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Religion and Society

The West: the Anxiety of the Mosaic-Identity

To speak about the West from the point of view of encounter and creative fusion between cultures inevitably implies two things: to understand what happened in the past and to think in a critical way about the future. The first task is indispensable to the second - only in understanding where the West comes from, and what dramatic processes are in its genealogy, is it possible to assess what is happening today that is different, without being satisfied with saying, for example, that what is happening today is different, more extensive and graver. These are definitions that are in a certain sense right, but ones, however, that remain strategically ineffective as long as one does not make clear exactly what difference and greater extension mean. Indeed, one should first of all refer to an interesting fact: while historical studies, and even more the testimony of the direct protagonists of antiquity, agree in noting the irruptive aspect of the transformations that Western civilisation has had to undergo during its history, when these facts are evoked in the context raised by the current intertwining of civilisations there is at times a curious tendency to minimisation - these ancient phenomena are said to have been less risky, culturally poor and thus spontaneously prepared to receive the Greco-Christian tradition; or (with a thesis that is only apparently opposed to this contention) they are said to be simply a welcome development and providential. Things are not like this. The so-called 'barbaric invasions', to dwell upon the most profound transformation that the West has undergone, were, it is true, not that sudden clash of civilisations and forms of barbarity that the Renaissance imagined (the non-neo-Latin languages more specifically call them migrations, Völkerwanderungen): but they nonetheless characterised an authentic political, social, and cultural catastrophe, marking and accelerating the end of a world, the Roman world, which would never again exist as it once had.


Obviously one is not dealing only with destruction - the entrance of new peoples also constituted the beginning of those processes that led to the birth of European nationalities with their new languages, literatures and forms of art. There are those who have identified in the extraordinary medieval fabric of civil communities, whose model is today still at times invoked, a creative compensation for the dissolutions of the political forms of the Roman Empire. Similarly, one could even state that medieval and then modern originality is in basic terms a child of the forced dispersion and simplification (the famous encyclopaedism of the High Middle ages) that classical culture was obliged to engage in, more or less in the sense in which philosophy (as Plato narrates) is the 'child of poverty'. Western Christendom itself would not be what it is today without the shake up and the redirection that it was forced to undergo through the acceptance of new peoples - these peoples could rightly be said to be 'newcomers' by ancient Greek and Eastern Christendom, but in opposite fashion these peoples could also rebuke ancient Greek and Eastern Christendom for 'being old'. In this case as well the transition was not clear - the Laus magna angelorum (the Ambrosian version of Gloria) expanded the 'miserere nobis', calling for the liberation not only 'ab hereticis, ab arianis, a schismaticis' (for all that ecumenism may wish) but also 'a barbaris (for all that interculturality may wish).


To summarise: even a brief glance at the history of the West demonstrates with ease that it lends itself very badly to supporting the arguments both of the optimists of interculturality and the pessimists of the clash of civilisations. The first may be rebuked for the always open possibility of lasting, traumatic and even fatal clashes for a culture; the second may be told that from such clashes can also be born new, unforeseen and unpredictable cultures. There is another rebuke that history perhaps makes to the same extent to both stances - the somewhat acritical adoption of a concept of 'identity' which history itself shows is changing, provisional, imprecise and often practically unusable. The best way to describe identity is to narrate a history, but what history more than Western history is so marked by, so full of, external influences as to be at any moment of its existence a polychrome mosaic? The development of the spirit of individuality (which is so evident, for example, in the history of art) makes it even more difficult to define a Western identity that does not immediately explode into varieties based upon personal creativity. And even more, every history is a reality of encounters, of experiences - in the very concept of identity there is, therefore, a reference to the outside that makes it intrinsically decentralised. The brilliant thesis of Rémi Brague, which sees in secondarity the determining characteristic of Europe, although it perceives with acumen this aspect nonetheless itself also runs the risk of crystallising it more than is permissible. To appeal to the need to 'preserve an identity' is thus a slogan that is far too easy and which has to be carefully deciphered, above all to the extent to which it gives voice but at the same time veils and attempts to exorcise certainly real and well-founded anxieties. This is the subject that I wish, above all, to address in this paper.



Universal Culture


The contemporary clash of civilisations, it is said, is more extensive than was the case in other epochs. In a certain sense this is true but this seems to me to disguise, first and foremost, a different and more radical truth - that Western culture has obtained or is obtaining rapidly from many points of view the status of a 'universal' culture. From an economic, scientific-technological and communications point of view, the whole world is, or is becoming, Western. When on the shores of North Africa, or even wandering through the most out-of-the-way Berber villages, the first word that any foreigner learns to recognise in Arabic writing is the name of Coca-Cola. Practically all the technological instruments that can be used in the world as a whole come from Western industry. The instruments of communication are, as a result, Western instruments, beginning with the by now unstoppable Internet which the recent 'one laptop each child' project intends to bring through brilliant technology to every child in the Third World (even with the help of a hand generating machine where electricity has not yet arrived). The subject of so-called 'globalisation' is without doubt very different from the subject of this paper, and yet one cannot deny that it is one of the most characteristic bases of the contemporary flows of peoples. To come to the West often means to come to a place of humanity that is already in a certain sense familiar, which in a more or less conscious way, at times with fantastic idealisations on the part of both the transmitter and the receiver, presents itself not only as a place of technology of happiness. This is an element which without doubt distinguishes the contemporary flows of peoples from the flows of antiquity - flows that are often the outcome of the non-accidental coagulation of innumerable small individual histories and makes them, in this sense, extensive, indeed potentially universal. And for that matter awareness of globalisation seems to me a psychological assumption of the West which, knowing about the spread of certain features of its own civilisation, easily imagines the dissolution of every border, colouring it with the anxious and unrealistic features of an invasion.



the Crisis of the Educational Process


The greater range of current flows of civilisations is often seen in another sense as well - in that, that is to say, they endanger the very bases of Western civilisation, its identity. In reality, here as well, one should shift, I believe, the visual focus. What is typical of the contemporary West is the establishment on the public scene of an omnipresent liberal-democratic form of co-existence within society. The collapse of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, with the consequent euphoria of liberation that followed that collapse, has perhaps in a paradoxical way delayed a most urgent reflection: to what extent, that is to say, and on what conditions, does democratic control over the foundations of democracy represent an instrument of self-regulation (like the innumerable examples of self-regulation that exist in nature and culture), and to what extent, instead, is there a vicious circle that merely provides the illusion that there is an infallible concordance between democracy and the promotion of the human. In reality, this concordance is always the delicate outcome of a crucial educational process in which a civilisation makes available to the new generation its memory as a model of wisdom. And this is a process that can be defined as being democratic only because it assures the health-care of democracy and not because it itself follows its procedural rules (unless the model is proposed as being improvable and capable of reform). The democratisation of the educational process creates, in contrary fashion, a void in which the new generations (in public, private and family education) are placed in front of the impossible and worrying goal of autonomy. By 'democratisation' I do not in the least mean so much the fact that in the educational system there is a tendency to put the teacher and the student on the same level, and all the students on the same level, but the fact that the transmission of contents is progressively marginalised in favour of the capacities that should allow, beginning with nothing, an autonomous choice between cultural and ethical points of reference. The problem is macroscopic but it is not sufficiently present in public debate. For example, notably few replies are levelled against contemporary liberal moral philosophy when it condemns as 'paternalism' any attempt by anybody to know more than someone else about what happiness is, as though a moral reflection was possible that places in parentheses that process that constitutes not an accessory to society but its very place of origin and constant renewal. But democracy supposes that its participants possess a heritage of values that are proved, shared and transmitted in the educational processes. Without these, the democratic rules are powerless not only in the face of any propaganda that is able to create support but also in the face of regressive life practices (if there are people who ask for it, why not allow polygamy democratically? Or consensual paedophilia?). The recurrent discussions about whether non-Western peoples are really suited or ready for democracy appear, therefore, at times to be a projection, and thus a dissimulation, of the problems of education in the West. Otherwise would it not be suitable to ask if peoples are 'suited to democracy' that in just one generational shift by democratic methods have not only legalised but practically promoted the fragilisation of the family, psychotic mechanisms of consumption, and the regression of systems of instruction, thereby creating dizzy social costs and damage that is very difficult to remedy?


Lastly, there is a third way in which contemporary movements are seen to be radical: in the sense that they will gradually lead to the ethnic replacement itself of the European population. In this case it is even easier to overturn the point of view - the real problem is the demographic decline of the West which now allows us to calculate easily, according to contemporary rates, when this people or that people will become extinct. Whatever the case, it should be remembered that according to historians this is precisely one of the problems that from the third century onwards afflicted the Roman Empire, an empire that gave way to the drive of the new peoples, not least because it had been reduced demographically by wars, by the crisis of the institution of marriage, and by the universality of abortion and infanticide. The differences with the movements of the peoples of antiquity do not lie, therefore, in this case, in a new phenomenon, but rather in the modern reasons for decreasing birth rates. In brief, we may identify these in the development of the logic of a 'wish for a child' which has transformed generation from being a natural and socially inevitable phenomenon to being an exceptional moment which pre-supposes a personal sopra-investment and is thus subject to a rare and complex set of psychological and material conditions. The technical means of birth control and the generalised practice of abortion (in some areas of Europe at the present time the average figure is five abortions for every woman) constitute at a negative level the way by which to affirm and make effective this logic of a wish for a child in which the child is identified specifically and solely by the wish that the parents had in relation to it. This is a mechanism, as one may intuit, that is extremely delicate and ambiguous.



Encounter as an Ethical Question


If the analysis that I have outlined in this paper is in part correct, this means that the fears of the West are well grounded, but also and equally that they are well dissimulated: the creation of a technological imagination of happiness, the crisis of education and therefore of democracy, and the alteration of social relationships with human life, are three elements, not without subtle mutual connections, that define in an overall way a civilisation that has been weakened by internal causes. My hypothesis is that above all because of this fragility there is projected onto the contemporary flows of peoples a great deal of anxiety (perhaps in the forms of 'rage and pride'), an anxiety that is different from, and more specific than, the anxiety that has always accompanied, in the form of irrational distrust, the appearance of the diverse and the foreigner. In addition, by now it is clear why the appeal to 'identity' is in itself so ineffective - the contemporary countenance of the West obviously is not limited to the fragility-inducing traits that have been referred to in this paper, and yet it contains them in a solid way because they are connected with evolutionary lines that are not in the least accidental - technical hypertrophy is a child of Greek thought; the pedagogic crisis is a child of the democratic spirit; and low birth rates are a child of the social and psychological mechanisms of individualisation (not inevitable offspring, perhaps bastard offspring, but offspring nonetheless). From this point of view, a fully 'integrated' foreigner solves no problem at all - on the one hand he is certainly calming but on the other he increases social fragility and perhaps delays in a dangerous way the moment when the West has to become aware of the question.


What will happen in the future? Making predictions is not only not easy - it is also out of place. In a fine page devoted to the probative value of miracles, John Duns Scoto presented an infallible way of unmasking the Anti-Christ who with his wonders seeks to be God. It is enough to ask him 'what i will be doing or thinking or wanting at such and such a time on such and such a day?' Here, too, the Anti-Christ falls silent - the future, in fact, when it is entrusted to freedom, is known only to God. However, it is precisely this that should be an invitation to reformulate the problem of the West, and its possibilities of encounter with other peoples in a modality that is not anxiety-stricken, as essentially ethical problem. It is curious that rather often the theoretical study of interculturality is today connected with the philosophy of Lévinas, it is curious and apparently the effect of distraction because if there does exist thought that is distant from the idea according which cultures are in themselves interlocutors that are qualified for a dialogue of parity, it is the thought of Lévinas. On the contrary, in his neo-Platonising approach, cultures are all equally subject to the need for, and the judgement of, transcendent and absolute ethics. And yet in this perhaps hurried reference there is something that is involuntarily very right: that in encounter the first requirements to be defended are not first and foremost the ambiguous requirements of identity, nor the ingenuous requirements of dialogue, but the clear requirements of morality. The reference in this case is not in the least vague or rhetorical because all of the three elements to which I have referred constitute precise social and pedagogic problems and thus also political ones. Nothing is ineluctable, nor, fortunately, is their irremediable deterioration, nor, unfortunately, is their solution.



the Centrality of Man


But to address them with a serious human, educational and vital wager seems to be the only way today to constitute the West as a 'land of encounter': encounter with the centrality of man in the technological and economic network, with a demanding and confident formation of the new generations, with a welcoming of human life that is no longer a variable that is dependent on wishes. These are ethical challenges which come, logically, prior to the rules of dialogue, prior to the possible appreciation of difference, and prior to the albeit urgent juridical instruments that regulate, with justice, co-existence within society in new conditions. One is dealing, in fact, with challenges that act together to constitute the subject of encounter. In this context it appears to me significant that the term 'hybridised' brings almost involuntarily with it the symbol and the model of this wager - in the first meaning it refers, in fact, to the situation of those who are born to parents of different peoples. It means, therefore, the transformation of a love story, with all its fascination and drama, into the generation of a new human being. A story, therefore, in which a man and a woman have really encountered each other not because of their equality but because of their difference, and beginning with their carnality and mental character (and not beginning with nothing) they have given life to a child who is at one and the same time unpredictability and a wager about the future. If in the genealogy of all human beings one can find, with varying degrees of clarity, some hybridisation, this means that human life itself is the sign of the happiness of this dramatic wager. It is certainly, therefore, no accident, that often in history marriage has been a symbolic way of sanctioning and representing alliances between peoples.


Is this also a strategy by which to eliminate conflicts and assure peaceful encounter? Unfortunately not. After citing one of the two great medieval leading lights of thought, let us now cite another, Thomas Aquinas, who in a curious question asked himself whether angels could 'fight' each other. The answer is surprisingly positive - angels 'fight' each other when they defend the interests of peoples who are in conflict with each other given that they do not as yet know the divine sentence on the outcome of the conflict. In other words, not even perfect charity is able to eliminate conflict. In order to understand their ultimate meaning, the point of view of angels is too limited - and how much truer this is of men! To try to know the meaning of things, and thus to affirm that every difference can beforehand be made into harmony, would mean to seek to be God. It is perhaps to be suspected that forgetting about this aspect of the finitude or drama of human events is another of the factors that render more acute the crisis that I have described: the elimination of conditions for encounter is in essential terms the only way to eliminate the causes of a clash. But at the same time to know that charity does not eliminate clashes is also a way of saying that even in a clash it is possible (and thus incumbent) to conserve charity, knowing above all else that only God is the custodian of the destinies of men and of peoples.

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