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Religion and Society

The Decline of the Minimum Common Denominator

Universal Aspirations /2. The great Declarations that uphold human rights belong to those products of the modern journey that have the greatest ethical-political significance. This does not remove the fact that they have three limits.

The solution of the problem of co-existence involves the finding of a plan of universality within which differences can find the reason for their co-existence. The idea of absolute pluralism or pure multiculturalism brings out its ideological nature with the same lack of realism. Social reality is not obtained in the 'gaseous' state of pure difference. The difficulty of the principle of co-existence grows a great deal, however, in the move from socio-political pluralism to multiculturalism on an ethnic and/or religious basis. The traditional pluralism of European liberal democratic societies, even in the presence of profound and conflict-marked ideological differences, always referred to a shared cultural background which was an expression of the Christian-secular tradition of European humanism. In the case of ethnic-religious multiculturalism, one is in the presence, instead, of holistic realities that belong to cultural universes rooted in history which are stratified and not always internally coherent but whatever the case always require recognition as such.


One notices here the difference in nature between the relationships/conflicts of interest, which can be dealt with through negotiation, and the relationships/conflicts of identity, which require recognition and as such are not negotiable. Here the liberal democratic tradition is in difficulty given that within its political schema there is a reference, on the one had, to formal egalitarian juridical universality and, on the other, to civil society as a place for the transaction of special interests. When compared with the contemporary situation, the liberal schema is made up of two abstractions which are difficult to reconcile with emergent socio-political requests at the level of identity.


The democratic tradition of the United States of America implemented its liberal model in a special way, being able as it was to rely upon a widespread sense of belonging to the principles of public life that made up a sort of 'civil religion' which functioned as a uniform container of accentuated American cultural multiplicity (the melting pot). On the other hand, the maintenance of this civil glue is not guaranteed and can leave unsolved the problem of the ghettoisation of ethic-religious subjectivities and their effective public relevance.


The European tradition of the political universal has experienced at a deep level the 'cultural events of modernity' and its crisis. The question of anthropological and ethical-political universality, indeed, was not raised during the course of modernity in an abstract and academic way but rather within the dramatic urgency of making possible a co-existence that was no longer guaranteed by the Christian religious tradition of many centuries. The accumulation of a non-reconciled cultural pluralism (Scholastic thought, humanistic culture, new empirical science) but above all the fracture between Catholicism and Protestantism and the subsequent wars of religion, fragmented the unitary whole of Medieval tradition and impressed a secularising change on early humanism, which was still substantially Christian.


The subsequent development of modernity was radically marked by this historical drama which had the effect of concentrating the fire of its theoretical reflection on the question of 'a universality that could take the place of Christian universality'. This was a difficult operation because of the intrinsic (spiritual and ethical, theological and philosophical) complexity and richness of Christian universality and its experience of many centuries. The second modernity, in fact, underwent a trial of three centuries (the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries) to implement its project. This was a project that first took on the physiognomy of the privatisation of Christianity, which was interpreted as a 'religious confession' reduced to private belief and taken on as a public form by the universal superior, the absolute State (cuius regio). Lastly, with the Enlightenment, Christianity was reinterpreted in the ethical rational universal, with idealism as a mythical-religious form of the metaphysical rational universal.


To sum up, the second modernity may also be read as a great phenomenon involving the secularised reinterpretation of the Christian universal with a view to a new and higher universalistic project, that is to say of a project which, although it conserved those contents made up of Christian ethics and metaphysics, was created by modern reason, which meant at a speculative level science and/or metaphysics, and, at a practical level, the technical, ethics, public law (and its historical subject the State), and politics. A separate discussion is required of the empiricist and pragmatist tradition of modernity (beginning with the matrix of Hobbes, Locke and Hume), which was so influential in the English-speaking world, because in it the crisis of the traditional humanistic universal coincided somewhat with a revision of the very idea of universality, in the hypothesis of its derivation and secondary status in the field of experience and action. The modern empiricist mentality represented the hypothesis of the possibility of making humans agree with each and live with other without the recognition of an original, universalistic, shared reality but the recognition that this could be derived from experience. In historical terms, this was expressed, and is expressed, at a socio-political level in terms of the calculation of interests/preferences (utilitarianism) or the bargaining of principles and rules (conventionalism). Whatever the case, a look at modernity helps us to understand both the cultural centrality of its ethical-anthropological universality and its 'non-innocence', that is to say its strong historical super-determination.



Protective Value


One of the most significant products of the modern journey at the level of ethics and politics are the Declarations of Human Rights, in which is concentrated the idea of a humanistic universal that can be shared and in which, in the history of contemporary liberal democracies, is the universalistic reference point and key to the solution of the problems of pluralism and multiculturalism.


Their incontestable high protective value (from the invasiveness of power) and constructive value (in the promotion of the co-existence of individual subjects and collective entities) does not remove the fact that as a minimum common denominator human rights have a triple limitation.


a. Their universality is 'abstract' because it concerns aspects of human dignity whose inescapable value and need for juridical protection are recognised that correspond to an ideal anthropological model which constitutes an ahistorical paradigm. Taken on as the fundamental principle of communication between subjects, cultures, and religions, human rights themselves inevitably constitute a discriminator between what is universal and which is particular in cultural identities, becoming, in fact, the agents of a rather contestable interpretation of the cultural phenomena that they would like to regulate: universalised, that is to say, only as regards those aspects on which human rights confer universal meaning, and as a result privatised in relation to all the other aspects, with rather contestable effects on cultures that possess very different value hierarchies to those to be found in the West, perhaps even inverting the value hierarchy within the self-interpretation of the cultures themselves.


b. The abstract universalism of rights was subjected to the blow of the accusation of being a pseudo-universal expression of a cultural vision that was partial, even though the Western vision was vast, to which other universalistic traditions, that were formed outside the trials of modern universalism, as in the Islamic case, opposed other declarations of rights (cf., for example, The African Charter of Human Rights of 1981; The Islamic Universal declaration of Human Rights of 1981; The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam of 1990; the Bangkok Declaration of 1993; and the Arab Charter of Human Rights of 1994).


c. The story of modern universalism did not stop with the proclaiming of its great universals and the declarations of rights. These were historical sedimentations of great significance, under which, however, the current of modern thought continued to advance by digging different and antithetical pathways. During the twentieth century, in line with the prophecy of Nietzsche, 'modern universalism entered into crisis', reaching its complete negation in the contemporary context of the post-modern which is essentially nihilist in that it is radically anti-universalist.


Certainly not all contemporary Western culture is post-modern and nihilist but one cannot underestimate the logical force of the process that has led to contemporary nihilism, a process that had its beginning in the atheistic outcome of modernity and which continued with the nihilistic thought of an arrangement of reality without ties of truth and value, that is to say of any order that transcends this arrangement. Nietzsche summed this up in the idea of the Dionysian game.


For those who are outside this tradition of thought as well, it is the reality of facts (one may think here of the 'network without a centre and without laws' of the financial or mass media world structures) that impose a post-modern vision, in which Western man encounters difficulty in recognising, with foundations and conviction, forms of binding universality.



Real Historical Subjects


The disagreeable contemporary condition, therefore, seems confined between the alternative of an a prioristic and formal universality, which is outside the various cultural and religious identities and the heir to the Enlightenment tradition, and a factual multiplicity of these without the principle of unity, an expression of (particularistic and relativistic) post-modern differentialism. An assessment of the situation must begin first and foremost with the real historical subjects, the cultural and religious identities, whose status which should think in a more effective way about. Abstract universalism and relativistic particularism divide up the field in a sterile way.


Thus multiculturalistic policies oscillate between a recognition of identities, leaving aside qualitative assessments of merit, and an extrinsic regulation of identities on the basis of principles, rules and procedures. The nexus between real historical subjects and the criteria for their possible co-existence escapes the picture.


As M. Walzer says 'the necessary character of every human society [and being]: universal because it is human, particular because it is society', [Thick and Thin. Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, Notre Dame, 1994; Italian translation Geografia della morale. Democrazia, tradizioni e universalismo, Bari, 1999, p. 20]. In other terms, the universality of human forms is always expressed in, and through the particularity of, their historical elaboration. 'To recognise this', continues Walker, 'means to accept at one and the same time 'minimalism', and 'maximalism', the 'subtle' (of minimal and universalistic morality] and the 'often' [of maximal and particularistic morality), a universal and a relativistic morality. This suggests a general understanding of the value of life in a particular place and above all in one's own place and country' [ibidem].


To be more precise, the etet is in reality an 'inin', that is to say the inseparable nexus of the universal with the particular, one with the other and both in unique cultural human reality (in a broad sense). This is to say that every culture is an expression of 'universal human culturality', which is expressed, however, only 'in its historically determined cultural forms'; and that, therefore, the anthropologically structural conditions of a culture, which are universal, are expressed in its always particular historical expressions.


In this way, in anthropological relationships, transcultural universality and contextual particularity are expressed in an inseparable unity; one must conclude, therefore, that the anthropological universal is expressed in the from of the 'concrete universal', that is to say of the universally understandable and appreciable, translatable and communicable 'universal value' of a specific and particular realisation, and more precisely of a 'singularity'. Here, in fact, at the level of works, cultures and subjects, the paradox applies that the more a realisation is 'singular', the more its value is universal: the example of a work of art which can be most participated in through its most unrepeatable being in its successful singularity applies here [cf. F. Botturi, Universalismo e multiculturalismo, in Universalismo e etica pubblica, Annuario di etica 3, edited by F. Botturi F. Totaro, Vita e Pensiero, Milan, 2006].


This structure of cultures is also the foundation of their historical relationship, of their possible interaction ('interculturality'), whose outcome is not predictable a priori. Thus also the common and/or universalistic elements can only be seen in their historical encounter and clash, mixing and distancing. A priori one can only exclude that universality is a summation of cultures or their thinning (cf. Walzer) to the point of an undifferentiated or neutral minimum common denominator. The universality of cultures will be, rather, on the one hand, an ideal of fullness (cf. Solovëv and Teilhard de Chardin), that is to say the ideal harmonisation of all their constituent truths, and, on the other, the historical reality of their encounter/clash, integration/separation, that is to say of the forms of their co-existence, as a result of what A. MacIntyre calls 'the dialectic of traditions'.


Only in relation to this concrete framework is it possible to appreciate the attempt to define the axiological conditions (rights) and procedural conditions (rules) of the dialogue between cultures, avoiding the grave misunderstanding of exchanging these for what is universal between cultures. The conditions of dialogue, in fact, have the task (which is typical of the State) of defining them and guaranteeing them space, which is principally the space of civil society, a defined (and never neutral) space of the co-existence of cultural universals.