Autumn-winter 2004
 

 

  Autumn-winter 2004

  INTER-RELIGIOUS DIALOGUE AND MODERN CHALLENGES
  Adnan Silajdžiæ
 
 
From the doctrinal via the institutional to the culturally conditioned confrontation between the adherents of different religious and cultural traditions in the contemporary world, inter-religious dialogue has come a very long way, but has not achieved any very significant results.

If the adherents of different religious teachings want to speak at all seriously about dialogue today, their critical deliberations cannot exclude the concept of freedom. To be quite precise, freedom of religious expression, or the religious freedom of other people in a pluralistically structured world.

But this immediately raises the following question: what is implied by this concept of religious freedom in the post-modern paradigm, where idiosyncracies in regard to traditional religious teachings and institutions, to philosophy, science and art are ever more seriously manifesting themselves? Here we face a major quandary.

If we consider religious freedom in the context of the modern pluralist world, then like it or not we have to bear in mind a very wide spectrum of religious sentiments, from religious indifferentism via doctrinal reductionism or relativism to the quite new kind of syncretic or gnostic religiosity characteristic of New Age religions. This is the result of two powerful currents of ideas and conduct that arise from Modernism and continue in Post-modernism: individualism and pluralism. With individualism, traditional religious institutions are falling into deep crisis (undermining of authority, with nothing superior to the freedom of the individual to act as a constraint or limitation), since the process of individualization implies opposition to all forms of community or commonality based upon or legitimated by religious tradition. The cultural essence of each religious tradition is a phenomenon of memory, through which a given social group mediates its continued historical development. But without that process of memory and recollection, without which no kind of religious grouping is conceivable, since in human awareness gnosis is always equated with amnesia, it is not possible in the classical or traditional meaning of the word to articulate even a single religious reality, which includes that implied by the concept of the religious freedom of other people. It is a matter of the inner world of every religion or religious tradition that, in essence, enables religious man to have the broadest possible encounter with the world. Unfortunately, that divine and immaculate world of religion, on which religion bases its teachings on respect for the religious freedoms and fundamental rights of others, was to acquire during the course of history an often contrary and even tragic significance.

With the strengthening of the role of the subject in philosophy, or the weakening, as René Guénon would say, of the genuine intellectuality and spirituality that goes in parallel with the overall materialization of the world, the subjectivization of the person reached its acme.

The obverse of individualism is the pluralism of post-modernism. So free and, in relation to higher principles, independent a person in thought and deed could be achieved only in pluralism. Not in the traditional community, of which the cultural essence is recollection of the past, but in the establishment of a pluralist order that presumes an aggregate of wholly independent individuals corresponding neither to the Christian koinoni nor to the Muslim ideal of the ummah or jama’at. Religious people today live in a pluralist world characterized not only by the number of people of different skin colour, language, behaviour, but also on the basis of a new sensibility or model of human awareness of which scholars of religion, sociologists and philosophers will have to take account in the future, particularly where inter-religious dialogue is concerned .

However, this raises the question whether it is possible to establish dialogue in pluralism (reference is not made here to plurality, for the two are not the same), or is it a matter of tolerance. Where man is deprived of the character of the sacred it is not possible to speak of dialogue; it is possible of course, but in contemporary language emptied of all sacred content and stripped of dignity. Essentially it is impossible to speak of it. But we are relentlessly urged to speak of dialogue and, in that context, of religious freedoms. In certain religious gatherings it is even no longer possible to speak of commonality but of the plurality of the paths of individual extra-institutional involvement in the already over-complex phenomenon of modern religiosity. Over-impassioned religious people, and theologians too, do not understand that it is of course possible theoretically to reject a certain number of valid modern ideas and values, but it is far more difficult to do it at the conscious level, or in people’s daily religious orthopraxy. And conversely, that it is still possible to think purely theoretically about oneself and the world in which one lives in outmoded theological and dogmatic structures, but that it is almost impossible to live their components responsibly in everyday life. This is a serious phenomenon that we consciously avoid, partly because we are not willing to rise to such a challenge and partly because we have not yet sufficiently considered the state of the religious phenomenon in the contemporary world, which has serious repercussions on the religious orthopraxy of our people, and thereby on what we designate in academic terms as inter-religious dialogue.

If the traditional teachings of human religious freedoms are mechanically repeated, as is the case with earlier history, in terms of modern international law, we then find ourselves in a serious predicament, faced with the question what is this freedom of religious confession which is so much talked about these days in modern developed liberal democracies. It is hard these days for any even moderately serious scholar of religion or theologian, especially those who are aware of the latest experiences of the philosophical hermeneutics of language, to come to terms with the fact of how it is possible to imagine the Biblical or Qur’anic idea of religious freedom to the exclusion of, for example, Hegel’s and Marx’s experiences of freedom achieved by thymos, the struggle for recognition or self-respect . They certainly cannot accept such a world against which, because of the betrayal, or rather the crisis of the fundamental myths of modernity such as reason, science, progress and freedom, the romantics rebelled in the 19th century, hippies and rockers in the 1960s, Khomeini in the 1980s, as are ecologists, scientologists, followers of Rama Krishna and so on in our day. For human history is not only guided by the desire for one’s own recognition, but also the desire for reverence , which is grounds for an entirely different metaphysics, epistemology and, of course, philosophy of language. In such a world they can scarcely recognize the ideal of human freedom of which the ancient holy scriptures speak. But in the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church accepted the concept of religious freedom from international law, that is the Biblical concept of real religious freedom will be articulated in the sense of religious tolerance – which is not the same thing – and incorporated it as its official position in the Declaration on the attitude of the Church towards non-Christian religions (NAE), the Declaration on religious freedom (DH) and the Pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world (GS). Although the Church thereby initiated the period of ecumenical dialogue so necessary at the threshold of the third millennium, when, as the well-known French sociologist Daniel Hervieu-Leger would say, the ‘ecumenism of individual human rights’ is ever more seriously discussed , the question again arises of what that magic word means about which the ordinary believer knows scarcely anything. Here I think we reach the problem of the redefinition of the principles of freedom as recognized by traditional religious metaphysics, for the modern concept of freedom has left us in a blind alley, we talk about it all the time but nothing helps us because we have stripped it of its soul and its true sacred dignity, as indeed we have everything else these days, like all other concepts without which our intellectual and spiritual life is unimaginable – concepts such as good, beautiful, honourable, moral, worthy and so on. For none of these concepts has the same meaning and value if we mediate them through reason (ratio) or intellect (intellectus) respectively.

It is important here to draw attention to the following hermeneutic principle that any serious philosophical or theological epistemology must keep in mind: differentiated articulations of the idea of time and history result in differentiated world views or different systems of ethical, axiological and aesthetic values. For that which is freedom for the Roman citizen (individuum) , is what alienates it for the man who thinks and lives in traditional symbols, and the converse . At this ontological level it is not only possible but essential to consider the problem of the crisis of modern man, or more exactly the crisis of his individuality .

In other words, it is important to confront the difference between the humanist and the religious concepts of freedom. Can we really respect the sacred principles of respect for the religious conscience of other people without the fundamental sources of Islam and Christianity, which are more than explicit in the Bible and the Qur’an? If we can do so without them, then we remain at the level of humanist tolerance; however, since the religious conscience goes farther than humanist tolerance, it is essential to consider the issue of religious conscience or freedom as the antechamber of inter-religious dialogue at the level of the universal heavenly and divine principles to which no one, essentially, has exclusive right.

In this connection I should like to introduce here two interesting theses: leaders of the major religious traditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina head the recently founded Inter-religious Council headquartered in Sarajevo. The basic mission of the Council is to assist the endeavours of the international community to ensure that the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina becomes integrated into the process of western European integration as soon and as painlessly as possible.

The international community believes that in Bosnia, as indeed in all pre-modern societies, certain political forms of religion are being disseminated that are entirely subjugated to secular or ideological ends. For this reason they have formed the Council as a peace-building project, since this flagrant politicization of religion is increasingly being opposed by new peace-building movements. However, even peace-building has not succeeded in resisting politicization, though now only of another form. For religious communities to fulfil their peace-building function, which is certainly not their basic mission in the light of the true nature of their activities, they must have recourse to ecumenical dialogue. And these new phenomena are in large part secularized, and remind one of political accords and deals. For this reason one can observe a certain discrepancy between official inter-religious dialogue and the friendship of ordinary people of different confessions. Those two paths cannot join, for the ecumenism of their convictions is not equal: in the first (the Council) it is more political, and in the second (that of believers) it is more religious .

On the other hand, Peter L. Berger, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University and director of the university’s institute for research into economic changes, already referred to, claims that a decline in traditional religiosity will be the logical consequence in Bosnia and Herzegovina too of the gradual economic and political integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s society into Europe, for, Berger asserts, secularization will be affirmed as the dominant specifically European cultural trend . Berger meant that modernity does not necessarily imply a rejection of religion as such, but the creation of a wholly specific religious mentality based on a completely new system of religious values. The greater part of the modern world, he claims, will remain religious, even in some areas more religious than it has been for decades or even centuries. In other words, Berger thinks that the entire body of work produced by historians and sociologists which is conveniently described as ‘the theory of secularization’ was fundamentally flawed. This, of course, is work from the 1950s and 1960s, of which the basic idea was that modernization essentially implies the retreat of religion both in society (religious community) and in people’s consciousness. There is no doubt that modernization did produce a certain secularizing effect, greater in some regions and lesser in others. However, it also stimulated a powerful anti-secularization movement, already referred to in this text. On the other hand, secularization at the social level did not, Berger was to say, necessarily connected with secularization at the level of people’s consciousness. Thus certain religious institutions were weakened, losing their influence in numerous social and cultural environments, but old and new religious beliefs are still alive in the orthopraxy of believers as individuals, sometimes taking new institutional forms (plurality, and the appearance of New Age religiosity) and sometimes leading to a powerful explosion of religious sentiment. Conversely, religious institutions can play a very important social and political role even when only a small number of believers believe and practise what the institution as such represents.

The thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a retreat of religious is in principle a matter of ‘free judgment’. It can be affirmed both by those who see it as a good thing and those who see it as a bad sign. Of course, the majority of those who adhere to the values of the Enlightenment, and independent progressive intellectuals, are closer to the idea that secularization is a very positive process, regarding the religious phenomenon as something decadent, reactionary, outmoded, and unnecessary to human life. On the other hand, religious people perceive an entirely different process in the phenomenon of secularization, something that relativizes their previous religious expectations. For this reason some define modernism as a major enemy against which all available resources must be mustered. Others believe or see in the phenomenon of secularization a kind of inevitable cultural present-day trend, to which religious belief and religious institutions must adjust themselves.

In brief, rejection and accomodation are the two strategies of the confrontation of religious institutions with the phenomenon of modernism. Experience so far has shown that these strategies have always been based on flawed perceptions of reality, as a result of which both must have very dubious results. At this level, which is the most important for us here, the link between religion and modernism becomes more complex and more complicated. For this reason Berger was to begin a critical comparison, in his latest works, of the values of unilateral sociological theories on the phenomenon of secularization that appeared in the first half of the 20th century, which he himself advocated for many years .

One can conclude from this that the religious leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, too, have accepted the process of reducing religion to the private sphere, or the establishment of a religious phenomenon that has been entirely foreign to us until now, since we were until recently in the so-called ‘pre-modern’ era, that is the foundation of the religious phenomenon exclusively on individual witness to religious conviction, and not on the basis of affiliation to this or that religious institution. In other words, believers will feel less and less need for the religious community and more and more for a pluralism of relations. For this reason, the Churches and the Islamic Community will be subjected to severe critical attack by their own flocks or jama’ats. From all significant indications this process should be a characteristic of the religious life of the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina that will in future lead discussions of dialogue in an entirely different direction.

Needless to say, to speak of religion as a ‘private matter’ does not here imply the well-known meaning of the communist ideologeme, but a ‘cultural trend’ – the right of every individual to believe what he wishes and to manifest that belief as he wishes, which is an inescapable norm in the political and legal organization of modern societies.

It is essential, as a result, to re-actualize in the modern pluralistically structured world the traditioanl teachings at the heart of which lies the eternal and universal wisdom that knows no boundaries of time and space. That wisdom was articulated in European languages primarily by the Frenchman René Guénon, later to be amplified by Frithjof Schuon, Swami Vivekananda, S. H. Nasr and others, who have dedicated their entire lives to the idea of religio, or the philosophia perennis. Through the sophia perennis, din al-haqq, we discover and bear witness to the true unity of God, which has left an indelible trace in Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Brahman and other spiritualities, and in which diversity of language and of human genius has presented no difficulty. For God created for every nation its law and its way, the ancient traditions state. To reach cognition of God by any valid path and to gain full metaphysical cognition means in fact to realize the transcendent unity of religion of which the Qur’an and the Bible speak .

It is essential to create religious and spiritual education in this spirit . If this is not done, the same errors will continue to creep in in the next century, too, such as that of the editors of the Modern Catholic Encyclopaedia on p. 502, where the Holy Land, the Sacred to which, in accordance with the stated principles of traditional wisdom no one has exclusive right, was liberated from the Muslims by the Crusaders. If Muslims and Christians, as W. Montgomery Watt would say, want to go on looking for arguments against each other, they will easily find them, but this will not lead to true and fruitful dialogue .

For this reason, if the Inter-religious Council wants to help people, and that is probably not only their political and strategic commitment but above all a strictly religious one, the supreme leaders must begin with a genuine orientation or pastoral guidance of people in the sense that each of them must interpret their religious principles, including the principle of religious freedom, in their authentic, divine spirit.