Contending Modernities article

An Unlikely Conversation: a Catholic Reaction to the CM Launch

A college president who is a Catholic and a scholar of Islam cautions that a scholarly project on Catholicism and Islam should not ignore “rapture-ready Christians,” Sufi Muslims, or Christian women who have joined the “Women Aglow” movement, which preaches obedience to their husbands.

The granddaughter of an Ayatollah decries family law in Islamic countries that severely restricts women’s opportunities.

A woman who converted from Catholicism to Islam while a teenager, then became a scholar of Islam, later went on to become President of the Islamic Society of North America, and wears a head scarf to boot, criticizes modernity for attacking family and community, both laboratories for teaching virtue to children.

The Grand Mufti of Egypt holds that Islam welcomed diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism long before the modern West even came into existence.

A dean at a Catholic university tells the story of a nineteenth-century American Jesuit priest who was tarred and feathered by Protestants and then analogizes the Jesuit’s experience to that of American Muslims at the hands of many of their fellow Americans today.

Watchers of the launch of Contending Modernities in New York City on November 18th and 19th, 2010, would have been disappointed if they had been hoping to figure out which of the familiar categories the project will fit into.  Will it be liberal?  Conservative?  Feminist?  Progressive?  Traditional?  Few labels fit.  That seems to be the point of the organizers of Contending Modernities. (Full disclosure: I write as a member of the project’s steering committee, though I was not closely involved in planning the launch).

Tradition v. Modernity?

In an earlier iteration the project was to be called “Contending with Modernity.”  That title would have fit a standard narrative of Western intellectuals far better.  It suggests that Catholicism and Islam are two pre-modern, traditional, patriarchal religions that once dominated a goodly portion of humanity . . . until the Protestant Reformation came along, and then the Enlightenment, which brought liberty, equality, rationality, science, technological and economic advancement, secularism, and the liberation of women—in short, modernity.

But the title that the organizers settled on connotes far more complexity and even hints at intrigue—“Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.”  Borrowing from the great Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt’s idea of “multiple modernities,” it suggests that Catholicism and Islam are not outdated holdovers that are now running out of steam but rather religions that have adapted to and even espouse their own version of modernity.  Within each faith tradition, too, versions of modernity contend.  Of course, there is also secularism, which is more commonly associated with modernity.  But secularism is now recast as one version of modernity among—and contending with—the others.

Contending about Gender

To convey this complexified picture, the organizers chose the anything-but-vanilla subject of gender.  The college president, Bryn Mawr’s Jane Dammen McAuliffe, averred that there is no place where contending between the three traditions has been more fraught than on issues of gender and women.

As most of the speakers described this contention, it takes place between Catholicism and Islam in one corner of the ring and western secular modernity in the other (the site of the launch was several blocks north of Madison Square Garden).  For its part, modernity either assaults Catholicism and Islam head-on or it strives to outdo these religions in winning the sympathy of humanity.  The college dean, John McGreevy of Notre Dame, described the beleaguered nineteenth-century Jesuit priest as one who—like American Muslims today—confronted Americans who considered his religion an enemy of freedom, the constitution, and Thomas Jefferson.  President McAuliffe ended her talk by saying that secularism had given women opportunities.  She quoted an economist who claims that closing the gender gap in wages and employment can substantially increase a society’s productivity.  Notre Dame law professor Cathy Kaveny pointed out several virtues of Pope John II’s feminism, but for each one of these, she offered parallel respects in which modern feminists find that these virtues sell women short.

But several of the same speakers who spoke of secular modernity’s contention against religion also spoke of ways in which Catholicism and Islam either supply forms of human flourishing that modernity cannot, or provide a critique of dysfunctions, many harming women, for which secular modernity seems uniquely responsible.  Modernity is both “a boon and a bane,” commented Patrick Mason of Notre Dame, the project’s associate director for research.  In his introduction to the second day’s panel, Mason gave the example of sex-selective abortion and infanticide, a practice in which babies are killed because they are girls.  Arising from the attempts of developing states (secular modernity’s quintessential institution) to control their populations and achieve economic advancement (some of secular modernity’s quintessential goals), this practice’s annual numbers exceed those of the genocide in Rwanda several times over.  It is within religions like Catholicism and Islam that the most incisive and intellectually rooted critiques of the practice can be found.

In one question-and-answer session, Dean McGreevy opined that religion was uniquely capable of providing a society with the solidarity it needs to cultivate sympathy for the less fortunate, a task that political parties or business, for instance, cannot.

The ayatollah’s granddaughter, professor Shahla Haeri of Boston University, is one of a wave of Islamic feminists who criticize oppressive patriarchal laws—but from the basis of the Quranic texts, not from outside the faith.

The speakers might have added to secular modernity’s debit column the multibillion dollar global pornography industry—spread by technology, enabled by prosperity, viewed within private spaces (supposedly one of secular modernity’s achievements), and justified by the principle that people are free to do what they like as long as they do not harm others (one of secular modernity’s signature principles).  Of course, pornography does not merely harm the souls of its (mostly male) consumers, but also objectifies women and destroys relationships between men and women.  Here again, it is Catholicism’s and Islam’s notions of sexuality—as a self-giving act, rooted in the relational context of marriage, which is in turn a part of the moral order established by God—that provides some of the world’s most powerful critiques of this modern phenomenon.

An Uncomfortable—but Essential—Conversation

The genius of Contending Modernities is that is allows no one—Catholic, Muslim, or secular—to rest easy in the comfort zone in which he or she entered the conversation.  All sides are challenged by the others; all benefit from the other’s wisdom.  Such multi-cornered contention, privileging no single point of view, is rare in the Western academy and is to be applauded.  Still, the fact is that the Western academy’s sympathies are overwhelmingly with secular modernity’s challenge to religion. My hope, therefore, is that Contending Modernities will take special care to highlight ways in which faith traditions supply the secular modern world with virtues—love, forgiveness, humility, mercy, gift of self, and compassion for the voiceless, for instance—that secular modernity has trouble generating on its own.

Daniel Philpott
Daniel Philpott is associate professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.  He is a coauthor, with Monica Duffy Toft and Timothy Samuel Shah, of the forthcoming God's Century: Resurgent Religion in Global Politics, and author of the forthcoming Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation.

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