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Religion and Society

How to address the fundamental paradox of the Age of Differences, namely why differences make no difference?

1. The paradox of a society of differences


The plural society of the early part of the 21st century is characterised by a fundamental contradiction, namely the concurrent exaltation of cultural differences and the equality of differences. The culture of globalisation comes with the idea that we are all different, and yet all equal. A number of cultural trends reflect the development of this underlying (emerging) theological matrix, and for this reason, we must take into account the place of religions.


Looking at the religions present in the West, we can say that being Christian (Catholic or Protestant), Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Animist or anything else marks a difference that no longer makes much difference, because—or so it is said—religions in the age of globalisation are all “equal” (under the law, but also in relation to a person’s conscience since religious faith has become a matter of personal choice).


On the one hand, differences in values, lifestyles and religious beliefs are treated as signs of distinct identities, and are viewed and experienced as subjective rights. On the other hand and concurrently, such differences are said to be “equal” or the same because everyone is entitled to the same opportunity for self-realisation (equality of libertarian rights).



Since the equality of libertarian rights must be somehow justified, a way to legitimise them must be found. This usually means arguing that various differences have equal ‘dignity’, at least in terms of their social status in the public sphere. Thus, libertarian rights and the rights of dignity go together. Each individual, each culture, each lifestyle, each religious creed has the right to be itself and pursue its own individualisation. No outsider can judge what the former become. What you are or will be and what you believe in or can believe in are something that concerns only you and no one else.



This is the West’s new theological matrix. It underpins today’s plural society, replacing the Protestant matrix that buttressed it until recently after its emergence at the start of the Modern Age. Since there is nothing objective, let alone any truth, everyone can be different and claim equal dignity in the name of their own difference.


The question then becomes, Have we really reached a point in history in which society has no distinct theological matrix, but has instead fragmented in many matrices that cannot be comparatively evaluated, or between which there can be no communication or learning? In the case of Christianity as a religion and culture, what is its distinctive feature? And should there be one, why could it not be compared to others?



For those who think on the basis common sense, the notion of “all different, all equal” sounds like a paradox in need of a resolution. Those who acknowledge human experience and the phenomenology of the things of daily life think and argue in the following way: Can all points of view and identities be different and equal at the same time? Can we not empirically see that when we recognise a difference, the asymmetries this difference directly or indirectly entails, de facto imply certain inequalities, either in relation to legitimate opportunities (rights), or to the dignity of rights they assert (i.e. in relation to values, lifestyles and beliefs that exist independently of the dignity of human beings)? Is it not true that when a difference is said to exist, tensions or conflict can follow as a result of the (real or perceived) inequalities that define it? Does not denying the possibility of comparison put on hold, and in some cases suppress or displace, those conflicts that eventually end up exploding in so many ways?


In the de/constructionist atmosphere (which is both constructionist and deconstructionist) that now pervades Western societies, highlighting the importance of what phenomenologists call the natural attitude has little appeal; at present, this view is in fact in the minority.



Today’s dominant idea is that the aforementioned paradox is more apparent than real, and that in any case it is inevitable and already “connatural” like the air we breathe (a sort of second human nature generated by the processes of modernisation). If a paradox does exist, so the argument goes, it must be considered as something “normal”. Like a common problem that has no solutions, this paradox need not be “solved” but only accepted and shared. This is what the heralds of the so-called reflective modernisation paradigm, postmodernist thinkers like U. Beck, A. Giddens, S. Lash, Z. Bauman and many more, say.



Niklas Luhmann lucidly saw this coming. Like the two Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale, this paradox for him is something that cannot be suppressed, (Luhmann 1990). For him, the claim that we are “all different, all equal” is a form of communication, which like all communications rests on paradoxes that can only produce paradoxes. This is how, from a functionalist perspective, social evolution proceeds. From this perspective, society-building does not rely on meanings based on common values, but simply consists of generating communications that always, and only, and inevitably lead to paradoxes. In this sense, does a hybridised society not mean in practice living with paradoxes, something which multiculturalism neutralises instead by erasing paradox-creating relations?



2. A special form of transcendence is needed


What the postmodernists fail to say is that today’s exaltation of differences and their equality generate the opposite, i.e. indifference towards diversity/differences. In an age in which cultural differences are theorised, they disappear, not in the sense that they no longer exist, but in the sense that they no longer matter. The gap between them has no meaning anymore. There is nothing between differences. This way we are confronted by another claim that the social world is irrelational. Distinctions as such implode and vanish.



Take the case of religions. Being Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, New Age, and so on is a sign of difference, which is sometimes emphasised, but is largely treated with indifference in today’s society.


The same process occurs within each religion. For Christianity, each believer can claim a ‘different’ Christian identity for him/herself not only with respect to other religions but also in relation to other Christians as well. The result is the implosion of what it means ‘to be a Christian’, and thus marks the end of historic Christianity.



It is not enough to say that what makes Christians different is a function of a distinct Weltanschauung as opposed to a distinct ideology. For one the difference between the two is quite fleeting, but above all the point is that everyone claims their own different Weltanschauung. Hence, we can see that differences have vanished in the case of all identities, whether religious, cultural, ideological, political and so on. This process affects all areas of life. This is so because societal processes tend to become immunised from relations between differences.


I propose we interpret this phenomenon, which is so widespread and pervasive in our globalising society, as a decisive sign of the fact that, what is at stake is precisely society’s theological matrix. In a society like this, people end up finding that its theological matrix has no relationality.


Unlike the historical societies that preceded it, globalised society does not have a dominant cultural and a corresponding theological matrix, but admits all those that are “otherwise possible”, making them in-different vis-à-vis one another (the comparison with ancient Rome in its latter imperial phase can help us understand this, but it is also important to recognise that the two are quite dissimilar in many respects).



We can clearly see the West has come to question its Christian matrix, first from within rather than as a result of international migrations, which mix ethnic groups. The problem thus becomes ‘Will the West remain Christian or shift to another theological matrix. If so, which one?’


Sociologists who follow Parsons (1967) and, before him, Max Weber, might answer arguing that we are facing a new “process of cultural breakthrough” along the path of the further “rationalisation of the world”. This is thought to correspond to a new phase of the “Protestantisation” of Western culture and theological matrix, i.e. a process in which faith and people are “individualised”. Many wonder however whether we have not reached a point in which the theological matrix of Western modernity, the original Protestantism of people like Zwingli, Luther and Calvin, is not imploding (Seligman 1993). Personally, I share this second point of view.



I think that we are creating a vacuum that must be eventually filled by another theological matrix. The idea that a new one can emerge to fill the void left by every theological matrix (as the Nihilists argue) does not seem tenable. In any case, the dilemma appears to be as follows, ‘Will the West’s theological matrix still follow the path of the Protestantisation of the world (as evolutionary models would suggest) or will it take another path?’


Here I will argue two theses. First, the Christian difference lies in its relational form of transcendence, something that is found nowhere else. This is its special nature. The second thesis is that the lack of a single theological matrix in today’s society, a by-product of the first globalisation, has created the need for a new theological matrix for what I call a “relational” plural society. This theological matrix can find some support in the eschatological bag of Catholicism, more so than in those of other religions because the Catholic difference helps more than any other avoid both indifference and conflict between the various identities. That is why I am prepared to shoulder the extremely heavy onus of arguing a thesis that is opposed to current evolutionist theories according to which the theological matrix of globalised society leads to the further “Protestantisation of the world”, whether in the West or elsewhere (a thesis argued especially by functionalist sociologists) or to its implosion (as argued by post-modernist anti-functionalists).



* Excerpts from the intervention held on occasion of the international congress “The Plural Society” (Venice 15-17 Septembre 2009), of which minutes will be published further by Marcianum Press, Venice 2010). The same thesis will be dealt with in the book of further publication: La matrice teologica della società, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli 2010


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