The need for a vision of peace in post-secular Dialogues

Language of communication ensuring societal peace.

When I address my religious community and talk about peace, as a Bishop, I use a language peculiar to the Orthodox Christian faith, which is widely accepted and understood by the faithful and which has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In that tradition the notion of peace was always and still is a cardinal point of reference. “Peace be to you” was a common form of benediction among the Jews (see Matthew 10:13). That phrase was the invocation of the blessings of peace and happiness. Jesus Christ, expressing the Jewish cultural background of his time, gave it a new meaning when he said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). In this place peace was meant to signify much more than a mere linguistic form of communication or an empty wish. Peace came with a particular grace from the person who, for the believers like the Apostle Paul, had power to make peace and to confer it on all (Ephesians 2:15). It referred here particularly to the consolations which Jesus Christ gave to his disciples in view of his approaching death. It meant that peace which he enjoyed, which He administered. He gave that peace not as the world gives, unsatisfying unsettled, transient; but filling the soul with constant and even tranquillity. The importance of peace is made manifest in the traditional liturgical prayer that Christian faithful are steadily invited to practice: “for peace in the entire world and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord”. This means that the faithful are encouraged in their present life to give all diligence to preserve the inestimable gift inviolate, till it issue in everlasting peace!


The universal message of peace is addressed to the faithful, but it is also addressed to every member of a civil society where the faithful are only a part of it. It is a reality that takes us, I think, in front of two important considerations in view of contributing positively to building an inclusive society.

First, the persons who are neither willing nor able to divide their moral convictions and their vocabulary into profane and religious strands must be and feel free to take part in political will formation even if they use religious language.

Second, the democratic state must not pre-emptively reduce the polyphonic complexity of the diverse public voices, because it cannot know whether it is not otherwise cutting society off from scarce resources for the generation of meanings and the shaping of identities. Particularly with regard to vulnerable social relations, religious traditions possess the power to convincingly articulate moral sensitivities and intuitions of solidarity.

Thus, my point is that secular citizens in civil society and the political public sphere must learn and be able to meet their religious fellow citizens as equals. In this sense J?rgen Habermas comments that both religious and secular mentalities must be open to a complementary learning process if we are to balance shared citizenship and cultural difference. This is a principle of social cohesion. The means to come to a common understanding between religious and secular mentalities is to accept common values and principles that can and have to be shared by all. What we need is tolerance in the sense that believers of one faith, of a different faith and non-believers must mutually concede one another the right to those convictions, practices and ways of living that they themselves reject. This concession must be supported by a shared basis of mutual recognition from which repugnant dissonances can be overcome. This recognition should not be confused with an appreciation of an alien culture and way of living, or of rejected convictions and practices. We need tolerance only vis-?-vis worldviews that we consider wrong and vis-?-vis habits that we do not like. Therefore, the basis of recognition is not the esteem for this or that characteristic or achievement, but the awareness of the fact that the other is a member of an inclusive community of citizens with equal rights, in which each individual is accountable to the others for his political contributions.

Certainly, the role of a state to ensure social cohesion is vital. However, we need to distinguish clearly between cohesion and coercion. The domain of a state, which controls the means of legitimate coercion, should not be opened to the antagonistic tendencies between various religious communities, otherwise the government could become the executive arm of a religious or philosophical or convictional majority that imposes its will on the opposition, thus destroying social cohesion. In a constitutional state, all norms that can be legally implemented must be formulated and publicly justified in a language that all the citizens understand. It is a challenge for any democratic society that needs to remain impartial and neutral- I mean a challenge always faced with difficulties and risks- to find and use a filter through which secular contributions may pass from a confused set of differing voices in the public sphere into the formal agendas of state institutions.
Secular and “post-secular” society.

Let us briefly describe here who are the secularists and their characteristics. Secularists are those who tend to adopt a polemical stance toward religious doctrines that maintain a public influence despite the fact that their claims cannot be scientifically justified. Progress in science and technology promotes an anthropocentric understanding of the 'disenchanted' world because the totality of empirical states and events can be causally explained; and a scientifically enlightened mind cannot be easily reconciled with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secularists maintain that with the functional differentiation of social subsystems, the churches and other religious organizations lose their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science; they restrict themselves to their proper function of administering the means of salvation, turn exercising religion into a private matter and in general lose public influence and relevance. Secularists underscore the fact that the development from agrarian through industrial to post-industrial societies leads in average-to-higher levels of welfare and greater social security; and with a reduction of risks in life, and the ensuing increase in existential security, there is a drop in the personal need for a practice that promises to cope with uncontrolled contingencies through faith in a 'higher' or cosmic power.

In a sociological context, if secular citizens were to encounter their fellow citizens with the reservation that the latter, because of their religious mindset, are not to be taken seriously as modern contemporaries, they would revert to the level of a mere modus vivendi - and would thus relinquish the very basis of mutual recognition which is constitutive for shared citizenship in a contemporary democratic society. In order to build a bridge of communication for dialogue among differing voices secular citizens are expected not to exclude a fortiori that they may discover in religious utterances semantic contents that can be translated and introduced into a secular discourse. So, if all is to go well on all sides, each from its own viewpoint must accept an interpretation of the relation between faith and knowledge that enables them to live together in a self-reflective manner.
It is to the credit of most of the secularists that they, together with their religious fellow citizens, insist on the indispensability of including all citizens as equals in civil society. Because a democratic order cannot simply be imposed on its authors, the constitutional state is called upon to confront its citizens with the demanding expectations of an ethics of citizenship that reaches beyond mere obedience to the law. Religious citizens and communities need not only superficially adjust to the constitutional order. They are expected to appropriate the secular legitimization of constitutional principles under the premises of their own faith. I would like to say here that Muslim communities have the painful learning process before them, to pin their colour on the mast of democracy. Certainly, the insight is also growing in the Islamic world that today an historical-hermeneutic approach to the Koran's doctrine is required. But the discussion on a desired Euro-Islam makes us once more aware of the fact that it is the religious communities that will themselves decide whether they can recognize in a reformed faith what language they use to proclaim as their "true faith".

What can we say here about the sense of the sociologically controversial term: “post-secular” society? An answer in broad lines can be that while in a secular society the certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation prevails, in a "post-secular" society religion maintains a public influence and relevance. Quite apart from their numerical weight, religious communities can obviously still claim a 'seat' in the life of societies that are largely secularized. Today, public consciousness in Europe can be described in terms of a 'post-secular society' to the extent that at present it still has to "adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularized environment" (see J. Habermas, Glauben und Wissen, Frankfurt: special edition of edition Suhrkamp, 2001, p. 13).

Resurgence of religion and the need for dialogue.

Let me refer here to three overlapping phenomena which converge to create the impression of a worldwide 'resurgence of religion'.

First, the missionary expansion. A first sign of missionary vibrancy is the fact that conservative groups within the established religious organizations and churches are on the advance everywhere. The missionary successes apparently depend, among other things, on the flexibility of the corresponding forms of organization. Most dynamic of all are the decentralised networks of Islam (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa) and the Evangelicals (particularly in Latin America). They stand out for an ecstatic form of religiosity inspired by charismatic leaders.
Second, a fundamentalist radicalisation. The fastest-growing religious movements, such as the Pentecostals and the radical Muslims, can be most readily described as 'fundamentalist'. They either combat the modern world or withdraw from it into isolation. Their forms of worship combine spiritualism and Adventism with rigid moral conceptions and literal adherence to the Holy Scriptures. By contrast, the 'new age movements' which have mushroomed since the 1970s exhibit a 'Californian' syncretism. They share with the Evangelicals a de-institutionalized form of religious observance. In Japan, approximately 400 such sects have arisen, which combine elements of Buddhism and popular religions with pseudoscientific and esoteric doctrines. In the People's Republic of China, the political repression of the Falun Gong sect has highlighted the large number of 'new religions' whose followers are thought to number some 80 million.

Finally, the political instrumentalisation of many of the world religions. The mullah regime in Iran and Islamic terrorism are the most spectacular examples of a political exploitation of religion. Often conflicts that are profane in origin are first ignited once coded in religious terms. This is true of the 'desecularisation' of the Middle East conflict, of the politics of Hindu nationalism and the enduring conflict between India and Pakistan and of the mobilisation of the religious right in the United States before and during the invasion of Iraq.
Against such a background of a resurgence of religions in a “post- secular” society it is obvious that we need people prepared to enter in a serious and effective debate. Since the 16th century, Europe has had to contend with confessional schisms within its own culture and society. The problem of confessional differences has been a matter of systematic debate mainly since the beginning of the 20th century. In our days, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Jews etc next door offer an opportunity to the Christian citizens to face up to the practice of a different faith. And they also give the secular citizens a keener consciousness of the phenomenon of the public presence of religion. Debates about religion have assumed a sharper tone since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In the Netherlands the murder of Theo van Gogh kindled a passionate public discourse, as did the affair with the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark. These debates assumed a quality of their own; their ripples have spread beyond national borders to unleash a European-wide debate. This debate has to face two important problems in our society.
A) The immigration of "guest-workers" and refugees, specifically from countries with traditional cultural backgrounds. In the wake of the present immigration, the more blatant dissonances between different religions link up with the challenge of a pluralism of ways of life typical of immigrant societies. This extends beyond the challenge of a pluralism of denominations. The issue of tolerant coexistence between different religious communities is made harder by the difficult problem of how to integrate immigrant cultures socially. The equal inclusion of all citizens in civil society requires not only a political culture that preserves liberal attitudes from being confused with indifference; inclusion can only be achieved if certain material conditions are met. These include full integration and compensatory education in kindergartens, schools and universities, and equal opportunities in access to the labour market.

B) Churches and religious organisations are increasingly assuming the role of "communities of interpretation" in the public arena of secular societies. Religion is gaining influence not only worldwide but also within national public spheres. They can attain influence on public opinion and will formation by making relevant contributions to key issues, irrespective of whether their arguments are convincing or objectionable. Our pluralist societies constitute a responsive sounding board for such interventions because they are increasingly split on value conflicts requiring political regulation. Be it the dispute over the legalisation of abortion or voluntary euthanasia, on the bioethical issues of reproductive medicine, questions of animal protection or climate change – on these and similar questions the divisive premises are so opaque that it is by no means settled from the outset which party can draw on the more convincing moral intuitions.

A vision needed

In the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, we read: “where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18). The characteristic of people of vision is that they always come with a message of life, a message of encouragement, a message that takes their fellow beings out of a dungeon of desolation or devastation. They are people who have made an initial choice and remain steadfast in it. I heard once a speaker saying that a victory is won first in our hearts and then we arrange the strategic tactics to achieve it. In this sense, a vision precedes the realization of any achievement. In Munich, last September, during an international peace conference, an activist approached a friend of mine and asked him: “why do you talk to those who kill Christians in the name of their God?” My friend gave this answer: “if I do not talk to those whom you accuse as murderers, they will listen only to voices that kindle passions and enmity. I have made a choice to use and diffuse the language of peace and reconciliation, because I believe that remaining faithful to my initial choice of peace is already a victory”. Then my friend invited his unexpected interlocutor to join him in his choice and share with him the same vision.