Humanism of 1936. One of his impassioned readers, Augusto del Noce, tried shortly afterwards to apply its lesson to the Italian context. Given that the parallel with the experience of Christian Democracy has on a number of occasions been proposed for the new parties with an Islamic reference point, it is perhaps not useless to examine with greater precision the political proposal that developed during the period after the Second World War in Italy. Del Noce wrote:

 

 

Today’s unity, the unity of the city, cannot be unity in faith. The unity of the modern city therefore will not stem from an assumption i.e. that unity in faith exists. It will stem, rather, from a goal: that of establishing living conditions that permit the truth to be lived by every individual as the truth […]. The medieval state had a maximum unity, a unity created by the principles on which the city was based. The modern state must take account of what constituted modern spirituality’s great discovery, the discovery of form; unity must not be sought in principles but in the safeguarding of the form in which these principles are accepted and, therefore, in the safeguarding of freedom. This form is not abstract, however. It has a content, the value of the person8.

 

 

This long quotation deserves some comments. First of all, the need for unity cannot be suppressed, in the modern city as well. Without it, in fact, one cannot create community. However, this unity can no longer be based, del Noce states, on a prior assumption. Indeed, it is not possible to appeal directly to religion as a foundation of politics because the religious field has become irremediably fragmented. But if the assumption of the city disappears, its goal does not. Here del Noce is not afraid to use the word, which at the time was still somewhat current (today much less), of ‘truth’. In this sense the proposal is cleansed of a relativistic idea of democratic co-existence in which the unity of the city is sought for in the search for a paradoxical agreement on the absence of any pre-supposition or common end. This truth, however, is not understood only as a primarily intellectual question but, rather, it is in practice connected to conditions of life such as to make possible an existence that is up to the level of the human being.

 

From this comes the last fundamental clarification: ‘This form is not abstract, it has a content, the value of the person’. It is the dignity of the person, which was so often invoked during the Tunisian revolution, that avoids the form falling into formalism. Hence one specifically understands the insistence on religious freedom in the recent Magisterium. To defend religious freedom, in fact, means to recognise that the human person has a dignity that cannot be suppressed, even when objectively he makes a mistake by taking a pathway which we not only adjudge wrong or anyway partial, but which is actually so. With the exception of certain necessary clarifications about a just public order, it thus remains the touchstone of all other freedoms and thus the only foundation on which a plural city can be based. It would appear, therefore, that the universal of religion in order to conserve itself without betraying itself into ideology must today take on a personalist dimension (which obviously also implies a new conception of social and economic relationships), without which insistence in freedom runs the risk of remaining formal and rhetorical. Obviously enough, the dignity of the person as well, not being able to be taken as self-evident, requires to be established, and this I believe can be convincingly discovered starting from a careful consideration of the practical good of being together. However in this paper I will forego this work of justification, drawing upon, instead, the intuitive meaning of the dignity of the person that Christians and Muslims recognise when they locate man as the interlocutor of a divine Word. It is clear that in a plural society such a statement should be translated, to carry on from Habermas, into understandable terms for non-believers as well9. We can thus provisionally conclude that the Muslim presence reminds the West that it has not yet taken stock of the question of the universal, and the religious universal in particular. It challenges it – and here the term of my sub-title recurs again – to subject to revision the model that it has drawn up, without thereby denying undoubted acquisitions at the level of civil coexistence.

 

It is clear that the inverse process applies because Islam, according to many of its thinkers, is called upon to think anew about the subject of freedom. Without entering this terrain, I would like only to have it intuited that in the troubled experience of the relationship that Christianity has installed with political modernity, between rejection, nostalgic illusion and the critical adoption of positive requests, one can discover elements that are also useful for Muslim peoples and for the demand for freedom that their revolutions have so powerfully brought to the fore.

 

Specifically in this sense I speak about mutual illumination, that is to say, to go beyond metaphor, an objective cultural relevance that Christianity today acquires for Islam, and vice versa. A mutual relevance, a shared horizon in which in my view is to be found contained the meaning and the challenge of that process of the mixing of peoples which today is increasingly evident and to which we have given the name ever since the first number of Oasis of the mestizaje of civilisations and of cultures.

 

And yet like two long-standing neighbours who have clashed for the whole of their lives, Christians and Muslims find difficulty in taking each other into serious consideration. There arises the provocative question of Nathaniel: ‘Can something good come from Nazareth?’ (Jn 1:46). Yes, from Nazareth can come something good, today as well, for Muslim societies as well. This is why I am convinced that if we know how to go beyond the prejudice of the already known we will see open before us unexpected spaces: the new building site of Oasis.

 

 

[Paper given at the meeting of the scientific committee of Oasis held at Tunis on 18-19 June 2012: ‘Religion in a Society in Transition. Tunisia Chellenges the West’]

 

 

1Samir Kassir, Considérations sur le malheur arabe (Actes Sud Sindbad, Paris, 2004), p. IX. The book was translated into English with the title Being Arab (Verso, Brooklyn, London, 2006).

 

2Benedict XVI, ‘Meeting with the Representatives of Some Muslim Communities’, Cologne, 20 August 2005.

 

3Eugenio Montale, Cuttlefish Bones, tr. By Jonathan Galassi, Ploughshares 11 (1985) 4, pp. 43-47, available at htts://www.jstor.org/stable/40351523.

 

4Cf. Francesco Botturi, ‘Secolarizzazione e laicità’, in Pierpaolo Donati (ed.), Laicità: la ricerca dell’universale nelle differenze (Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008), pp. 295-337.

 

5Cf. Angelo Scola, ‘La solidarietà esigenza etica e speranza spirituale?’, in La Rivista del Clero Italiano 93 (2012) n. 3, pp. 168-182.

 

6Benedict XVI recently stated at the general assembly of the Italian Bishops’ Conference: ‘The heart of the crisis that is damaging Europe – a spiritual and moral crisis – can be identified in this neglect; this lack of openness to the Transcendent’: Benedict XVI, ‘Address to the General Assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference’, Rome, 24 May 2012.

 

7Dariush Shayegan, Les illusions de l’identité (Éditions du Felin, Paris, 1992), quoted in Khaled Fouad Allam, L’Islam globale (Rizzoli, Milan, 2002), p. 79.

 

8Augusto Del Noce, Posizioni del cattolico, unpublished manuscript of December 1913, now published in Augusto del Noce, Scritti politici 1930-1950, edited by Tommaso Dell’Era (Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli, 2001), p. 186.

 

9On these subjects I take the liberty of referring to: Angelo Scola, Una nuova laicità. Temi per una società plurale (Marsilio, Venezia, 2007); Buone ragioni per la vita in comune. Religioni, politica, economia (Mondadori, Milan, 2010); and ‘La società plurale. Prospettiva teologica’, in Gabriel Richi Alberti (ed.), Pensare la società plurale (Marcianum Press, Venice 2010), pp. 7-22.

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