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Religion and Society

'Regional' Theologies are no longer Suficient

Something changed /3. We are passing through a providential moment that provides us with an opportunity to return to the essential dimensions of the Christian faith as an experience that is lived out and to test its effective capacity to dialogue and interact with the needs and requirements of the human condition in all its personal and social dimensions. The problem is not the problem of whether to be Westerners or be non-Westerners

The scenarios that were opened up after 11 September provide a major opportunity for Christians to understand how urgently important it is to move out of ideological schemata for the reading of reality. To attempt to understand the task of Christianity today by forcing it into a schema is an operation that is condemned to lead nowhere. A look at the recent past helps us to understand the reasons for this. Let us try, for example, to go back to twenty-five years ago and to recall the debate that was set in motion by certain 'liberation ideologies'. They presented themselves as an attempt at a unitary reading of reality folded into an ideology in this instance a sub-product of Marxism. This was a reading which, although it drew upon real needs and requirements, subjected them to a pre-conceived schema. In the end those ideologies inevitably disappeared and all their arguments came to nothing: with their basic ideology eclipsed they were not able to meet the challenges of reality.


Today, which tendencies have replaced those currents? We can, in summarising form, refer to two principal lineages. On the one hand theologies have emerged which are, so to speak, 'regional', that is say theologies that focus on certain aspects of social life that are held to be of determining importance. Such is the case with 'nativism', for those who most perceive this need, or feminism, or ecologism. Once again there is the point of departure of a perception of a real need, for example the concerns about the environment or about the condition of women or about native minorities in certain countries. But the approach is subjected to a dominant schema and an attempt is made to subordinate the force of the Christian message to one of these modules, which, indeed, are not able to interact to the full with the existing need. The second lineage of the season now being experienced by our historical age is that of dialogue with religions, where such dialogue is read in the key of religious pluralism. Although for certain liberation theologies their conceptual instrument was a certain form of Marxism, in the case of pluralist theologies one encounters the end of the trajectory of relativist post-modernity as well as certain emphases of the religions of the world. The fundamental outcome of this fusion is that of a reading of our situation which in practice calls Christians to auto-relativise the claim to truth of their own faith. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s liberation theology sought, overall, a unitary model for the reading of the socio-economic transformation of the world, subsequently, with 'regional theologies', an attempt was made to provide a response at the level of sectors to those difficulties and problems that are most impelling.


Today, the situation we are faced with is that of an authentic globalisation where the planetary dimensions of the phenomenon of religions is emerging. One may think here of the phenomena of immigration which at times are on a massive scale, the facilitation of communications, as a result of which even the most remote villages of the third world have a satellite disc, and many other aspects of the globalised world. A first and shallow approach to realities of this kind leads to unsatisfactory conclusions, such as the conclusion that the global spread of religions leads to a self-relativisation of the claim to truth of Christianity. Whereas from the sixteenth century onwards geographical discoveries were an opportunity (or so some people argue) for a geographical relativisation (other peoples were discovered, Europe was no longer the centre of the world...), today we are said to be at a stage when the presence of religions forces Christians to carry to their logical conclusion the consequences of post-modernity by reducing the importance of truth: we are and we can only be one amongst many of the possibilities for meaning and happiness that compete in the public sphere. Certain conceptions of tolerance and dialogue as an end in themselves are said to be the instruments by which to carry forward this draining of the claim to truth which from the outset has characterised the Christian presence in the world.



Westerners and Non-Westerners


Today, the temptation has become that of addressing the problem solely in terms of being for or against the West in its relationship with other cultures or religions, and of replacing the old Marxist or Enlightenment analysis with other analyses which are perhaps more suitable. The fact is, however, that neither strong ideological programmes, such as those that existed thirty years, nor weak programmes, such as those of more recent years, are able to meet the challenge of complex personal and social human life, which, despite everything, cries out the need for truth, for eternity and for justice. Indeed, it is the case that those proposals failed then and today, when faced with the needs that 11 September re-awoke, we find ourselves in an impasse that demonstrates that we have not reached a satisfactory response. Today's moment thus becomes a providential moment that provides us with an opportunity to return to the essential dimension of the Christian faith as a lived our experience. The situation, if addressed in these terms, forces us first and foremost to address the truth of our Christian experience (conversion) and the existential testing of its effective capacity to dialogue and interact with the needs and requirements of the human condition in all its personal and social dimensions. The first problem that we are faced with is not that of being Westerners or non-Westerners, and Christians. The essential problem is that of being Christians tout court. It is certainly the case that for those amongst us who are Western Christians this also implies a judgement on the relationship that we have with the modern and post-modern West and its influence on other cultures and religions, and to this judgement belong to the full the resources of the natural and humanistic sciences. The decisive question is the rediscovery in terms of experience of what the Christian message introduces into the world and which I would like to summarise in two factors that mutually refer to each other.


The first is a conception of man as being in the image of God, who appears to our eyes in his elementary experience as an infinite need for truth, good, freedom, justice and happiness. Thus a man able to know and love reality, able to allow himself to be struck by reality and to embrace reality and not a man condemned to see reality as an illusion, as a game of appearances. This is the very great responsibility that falls to us if we want to serve our civilisation and thus our relationship and dialogue with every other culture and religion. There is an urgent need for a net retrieval of this perception of the human being, whose dignity lies specifically in infinite need, and which allows this to be seen as an immediate relationship with the Mystery of God.


The second dimension is the rediscovery of Christ as a present event whose newness cannot be deduced from any pre-conceived schema for the reading of the real, whether philosophical, cultural or otherwise in character. It is recognisable only where it occurs and waiting man is able to recognise the unique correspondence with this event when he encounters it, an extraordinary event and yet one that is inconceivably corresponding. When the initiative of the Mystery of God who made Himself man, Jesus Christ, meets the freedom of historical man, this is the place where the human is certainly reborn, where culture is reborn, and in terms that allows us to move out of the stockade, of alignments because it is potentially complete from the outset.


It is from here that all the cultural, ethical, juridical and political consequences spring. Beginning from here one can regain the very great richness of the elaboration of these consequences that exist in a tradition. In my personal case that tradition is the Western tradition but obviously there are other traditions where Christianity has been fertile in declining the personal and social character of this unique encounter between man and the peoples of the world and the event of Jesus Christ.


Here there comes to mind the speech made by Benedict XV when he drew up a balance on the fortieth anniversary of the ending of the Second Vatican Council. He argued that we should move out of a dialectic of ideological opposition as regards Western ideology one may refer here to Enlightenment ideology with the taking of refuge in useless contradictions, thereby avoiding the denial of positive elements that modernity has really offered us. In this way it will also become clear that the Christian event, because of the news that it brings, provokes every human schema (every human culture) to open itself to another measurement. This is the true nature of the 'contradiction' that the Church introduces into the world because of her very fact of existing as a permanent continuation of the purpose of Christ. Our responsibility is specifically that of bearing witness to this news which opens up human measurements and allows us to speak with those of our tradition or of others because we are immersed in the unique event of history which precludes nothing that is human, that which is given to men by the Creator and which Christ the Redeemer redeemed from the limits that evil, sin, suffering and death attest to with tragic force ever day.



Human Efficacy


What is the modality of this responsibility in today's world? The analysis presented hitherto could, in fact, be too vague. The stable modality with which to perform the task that Providence assigns to us can be described as education, that is to say how to bring forth a humanly complete subject as a participant in the event of Christ. In order to achieve this goal the leading category is witness. In witness are to be found together the fact that, on the one hand, this event cannot be predicted and thus cannot be in the least imposed, and, on the other it corresponds, at a radical level to the hopes of man. What is the modality with which today we can move out of the ideological models of interpretation? The answer is: witness. We can respond to the need of the modern and post-modern world, which refutes the great ideological systems, beginning with the originality of the Christian event. Christianity has the inconceivable claim to identify the truth with a Person in history. The most suitable modality of witness is the works that are born of faith in the educational, social, charitable and business worlds. They express the initial response to the need that all of us have for the meaning of work, family, affection and sociality, and they are also able to meet the need for others and to establish that space of interchange, of encounter, and of mutual help that are different from the opposition of ideological schemes of understanding. If 11 September calls us to something new, it is to the truth of the Christian event. Today we have had removed from us the illusions which we could perhaps have had in another epoch. This means that in looking for an ideological model of comprehension we will be more effective. We will be witnesses to the human efficacy of places where this news is borne witness to, both within Western culture and in encounter and dialogue with other positions.


As regards, finally and specifically, religious dialogue and its cultural importance, the criterion of education in order to make the ecclesial subject go demonstrates that is still decisive. The Catholic Church, by her very nature, is a historical realisation of the mutual call between universality and specific concreteness. Giving of ourselves simultaneously, and calling on each other reciprocally and not excluding each other, is in the very nature of the Christian experience lived out within the Church. It involves membership of a people that is sui generis, a people of which there is only one and a people that is unique in the whole world, and its realisation is always and whatever the case specific and historically contextualised, that is to say in line with a diversity of language, culture, tradition, a very rich human heritage that can be seen in all the expressions that in time and space have been experienced by the catholicity of the Church. We need to ensure that this amazing correspondence of the universal and the specific, as realised in the living body of the Church, is not betrayed and replaced by a particularistic schema (for example: forms of nationalism) or a universalistic schema (for example: various forms of philanthropy) which have entered the picture as subsequent products of this unity. For this to occur the Church should be the Church and it is our responsibility to live the Church, support her and defend her as a lived out experience.