Brixton Riots In London In 1981

During the infamous Brixton Riots of 1981—clashes between the police and the African-Caribbean community in south London—I was driving back to my parents’ house at night and got lost in the fog. I found myself faced with a dramatic scene: the fog illuminated by fire, as the rioters overturned cars and set them alight. I reversed as fast as I could, but my own car was running out of petrol and the rioters were everywhere. I did get home, but like many in Britain, this was a moment of realization. British society was breaking down.

I was a new Catholic at the time, so I might have been tempted to blame secularism and atheism for the breakdown, but even then I knew better than that. There have always been riots, and men have fought in the streets for a thousand reasons, many of those reasons religious. In the case of Brixton, the reasons were material enough: unemployment, unfair treatment, suspicions of racial prejudice among the police themselves.

Today, however, we are faced with an unprecedented situation. No other civilization has tried to found itself on disbelief, on intellectual “neutrality” vis-à-vis God or some other absolute principle—there has never been a kingdom of relativism quite like this, in which all the religious traditions are faced with a common enemy. Or, perhaps that is too contentious a way of looking at it. Our society is a tapestry woven of many cultural influences. Our towns are a mosaic composed of many communities, not all of them religious by any means, but often clinging to religious “identifiers.” Tensions exist between them, which occasionally erupt into violence.

Meanwhile the society that enfolds them no longer offers a coherent intellectual framework—a set of beliefs, a morality, a cosmology—within which a common enterprise can be pursued, a civilization built. A thousand communities, eroded and undermined, ragged and polluted, cling to memories of their own past that are fading fast, to make up for the lack of a common social good to which they once might have felt called to contribute their energies, skills, and time. Some of them, no doubt, sense that they are not merely eroded but threatened. The common framework of faith, the faith (let us say) in a Logos that holds everything together, has been replaced by the beginnings of a police state, a regime that holds things together by force or the threat of force.

Secularism and Fundamentalism

I have been struggling to articulate the challenge of modern secularism, but others have already done it better. Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, noted in his book The Dignity of Difference (2002) that there are two kinds of secularism. The first, an ideal conceived in the wake of the religious wars, is based on the privatization of conscience—separating religious beliefs from those pertaining to the civil and political order. Religious belief was assumed to be supremely important and in need of protection. Sacks cites John Plamenatz: liberty of conscience, or tolerance, was born “not of indifference, not of skepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith.” This form of secularism proved to be transitional. The second form emerged more recently, as the State and the intellectual elite lost its own hold on religious faith, coming to regard religion as a private hobby. It was a short step from here—in the wake of 9/11—to the decision to regard religion as a dangerous hobby and one that may need to be suppressed.

Writing in the RSA Journal in July 2010, Prof. Cécile Laborde of University College, London, argued that “religion has a legitimate place in the secular state,” and not merely as a cultural curiosity. Like Rabbi Sacks, she distinguishes Reformation secularism, which aims at protecting the conscience of all citizens, from modern or what she calls Enlightenment secularism, which aims to liberate the state from the influence of religion altogether. In the former, religious believers may try to influence the democratic majority in favour of a specific policy (such as the banning of abortion) as long as they do so using arguments based on reason rather than revelation. Under modern or Enlightenment secularism, the reasonable arguments of believers tend to be discounted on the grounds that they are speaking as believers and are therefore not to be trusted.

What emerges from this situation is not just two kinds of secularism, but two kinds of fundamentalism—religious fundamentalism pitched against secular fundamentalism. The problem with secular fundamentalism is that it is incompatible with a religiously informed cultural pluralism. And yet it is a reasonable conviction that all cultures are inspired and shaped by religious faith, even when they don’t realize it. In Progress and Religion, the historian Christopher Dawson affirmed that “every living culture must possess some spiritual dynamic, which provides the energy necessary for that sustained social effort which is civilization.” Even our materialistic and atheistic society has been shaped by the faiths that created it in the first place. It is living off the religious capital of the past. Not just ethics, but even science, depends on this rational foundation provided by faith. The exclusion of faith from public life cuts off the energy we need to sustain that “social effort which is civilization.”

Dignity in Diversity

There is a lot of thinking about these matters going on in Catholic circles. An important reference point is the magisterial work A Secular Age by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (winner of the Templeton Prize in 2007). In it he traces the historical development of the modern world from around 1500, when the traditional cosmos remained intact, through the subsequent five centuries. During that period, he argues, we evolved a view of the world and of our place within it that was radically different from anything that had existed before—an entirely immanent world, a “flat” world one might say, a world lacking the vertical dimension, a world without metaphysics. He focuses particularly on the emergence of a new kind of self, a “buffered” self, the atomic particle (not yet split) that made up a new kind of secular society.

Previously the self had been what he calls “porous,” its boundaries penetrable. The four temperaments had connected us to the stars, the angels and spirits were partners with us in a cosmic dance, or were our allies and enemies in a cosmic war. The key word here is “cosmic,” for in 1500 there was still a cosmos, whereas by 2000 this had been replaced by a “universe”—an essentially meaningless structure, like a machine assembled by a madman that just happens to work. This was exhilarating to some, depressing and demoralizing to others, but it was certainly new. It may have been glimpsed by one or other Greek philosopher as a possibility, but never had an entire civilization been posited upon such a vision of reality.

An analysis like Taylor’s helps fill in the background to this question of how different cultural communities and enclaves can coexist, whether in tension with each other or in some more positive relationship. A clash is always possible, even if violence per se has nothing inherently religious about it. But we must focus on how to avoid that outcome, and instead work towards collaboration. Here the great religious traditions themselves have resources we can draw upon.

Jonathan Sacks, in the book mentioned earlier, suggests that the Jewish tradition has “an idea equal to the challenge of our time” in the notion of diversity. The one God, creator of diversity, “commands us to honour his creation by respecting diversity;” “to see in the human other a trace of the divine Other.” And the specific idea that the Jewish tradition brings to the table in this connection is that of covenant, in which the “dignity of difference” is affirmed and guaranteed. A social covenant creates a society, whereas a social contract can only create a state. A covenant is inherently pluralistic, it is open rather than exclusive, it transcends time, and it is not about personal advantage.

In The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (2007), Rabbi Sacks goes on to develop the notion of society-building through covenants and relationships of trust. “Covenants are made between free individuals who cherish their differences while bringing them as gifts to the common good” (p. 236). The covenant contributes to the flourishing of civil society (the whole world of meaningful social interactions that lies between the individual and the state) and of the “common good”—a term that emerges as the key idea in rebuilding society. “Society is the home we build together when we bring our several gifts to the common good” (p. 240).

Sacks explores the way the seventeenth-century idea of toleration evolved first into tolerance and then into multiculturalism, ideas easily allied with the ideologies of political liberalism and moral relativism. He describes how multiculturalism tends to  divide society into armed camps. Today there is barely any concept of a “unity” to which we belong and to which our individual lives contribute.

As a Christian, one may bring forward another notion to add to that of the covenant and the common good: the human person. “Person” was originally a theological concept, forged in Christological debates of the fourth century and grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus it was applied first to God and only subsequently to man. Nevertheless, it has since become the basis for talking about human dignity—with the addition of moral and legal “rights,” in which that dignity is enshrined and protected.


The journal OASIS, founded by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, is opposed to “faith neutrality” and the privatization of religious belief. Whereas secularists fear a war between rival religious groups to determine which of them will form a “confessional state” where unbelievers will suddenly find themselves once more the persecuted minority, OASIS offers the concept of métissage (hybridization or mixing of civilizations) as an alternative path. Instead of fearing religious minorities and yearning for a past or future golden age of religious purity, Cardinal Scola believes we should embrace the inevitable hybridization of peoples “to which the Author of history seems to be calling humanity.”

We should work to orient positively this ongoing hybridization so that the meeting between peoples does not degenerate into conflict. Since faith is inevitably tangled up with culture and yet culture remains distinct from faith, each faith is provoked by the others to re-think its own interpretation of culture. In a society comprising many faiths, this process may lead to a “mixed” culture without confusing one faith with another or imposing one faith on everybody. For this to happen, however, the public space must be a place where different worldviews can meet and discuss, without any of them (including secularism) being able to monopolize it exclusively.

In an interview, Cardinal Angelo Scola has said that he is not arguing for syncretism. “We have to conceive of laïcité in a new way,” he said; “as a civil society in which all people offer their ideals of life and ways of conceiving the material and spiritual good and try to find common ground. In this sense, one should avoid the abstract idea of multiculturalism, which hasn’t worked either in Britain or in France.” Here he is in agreement with Rabbi Sacks. The Cardinal believes that Muslims should be active citizens in Europe and not try to keep a distance from society around them. “Heart speaks to heart,” and at the level of human experience it is possible to develop friendships that are neither ideological nor manipulative. In fact, only in the soil of such friendships can a new culture take root and grow. Hybridization without conflict or homogenizationrequires respect for the human person, and an associated respect for the cultural differences that are precious to the person. Cardinal Scola says:

This is the way Christians (in the Middle East) do it. They have churches and their communities, but when they enter into the life of the city of man, they enter as citizens. The strength of religion is to propose a concrete universal ideal, in contrast to the formal conception of laïcité that only refers to a charter of human rights that is often reduced just to formal principles. It leaves problems unsolved… it neutralizes all public experience of religion so that, in the words of the German Idealists, it creates ‘a night in which all cows are black.’

Debates around the attempt to ban crucifixes from Italian schools have led to a clarification of the issues involved. In a homily on 15 April 2010, Pope Benedict XVI exposed many of the fallacies at the root of anti-religious secularism, in words that deserve careful meditation:

Let us suppose a democratic society hospitable to faith, which invites religious believers to make their case in rational language. What will be allowed to count as ‘rational language’ here? It seems we need to go beyond the discussion of ‘values’ such as tolerance, reciprocity, respect, and freedom to debate the nature of rationality itself, and then return to consider the deeper meaning of those terms. Perhaps there is no purely secular language for discussing political matters, because our understanding of such terms depends on assumptions about truth and human nature. Faith and reason are distinct, but their relationship is too complex to allow a simple separation.

The Liquid City

On a visit to Venice hosted by Cardinal Angelo Scola in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI drew on the analysis of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. European society, said the Holy Father, is submerged in a “liquid” culture; hence its “fluidity,” “its low level of stability or perhaps absence of stability, its mutability, the inconsistency that at times seems to characterize it.” He noted that Bauman attributes the birth of the “liquid” society to the consumerist model. The philosopher stated that its most profound impact has been felt in social relations, and, more in particular, in relations between man and woman, which have become increasingly flexible and impalpable, as manifested by the present concept of love, which has been reduced to a mere passing sentiment.

Speaking to an audience in Venice, Benedict XVI opposed this model of a liquid society with a model of the society “of life and of beauty.” He said that “man is free to interpret, to give meaning to reality, and it is precisely in this liberty that his great dignity lies.” He continued: “It is about choosing between a ‘liquid’ city, homeland of a culture that seems to be increasingly the culture of the relative and the ephemeral, and a city that constantly renews its beauty, taking recourse to the beneficent resources of art, learning, of relations between men and nations.”

We may put this together with the analysis of Taylor, Scola, and Sacks to make clear the scale of the challenge we are facing. The relative and the ephemeral, of course, have great, even magical, appeal while they last. Their spell permits both secular and religious fundamentalism to flourish, and a multitude of small cultural enclaves to consolidate positions within the carapace of the state. As long they remain there, the state protects them, whilst keeping them under observation. But they are not permitted to make a real contribution to the common good and the building up of society, since their fundamental principles are alien to the masters of the political machine. Without that ability to contribute, however, these cultural enclaves dry up like a puddle on the ground, losing their capacity to enthuse and inspire the next generation. Long before that point, a deeper answer is called for.

An Order of Love

Bauman’s analysis complements and extends the other discussions of modernity in terms of “atomic” individualism, increased mobility, the spread of relativism, the breakdown of traditional and conventional bonds (and civil society itself) by consumerism, and so forth. The metaphor of “liquidity” seems appropriate. It is interesting that Benedict chooses to oppose it with the notion not of morality or the natural law or even (at this point) the common good, but instead of “life and beauty,” which is perhaps the most profound response possible. For beauty is the self-revelation of Being, and a pointer to the underlying order of love which is the source of freedom and of civilization.

Is it a renewed pursuit of the transcendentals—truth, beauty, goodness, or as Benedict says “life and beauty”—that might form a common project in the years ahead, bringing diverse cultures together? These universal qualities have always inspired new flowerings of creativity and quickened the heart of our civilization. They cross borders and boundaries. They are the radiance of the common good.

But Pope Benedict spoke of an “underlying order of love,” and this reminds me of another remark he made, this time during his visit to the Lebanon in 2012. In an address to members of the government on 15 September, he referred to the way a single family may have members that practice different faiths, and yet they live together happily as a family. It is the order of love, the commonality of human nature, the dignity of difference, that is being respected here.

Why cannot the same order, the same principle, the same respect, be demonstrated on a larger scale? That would be a new secularism indeed, one that recalls the parable of the house built on rock. Is it only a dream—a dream to think that members of all faiths could live together in one society, working out their differences in peace? It seems impossible. History tells us it has never happened before. Yet this vision of a “civilization of love” will not stop haunting our imagination. It is as though our hearts knew something, or remembered something, that the world had forgotten. And that is true. We are remembering the source of our hope: the birth of a child in Bethlehem. It is a birth that changes everything, for now God is with us, and nothing is impossible with God.

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