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Religion and Society

The West: the Unresolved Saga of Freedom

Universal Aspirations /3. At times one has the impression that the awareness has been lost that the winning of such a very valuable possession can be lived only through a perpetual movement, through concern; and that the amazement at the odyssey that has been engaged in hitherto has disappeared.

Last update: 2018-06-12 17:09:44

What can be worse that a satisfied democracy? It is difficult to imagine something that is more illusory and self-destructive than a political culture that involves thinking that we have finally reached a sort of 'ultimate Tule' of fundamental rights. Rights that have put down roots, that have been transformed from being free waves of the sea, carried by the wind, into trees nailed to the soil that are fearful of the wind. The 'land of the free' is a very beautiful image but it is so above all else because it reminds us that free people are those people who continue to struggle to affirm their own rights, who do not bend and who know that rights cannot be lost but have to be won and won again every day. But the land of the free is a striking image because it also reminds us that freedom is always a horizon, a 'tension towards'. At times one has the impression that the West has lost its awareness of the 'infinite journey towards freedom', which can only be lived through a perpetual movement, a concern. At times one would say that the amazement at the odyssey that has been engaged in hitherto, however long and painful, and at the same time epic and incredibly involving, it may have been, with all its contradiction, miseries, and greatness, has disappeared. This inability to be amazed, to recognise ourselves (not so much in distant roots as in the incrustations and patches that make our keel unique amongst all the others, the special vicissitudes that it has borne, the waters that it has crossed) is accompanied by a sort of discomfort towards 'others', towards that which is different from us. Such a discomfort can take on tones of xenophobic closure and tones of cultural relativism, and suggest both hypotheses of a planetary political-cultural apartheid ('people should govern themselves as they wish: who are we to state that liberal democracy is the best form of government possible?') and paternalistic policies ('the construction of democracy requires a very long time: when those societies are ready they will move on to democracy; the important thing is not to interfere'). It is only by looking at the scars of the West, going back over them with the affection and the surprise with which Auriclea recognised the unrecognisable Ulysses, that we can dialogue with others on how the special path of the West has been one of the unveiling of freedom, on a journey that has been by no means linear, but which, however, has outlined its destiny as much as it has defined its political and cultural lineaments. Freedom is certainly not a Western invention: it is an aspiration common to every human being, naturally brought by his intelligence and self-awareness. One can with serenity talk about a universal aspiration to freedom. Even more than an analysis of doctrines and experiences spread in time and space, common sense would appear to be sufficient to make us see that as a reasonable and reasoning being man aspires to be free, that is to say he aspires to remove himself, albeit by varying routes, from the arbitrary will of another in the name of his own freedom. It is specifically the transversal spread of freedom through epochs and civilisations and the very alternating events of its destiny which have been equally transversal that immediately discredits those who want to see the West as the sole custodian of the 'value' of freedom. However what has been quintessentially Western is to have wagered in a political sense on freedom, to have recognised this aspiration and to have transformed it into the matrix of all rights, and into the most revolutionary philosophical and political concept that could be imagined. Once this extraordinary insight was grasped it became possible for the West to begin a pathway that was able to decline in the form of rights what the shared needs are of every human being. In essential terms, almost in provocative fashion, we could say that the Westlicher Geist lies in having recognised the existence of 'universal needs' and in transforming them into 'universal rights'. To be successful in such an undertaking the West took advantage of the special contributions of Greek culture, with its ability to sculpt political categories, of Roman culture, which was incredibly talented in the invention of juridical institutions, and of the Christian message, which is so able to place man at the centre of its thought. One would have to wait for the century of the Enlightenment thinkers (and pass through the crucial knot of Christianity) for it to happen that from freedom understood as the highest form of political autonomy of a people (the self-government of a community free from the impositions of other communities or from the tyranny of an individual) one reached the definition of the freedom of citizens as the cornerstone of that form of government that also protects a dissenting individual from the dictatorship of the majority. It is certainly no accident that the establishment of the idea of 'democracy that incorporates freedom' and which thus associates men who are born free and equal in a political community of citizens rather than having the freedom of its citizens descend from the freedom of the polis began with a recognition of the centrality of the individual, which was particularly founded and capable of being founded in the message of the Gospels. Nothing would be more mistaken than to imagine the pathway of freedom and rights in Western history as a kind of triumphant march forward. In reality, it was conflict that allowed freedom and rights to become established. One could say that it was conflict that forced politics to deal with rights and freedom, making us profoundly aware that both cannot be granted but only won. The origins of freedom, therefore, are to be found in conflict and in conflict that was progressively regulated and deprived of its violent aspects, and thus accepted as a natural dynamic of interests, in which lies the safeguarding of rights. The transformation of the modern State, that is to say of what represents perhaps the greatest conceptual and institutional achievement of Western political culture, well illustrates the dynamic of conflict that constructed freedoms and rights as a defining feature of our shared history. The tension between civil society and political institutions was what ensured that whereas society was transformed, in an increasingly aware fashion, into 'the people', that is to say into an essentially political community, the State progressively took on those liberal and democratic forms that respected, protected and implemented the rights of citizens. Wars of Religion It is not in the least an accident that at the origins of the ascending curve of the modern State, in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, we find those wars of religion that for over a century inflamed Christendom. Religious freedom is at one and the same time the most intimate and the least individual of freedoms: it concerns beliefs about the death and the possible eternal life of every human being, but it also requires a communal and public (even if not political) space in order to be shared by those faithful who identify with it. The establishment of the State and a progressive process of secularisation, the secularity of political institutions and religious freedom, form together a part of our experience and the path that the West has followed to reach freedom. Without the ability to address and solve the complex and burning question of religious freedom, the achieve ment of which required the co-existence in the same political arena of absolute and often alternative beliefs about the nature and the very purpose of human life, probably even the institution of the state would have been shipwrecked. Today in the West, once again, we are called to an ancient challenge: to encounter the other maintaining our sense of belonging. To ensure, that is to say, that those absolutes that can but share the same time and increasingly the same space, can do so harmoniously: 'with every effort but not on any condition'. Indeed, the absolutes must remain absolute and not be reduced to relative beliefs because otherwise we would reduce politics to a game of illusionists. But in doing this they must agree not to enter into conflict with each other, consenting to the mediation of politics and the institutionalised forms that politics has acquired in our history, which we cannot and do not want to forgo. The relationships between freedom, democracy and religious confessions are not in the least linear, and this, too, is something that is well known, and although the vulgate that is prevalent today holds that there is a natural correspondence between religions, the real historical truth is that religions are what their representatives and leaders have made them in time. As a result, specifically in the history of the West they have constituted (improperly, certainly, but in reality) a flag in the name of which have been perpetrated very ferocious political clashes. For that matter, one cannot forget that the Churches, in upholding their own freedom first and foremost where they were persecuted minorities, played a central role in the establishment of a democracy that incorporated freedom. One thus begins to understand better in what sense, already in terms of values, there exists a special relationship between democracy and the West. Elsewhere, the religious question remains a delicate point that runs the risk of making the establishment of democracy extremely complex. In the West, albeit through a long, detailed and for a long period of time uncertain, process, this relationship was addressed and solved. Certainly thanks to secularisation but also thanks to the fact that within the Christian tradition were present essential elements that were necessary to the establishment of a vision of democracy and freedom that is to say the absolute value of the individual. While we take up this enormous challenge in the awareness that it is up to politics alone to deal with the heavy task of establishing boundaries and assigning responsibilities (and of fixing what matters are not negotiable) when the rights and freedoms of individuals are at stake, we can certainly not forget that within our societies it is precisely politics and its institutional forms that enjoy an uncertain prestige and a distrust that is as facile as it is widespread. We have lost the belief that politics is first and foremost an activity that creates additional resources to those produced in the economic field. But above all it is the institutions of political representation that are in crisis, in their legitimate and necessary upholding of their own generality and universality, which is increasingly less acknowledged by the very many segments and pieces into which Western societies are falling. One is not dealing here with a spread of power, of a change in its status, towards that 'liquidity' which has become the easy omnivore metaphor of sociological description. One is dealing, instead, with its corporatisation, of its coagulating around ossified nuclei of new (and old) special interests which recognise as being legitimate only that power that represents them totally and which denies a substantial legitimacy to every public power that insists on believing in its general and creative function. There is one aspect which it is important to emphasise in order to avoid all possible misunderstandings. The existence of the special relationship between democracy and freedom, on the one hand, and between democracy and the West, on the other, does not deny the universality of the value of each of them. At the same time, the statement that a universal aspiration to freedom and democracy exists does not take anything away from the argument about their Western historical specificity. It is in the Western historical experience that is fully to be seen the unresolved tension between values held to be universal, and as such superior to any particular tradition or norm, and the specific protection that they need through concrete institutional systems and arrangements. Thus begins to emerge in what sense we can still speak about democracy and freedom as a construct, with a Western background, that today aspires to be shared well beyond the mobile frontiers of its land of origin. What characterises the Western democratic experience and let us not forget, what characterises its success is this particular triangulation between a civil society that embodies, achieves and holds to be true certain values, the political institutions that protect them, and a political culture that is an expression of civil society in its relationship with political institutions.