Five Lessons for Dialogue

The new openness to religion among both professional philosophers and those we might call philosophers of life is good news for Christians concerned about dialogue with the secular world.

Jan 30, 2015

Drew Christiansen, S.J
The new openness to religion among both professional philosophers and those we might call philosophers of life is good news for Christians concerned about dialogue with the secular world. The hostile polemics of the New Atheists are behind us. Times are ripe for better informed, serious dialogue between believers and religiously sensitive intellectuals. Here are five lessons I take away from these books for dialogue with unbelieving artists and intellectuals.

1) The arts as a commonwealth. The fact that many secular thinkers — like de Botton, the philosophers of religion and Nussbaum — see the arts inspired by faith and lived in liturgical celebrations as goods they are missing out on and need to provide for themselves in community suggests that the arts provide a field in which Christians and nonbelievers have gifts to share with one another that may provide for fruitful encounters.

In past centuries, apologists spoke of employing pagan learning as a propaedeutic to understanding the faith as “the spoliation of the Egyptians.” In these more ecumenical times, we speak of gifts we share. What is missing in many cases is not just true appreciation for the gifts of unbelievers but basic knowledge of the culture of the other party. For that reason, there is a genuine need of a sharing of gifts of one another’s spiritual cultures. Catholics, for example, need to acquaint themselves with the poetry, music and art of Nussbaum’s liberal symbolic universe. In that sense, the arts, Christian and secular, may prove a commonwealth we can share together. Christians have as much to learn from it as to impart to it.

2) Essential Starting Points. Finding comprehensive meaning for our lives (Nagel) and encountering the mystery in which we live (Dworkin) are serious religious questions. Engagement with such questions opens ground for common pursuit of the most basic questions in philosophical and fundamental theology. They are questions that theologians have also examined. There is progress to be made in pursuing them in common. Some clearing of the ground will be necessary to overcome simplistic anthropomorphic notions of God, a fault not just of the New Atheists, but of more sophisticated unbelieving thinkers as well. Nonetheless, dialogue on such questions offers an opportunity to share religious experience and explore the profound yearnings that run through it.

Clarifying how and why the experience of mystery and transcendence leads Christian thinkers to believe in God but does not inspire secular thinkers to do the same is in order. I am not naïve enough to believe that such conversations will lead nonbelievers to see the light. Where secular thinkers are sensitive to faith, there is every reason to clear away as much misunderstanding as possible and for Christian thinkers to share with them their explorations of the same phenomena, even as they hear unbelievers unravel their doubts.

3) Philosophy and Religion as Ways of Life. Thinkers like Comte, Tagore and de Botton demonstrate that philosophy can be more than an ivory-tower intellectual exercise. It can also serve, as the late Pierre Hadot reminded us, as “a way of life” concerned with living and dying well (Philosophy as a Way of Life, 1981/95What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 1995/2002). One form of existing interfaith dialogue is intermonastic dialogue, where monks and nuns of the world’s great religions come together to share their styles of prayer and ways of life with one another. Ecumenical monasteries like Taizé and Bossey, moreover, where Christians of different denominations and searchers with none at all share a common life together, have met with interest and approval from both the Holy See and people who are religiously unaffiliated. With its charism of unity, Focolare opens its communities to Muslims and atheists as well as to non-Catholic Christians, where the guests, in their own ways, share the life of the Focolarini.

These mixed communities are facts of our “secular age,” as Charles Taylor describes it, where religious boundaries are more porous and fluid than in the past. Is it inconceivable, then, that well-formed Christian believers, and “religiously musical” philosophers might come together to explore philosophy and religion as ways of life rather than as competing systems of ideas? Exploring ways of life together might open up alternative ways of knowing, prompt both sides to express their deepest convictions, and so press Christians to express their faith in more articulate, understandable ways.

4) A More Perfect Religious Freedom. The hardest challenge that religiously attuned philosophers present to Christian believers, and particularly to Catholics, has to do with religious freedom. It is not just a problem for Christians, either. As Nussbaum explains, the philosophers of civil religion and other liberals like Mozart also wrestled with the problem and found only partial answers. After the Second Vatican Council, John Courtney Murray, S.J., argued that just as the council had articulated the case for religious freedom from state coercion, the time had come to formulate the case for freedom within the institutional Church.

A Catholic theology of freedom will not ape the individualism of secular liberal culture. Catholicism is a personalist, communitarian and creedal tradition, so any theology of ecclesial freedom will be colored by those dimensions of the faith. Nevertheless, the liberal tradition and secular philosophy more broadly do challenge us to develop, in theory and practice, a more adequate and ample conception of the freedom of persons and groups than we presently have.

We must acknowledge that a deficit of freedom in Catholic culture is an obstacle to modern men and women hearing the Gospel. Likewise, for many contemporary Catholics, the same deficit in freedom is an impediment to whole-hearted discipleship, resulting in avoidance, resentment and cognitive dissonance within individuals and harmful divisions within the one body of Christ. Our capacities to live the Gospel fully and proclaim it boldly are stunted by insufficient respect for mature religious freedom within the Church.

5) Faith, Truth and Mysticism. The most remarkable development for me among the religious atheists is Critichley’s appropriation of “faith” for unbelievers. Dialogue with nonbelievers on the modes of religious knowing might help clarify what Christians mean by faith. Furthermore, including mysticism, as Critichley does, may help further illuminate faith as “personal knowledge” of God, a theme that Pope Francis (building on the work of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) explored in the encyclical “The Light of Faith.”

The religious question has come to maturity among some secular thinkers at least. It is time for Christians to engage them, trusting, as Pope Francis has said, that the Spirit works in the world as well as in the Church and that there are gifts for both in mutual engagement. , SJ,

Source: America

--Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development at Georgetown University and a former editor in chief of America.

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