OCTOBER 16, 2003
Proximities: Old and New
Michael A. Johnson
In the aftermath of September 11th, journalists and commentators are often at a loss to describe the complex interaction of religion, culture, and current events. As "moderns," it was assumed that we could describe events using the value-neutral vocabularies of sociological, economic, and cultural analysis. Suddenly, however, journalists -- in order simply to articulate the nature of current events -- find themselves stretching to learn, for example, cultural and theological distinctions among Shiite, Sunni, and other branches of the Muslim faith and how these differences manifest themselves in different societies, secular and religious.
Paradoxically, but perhaps not surprisingly, for a time following September 11th, an equal but opposite negative force met this salutary impulse for more subtle and articulate tools of analysis. Self-searching criticisms of the impact of Western society and globalization on other societies were considered off-limits and taboo. Yet even when such self-censorship is partially overcome, these discussions often ignore one salient fact: the Abrahamic religions and their cultural offspring have always been deeply intertwined and intricately related, even in the times of their inceptions. These different faiths in their many forms understand themselves reflexively, in light of each other; in many ways, they are part of each other. The new proximity of peoples brought about by globalization simply intensifies this realization and brings it home.
On October 21-23, the Divinity School brings together a group of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars -- philosophers, theologians, ethicists and legal thinkers -- to explore the comparative ethical landscape of this "new proximity" for the 2003 D.R. Sharpe Lectures entitled "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics."
The aim of the conference and the 2003 D.R. Sharpe Lectures is to re-examine the various ways in which the three monotheistic faiths in the Abrahamic tradition conceive the idea of humanity before God, and how each conception contributes to contemporary understandings of fundamental claims about the inalienable sanctity and dignity of human life. In multiple ways, the idea of humanity before God is informed by certain central narrative figurations of the creation of humanity within the Torah and the Qur'an. With a view toward these narratives, the conference will explore several crucial dimensions of the idea of humanity before God within the Abrahamic traditions and in relation to our contemporary situation.
On the final day of the conference, a roundtable discussion (moderated by Clark Gilpin, director of the Martin Mary Center) will focus on how the different Abrahamic faiths might revise their own self-understandings in light of the others, posing such questions as: "How can or should self-understanding through the ideas of other religions transform one's own religious view of human dignity and flourishing?" "In what sense are reflexive interactions between global religions new or unique, and what significance do they have for the contemporary world?" And, "Does the increased consciousness of proximity to and interdependence with cultural 'others' call for novel or different ways of conceiving the ethical visions of the three Abrahamic religions?" The conference speakers (including Hilary Putnam, Harvard University, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, George Washington University) will address these questions as a means to enhance the robust affirmation of human responsibility and dignity found in our several traditions.
The shocking events of September 11th awakened us to a conscious awareness that the very texture of a culture or society is shaped and transformed by the complex internalization of relations to other cultures and societies. And this is the case more and more. Global flows of culture bring about new interconnections between peoples, cultures, and religions. Increasingly, how we see the world and others, and even the perceptions of us by others, bends back to shape our actions, relations, and identities. Proximity, then, is a category of not merely descriptive import. Because it concerns who we are, what it describes carries ethical valences of meaning as well.
Michael Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Ethics at the Divinity School. He is a co-organizer of the 2003 D.R. Sharpe Lectures, entitled "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics." His dissertation examines the mediating role the phenomenon of moral conscience plays in the thought of Paul Ricoeur between the positions of Heidegger and Lévinas.
THE RELIGION & CULTURE WEB FORUM
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by William
Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School. In “Humanity
Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective,”
written in conjunction with the 2003
D. R. Sharpe Lectures on Social Ethics, Professor Schweiker explores
the history, attributes, and desirability of Christian humanism. He
argues that renewed Christian humanism and humanistic expressions of
other faith traditions are uniquely suited to meet the most profound
challenges of modern times.
The fact is that we increasingly live in a world in which the complex interactions of cultures and traditions manifest a lack of shared presuppositions. In some traditions and cultures the idea of a “self” is hardly a defining idea. It is seen as an imposition of “Western” modes of thought. Within the spreading global market, it is not at all clear that anything can trump the drive of consumption and the satisfaction of personal preferences. Everything can be seen as a commodity for the satisfaction of individual needs and wants. Even the moral life, it is argued by some thinkers, is simply a means to the end of personal satisfaction. How ought one to respond to this new, changed situation?
Ironically, it is precisely in this situation that a renewed Christian humanism is sorely needed within the global Christian community...In a world of widespread want and also gluttony, the profoundest message of the Christian witness is that while we live by bread we do not and cannot live by bread alone. A human life driven by unrestrained want is not really living; it is a mark of death within life...
Invited responses to Professor Schweiker's essay will be offered by Professors David E. Klemm, of the University of Iowa, and Lisa Cahill, of Boston College. We invite you to visit the public discussion board to view the invited responses and offer your own thoughts throughout the month of October. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive, including September's forum, “Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement,” by Thomas J. Curry.
Coming up in November, look for a web forum commentary from Dean Richard Rosengarten of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "The Catholic Sophocles: Violence and Visionary Religion in Flannery O'Connor."