Field Notes article

Reflections on Rome: Keeping Particularities In



In addressing the question of religion, democracy, and pluralism, the “Making Democracy One’s Own” conference highlighted the challenges that different universalist assumptions still present for our thinking about ‘religion’ and ‘humanism.’ Reflecting on the Rome conversations, I therefore want to argue that keeping particularities in—focusing on the historical and cultural embeddedness of religious and ethical traditions—is critical if we, following Michael Driessen, agree that making democracy one’s own involves making pluralism one’s own.

Religion: In her comments, Atalia Omer describes, among others, debates among those conference participants who affirmed the notion of “authentic” religiosity and, on the other hand, those who (building on the insights of religious studies) emphasized the embedded and embodied character of all religious traditions. The two sides of this debate reflect the two sides of most religious traditions: the side organized around theological and ethical values that are universal in their claims and aspirations, and the other that is lived and therefore particularist in character. The latter arises from the continuous work of interpretation of individuals and communities when they relate their traditions to concrete historical contexts and specific religious and non-religious others.

While the study of universal dimensions of religious traditions is indispensable for understanding these traditions’ histories, it is also necessary to problematize the view that theological and ethical universals are constitutive of the authentic, tolerant, and peacemaking character of religions. For one, histories of religious traditions show that the universal ethical dimensions of religious traditions often end up justifying conquests and crusades rather than peaceful encounters with others. Even more importantly for our purposes, centering our exchanges on universal aspects of religions hinders the achievement of the goal of the Contending Modernities initiative: to change the conversation about religion, democracy, and pluralism. By insisting on the universal claims rather than on the particular instantiations of religious traditions, this approach forecloses the analytic and normative perspectives needed to understand what making democracy and pluralism one’s own actually entails.

Such understanding, however, is possible if we consider the phenomenology of particularist religious identities. My proposition might seem counter-intuitive: particularism concerns itself with emphasizing and sustaining differences among the members of religious groups, and it often appears as an obstacle for social harmony or even a source of conflict. For all these reasons scholars generally deem particularist religious identities as intolerant, unmodern, and contrary to democratic pluralism. Indeed, some of the conference participants in Rome expressed such views. Our perspective changes, however, if we consider the particularist expressions of religious traditions within the framework of pluralism as defined by deep differences and contestations rather than by harmony and consensus. With this understanding of pluralism, we begin to see that in certain contexts and under certain conditions particularist religious identities are not a problem but a resource for developing models of citizenship in pluralistic democracies. The Polish collectivistic Catholicism expressed in Solidarity, the collectivistic Catholicisms articulated in the narratives of Bosnian Franciscans, the encounters between collectivistic Catholicisms and the Muslim community in Croatia—these are some instances in which lived, particularist religious identities sustained differences among groups but also remained open to religious and non-religious others for cultural, historical, and theological reasons.

Understanding religious traditions as lived thus helps change the conversations about religion, democracy, and pluralism in at least two ways. First, it highlights the complex and changing nature of interreligious encounters as they inform the models of democratic pluralism—pluralism that is not imposed as an ideal but emerges from concrete historical experiences. Second, exploring religious particularisms enriches our normative view of pluralism by grounding it firmly in differences rather than in the desire to circumvent those differences by moving toward (imagined) shared universals.

Humanism: The conference participants highlighted different aspects of humanism as religious or secular orientations, with two interventions as particularly relevant in this regard. In the context of post-conflict democracies, Zilka Spahić Šiljak spoke powerfully about the role of Bosnian-Herzegovinian women in the processes of peacebuilding. Elaborating on the interviews she had with Bosnian women peace activists, Spahić Šiljak proposed that their work is informed by humanistic values and a desire to push aside religious and national identities since these are seen as an obstacle for reconciliation and just peace in Bosnian and Herzegovinian society. Second, responding to Jan-Werner Müller’s remarks, Michael Driessen suggested that the new political vision which Müller articulates might not be “a specifically Christian project” but “a new form of Religious Humanism” that goes beyond Christian humanistic foundations.

Spahić Šiljak and Driessen’s comments underscored that, despite the power and influence of the post-modern and post-colonial critiques of humanism, humanistic ethical dispositions remain important for how individuals imagine and reimagine their cultural and political communities, perhaps especially when these have been strained by conflict or the potential for conflict. Yet, the general direction of conference conversations about humanism also signaled the need to reiterate post-modern and post-colonial scholars’ evaluation of unqualified, unrestrained universalistic conceptualizations of humanism. As these critics show, most traditional humanisms—from Christian, to Confucian, to Renaissance, to Marxist humanisms—have been organized around universalisms. However, these humanisms have remained unaware of the particularist sources of their universalisms, and have ultimately denied (and sometimes aspired to abolish) other identities. In other words, the intellectual and social histories of humanisms show how they can slip all too easily and all too comfortably into a drive against differences and, thus, against pluralism.

Directly tackling such legacies, the scholars who reaffirm the value of humanism for our age argue for a reflexive understanding of the humanist agenda, and for a humanism whose hopeful drive toward the ideals of justice, equality, and human flourishing is chastened by the plurality of human experiences. For scholars such as Edward Said, for example, what is needed is a humanism that is both universal and historical in character.

Conceptualizing humanism this way has normative as well as analytic repercussions: it requires broadening and deepening the interpretative frameworks we use in order to understand the historical and cultural grounding of humanistic positions. The new and chastened approach to humanism thus pushes us to delve deeper into both the sources and manifestations of humanistic claims, and to raise multiple and comparative questions: What are the goals of humanism expressed by a Bosnian Catholic woman engaged in peacebuilding in her society? Are they the same as, for instance, the goals of a British Muslim or British secular humanist when he is involved in grassroots democratic projects in the city of Manchester? What are the moral spaces that all of these activists have in common? What are the differences among them, in the historical framing of their projects and in the ontological justifications of their humanist dispositions?

Consideration of what humanists might share, in other words, always needs to be paired with attention to the differences among them. Disregarding this diversity reintroduces un-reflexive universalist assumptions and neglects an important insight of humanism’s critics, according to which particularisms have always been, and still are, the foundation of humanist agendas.

Slavica Jakelić
Slavica Jakelić is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College at Valparaiso University. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and identity, the relationship of religious and secular humanisms, Christianity in global perspective, interreligious dialogue, and conflict resolution. Jakelić is a co-editor of two volumes, The Future of the Study of Religion and Crossing Boundaries: From Syria to Slovakia, a co-editor of The Hedgehog Review’s issue “After Secularization,” and, most recently, the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity (2010). She is currently working on a book entitled The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms.

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