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Faith, Culture and Holy Ignorance

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-19 14:51:01

For years scholars have bet on the disappearance of God from the history of man. Modernisation – they maintained – involves a progressive abandoning of religious beliefs, inevitably destined to be replaced by more scientific and rational explanations of reality. There was talk of the death of God, of His eclipse, of the disenchantment of the world and desacralisation. This forecast had universal reach: the secularisation process, starting in the West, would have progressively taken over the globe. And wherever the persistence of some form of worship or religious feeling risked belying the theory, it was dismissed by speaking of residual phenomena. In reality, the prediction was to a certain extent correct: even if faith has not disappeared, it has certainly been privatised and religious practice has diminished. Then Islam arrived, the great spread of oriental religions has taken place and different forms of Evangelical Christianity have multiplied. More generally, religions have reappeared in the public sphere and people have been starting to talk about the re-enchantment of the world, of the return of God, of religious reawakening. Olivier Roy takes part in this debate and, in the wake of his early ­research on the relationship between Christianity and culture and his detailed studies on the various forms of radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism, he presents the public with a general reflection on the nature of religions in the post-secular age. He does this however with a theory that rejects the hypothesis of religious awakening. According to Roy, in fact, secularisation does not cancel ­religions, but on the contrary it contributes to their production even if with a new physiognomy. Expelling the religious from the public space and separating it from the culture it would isolate it in a ‘pure’ form. Therefore one cannot rightly speak of its return, but only of its mutation. The divorce between religion and culture generates what Roy defines as holy ignorance: a refusal by the religious to express culturally that, ‘if pushed to extremes, it transforms into mistrust towards religious knowledge itself, by means of the idea that knowledge is not necessary to ­reach salvation and can even be harmful for the faith.’ On the wave of globalisation such development gives rise to a ‘formatting’ of religions that, also in their variety, tend to express themselves according to homogenous schemes: de-territorialisation, separation and recombination of ‘religious markers’ and ‘cultural markers,’ refusal of the mediation of theological knowledge to the advantage of a ‘direct inspiration,’ the prevailing of the norm over culture, identity exasperation. This is why, according to Roy, ­there is no sense in speaking about multi-culturalism, since the cultures that one would like to ­preserve are already the result of a standardisation. ­Hence the success of the global religions, like Evangelical Christianity or Salafite Islam, disconnected from any cultural context and without any concern for ‘enculturation.’ To explain this process the author uses a long series of examples, with the benefit of an engaging style and the solidity of the basic thesis. The impression however is that in the attempt to explain everything ­through such key Roy’s interpretation is strained. For example, it is difficult to make the evolution of contemporary Catholicism go back at all costs ­into the scheme of ‘holy ignorance,’ when starting with the most recent Magisterium, from the Gaudium et Spes to John Paul II and Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, there would be material to show a peculiar interest in the relationship between faith and culture. The book is fundamental reading however for anyone wanting to confront one of the most important and interesting phenomena of the present historical moment.