Saturday, 12 April 2008

Religious-secularist dialogue: the Cardinal's lectures continued

Mulier Fortis and Fr Tim have posts on the second of the Cardinal's Lectures, given by Mark Thompson, a Catholic, who is director general of the BBC. Their posts suggest that the Catholic blogosphere continues to be less than fully impressed (now, isn't that a wonderful circumlocution!) by a lecture series whose title wishes to address issues of the relationship between religion and secular society. A transcript/text of the lecture can be found here, at the website of the Westminster Archdiocese. The comments within the "debate" at that site reflect some of the concerns expressed in Mulier Fortis and Fr Tim's posts.

With hindsight about the first lecture, and perhaps some crystal ball gazing looking forward to future lectures in the series, a question has occurred to me. Which is the most important question facing religions and society in general in Britain - the question of inter-religious dialogue or the question of dialogue between religions and secularist society (expressed most significantly in its political manifestations of party politics and legislation)? Tony Blair's lecture seemed to see the first of these as most important and as being the area in which his foundation intends to work. I want to suggest in this post that it is in fact the second of these dialogues that is more important, and looking at the titles of future lectures in the series, there is the potential that it may be addressed. However, I must admit that I feel it is more likely that these lectures will in fact cover more the territory of the first question.

In the context of ecumenical dialogue, I have observed (here)that I feel that the core reality of this dialogue lies less in explicitly "ecumenical" events and more in the way that Christian churches live out an ecumencial identity as part of their "ordinary life". I cited the Focolare movement (with its "spirituality of unity" lived out in "four dialogues") and the Bridgettine sisters (with a monastic charism of hospitality and prayer for unity among Christians) as examples of how the Catholic Church does this. In this context, the willingness of the Church of England to ordain women, accept homosexual clergy, etc has a profound and adverse ecumenical meaning, despite the willingness of the Church of England to engage in ecumencial activity. Of far greater ecumencial significance, I would suggest, is the stand being taken by some African bishops of the Anglican communion.

Now, let me try to apply the same sort of idea to dialogue between religions and secularist society. How can the Catholic Church, and other religions, live in some way a dialogue with secularist society? I would suggest two areas. One is a willingess to engage with human reason. This means that religious believers need to engage with academic studies across the piece - physical sciences, philosophy, and the human sciences, and to be willing to approach their study in these areas as specialists in those areas using the methodologies appropriate to those areas. The second area is a specification of the first. It is a willingness to engage with the study of the physical sciences in the light of religious belief, a dialogue between religion and science.

And, from the other side, how can secularist society live a dialogue with religion? I would suggest the same two areas. One of the key components in current secularist activity might be called the "LGBT concept", which presents gender/sexual identity as being a product of social construct and therefore open to any adjustment to suit human wishes. This is, in my view, a profoundly irrational concept. It denies that the sexual differentiation of the human body has any real meaning, and, indeed turns away from the move away from asexual towards sexual reproduction that can be seen in the move from the lower living forms to the higher. So, secularist society needs to re-engage with reason in the proper sense of that word. Secondly, secularist society needs to engage in the dialogue between science and religion. Some of the recent posts and comments on this blog show a movement of hostility towards religion among scientists. This needs to be replaced by dialogue between scientists and religions.

This dialogue between religion and secularist society seems to me to be just as, if not more more, critical for developing social cohesion than dialogue between religions (though in saying that I do not wish to say that inter-religious dialogue has no part to play, more that it needs to be paralleled by religious-secularist dialogue). Politics appears to be a bit like the Church of England at the moment - promoting an agenda of "social cohesion" whilst at the same time promoting other agendas that militate against dialogue between secularist society and religion. This they do through their hostility towards religiously inspired institutions such as schools and the LGBT agenda.

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