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Religion and Society

That good which precedes and unites

1. Looking the challenge in the face

 

I believe it can be stated that the Muslim presence poses, much more than others, a challenge for the current status quo in the West. This is a plain fact, and denying it out of a fear of sounding impolite would only be a form of denial that cannot lead to any good result. In my opinion, there are two main reasons for this difficulty. First of all Islam, though referring clearly to the biblical tradition, distances itself from it at various points, and so cannot be understood as an internal variant within Christianity. This is what, if I am not mistaken, Muslims themselves state when they declare that Islam represents a return to an Abrahamic monotheism antecedent to historic Christianity and to Judaism; or - if you like - a reform of them, as Joseph Van Ess shrewdly put it. Therefore, in spite of the evident similarities between Islam and Christianity, Islam actually introduces into Western societies a marked difference in comparison with the existing distance between the various Christian confessions. It was however in response to the latter that the constitutional settlement of modern Europe historically arose, though it was later extended to include Jews and non-believers. On the other hand Islam holds firm to a universal truth claim which most Eastern religions do not express so forcefully. This combination of a universalistic tension analogous to the Christian one with a different vision of the world constitutes the peculiarity of the condition of Muslim believers in the West today. By their mere presence, as individuals and as communities, they pose the problem of the coexistence of different universal world visions in the public sphere.

 

 

2. A principle and its implications

 

A few years ago when I first began to talk about the process of the “métissage of civilisations and cultures”, many people in Italy really struggled to understand what I was referring to. Now, empirical evidence shows us that conflict has increased, sometimes precisely as a result of the actions of those policies aimed at avoiding it. It seems to me that up to now a pragmatic approach has been favoured in this area. The problem has been to limit diversity (physically too, in the case of some multicultural policies) and limit conflicts via a reductionist conception of dialogue as a way of containing violence. Here is certainly an objective that all can accept, but the attainment of the cultural impact I talked about at the start requires us to go a little beyond slogans of the type “we all believe in the same god”, or “the problem is not religions, but the politicians who exploit religions”.

 

 

If, in Oasis, we are to formulate adequately the relationship between the various personal and community subjects in a plural society, the point we need to start from resides in the principle of communication. It must be understood that here the term is intended to be taken in the strongest possible sense, as a fundamental “sharing” (which for Christians is a reflection of the most radical communication that exists, that between the persons of the Most Holy Trinity) . Communication properly involves an exchange of different narratives with a view to mutual recognition. Precisely because of its deep nature, this kind of communication can never be taken for granted, but is to be considered as the result of a choice, even if sometimes a largely implicit one. We can certainly speak in this connection, as Patten does, of a «good of communication». This represents also the primary political fact. Indeed, and despite every effort to demonstrate the contrary, life in society requires an idea of the good as a common basis for recognition. But in a plural context we cannot think of deriving such an idea from a shared vision of the world. The enterprise failed right back in 1947 when the problem was raised in the United Nations. What then is left that we have in common? There remains the very fact of a common existence , or if you prefer, the practical good of being together. This concept, as is well known, is central to the social magisterium of John Paul II, who, in various fields, emphasised the primary good constituted by our being together.

 

 

Such a basis for communication might seem very limited (and at the end I will try to explain the reasons for this impression), but in reality anyone who speaks of communication speaks of a series of structural conditions that are essential for communication to take place: we need to recognize the other as fully entitled to be an interlocutor, without discrimination, in a framework of justice. Each one of these conditions implies a certain conception of the human person (the term “person” seems to me here to be to a certain extent obligatory) and a precise practical settlement of society. We might feel inclined to question whether such a desire for communication does actually exist in societies that are more and more insecure and fragmented, and it cannot be denied that various groups are today tempted to put up barriers to protect their identity. However, as is shown by the very recent Immigrant Citizens Survey presented last May in Brussels, there emerges, among immigrants, a very strong desire too to become citizens of their country of residence. This evidence, however much it runs counter to opposing tendencies, indicates the presence of a potential space for communication. Its primary locus is, of course, a civil society that functions adequately.

 

 

It is moreover clear that in their narratives the various subjects may and will be invited from time to time to draw further elements from the traditions to which they belong, whether religious or secular, to enrich the consensus. But the principle of communication can become basic for everyone; and this will enable the legislator, in case of necessity to adopt even repressive measures aimed at safeguarding the good of being together from deviations that could endanger it, as Habermas in particular has argued. Among such deviations today would be numbered distorted practices of religiosity like fundamentalism. In fact, the principle of communication challenges religious communities themselves and tests their ability to support the structuring of a plural society.

 

 

I think it is not difficult to discern a certain harmony between valuing communication between concrete subjects as we have suggested on the one hand, and appreciating the positive role of religions on the other, something which human rights theoreticians and human rights workers have begun to do over the last decade or so, especially in the Anglophone world. As is well known, we have moved from a vision in which religions were regarded as part of the problem to another in which they are seen as part of the solution, for the resources of meaning that they are able to mobilise. Obviously, for Oasis the capacity for mobilisation of the religions is not connected to the persistence of archaic societies which retain a need for a mythopoeic representation of the world (a sociologistic reduction of religion), but derives from the fact that values, all values, are expressions of cultural traditions. These speak, with greater or lesser clarity, of the universal, but always on the basis of a concrete and historically determined experience.

 

 

For this very reason, practical consensus ought not to have as its goal the development of a super-religion that is a replacement for historical faiths, but that of an enriching coexistence between the faithful of the various religions. Such a coexistence leaves wholly untouched the question of whether one of them - for us, faith in Jesus Christ the living and personal Truth - is in a position to take into itself and fulfil the truths of the others . On closer inspection, it is precisely this fascinating question rather than any other which is the keystone for authentic interreligious dialogue, as also the debate with non believers, down to the detail of the most burning anthropological and ethical questions, from the meaning of marriage to abortion or euthanasia. But if this debate is to be able to develop to its full potential, we need to acknowledge that good which precedes and yet unites - the good of communication in fact.

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