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Religion and Society

That Question that Founds the Human Being

Authentic and involved dialogue between the faiths has four pillars: life, work, theological exchange and religious experience. We need to rediscover  this dimension beginning with the preamble to the document  of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, a text that has been overly neglected.  

The Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate opened for the first time the universe of the Church to new horizons – those of the non-Christian religions. In it, in fact, the Church acknowledged for the first time and in the most explicit and authoritative way that outside its visible borders there is the possibility of salvation. Such a new position, the outcome of long and laborious theological work, found common resonance in the abundant theological literature that developed on the subject in the field of inter-religious dialogue after that Council. In particular, the document Dialogue and Proclamation (1991), pointed out, as is known, four fundamental forms of dialogue (n. 42): the dialogue of life, of work, of theological exchange and of religious experience. It is above all this last dimension of dialogue that can be explored specifically beginning with the preamble to the Declaration Nostra Aetate, to which in my opinion little weight has been given, perhaps because it has been seen as too generic and obvious. It is not at all to be excluded that specifically the neglect of the questions that it raises has led inter-religious dialogue, in large measure, to lose its initial incisiveness, falling too often to the level of a shallow exchange of opinions that commit nobody at all, if they do not take, indeed, the form of opportunistic propaganda.



The Preamble of the Council’s document presents religions as answers to the fundamental questions that deeply disturb the human heart, questions that concern the meaning of human existence. It says: ‘Humans expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in past times, deeply stir the human hearts: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible Mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?’ (Nostra Aetate, n. 1). These are just some of the fundamental questions that every human being faces. They are clearly presented by this document of the Second Vatican Council as simple examples of the incessant questioning and radical issues and problems that traverse all human existence, constituting, one might say, the very fabric of the human being as such. A human being who did not pose himself such questions would cease to be human. The Council document presents here, therefore, an important aspect of inter-religious dialogue. Indeed, in my view it constitutes the true starting point for all serious inter-religious dialogue. We human beings dialogue first of all because we share fundamental questions that we must answer, because we are in a certain sense compelled by incessant questioning and radical issues and questions that traverse the whole of our existence.



The human being is a being who questions. He questions first about the meaning of his life. But through this his questioning expands towards the meaning of being in general. These two questions, about himself and about being, are strictly connected. Indeed, there is no true answer to one of them without there being an answer to the other. This aspect has been broadly illuminated in modern philosophical and theological thought.



Sub-human species, like animals, instead, seem to look for their happiness in the satisfaction of their primary, natural and immediate needs, such as nourishment, company, reproduction etc. Yet in this field we should be more sagacious, given that St. Paul in Romans 8:18-25 speaks of a ‘wailing like the pangs of giving birth’ that traverses the whole of creation and of an expectation of ‘redemption’ which constitutes the most intimate aspiration of all creatures. This text opens rather wide horizons about the meaning of the universe which have not yet been completely explored: a more profound vision could discover that in all created beings there exists a radical and inevitable question, that is to say the question about their ontological foundation, in definitive terms about the Absolute as the ultimate foundation of everything. Everything, in fact, comes from Him and everything is directed towards Him. It appears clear, however, that the human being, differently from other animals, has always manifested since his beginning an unsatisfied curiosity and an incessant search going well beyond the limited horizons of purely animal needs and instincts. The human being is a being who finds himself in an incessant and unsatisfied search specifically for the meaning of his own existence. Thus one could propose a definition of the human being parallel to the classic one of Aristotle for whom man is a ‘rational (logikos) being’. Man, a human being, is by essence, one could say, ‘the questioning being’ or, if one wants, ‘the being in a constant search’.



Examined in essential terms, this question reveals itself to be in reality a divine call placed in the heart of the human being. It is the first sign of the presence of God to human consciousness and thus the first revelation of God to the human being. The human being asks himself questions because he feels questioned by his Foundation. Man, in fact, discovers that he is ‘responsible’ because he is conscious that he must answer for his being, because he is aware that his existing is not ‘his’ but has been given to him as a vocation and task and thus as a responsibility. At the base of his questioning, the human being perceives (even though in a way that is not always clearly explicit) the presence of Someone who questions him, and questions him because it is He who has given him the gift of existing: a freely-given gift but at the same time an inevitable task.



Globalisation and its Challenges



The existential questioning of a human being presents itself as always mediated by the ‘historical time’ (kairos) in which he exists. Human history always advances under the sign of a basic ambiguity, between success and failure, an ambiguity that will be resolved only in its final outcome. Every individual human being is inserted into this historical process, and only in interaction with it can he fulfil himself.



Each one of us finds himself inevitably immersed in a specific historical horizon in which his adventure takes place. This means that although, on the one hand, we are placed within the horizon of human self-comprehension, on the other, we also constitute it in an inextricable interaction. And this human horizon is not a static datum but a state in continual variation, in a continual process of rising, developing and self-overcoming.



After this necessary premiss, what are the fundamental features of the cultural-existential horizon in which we live? In my view the most visible elements may be identified as the increasingly wide establishment of ‘global marketing’ and a consequent cultural massification, the breakdown of traditional values into an increasingly accelerating ethical atomism, and the rise of cultural and religious tribalisms that call into question peaceful coexistence within the global village.



Between global marketing and cultural ‘massification’. Globalisation has without doubt helped human beings to draw near to each other, to mix with each other in a way that has never happened before in history. But this globalisation has also witnessed negative and dramatic effects. One of these is the extension or the imposition of global marketing at a planetary level. After the fall of totalitarian ideologies, and of Marxism in particular, it seems that at a global level only one dominating ideology remains, namely neo-liberal capitalism.



One of the most visible consequences of this state of affairs, which has been condemned for some time by many parties, is the massification of culture. Human culture in all its aspects is placed at the service of global marketing and is called to support it and justify it. It is at the mercy of the terrible instrument of commercial propaganda which for some time has dominated our cultural horizon. Any manifestation that does not reach a certain level of marketing is doomed. Every cultural value must be necessarily transformed into a ‘marketing product’ in order to be established at a global level. The vocabulary of marketing has by now entered all fields, even the religious field.



Ethical-religious fragmentation. In this global marketing we are witnessing the fragmentation of all the values represented by traditional institutions such as the family, the Church, forms of local associations etc., values that sustained the human journey in past centuries. A fragmented, atomised being emerges from this who no longer has internal principles of resistance and is detached from any ethical-religious point of reference that is not himself, his own interests and his own individual satisfaction. He rejects all rules and conditions that come from above or below, from within or without. He wants to make his own experience, to be a law unto himself without interferences from outside. We are at the level of a universal self-service, the principle that dominates the world market but now the religious market as well. This fragmented and atomised absolute individual of the post-modern world seems to want to take subjectivism or folding back onto the subject, a typical feature of modern thought, to its extreme consequences, even though from other points of view this is opposed to modern rationalism.



The rise of new ethnic, cultural and religious ‘tribalisms’. On the other hand, as a reaction against the individualistic ethical atomism of globalised mankind, but also as a refusal of the absolutist ideologies that dominated our recent past, it appears that in many areas of our globalised world there is taking place a return to what we could define as a new religious-cultural tribalism. Through such new tribalism many human groups try to preserve their sense of identity, recovering their traditional cultural values threatened by the growing cultural massification.



With the eclipse of the great ideologies of the world such as Marxism and various kinds of nationalism, which dominated the world stage during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, human groups increasingly tend to rediscover their identities in their cultural and religious roots, retrieving the values of the past. This retrieval is, and should be, in itself a positive phenomenon. However, one can easily observe that when such self-identity is taken on in a spirit of exclusiveness or hostility towards other human groups and other cultures, new ‘cultural and religious tribalisms’ are created. And these, supported by strong political and economic interests, very easily become sources of ferocious clashes and wars, with the most catastrophic and unforeseeable consequences, as much recent history demonstrates. One may think here of the conflicts that have devastated and devastate so many regions of our planet.



Religion, therefore, runs the risk of being caught up in the tribal interplay of our ‘global’ mankind, as happened in the past with the various kinds of imperialism that dominated the human societies of the time. In present globalised humanity wars are no longer unleashed between different villages as was once the case, but, instead, and in a no less ferocious way, between the neighbourhoods and streets of the same global village. It is thus important that each religion, becoming aware of the danger of being exploited by tribal violence, consciously works to overcome its own cultural tribalisms, taking up the great riches of wisdom that every religious tradition contains.



In our global village great importance must be given to the Islamic quarter, because of its past history as well as because of its present situation. One is dealing here with a thousand million people, a number in rapid and constant expansion. This quarter is agitated by strong fundamentalist and extremist trends which threaten peaceful coexistence with the other quarters. It is, therefore, extremely important to foster the constructive interaction of this quarter with the other quarters of the global village, overcoming the demons of religious tribalism that are shaking it. If the situation is really such, to become aware of the fundamental questions that are shared by human beings and of the particular modalities by which our societies decline them, appears today to be the best path by which to approach a profitable and effective inter-religious dialogue.


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