Contending Modernities article

What is Contending Modernities?

What is “Contending Modernities”? In a sentence, it’s an effort to confront the fact that the relationship between religion and modernity is a lot more complex than many people anticipated. This relationship has proven more complex in at least two ways.

Twin Complexities

One largely unanticipated complexity is that religion has proven pretty resilient in the face of modernity in all its forms. But the complexity is deepened when one reflects that secular communities and institutions have also proven resilient in many contexts, despite what some religious people have claimed about the unsustainability of secular ways of life. This failure of modernity to reach either a secular or religious destination has proven a disappointment to both religious and secular triumphalism. Religion and secularity are surviving and thriving together, creating a vast diversity of modern ways of life rather than the singular “secular modernity” some secular theorists predicted, or the Kingdom of God on earth some religious revivalists and reformers anticipated.

The result? We don’t inhabit one world, or a single unified “cosmopolis,” in Stephen Toulmin’s succinct description of the Enlightenment’s agenda for modernity. Instead, the result is a complexity of different visions and practices—though all within an essentially modern framework—that overlap and interlock, contend and blend.

A second complexity is that religious and secular modernities are not predestined to clash.  Some hoped, and others feared, that the world was divided in Manichean fashion into the Religious vs. the Secular. Or the Christian vs. the Muslim.

There is no denying that on some issues these traditions and communities represent distinct and irreconcilable points of view. The complex reality, however, is that patterns of centripetal and centrifugal forces are driving religious and secular actors together on some matters of public concern, and pummeling them back to their respective corners on others.

Cooperation across Deep Difference Is What’s Needed—and Possible

A practical upshot of these twin complexities is this: The major challenges facing the world—from mobilizing resources for poverty reduction, environmental stewardship, and humanitarian relief, to forging peace accords, reducing religious and state violence, and advancing rights for women, children and religious and ethnic minorities—will not be met by secular actors alone.  Clearly, religion is not going anywhere—the new atheists and old secularization theorists notwithstanding.  Nor, however, will these challenges be met by religious actors alone. Progress defined as sustainable constructive change will occur only when and where religious and secular leaders find ways to identify and respect their differences, many of which are not strictly theological, and forge partnerships for the common good.

Consider the following global realities. These realities underscore the multiple complexities of the modern relationship between the religious and the secular. And they underscore why religious and secular actors should—and can—work together.

  • Christian churches and Muslim mosques, trusted by villagers and farmers in remote rural areas that most secular aid agencies cannot reach, deliver more than half of the health care in sub-Saharan Africa.  To defeat the scourge of HIV-AIDS in Kenya and Nigeria, Catholic and Muslim women work side by side, creating their own “inter-religious orthopraxis.” The Bishops-Ulama Forum of Mindanao is perhaps the most visible of dozens of Filipino efforts to build bridges and “zones of peace” between Catholic and Muslim populations teetering on the brink of civil war.
  • Catholic scholars and religious leaders in the United States, mindful of their religion’s historical experience of discrimination and xenophobia, are reaching out to their American Muslim counterparts, who are facing similar stereotypes and hysteria in a brittle post 9/ll cultural climate. Secular agencies such as USAID and the Red Cross, along with innumerable humanitarian and peacebuilding NGOs, know from vast field experience that the way forward in development and social reform runs through religious communities, leaders and institutions.
  • Accordingly, the Obama administration, responding in part to a series of task force reports recommending steps to improve relations with the Muslim world, contemplates effective and legal means of engaging select religious communities abroad.  The hurdles are formidable: perhaps the majority of U.S. Government officials still believe that religious engagement is too hot to handle—and likely unconstitutional. (Constitutional lawyers note, however, that they are mistaken in this belief.) And religious illiteracy still haunts the corporate world, diplomatic circles, segments of the old and new media, private foundations—and even our schools.
  • Meanwhile, Europe struggles to integrate Muslim immigrants into their post-Christian but shakily secular societies, while the United Kingdom calls upon its Muslim and Catholic minorities to participate with the Church of England in charting a way forward for that nation’s vibrantly multicultural society.
  • Reflecting the Vatican’s uncertain reading of global Islam, Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg inadvertently offended millions of Muslims, inaugurated a new round of dialogue with Muslim leaders worldwide, and prayed at the tomb of Muslim-majority Turkey’s secular icon, Kemal Mustafa Atatürk.  “Turkey is a democratic, Islamic country and a bridge between Christianity and Islam,” the pope proclaimed to the Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I wanted to come to Turkey since becoming pope because I love this culture.”

Yet none of the recent advances in Muslim-Catholic relations—including the joint paper issued last year from the Vatican by the Catholic–Muslim Forum, which set forth principles of dialogue and encouraged deeper collaboration between the two faiths; and the “Common Word” document signed by more than 300 Muslim leaders and thinkers addressed to all the Christian churches— has been communicated down to the seminaries, madrasahs, to the priests and teachers, and even less to the common believers.

“This is tragic,” says Fr. Christian W. Troll, a Jesuit priest and member of the Catholic-Muslim Forum. “If we are serious about Islam-Christian dialogue and if we do not want to make ourselves ridiculous in the public as religious leaders, it would seem to be fundamental that such important and costly initiatives on the highest level, in which a significant number of Muslim and Christian leaders have taken part, be communicated to wider sections of both religious communities and be made subject matter for dialogues on various levels.”

Father Troll gives us some insight into why such interreligious initiatives and partnerships are critical, drawing from his experience of India, where he taught Islamic studies for many years. “In India, both Christians and Muslims are minority communities and it is imperative that both these minority communities live in harmony and co-existence— not to be a collective force, but in order that both Christians and Muslims make their respective contributions (inspired by their respective faiths) to the formation and strengthening of the ‘common good’ in plural and democratic societies, societies which are secular (in the sense of aspiring to being religiously neutral) and which are committed to the human rights of all their members.” But what Father Troll says of India applies globally.

Our Response: Contending Modernities

In recognition of modernity’s growing complexities, and in the spirit of Troll’s exhortation, a network of scholars drawn from Catholic, Muslim and secular universities, colleges, institutes and other centers of learning is launching Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.

Contending Modernities is a long-term, multidisciplinary research and public education project. Seven research teams, subdivided into fifteen or so working groups of Muslim-oriented, Catholic-oriented and secular-oriented scholars, are being commissioned to conduct original research regarding the historical and contemporary experiences of modernity shared by these three global discursive communities, in all their diversity and complexity

Neither Catholics, Muslims or Seculars have been passive recipients of the developments and processes associated with modernity. Rather, each has shaped, resisted, accommodated and adapted to the growing explanatory powers of science; the encompassing reach of the modern nation-state the differentiation between religion and state, public and private realms; the dynamics of global markets and mass media communication; and other constituent elements of “the modern world.” They have all contributed to the modern world’s diverse forms of thought and life in these and other areas.

Many of these multiple modernities will eventually be represented in the research of Contending Modernities and will contribute to its various products: books, articles, curricula, websites, video documentaries. And to blogs like this one, which provides an open forum for embryonic or fully formed ideas, opinion, applied research and old-fashioned debate and civil argumentation.

The formal commissioned research begins, however, by engaging two of the world’s largest religious traditions that antedate modernity and that have moved—sometimes haltingly—into the modern world.  Catholicism is only a place to start in covering the Christian world: after an initial phase of meetings, Eastern Orthodox, evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians will be welcomed into this particular research and education enterprise, as will Jewish thinkers—and, perhaps more gradually, the rich religious heritages of South Asia.

Join the Conversation

But that plan of expansion refers only to research commissioned on the basis of generous but still limited funding at this time. No such restrictions apply to this blog and others associated with Contending Modernities. After all, the complexities and challenges of modernity are too great to be left to any one community or tradition, or to any limited group of interlocutors.

Modernity has not turned out to be a homogeneous cosmopolis. But in our small way we seek to draw its communities and traditions into a constructive conversation. Not a lowest-common-denominator “consensus.” But a conversation that engages all of the teeming and surprising complexity of the modern world. That, at least, is our fervent hope. We hope you’ll join us.

Scott Appleby
Scott Appleby (Ph.D. University of Chicago, 1985) is the Marilyn Keough Dean of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. Appleby, a professor of history at Notre Dame, is a scholar of global religion who has been a member of Notre Dame’s faculty since 1994. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1978 and received master’s and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Chicago. From 2000-2014, he served as the Regan Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Appleby co-directs, with Ebrahim Moosa and Atalia Omer, Contending Modernities, a major multi-year project to examine the interaction among Catholic, Muslim, and secular forces in the modern world.

2 thoughts on “What is Contending Modernities?

  1. While I applaud the launch of Contending Modernities, it is important to note that while The Truth of The Catholic Church, through the trinitarian relationship of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Teaching of the Magisterium has remained consistent, it is hard to launch a dialogue with any Faith that is open to personal interpretation of The Truth of Love simply because there is not a cohesiveness of belief. Without this cohesiveness of belief, it is hard to define Faith, thus making it difficult to address Contending Modernities in the light of Faith.

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