Thursday, 16 February 2012

Religious freedom (2)

The Muslim peer and Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Warsi recently spoke at the Vatican about the militant secularism and the attacks on Christianity that have become more prevalent in Britain in recent years. Muslims and Christians stand united on this issue, she said. The Queen has also, on her Diamond Jubilee, defended the role the Church of England plays in our society.

On 15 November, in a meeting that has had to be postponed from 11 April, Cardinal Angelo Scola will make a rare visit to London to speak about the work of the Oasis Foundation, which promotes the mutual understanding of Christians and Muslims, especially in Islamic countries where Christians are a (sometimes persecuted) minority.
Scola is now Archbishop of Milan, having set up Oasis while he was Patriarch of Venice, but he clearly continues to take a keen interest in the Foundation, and its journal of "cultural interpretation", OASIS. The journal offers accurate information and intelligent commentary on events and movements to Christians in the Middle and Far East and Africa – but also in the West, where conventional approaches to what it calls the mestizaje or metissage (hybridization or "mixing up") of civilizations have largely failed. Like Baroness Warsi, OASIS believes that the correct response to this mixing is not the way of "faith neutrality" and the privatization of religious belief proposed by the secularists – a kind of spiritual lobotomy which would normalize the atheist view and allow no one else to influence the policies of government.

What is the alternative? Secularists fear a war between rival religious groups to determine which of them will form a "confessional state", in which unbelievers will suddenly find themselves once more the persecuted minority. The concept of metissage is intended to open an alternative path. Instead of fearing religious minorities and yearning for a past or future golden age of religious purity, Cardinal Scola believes we should embrace the inevitable mixing of peoples "to which the Author of history seems to be calling humanity". We should work to orient positively this on-going "hybridisation of civilizations" so that the meeting between them is not transformed into conflict. Since faith is inevitably tangled up with culture and yet culture remains distinct from faith, each faith is provoked by the others to re-think its own interpretation of culture. In a society comprising many faiths this process may lead to a "mixed" culture, yet without confusing one faith with another or imposing one faith on everybody. For this to happen, however, the public space must remain or become a place where different worldviews can meet and discuss, without any of them (including secularism) being able to monopolize it exclusively.

The precondition of such a society, such a mixed civilization, is a certain respect for the human person. It is our human nature, not our beliefs, that we have in common, and on this basis we can build a new culture together. The doctrine of the dignity of the person is present in every religion, albeit not always encoded in the form of a doctrine of "human rights" (which is one possible expression of that dignity). That is why the "method" of OASIS is not so much a dialogue between theologians and sociologists, Christian and Muslim, attempting to achieve an intellectual consensus, but a path of testimony, in which individual voices are heard and hearts are exposed. "Heart speaks to heart", and at the level of human experience it is possible to develop a friendship that is neither ideological nor manipulative. Only with the help of such friendships can a new culture take root and grow.


  1. If by "heart speaks to heart" the Cardinal means letting go of fundamentalist 'natural law' and its interpretations, then this effort can do nothing but good. However it seems so distant from the official Curial line and attitudes that one suspects failure if and when it's successful.

  2. To the contrary, Cardinal Scola's view is very close to that of Pope Benedict. Nor do I think we can do without the notion of 'natural law'. But that will have to be argued on another occasion.