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Religion and Society

The Responsibility of a New Universalism

Something changed /1. Beneath the surface of disturbance that pervades the whole of Western culture, for Christians something, in reality, has changed. The idea of a citizenship that can no longer be homogenisation, the idea of a specific and 'special' task: to give a foundation to living together in society by making good use of difference.

In presenting the Italian edition of Roger Scruton's book L'Occidente e gli altri, Khaled Fouad Allam an export on Islam of Algerian origins, who with his articles told the Italians about the reality of the Arab world before and after 11 September with clarity and precision indicates where and why what has suddenly become a sort of Gordian knot between Islam and the West has become more difficult to untie (or so it appears). If, he writes, 'difference seems to be the place of defeat for we Muslims', the crisis of the subject in the Muslim world is 'also a crisis of portrayal in the Western world, in the West's way of thinking'. As 'difference', or the changed perception of its relevance, has gradually strengthened the frontiers between territories in which it is difficult to communicate, the concerns, the uncertainties, and the fears, which are in varying ways repressed or camouflaged, of having to be individually or collectively in a constant situation of totally unpredictable risk, have become more aggressive. Faced with personal and collective insecurity, cultural 'certainties', which in the West are, or seem to be, more rooted and widespread, then offer themselves as an antidote, cure or palliative. And they have appeared and this is not at all paradoxical even though there is danger here precisely at the moment when, as Khaled Fouad Allam observes, that Gordian knot between Islam and the West would instead require, in order to be unravelled, 'to move out of the universe of our certainties'.


I believe that it is useful to begin from here, from this apparent paradox, to ask ourselves in what way (and even before that if) in the reaction of the West to the shock of the destruction by terrorism of the Twin Towers a characteristic approach and a specific contribution on the part of Christians is recognisable. Given the first and most superficial evidence the answer to this question can only be in the negative.



a Very Short Season


Although we were taken by surprise and were totally unprepared, the disorientation and the feeling of increasing insecurity that exploded on that day which, to employ the title of another essay, made the 'difference' (Che differenza può fare un giorno, edited by V.E. Parsi, Milan, 2003), in reality find expressions in, and are explained with reference to, more distant causes. They were already flourishing with the geopolitical revolution set in motion or only, perhaps, were rapidly accelerated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. The season that followed 1989 was really a very short season, marked by too many collective illusions, by opinions and public rhetoric inclined more to the creation of social support (and to conserve a cultural 'shared sense') than to understand and interpret, and by leftovers or by disguises of old ideas about progress, freedom and the triumph of democracy, in which it was not at all difficult to perceive the same Enlightenment lineage. Within a kind of a up-dated new edition, although precarious and aesthetically rather more superficial, of the belle époque, we lived as though, after the fall of that wall, we could put together all the fragments, empty the balance of every injustice suffered, put away for ever the signs and the feeling of difference, as well as the recurrent motifs of the various forms of struggle for supremacy, wealth and power. Of course this was not possible. Nor could the custom of living the present and of portraying tomorrow above all or only under the banner of als ob, of 'as if', last for long. And yet and this is demonstrated by the reactions to 11 September and confirmed by the very forms with which collective concerns and fears were expressed, accepted or made routine in those years the West seems halted at its own certainties, now solid because well founded, now conventional and fragile because increasingly artificial. Its culture its elite culture as well as its mass culture remains imprisoned in a cage of a 'disenchantment', which, overturned in the narcissism of the common places of thought and the common practices of individual and social behaviour, not only weakens and shortens our look at the future but even confuses our disenchanted (or simply realistic) understanding of what is happening today.


Thus what in the judgement of Khaled Fouad Allam appears as an atavistic condemnation of the Muslim world ('not being able to think in terms of the future because the past has already thought for them') is reproduced in almost mirror-like fashion in Western culture as well. This culture, after 11 September, had to acknowledge its own slowness and difficulty in affirming ideas and instruments able to respond in a credible way to the new scenarios and the very many questions that this event opened up. Much more than the obvious precariousness of any, albeit strong, political and military system, the attack on the Twin Towers in fact uncovered the cultural vulnerability of the West. Our culture found itself exposed and easily attackable specifically at its heart, that is to say in its 'identity' (with everything that this term, which has perhaps been overly used in recent years, bears within itself). This is an identity which, whereas it is quite easy to define when one looks at the past, inevitably, it appears, has not only to be actualised and vivified but also when it is (only) placed side by side with the 'difference' that characterises and shakes the present age to be rebuilt as regards certain of its fundamental parts, which have for long been buried and forgotten.


Christians, too, have found that they are completely immersed in fears and uncertainties. At a surface level, indeed, it is very difficult to find in the Christians of the West reactions, responses and reflexes that are not totally identical or very similar to those expressed by the vast majority of individuals and peoples in the West. Under the surface, however, the signals that one manages to detect are different from one another, less monochrome, and often (healthily) contradictory.



a Question of Life


The conforming of Christian identity and membership to the social representations and practices of the majority is a process that has been underway for some time, in the same way as for a long time the culture in partibus fidelium (the two trends are evidently interconnected in a close way, although here they are referred to at the level of their most general and also generic features) is in quantitative terms of little weight and qualitatively peripheral. This is the case, it should be said, both as regards the dominant orientations of culture and as regards the possibility of acquiring positions that should be recognised as having not only some degree of social significance, but also, and above all else, when looking at and assessing the actual contents of their production, the full capacity to constitute an adequate response, a widespread response, and one that is not prejudged as belonging to one side. Within and together with the prevalent culture of the West, Christians have for a long time exorcised the tragic character of war and removed or disguised the causes of the constant historical reappearance of violence. Within and with the culture of the West, they have shared the amazement and disturbance of observing how much certainties that were held to be definitive are in reality weak, and how much it is becoming arduous to convince people and to be convinced of the 'universality' of the results that have been achieved with its own political, economic, juridical and social history. In definitive terms, within, and in almost complete harmony with the culture of the West, they find themselves again disorientated and for this reason easily inclined to the temptation of opposing extremes in the face of that synthetic reality which is made up of beliefs, forms of behaviour, ideas and threats that Iam Buruma and Avishai Margalit have condensed into the term 'Westernism', and which in itself includes two approaches that are opposed and mirror each other: the reactivation, on the one hand, of secular hatred for the Western 'empire' (bourgeois, dehumanising, condemned by history itself because it is anachronistic) and, on the other, the vital reflex by which we feel pushed to renew our identity in the light of the most unforeseen outcomes of so-called post-modernity.


But, as I was saying, just underneath the apparently compact crust of homogenisation and a lack of distinction, the signals are different, more variegated, and less alarming. In that vast and 'real' field of the beliefs and forms of behaviour of the people, which is looked at too little (or, when attention is paid, is most of the time considered inexorably retrograde and almost condemned to a position of ecclesial minority), 11 September certainly provoked reactions and movements which would it would not be excessive to liken to a reawakening. In nations in which, for historical causes, religious feeling and a feeling of convinced membership of the political community (as in the case of Italy, to employ a worn out example, albeit one that is always useful as a reference) appear more divaricated and less evident, there has been a strengthening of awareness that an active, participated-in and non-partisan citizenship must bear within it like a soul above all today the state of feeling component members, without reservations or hesitations, of a national community. In its most genuine (and also reassuring) meaning the popular political-civil ethos has thus found a way of making its own voice heard. And it has made that voice heard because in giving expression to the desire to want to direct changes without having to be subjected to them in a remissive way or with indifference, it found its nourishment in an unexpected 'public' relevance of religious feeling and faith in the transcendent dimension of existence. This is really a new development which has characterised, after 11 September, the presence of Christians in the West. And it is a new development which, if we manage to avoid giving way to any kind of confessional claim, cannot but be linked to the irruption of the 'question' of life (and of the meaning of the person) not only within contemporary culture, which, in taking off its flesh, has subjected life and the person to the dictates of science, technology and social habits, but also in 'ideological politics', whose long waves are still being suffered by our age. For these reasons, beyond the first and deceptive evidence, there is, therefore, a positive well-based response to the initial question about the existence of a specific contribution to Christians during the season that has followed 11 September. And this positive response is even more well-based if one pays attention to how and why a culture that is based on Christianity is trying to establish the ideal and practical foundations for co-existence amongst peoples, a culture which is giving a new form and a stable equilibrium to universalism.



Secularised Democracy


In 1977 Hedley Bull, in his Anarchic Society, envisaged for the years to come the features of a new medieval period. There are certainly by no means a few analogies or similarities between the current contradictory dynamics of the global system and those that made coherent, and then brought about the decline, of the Medieval cosmos. But in our age it is difficult to find something similar or even vaguely comparable to what made up the deepest basis and the most solid guarantee of that 'order'. Today, when difference threads through, and seems to want to bring about the disappearance of, every claim to the universalisation (and what is more important the 'universality' itself) of values such as democracy, law and human rights, to draw upon the deepest roots of the Judeo-Christian tradition means to look for the most appropriate motives and instruments by which to compose the very many existent particularisms into a new and not impossible universalism. Much more than late-rationalist abstract schemata, to the construction of the future could really contribute an effective cultural tradition of that vocation to universalism which is so typical of Christian thought. If everything is relative and, as such, continuously imposes the movement and multiplications of differences, creating new and unpredictable fractures, the tranquillitas ordinis can be established and defended, of necessity, only by the strongest. If, instead, we are convinced that fundamental shared values exist, their promotion will be the most solid guarantee there is not only for the universal and convinced application of the principle of pacta sunt servanda but also of the primary importance of shared rules that are able to uphold co-existence and the security of everyone.


The American sociologist Amitai Etzioni has recently observed that the explanation for many failures as regards bringing democracy into non-Western countries should be looked for in a basic cultural problem. The West has not only gradually implemented at a practical level but has also absolutised (proposing it as a definitive or ideal type model) a conception of democracy that is entirely secularised and in which religious identities and professions of faith are only marginal appendices as compared to the progress of society. In this way a constituent (and universal) dimension of associated life has ended up by being expelled from the democratic form of the political order. And Etzioni also suggests that in order to invert this trend it is necessary to follow the path indicated by the idea and by the concrete practice of 'subsidiarity'. In trying to fuse universalism and particularism through subsidiarity, difference ceases to be (or appears to be less seen as) a source of lacerations. And differences, together with particularities, no longer define fences by which to defend in a more aggressive way what one has or to achieve more effectively what one thinks one should possess. What in the end is delineated is, without in the least falling into utopianism, a global order arranged into a plurality of systems (it matters little if absolutely sovereign, completely autonomous or independent) which live with each other aiming at tranquillity and 'living well'. And which, in order to achieve this end, see respect for essential shared rules as the simplest instrument by which to assure the existence and the 'good use' of difference.


After 11 September, for the Christians in the West, the travail of difference thus allows us to see the birth not only of a new and strong hope but also of a renewed awareness. That awareness which, in order to vindicate Christian hope, we must want and really take risks for.