While these fundamental questions remain, undoubtedly the conditions within which they are asked have varied, as have the details of specific problems and aspirations as they have been shaped by specific cultures, natural environments, technological change and, in the last half-millennium, Western science. It is obvious that people of earlier times did not have to grapple with our complex economies and technologies, nor with the capacity of human beings to devastate the natural world to such a degree: so no suggestion of simple transposition of pre-modern norms is straightforward or sufficient. That is clear enough. What is less obvious to us—and even positively insulting to suggest to an ‘advanced’ post-industrial society—is that, overall, our capacity to negotiate our way through moral complexity is pitiable in contemporary liberal democratic capitalist society. In the face of the challenges that confront us, however, now is not a time for ‘chronological snobbery’ one way or the other but rather a reinvigorated conversation about the retrieval of ancient wisdom and its critical dialogue with particular modern and ‘postmodern’ insights.
However, as soon as we speak of “ancient wisdom”, a collection of issues often bundled up together under the vague label “religion” swings into view, immediately evoking a number of negative responses. In the deluge of media and ‘information’ we have to navigate our way through today, it is often difficult to distinguish between the responses worth a hearing and those, frankly, not. The cacophony of protest to almost anything resembling strong belief (except perhaps in ‘individual autonomy’ or sometimes nationalistic pride) inhibits the possibilities for conversations we need to have in a pluralistic society. So before we can even seek to make a case for something like a ‘religious’ basis for ethics, we have to clear away a number of preconceptions and unhelpful prejudices that have emerged and ossified in modern times.
It is important to recognise from the outset that there is no single, clear identifiable thing called ‘religion’. The various communities around our world with distinctive convictions, worldviews, practices, rituals, pieties and spiritualities are not all variations of one underlying common genus. When we use the word ‘religion’, we are using a term somewhat like the word ‘game’: and as Wittgenstein suggested, it is difficult to come up with a definition that can incorporate everything from chess, professional tennis, ‘catch’, hide and seek, solitaire and so on. So too, to organise Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other ‘religions’ under a rigid definitional scheme is highly problematic. And yet this mistake is commonplace. But its origins are in political arrangements and a cultural mythos rather than a metaphysical discovery. Something called ‘religion’ is widely held to be a private, individual matter not to be aired in public. Juxtaposed to this, something called ‘secular reason’ is lauded as the normal, natural language of public life. But this notion of the ‘secular’ and its positioning of ‘religion’ was not simply discovered as part of the nature of things but had to be invented and imagined. It is part of the modern social imaginary that emerged out of the breakup of the Medieval social order and the embattled creation of modern European nation states.
Despite its ubiquity, the word ‘secular’ is by no means self-evident in its meaning. Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding of all has been the notion that in essence it means ‘non-religious’. Secularism would have us believe
“…that religious descriptions of reality are always a sort of varnish which can be scraped away to reveal a more basic ‘secular’ account which was always already there underneath. The sleight-of-hand lies in the assumption that the ‘secular’ version of reality is not simply an alternative to religious accounts, but their underlying presupposition. According to modern secularism, all of us agree (or should agree) on a fundamental secular description of the real, whatever religious elaborations we may lay over it...”
Originally, the saeculum or ‘secular’ was juxtaposed with the ‘eternal’ rather than the ‘religious’. In this sense, it is widely agreed that government should indeed realise its mere secularity, recognising its limitations and avoiding the hubris seen frequently in the post-Enlightenment era such as in the violence of European nationalism and colonialism or mass collectivist experiments like Communism. (It is no surprise that the ‘powers that be’ are frequently associated with idolatry in the biblical tradition.) Hence the provocative political philosopher John Gray can declare
“Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion. The greatest of the revolutionary upheavals that have shaped so much of the history of the past two centuries were episodes in the history of faith—moments in the long dissolution of Christianity and the rise of modern political religion. The world in which we find ourselves at the start of the new millennium is littered with the debris of utopian projects, which though they were framed in secular terms that denied the truth of religion were in fact vehicles for religious myths.”
This gives us pause to reconsider one of the founding myths of modernity that has been perpetuated by the ‘standard account’ of the so-called “religious wars” of Europe. Such an account tells a tale of extreme violence and disorder, goaded by ignorance, irrational belief and ‘religion’, being finally overcome by the rise of a more rational, secular order and its primary institution, the modern nation State.
The lesson to be learned from this period of history, it is said, is that a secular and reasonable solution to the problem of (inherent) religious intolerance is required. Yet when this modern mythos is set aside and the historical evidence is re-examined, the story simply does not stand up. Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh cites episodes of Protestants and Catholics fighting on the same sides of battles and all kinds of surprising alliances. Without excusing in any way the violence of Protestants and Catholics or their misuse of doctrinal conflicts for political ends, these wars are best understood as the violent birth of modern nation states out of the collapse of the medieval order rather than the inevitable outcome of strong religious belief—see St Francis for a contrary example of ‘strong belief’.
Most importantly for our purposes here, in the midst of this violent reordering of Europe, the category of ‘religion’ as we now understand it was itself invented. Under the pressures of the Enlightenment and the rise of modernity, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others have been expected to view their core convictions—especially those about ultimate reality and purpose—not as ‘public’ truth claims but as private opinions or elaborations of private experiences: an “energizing and consoling aura added to the business of a life shaped by factors other than faith” —or non-verifiable sectarian creeds. Under the broad category of ‘religion’, a diversity of histories, peoples and convictions have been lumped together as different instances of the same ‘thing’. We need to give an alternative account.
Lesslie Newbigin opens up a different way of conceiving of ‘religion’ in relation to culture that opens up the key questions of meaning and purpose:
And one must also include in culture, and as fundamental to any culture, a set of beliefs, experiences, and practices that seek to grasp and express the ultimate nature of things, that which gives shape and meaning to life, that which claims final loyalty. I am speaking, obviously, about religion. Religion—including the Christian religion--is thus part of culture.
If our society is to discover and discern a moral vision that can speak about human action in terms of vocation rather than self-projection, exemplary modelling of character rather than self-assertion, and persons-in-relation rather than autonomous ‘individuals’, the public contribution of ‘religious’ communities in our pluralistic society cannot be ignored.
This post was drawn from parts of Ian Packer, "How Shall We Live? Probing Contemporary Ethics, Metaphysics and Religion", Viewpoint 2 (February-May 2010): 34-38, 47-48