On religion and civil society: a response to Simone Sinn

Church-MosqueLast week, I was again in Geneva participating in a colloquium on religion and state. The meeting had a particular focus on the ways in which Christianity and Islam conceive and negotiate their relationship with the state. It was, as I anticipated, a stimulating event. I was invited to give a response to a very fine paper by Simone Sinn of the Lutheran World Federation. I enjoy doing such things. The tricky bit about doing it this time, however, was that I first heard the paper at the same time as did everyone else; i.e., I never received a copy of the paper in advance. But like one of Alexander Pope’s fools, I braved upon ground where angels might think a couple of times before venturing, and hazarding a guess (which was pretty accurate, as it happens) at where Simone’s paper might go – and in a desperate state ripping shamelessly from Rowan Williams (especially his wonderful collection of essays in Faith in the Public Square) – I tentatively offered the following words (and some good discussion ensued):

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Taking some bearings

Ongoing deliberations about Turkey’s admission to the EU and, of course, what is being called ‘Europe’s refugee crisis’, have exposed even further all manner of concerns about what we might call Europe’s historic Christian identity and indeed about the idea of ‘Europe’ itself. As we speak, in my own country (which remains, in many ways, an outpost of Europe), there is widespread anxiety regarding the arrival of refugees, especially those from Muslim-majority lands, and concentrated protests going on regarding the building of mosques and the recent granting of a visa to a certain Dutch politician with a very interesting hair style who plans to launch a new political party in Australia. So, what a time to be thinking about these things!

The one thing that is certain in this current climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’. ‘There is’, as Rowan Williams has noted, ‘widespread impatience with transnational institutions, from the EU to the UN, yet equally widespread anxiety about the dominance of a single power. We are increasingly aware of the issues that cannot be solved by single sovereign states on their own – ecological crisis, terrorism, migrancy – yet are uncomfortable with any notion of global jurisdictions’. The global north is increasingly conscious of facing a highly critical, if internally diverse, Islamic world and is struggling to know how best to respond to its presence outside and inside its own borders. ‘Enlightenment liberalism, the self-evident creed of reasonable people, now appears as simply one cultural and historical phenomenon among others. Its supposed right to set the agenda for the rest of the world is no longer beyond question, however much the American Right or the European Left assume that their positions are the natural default beliefs of intelligent human beings, and that cultural and religious variety are superficial matters of choice or chance’.

As Williams also notes, the narrative, standard just a few decades ago, of a universal drift towards so-called secularization has had to undergo radical modification, a challenge severely hindered by the fact that so much of Europe seems to have developed a severe case of amnesia regarding its own complex history dating back at least as far as the Germanic, Turkic and Slavonic migrations that destroyed the Roman Empire between 376 and 800 CE. This is not a situation, in other words, that was birthed in the Enlightenment. Rediscovering this story, it seems to me, is critical if current challenges are to be responded to responsibly and constructively. I am grateful, therefore, for Simone’s paper and her efforts to locate more recent public discourse in some larger historical frames, with her two twentieth-century examples from Germany and Indonesia. This kind of work is important if we are to avoid the unhistorical and facile optimism that characterizes so much contemporary debate on all fronts.

Some theological commitments

Simone is equally concerned to bring other resources – explicitly, theological resources – to this task. This is highly proper, not least because the central and foundational convictions of political liberalism in Europe are an explicit fruit of its Christian history. Particularly, ‘the distinctively European style of political argument and debate is made possible by the Church’s persistent witness to the fact that states do not have ultimate religious claims on their citizens’.

Simone focuses on two theological commitments that, in her words, ‘enable an affirmative understanding of civil society’. She names here anthropology and political ethics. As important and fruitful and these two fields of enquiry might be, uprooted from some even more basic theological commitments I’m not convinced that they provide for the Christian community the robust ‘theological motives’ (to use Simone’s phrase) or theological muscle that the opportunities and challenges before us call for. More germane and fertile enquiry might be had by attending more explicitly to implications perhaps yet unearthed or unapplied to this new context in the following five areas:

  1. Incarnation. There are questions to be asked, for example about the character of Christ’s body as ‘extendible’ and ‘transposable’ and ‘unstable’, a body that can expand itself, for example, to incorporate other bodies and ‘make them extensions of his own’, as Graham Ward argues. What might be some implications for the church of its own claim that in Christ the world has been given a body that ‘can cross [all] boundaries, ethnic boundaries, gender boundaries, socio-economic boundaries’, and religious boundaries, for example, boundaries unpoliced by the church?
  2. Trinity. Recent decades have witnessed significant interest among theologians – both Roman Catholic (e.g., Karl Rahner, Jacques Dupuis, Gavin D’Costa, Raimundo Panikkar) and Protestant (e.g., Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Clark Pinnock, S. Mark Heim, John Hick) – to explore more intentionally ways in which the revelation of God’s triune mode of being might constitute a constructive basis or ‘roadmap’ for a positive interpretation of religious diversity and even religious pluralism from the standpoint of Christian theology. I understand that there has been a formal dialogue between French Muslims and Roman Catholics around this very question.
  3. Pneumatology. There are also questions to revisit here regarding the implications of the claim that the church has no monopoly on God’s Spirit but that the Spirit belongs to everybody, and to nobody; questions constructively explored some decades ago in the work of John V. Taylor.
  4. Soteriology. What bearing might faith’s claim that there can be no salvation apart from my neighbour, for example, have to our discussion on life together in changing territories?
  5. Ecclesiology. Are there not pressing questions also to be asked here about the strangely eschatological and provisional nature of the Christian community’s place in the world (something exposed, thank God, through the erosion of the Constantinian arrangements)? And then there are critical questions too about the alternative citizenship of the church and its sharing a common life with those who do not share that citizenship.

On the public commons

Simone champions the widely-held view that the notion of a ‘“civil society” presupposes a space … where citizens can organize themselves voluntarily around common interests or common goals’, a space, she says, where ‘active citizenship is experienced and exercised’, and, we might add (drawing on the work on John de Gruchy), a space ‘in constant need of broadening and deepening, and therefore of debate and [of] clarification’. Such a commitment need not, of course, be grounded in any consensus about what constitutes ultimate truth, or even agreement that such an oddity may exist. It requires only that citizens seek to meet in such a space, and a just state that will regulate its chaotically pluralist character. (I was at this point in Simone’s paper reminded of that pioneering Scottish architect and architectural theorist Alexander Thomson who, in the middle of the nineteenth century, championed a vision of public space that is both open and horizontal, and whose work was informed by a deep conviction that the so-called private life of the home be not divorced from the public space of the street where the community gathers to make and to carry out ideas together.)

Lest the liberal state loses its essential liberalism, that public space and ‘active citizenship’ of which Simone rightly speaks must engage also in a continuing dialogue with religious communities, and those with each other. Failure to do so would mean that the state would become ‘simply dogmatically secular, insisting that religious faith be publicly invisible; or … chaotically pluralist, with no proper account of its legitimacy’ except that ‘the state is the agency that happens to have the monopoly of force’ (Williams). Luke Bretherton, in his book Christianity and Contemporary Politics, argues much the same – that it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that ‘there is an increasingly constructive engagement between [itself] and minority religious groups’. To be sure, the source of our common life does not itself rest in the state any more than it rests in any other intermediate institution, guild, religious or civil association, each of which ought, in Williams’ words, to ‘have a natural liberty to exist and [to] organize themselves’. But the state is given a unique vocation to, to some degree, regulate this social variety and ‘chaotic pluralism’, a role that is an implicit outworking of any political philosophy that rejects a sacralized sovereignty. The challenge, therefore, is for the apparatus of the state to become what Williams calls ‘a reliable and creative “broker” of the concerns of the communities that make it up’.

The history of Islam, particularly outside of its historic-majority cultures, is a history characterised by the experience of negotiating and renegotiating its way in a great variety of settings. This is indeed the character of all living faith. Some Muslim scholars, such as the Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan (who teaches at the University of Oxford) insist that there is in Islam no absolute theological commitment to an imposition of specifically Muslim law even in majority contexts. In his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he contends that Muslim identity need only be at odds with Western cultural identity where certain cultural habits are in direct conflict with Islamic precepts. This means, he argues, not only that there is no single ‘homeland’ for Muslims, but also that Muslims can be at home, can adapt in truly integrated rather than in ‘hodgepodge’ ways, in any geographical and political environment. And so they must, he insists, avoid ‘self-ghettoization’, avoid becoming ‘spectators in a society where they were once marginalized’, avoid retreat from the public commons and what Ramadan calls ‘the service of all, for the good of all’. ‘The “way of faithfulness”’, writes Ramadan, ‘compels [Muslims] not only to respect plurality but also to step outside the [intellectual, religious, and social] ghettos, [and to] know each other better’, to be constantly renegotiating the new public spaces, as must the church, and to act together to ‘ensure the fullest possible statement of shared moral goals and anxieties’ (Williams) in the public commons.

I share Simone’s conviction that viable civil societies in religiously plural contexts presuppose viable interreligious relations, with a high priority given to efforts at the local level where the freedom to engage in ‘convivial and cooperative relations’, however difficult and unstable, and to do so in ways that avoid what Luke Bretherton calls ‘religious vandalism’, yields – dare I say it – signs of the Spirit’s work, signs indeed that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and all those who live in it’ (Ps 24.1). All this, for me, is an outworking of an implicit christology which resists existing in a vacuum, which rejoices in the fact that ‘dialogue among the religions is no longer a luxury but a theological necessity’ (David Tracy), and which welcomes the encounters, challenges, and fresh questions that a rapidly-changing Europe (and Australia) occasions.

The Indian theologian Stanley Jedidiah Samartha (incidentally, I suspect that we could learn a great deal from the Indian experience vis-à-vis religious plurality) sees in the coming of Jesus part of ‘God’s dialogue with humanity’. Our dialogue with people of other faiths, he argues, is part of our participation in God’s dialogue with humanity, and this, as Karl Barth insisted, is grounded in God’s own intratrinitarian dialogue. Of course, as Williams has suggested elsewhere, part of what happens in a good dialogue between people of different faiths is, one hopes, learning to see what the other person’s face looks like when it is turned towards God. To shut out that possibility is to reject the invitation to grow up, and it is to abandon the difficult gift of ‘hard silence – a stepping-back from the urge to solve things prematurely’.

Some concluding thoughts

Simone’s paper is a welcome invitation to imagine a space less threatened by the ignorance that engenders and nourishes fear, and to embrace the unforeseen possibilities that a future which must not neglect its past – lest Europeans (and Australians too, for that matter) become a thriftless people – ought neither to be yoked to it.

In 2005, Rowan Williams delivered a speech not too far from here at the Palais de Congrès de Lyon. His speech was entitled ‘Is Europe at its End?’, and he concluded, as will I, with these words:

In short, my hopes for the future of Europe are that it will continue to be a culture of question and negotiation – because I believe that this is the way it is truest to its Christian roots. But given the enormous dangers of a dominant secularism, a denial of the public visibility of religious commitment and its role in managing and moulding social identity, I hope for a political climate in Europe that is open to co-operation between state and religious enterprise. If this does not happen, the state becomes unselfcritical in its godlessness and religious communities become isolated and defensive; they too lose the capacity for critical awareness.

3 thoughts on “On religion and civil society: a response to Simone Sinn

  1. Thanks Kim. Thinking about it afterwards, and now, there were other things that I wish I had said – about the church and mosque needing to be unreliable allies of the state, for example. But what is written is written, and the conversation it birthed was fruitful. For that I am grateful. If you’re interested, I gave a response to a similar theme a few years back, also in Geneva. It can be accessed here.

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  2. …about the church and mosque needing to be unreliable allies of the state …

    That’s such an important point. I took it as read, but I’m glad you’ve made it explicit. The conventional wisdom (certainly here in the UK, but no doubt in all western liberal democracies) is that while you can’t trust Muslims, Christians, of course, will be loyal citizens ever ready to ask “How high?” when the state says “Jump!” The idea that we might not just send letters of protest over government policy to the Times but, when push comes to shove, engage in acts of (nonviolent) civil disobedience — and without whinging about calumny or arrest! — well, it’s not “British”, is it? O that Christians would think of the church as Muslims think of the ummah, and think of the Lord of the church as the Lord of the world!

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