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Texts

An orthodox proposal for transcending Fundamentalism

Mass Media and their role in the fight against Racism and xenophobia

An Assessment of Theological Issues Today

Go forth - Missionary issues

Human Rights and the Orthodox Church

Psychoanalysis and Orthodox anthropology

The Orthodox Church in a Pluralistic World

Hellenic thought and ecumenical perception as preparators for the gospel

Theological Studies

The birth of Christ

The Pastoral Dimension of Mixed Marriages

The Orthodox Church in a Pluralistic World

Emmanuel Clapsis,
,
, , 2000, . 3338

 

The active and transformative presence of the Orthodox Church in the public life of a pluralistic society depends not only on what Orthodoxy has to offer but also on how the Orthodox church connects with the life of the modern world. I will explore in this short presentation the contested meaning of secularization and pluralism in an effort to understand the modern world that the Church needs to communicate with and transform.

Secularization and the Church

Secularization changed the relation of the sacred and the secular in the human definition of reality. The secular domain claimed independence from the sacred and the world wrested autonomy from the control of the ecclesiastical institutions. The secular domain, after it gained its autonomy from the tutelage of the ecclesiastical institutions, was subject to an internal process of differentiation that gave birth to a variety of autonomous subdomains (polity, law, economy, science, education, art, health, family) that aspire to regulate their internal coherence with an instrumental rationality that each one has developed for its own needs. The state and the market economy assumed a preeminence over all other spheres of secular life which aspire to condition the modern understanding and classification of the world. The autonomy of the secular from the sacred and its internal differentiation into multiple autonomous subdomains is an irreversible and irreducible characteristic of the modern world. Secularism contributes to the weakening of the influence of religion in modern society but it does not necessarily lead to the progressive erosion, decline, and eventual obliteration of religion.

Human persons in an increasingly pluralistic modern society are irreducibly confronted with multiple options of possible courses of action and diverse options of possible ways of thinking about and acting in the world. They are challenged to choose in innumerable situations of everyday life how to act, what to believe, and what values and world views they must have. They are forced to be more reflective than spontaneous in the process of making decisions at different levels of their personal and social life. This process of making decisions became more complex with the fragmentation and the weakening of every conceivable belief and value dependent upon social support that modernity caused through institutional pluralization. Modernity, as Peter Berger states, liberated human consciousness from the oppression of fate and its consequent social determinism and at the same time it caused human alienation, planting uncertainty in human consciousness. Christian churches in pluralistic society are now and will continue for the foreseeable future to be in competition with other religious and secular options that desire to interpret reality. Their communication with the modern world requires sensitivity to their public image, adherence to the particularity and catholicity of the Christian story and acquisition of communicative skills.

 

The Public Role of Religion

How can we conceptually understand the place and the role of religion in the highly differentiated and fragmented social reality? The functional differentiation and pluralism of modern society does not leave space for any particular religion to be a positive force of social integration as in the past. Religion in the modern world lost its hegemonic place in the public realm, but not its public voice. Religion cannot claim or be recognized to have a priori any predominance in the public domain by virtue of its authority but neither is it possible to exclude religion's presence from it.

The church must resist simultaneously her relocation in the private sphere and the temptation to be identified voluntarily with the power of the government or of market economy. She must recognize her location in the "civil society", the social realm that links the private and the public spheres of life. The Church through her public presence in a pluralistic society must not try to do what science, economy, or the state is expected to do in the world. She must, rather, provide to the modern world a service that not only supports and enhances the religious faith of her adherents but also have farreaching implications outside the religious realm. The church can participate actively in the deliberations of the public sphere for the common good, defending religious freedom, human rights, and the very right of a democratic civil society to exist against an absolutist, authoritarian state. She can also rase questions concerning the claims of the state, the academy, and the market economy to operate without any regard for values, moral norms, or human considerations. These kinds of intervention could raise the consciousness of the people, mobilize them against all oppressive and dehumanizing conditions that threaten the very life of the world and foster a public debate about such issues. The impact of such critique must not be measured by the criterion 0 f whether the churches were successful in imposing their universal claims or agenda upon others, but from whether their intervention in the public realm provided an opportunity to question the normativity of modern facticity and thus contributed to the sustenance of civil life, the protection of people's rights, and the moral responsibility that people have for one another. This kind of dialogical interaction provides space for the churches to express God's will in all spheres of life.

 

The Function and Performance of Religion

Social scientists have made an important distinction between the function of a subsystem that describes how it relates to the society as a whole and its performanc e that refers to its relationship to other subsystems. In the case of religion, function denotes all aspects of devotion, worship, pastoral care, personal enlightenment, salvation, and to all pure "sacred" acts and duties that justify the autonomy of religion in the differentiated modern society. Performance , by contrast, describes the effects of religion on other subsystems addressing the unresolved issues generated by them. Such issues can be economic poverty, political oppression, familial estrangement, environmental degradation, human alienation, etc. Function and performance are two inseparable aspects that characterize the life and relation of every subsystem in the modern society. The most appropriate response of the Church to modernity is neither more emphasis on her function nor on her performance, although both aspects are necessary components of the Church's vitality. A mere emphasis only on the Church's function carries in itself the danger of religious isolationism and comfortably locates the Church in the private sphere. On the contrary, attention only to her performanc e carries in itself the danger of desacralizing the gospel, reducing Christianity just to a movement of social and political transformation and surrendering the unique and irreducible aspects of the gospel. Rejecting both options lead us in a third possible response, which in my judgment is the most promising. The church should try to find many different and efficient ways to reconnect her function and performance . In theological language, the Church is challenged to find ways to be simultaneously mystical and prophetic, spiritual and socially active, uniting theology with ethics, liturgy with life. Such an approach, while it recognizes the importance of function and performance or the vitality and relevance of the Church's life, suggests that only in their unity or effective integration the Church would be able to overcome her privatization. Refusal by the Church to accept this challenge will mean that she has passively accepted the fragmentation of modern society into multiple and unrelated systems of operation by limiting her operation to an aspect of her people's life, i.e. the religious, being unable to inform the rest of their life as they participate in or perform in other subsystems of the modern society.

 

The Church in Dialogue

Christian churches and other religious communities have responded differently to the challenge of modernity. Some, based on their internal authority, have refused to accept the modern differentiation of society and continue to operate without any recognition of the new social realities opting for a total separation from the world. Others do not discern any incompatibility between the secular and the sacred. They accept the modern differentiation of society, respecting the autonomy of each subsystem and being able without any difficulty to perform in each of these subsystems without any substantial conflict between the different functional rationalities that regulate the life of each of these subsystems. It is possible for instance for some people to be good Christians every Sunday, Marxists in their political ideology, and cruel capitalists in their entrepreneurial adventures, and to be all of these without feeling the slightest incompatibility that each of these performances may have with the other. Others have become so infatuated with modernity that they have adopted completely a "secular" value system with some religious or Christian references. And still others, without surrendering their Christian and religious identity because they have refused to be blinded to the new social realities of the modern world, have accepted the challenge to reconfigure the public role of religion in a modern pluralistic world. The option that reflects some continuity with the Orthodox ethos is the last one, which in my opinion is both intellectually honest and morally consistent. Of course such an approach requires deep awareness of the complexity of the modern world and faithfulness to the Orthodox tradition together with a willingness to communicate and bring Orthodoxy into conversation with the modern world.

The pluralistic democratic context of modern societies elevates dialogue as the only option that people presently have to persuade others concerning matters that affect their common life. Commitment to dialogue is a political and moral option that aspires as much as possible to resolve conflicts discursively rather than manipulatively, coercively and violently. It transcends both the sceptical view expressed in the position "that there is no point in going on discussing the issues that divide us" and also the realist position which assumes that conflicts and difference among people and communities can only be resolved through the use of power and coercion. It rather affirms that dialogue is neither futile nor conclusive, but that it helps conflicting communities to sustain their unity in the conversation process. Dialogue advances the common good of a given society, provided that all will be free to participate in the process of deliberation and to contribute equally to the convergent expression of the common good that binds people of different persuasions together. The basic aim of dialogue and test of its success is not primarily the achievement of agreement but its ability to sustain and enhance community in the midst of differences and conflicts.

Is there a space in the living conversations of the political community for the witness of the Christian churches or other religious communities who aspire to speak about the common life of the world by using a particular religious language and symbols? Furthermore, are the Christian churches and religious communities adequately prepared with sufficient conversational skills and mechanisms to participate in a political deliberation that aims to achieve a convergence on the common good that a pluralistic society can endorse? The universal juridical claims of religion about the world and its proper order are believed to be incommensurable with the need of the modern pluralistic societies to craft through deliberation their understanding of common good. Recognizing the validity of fears and objections against the admittance of religious arguments in the public sphere, we need to study how we can introduce religious arguments in the public realm without contributing to factionalism and civil strife.

 

The Public Discourse of the Church

In the public square of a pluralistic society the political discourse of the Church, as of every other community, must be attentive to the cardinal virtues of public intelligibility and accessibility. It is not possible to be in conversation with those that we do not respect or have an empathy. The quality of dialogue depends on whether those involved in conversation are fully and accurately informed about the various arguments and facts relevant to the issues. They must have the cognitive competency before they begin their conversation or acquire it in the course of the dialogue. More specifically the Orthodox church must not abandon the specificity of her language, symbols and stories in her efforts to participate in the common deliberations of the civil society. This would mean that they deny their claim that their particular story and language illuminates human life in the world.

The dialogic process of resolving social conflicts cannot take effect in any society if tolerance does not characterize its life. The life of a pluralistic society is always pervaded with disagreements over issues of public significance. These disagreements have the potential to be a source of violent conflict, if the citizens do not acquire the habits of the heart by which they opt to resolve their difference through noncoercive means and live peacefully together when these disagreements cannot be resolved. Tolerance is a virtue of the heart that every pluralistic society needs to cultivate in its citizenry. Tolerance must not be confused with relativism, the refusal to make judgments of right and wrong, true and false, good and evil about a belief or action. On the contrary, it entails the possibility of making such judgments (even publicity) while at the same time refraining from coercing others on the basis of such judgments and refraining from the use of the state apparatus for the realization of such a purpose. In other words it is possible to differentiate ethical objectivity from moral and ethical authoritarianism. Moral objectivity and intolerance are not necessarily connected, and neither is true that only moral scepticism is conducive to tolerance. The awareness that every human belief or action is situated in a coherent comprehensive system of beliefs which is historically situated is not an argument in defense of moral relativism. It is possible, while we recognize the historicity and communal context of particular moral beliefs, to judge such beliefs to be inadequate, just as others also have the right to judge positively or negatively our own beliefs or actions. The public nature of such judgment in liberal democratic society oblige people who denounce the possibility of using coercive methods for the imposition of their views upon the others to continue their common deliberation towards the formation of a possible convergence that transforms their previously held understandings.

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