Religious discourse and Western societies

Sayed Mahmoud
Thursday 28 Sep 2017

High Vatican officials sometimes sound more like philosophers than Muslim clergymen. Does the difference explain the advances of Western countries?

In the closing session of the Rimini Meeting for friendship among peoples in Italy, I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard Cardinal Pietro Parolin, one of the assistants to the Vatican Pope and perhaps the second most influencial man in this institution that carries spiritual clout throughout the world, using the vocabulary of Theodor Adorno’s criticism of Goethe’s famous Faust.   

Some consider Adorno — a leading member of the Frankfurt School that made a shift in sociology towards the psychoanalytical and paved the way for the birth of cultural studies — as among the most brilliant 20th century critics. Not only this, but he took a firm and political stand towards social institutions, and said: “I’ve learned to leave the church." Thus, he pronounced his exit from prevailing traditions.

Consequently, in the eyes of some clergy he just an apostate critic. In spite of this, one of the most influential personalities in the Vatican quoted his words and conveyed his critical discourse in front of approximately three thousand participants and during a general session broadcast by TV channels and in the presence of journalists representing 400 media from around the globe.

The Vatican representative did not fear using Adorno’s reading of Faust; he even showed admiration for it and moved to the problematics of time and place and their relationship to concepts of power and interpretation. For a moment, I felt that I was not listening to a clergyman but to a philosopher preoccupied with narratives and interpreting history. Perhaps here was a disciple of Paul Ricoeur, the godfather of French President Emmanuel Macron, or of Michel Foucault at the height of his glory.

The cardinal devoted half of his speech to talking about the necessity of integrating immigrants and refugees into Italian and European society in general. He also focused on the need in contemporary societies for social justice, for it is, in his view, the only way to stop war. During five days of listening to debates and discussions of European thinkers and clergymen, I realised how much they are preoccupied with raising the question of religion’s status in contemporary societies.

This preoccupation reminded me of my friend Heba Sherif’s book, My Religion and the People’s Religion. The debates asserted the validity of much of her exciting conclusions regarding modernity and secularism in the West and how difficult is attempting to separate religion from the public space in these societies. For religion — from what I saw in Rimini — still constitutes one of the pillars of identity in Western societies, in part due to religious immigrants who moved to these societies carrying religious ideas, values and beliefs.

As for Arab and Muslim societies, the question of modernity is still being raised and when the issue is related to religion, the question becomes: Is Islam the reason for Muslim countries’ backwardness? Is separating religion from the state, or secularism, the main reason for the development of Western societies?

In point of fact, it is difficult to provide an accurate answer to either question. However, what I can clarify and insist upon, from discussions with intellectuals, scientists and clergymen, that the fears of Heba Sherif — that religion can be changed from a liberating project, elevating the value of the human being, into one supporting the acquisition project applied by capitalism — are valid fears.

Hence, church intellectuals attempt to curb this change through insisting on social justice and confronting the values of exploitation and acquisition.

Today, the Vatican is working on generating a "New Christianity", so to speak — one future facing. Vatican clergymen are exploring the new horizons opened by Pope Francis in this regard. The institutions of Western modernity — and at the forefront the Vatican — fear the threat of the likes of the Islamic State group. But the men with whom I engaged in debates do not resemble our religious scholars. They have no problems regarding imagination, creativity and sex, and don’t spend their days in satellite channel studios issuing fatwas.

Societies in Europe and advanced countries laid out, years ago, a regulating instrument for organising all interactions under the law and nothing else. Thus, it is natural that a clergyman listens to a lecture given by a prominent linguist, such as Andrea Moro, about the relationship between language and the works of the brain that spans for two hours without interruption or a misplaced question being raised.

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