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Religion and Society

‘I do not Love what Fades’

This is an excerpt from the leading article of Oasis no.18. Click here to buy the issue and read the full text.

This article was published in Oasis 18. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-18 11:51:12

According to a passage in the Qur’an which finds parallels in the Jewish midrash, the young Abraham, when searching for God, turns during the night to worshipping the stars. But when they disappeared to give way to day he exclaims: “I do not love what fades”. And from this reflection he is led, through the moon and the sun, to the worship of the only Creator.[1] “I do not love what fades”: can one imagine a more radical provocation for our North-Atlantic societies? Obviously enough believers well know that concepts such as ‘transcendent’ or ‘absolute’ are simplifications of an experience that is infinitely richer. The outcome of this encounter between religions and cultures should not be, if we remain faithful to the initial move, the achievement of an indistinct theism, an improbable ‘alliance of the transcendent’, but, rather, a more knowing awareness of one’s own dynamic identity and one’s own tradition, renewed in some of its expressions and explored in some of its others. In this logic, it appears ingenuous and objectively mistaken to hope – secretly or otherwise – that Muslims, in particular those who live in Europe, will have a ‘purifying bathe’ in secularism, precisely at the moment when we are lamenting its effects on the lives of Christian communities and society as a whole. No, decidedly, as regards the religious experience, a trouble shared is not a trouble halved. What we need, instead, is for everyone to have a more decided deepening of his or her religious experience and its authentic requirements, which Jesus Christ announced that he came to achieve to the full. Nevertheless such requirements also imply a constant purification. And thus it would be erroneous to portray this process as being in one direction, as though everything came down to the need for a ‘recovery of the transcendent’ for a Europe levelled down to the horizon of the immediate. A movement in the other direction is also urgently important, in the form of a more decisive denunciation of a political theology and an ideologised religion[2] which increasingly trouble lives in the Middle East, first of all the lives of the minority communities. To liquidate the question as a misuse of religion for political ends easily runs the risk of becoming self-absolving. We need, rather, to speak about an involvement in which the men of religions who, taking the initiative ‘on behalf of God’, end up by acting ‘in the place of God’. It is not, therefore, surprising that the reaction to these forms of ideological negative dynamics comes not only from contexts that are to varying degrees Westernised but also from the exponents of a traditional religiosity who, though not always managing to express their reasons, conserve a living sense of the transcendence of God which prevents Him from being reduced to the wretched stature of a faction chief. When reading such worrying phenomena one should not forget that the process of secularisation was born, and hitherto has developed, prevalently within a Christian context. There is, therefore, no guarantee that in affecting other religions it must reproduce its models. Indeed, we should refine our approach so as to habituate ourselves to understanding it at work in styles that are unusual and at the extremes paradoxical: the immanent religion of political Islam, in its violent and non-violent forms, could be one of these.[3] One thing, however, is certain: opposing the atheistic West to the East of spirituality would not have much sense. Our outlook must be a unitary one because the new fact of that process that we call métissage is that the two poles, if they have ever existed, are by now mutually intertwined, in a physical sense as well. I would not know whether a mega Saudi mall, in which the call to prayer indeed sounds out, is more mystical and less secularised than its Western counterpart. It is in fact the collapse or at the least the weakening of boundaries that these unprecedented hybrids plastically embody that justifies the ‘frontier’ nature of the Oasis endeavour, which also in its singular form does not allow itself to be reduced to a centre for Islamic studies or for Eastern Christianity, or even less to a research institute in European plural society. If the boundaries are being redefined, our working hypothesis must be that of traversing the various territories and disciplines, drawing upon the shared religious experience and its constant necessary purification. That is to say, paraphrasing the Italian novelist Calvino: ‘Looking for and knowing how to recognise who and what, in the middle of the desert, is not a desert, and making it last and giving it room’.[4] Because what is in the middle of a desert and is not the desert is specifically an oasis. ___________________________________________________________________________________________ [1]The passage is to be found in Qur 6:76. As regards the account in the midrash cf. Riccardo Pacifici (ed.), Midrashim. Fatti e personaggi biblici (Marietti, Casale Monferrato, 1986), p. 24. Far from engaging in a simple concordism, I am well aware of the different theological functions of Abraham in the Old Testament and in the Quran. However ,this does not seem to me to bear upon the symbolic power of this account. [2]On the subject, essential for the Catholic thought in the twentieth century, from Peterson to Maritain, and on to the young Ratzinger scholar of St. Augustine, see Massimo Borghesi, Critica della teologia politica (Marietti 1820, Genoa/Milan, 2013). [3]Cf. Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam. The search for a new ummah (Columbia University Press 2004) and Patrick Haenni, L’Islam de marché. L’autre révolution conservatrice (Seuil, Paris, 2005). It should not be forgotten that the whole of the first stage of the modern epoch in Europe, in which with hindsight one can easily perceive the first seeds of the process of secularisation, was apparently the age of the triumph of God, between the Reformation and the wars of religion. [4]Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili (Einaudi, Turin, 1972), p. 170. In truth Calvino speaks about ‘hell’, a choice of words that is excessively severe and extraneous to the Christian vision of the world and of history.