Theorizing Modernities article

Welcoming Complexity Together

US border wall meets the Pacific in Tijuana.
US border wall meets the Pacific in Tijuana. Photo Credit: Jonathan Macintosh, 2009.

What role does religion play in promoting the flourishing of the individual, community, and environment? How can the “metaphysical anguish and ontological delight” that allows us to “cross,” in the words of Ansari Institute Director Tom Tweed, between life stages and through space mobilize resources and structures for holistic human development? The inaugural conference for the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame, held on the 25thand 26thof October, 2018, took a close look at the ambivalent role of religion in the present-day migration and ecological crises, as well as in the public discourses of media misinformation. In this series, we cover the event in essays by University of Notre Dame doctoral students Lailatul Fitriyah, Marie-Claire Klassen, and Khan Shairani.

The genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Global North depictions of “good” and “bad” Muslims. Irreversible climate change. Each panel recognized the complicity of religions in structures of violence, be it through the construction and upholding of subjective boundaries of belonging that participate in and reinforce modern orientalist and nation-state divisions; or through the undergirding of an anthropocentrism that has given carte blanche to the despoiling of the water, earth, and air on which we all depend. With the emergence of the modern nation-state and international economic system, religious traditions—simultaneously siloed beyond the public sphere and folded into the modern imaginary of the nation as ethnically-cum-religiously homogenous—have absorbed and furthered these exclusivist formations. The fact that churches are among the most segregated places in the United States is a glaring example. In her essay, Lailatul Fitriyah explores the layering of borders not just without but also within, or on, the bodies of policed “border-crossers,” sharing the scenario of Muslim women of color navigating and contesting boundaries of national and religious expression.

Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion Inaugural 2018 Conference Poster.

At the same time, religions provide “powerful narratives of history and the universal,” that offer alternate understandings of human community and trajectory, as noted by panelist Erin Wilson (University of Groningen). Religious language and values can be used to make visible and contest cultural and structural violence, challenging, for example, the underlying worldview of the modern nation-state system through alternate readings of community (who deserves to belong?) and human worth (which identities are valued most highly?). By some readings, certain religious and social histories may create orientations, even obligations, towards forms of solidarity that supersede modern boundaries. But to build peace, religious actors “must claim a normative platform,” Diane Moore (Harvard University) argued, “rather than pretend to be neutral.” The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s refugee resettlement efforts come to mind, emerging out of Jewish experiences of seeking refuge and evolving to support refugees of all backgrounds. Laudato Si’ resoundingly critiques the modern economic system and how it assigns value.

Could religion’s most powerful positive contribution to flourishing be to promote a generative understanding of complexity? Panelists put forth examples of the ways in which religious teachings could disrupt existing assumptions, invoke empathy, and give legitimacy to new ways of knowing and being. In her essay, Marie-Claire Klassen relays religiously- and spiritually-grounded re-orientations of the relationship between human and earth, including, in one case, the attribution of sentience to the landscape.

These efforts face an uphill struggle as they seek to question the frames through which society subconsciously operates; the “air” we breathe. The media can play a destructive role in this sense, reifying broadly accepted discourses like “religious violence” without exploring how religious identity is both internally multifaceted and interwoven with other social, cultural, and political markers, as Khan Shairani notes. In addition, the changing nature of religious authority, a topic of particular interest here at Contending Modernities through our “Authority, Community, and Identity” working groups, may change the playing field, as orthodox forms of religious expertise and knowledge transmission fade or splinter, and new actors take the stage deploying novel modes of authorization and communication. Complexity, and, as audience member Caesar Montevecchio (University of Notre Dame) commented, ambiguity, can be troubling; they require a predisposition or openness towards uncertainty. Perhaps, Tweed closed, our aim should be to construct communities that welcome complexity, together.

Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, with a focus on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for Notre Dame. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, at the Catholic University of Chile.