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Religion and Society

Religious traditions in the age of mestizaje

Excerpts from the lecture of Cardinal Angelo Scola on the occasion of the Oasis International Scientific Committee

For us, the mestizaje of civilisations – and I would like to stress this clarification – is not a political programme: its circumstantial character, indeed, excludes the possibility of erecting it into a goal to be pursued down the historical future. At the same time, it is something more than a simple description of a process (as an enunciation of a physical law or a detached observation of a biological phenomenon could be) because it is offered as a horizon that is able to provide space for all the categories that are necessary to creating the conditions by which such a process could become an opportunity for a broader mutual acknowledgement on the part of all the actors in the field. I am referring to the subjects of identity, otherness, difference, relationship, interculturality, integration, etc. Decisive weight amongst these categories should certainly be given to the factor of ‘tradition’.

 

 

 

Many individuals and many communities that interact in the process of the mestizaje of civilisations exhibit a singular self-awareness: that, namely, of being the expression of a tradition that precedes them and goes beyond them. Not isolated dots, therefore, but rings in a chain that goes far back in time, to a founding event which, in the case of universalistic religious faiths, is held to possess a meaning that is valid for every time and every place.

 

 

 

This summarising description already allows us to understand the difficulties and the challenges that such a conception poses to the substantially individualistic model by which society is approached, on the basis of a the naked tandem ‘individual-state’, as a chaotic flowering of autonomous claims, maintained in a precarious balance by the regulatory intervention of the state.

 

 

 

One can then ask whether it is not advisable to outline, albeit with all the caution required by the case, an ideal frontier between the individualistic Western context in which, with the exception of residual minorities, a process has by now been completed of a radical depreciation of tradition, and the communitarian Eastern civilisations in which, with the exception of insignificant advance guards, societies are said to continue unchangingly their sacral veneration for tradition. Perhaps this reading was plausible at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Alexandria in Egypt, but certainly today such an opposition has no meaning. The positions are much more shaded on both sides. Above all, and this is what is important, there exists sufficient space to articulate an alternative between an existence without roots and a sclerotic repetition of the identical.

 

 

 

From the papers I have been able to listen to in recent years, for example at the University of al-Azhar in 2006 or at the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies in 2008, it appears to me clear that the Enlightenment critique of tradition, understood as a mechanical transmission of a package of intangible truths, has reached also the other shore of the Mediterranean. In recent years we have often heard it repeated by our Muslim interlocutors that it is necessary to return to the Quran and its rationality, allowing the fall of interpretations that were made of it in the past because they were overly marked by their historical context, for example as regards the condition of women or the status of minorities. In this way is registered once again the value of positive purification which modernity has carried out in relation to every religious tradition. One can thus concur, therefore, with the statement of the mufti of Bosnia who, in the interview that you will be able to read in the next edition of Oasis, declares: ‘Religions have benefited more than anyone else from the criticisms made of them by the Enlightenment’. [...]

 

 

 

Even fundamentalists by a great majority, are in favour of a strong break with the past. This is the reason why an essentialist reading that wishes to stiffen the various forms of Islam with the seal of an immutable ‘eastern spirit’ does hold up in the face of acts. [...]

 

 

 

The actors of mestizaje, therefore, would appear to be condemned to a radical impasse: inasmuch as they seek to maintain a concrete religious reference point which is not dissolved into abstract principles of a universal range, they would appear to be prisoners of traditions without meaning, which could even be a hindrance to an original purity to which one could at the most escape individually or as an advance guards. But is such really the case?

 

 

 

‘Naked faith or pure religion do not exist. In concrete terms, when faith tells man who he is and how he must begin to be a man, faith creates culture. Faith is itself culture’. This illuminating statement of the then Cardinal Ratzinger eloquently illustrates, from within the Christian perspective, the inevitable circularity between faith and culture, when culture is understood in its most pregnant sense. [...]

 

 

 

Faith, in offering man an interpretative hypothesis about the real, produces culture, and culture/cultures in their exercise interprets/interpret faiths themselves. In historical time, such a dynamic is insuperable. [...] Thus there does not exist an initial moment of absolute clarity (in our case ‘pure faith’ followed by a time of increasing cloudiness, ‘culture’, ‘religion’ in the Barthian sense), but rather a continual exchange between these two poles. Culture should always be purified in the light of faith but faith should always be interpreted according to the requirements raised by religion (culture). [...]

 

 

 

In the light of these statements one also has a better understanding of the need of a cultural interpretation of Islams connected with the fact that Islam, like every faith, produces culture inasmuch as it offers an interpretation of the real.

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