E s s a y s
WHY ARE WE IN THE WORLD?
(Colloquium „Forms of Modernity – Vision of Modernity“in the office of President Köhler at Palace Bellevue, Berlin October 20th 2009)
Why are we in the world? In order to ask this question. So that we may ask it over and over again. So that it should remain an open question for us. So that we should seek an answer, but never be content with any answer.
Every human life is a fresh experiment. It is always a new answer, of varying degrees of boldness and creativity - to the question of meaning, which is posed each time in a new context and new conditions.
Every act in our lives contains in itself a practical, partial answer to the question of meaning. Philosophy makes this question and the answer to it explicit. It ponders on them and interprets what happens in human practice, in everyday life – and it also studies the answers provided by religion, art and science.
The question of the meaning of human life relates to such an underlying and profound mystery that it would be an act of folly to declare one single answer exhaustive, final and alone true. It is not sensible to give any one form of enquiry (whether it be religion, science or art) a monopoly, or rule out or disparage any of them a priori. It is important both to seek our own answers and also to return to answers contained in the treasure-house of various cultural traditions and to re-interpret them again and again in the light of our experience and our own questions. The era of globalization provides additional scope for such a dialogue between cultures and generations (one that also can prevent the “clash of civilizations”).
The relationship between the question of meaning and the answers is analogous to the relationship between religion and faith. Religion is tradition, a treasury of answers assembled by previous generations. (In this concept it is hard to distinguish between religion and culture; I understand religion to be the core of every culture, a place where the question of meaning assumes the form of a question about ultimate concern). Religion is always a “common heritage”; it is related to concepts such as the past, history, continuity, community, sharing, and authority. It demands faithfulness.
Faith is a personal, individual and existential answer to the question of meaning. It is part of a dialogue. The individual has a sense of being addressed and called upon. Faith transforms life from a monologue into a dialogue. A person of faith is not simply concerned about self-fulfilment and self-assertion. In faith one learns to listen and respond, to act responsibly. Every act in people’s lives tells something about their faith. It “embodies” a faith (which itself often remains implicit and unconsidered). I am speaking precisely about people’s faith that is manifested in the practice of their lives (and which sometimes can be in a state of tension with what they consciously declare “with their lips”).
“The crisis of religion” represents a great opportunity for faith. Faith often emerges from religious crisis – take, for instance, the prophets of Israel, who would seem to have been the first protagonists of a position of faith. Faith often comes into existence when people are dissatisfied with tradition, with the “religion of the fathers”, and they do not remain tied to the past but instead open themselves up to the mystery of the future. From the point of view of the religion of ancient Rome, Jews and Christians alike were regarded as atheists.
The God spoken of in the Bible is present in (and absent from) people’s lives as the future. The future is something invisible to us. It is not here and is totally beyond our control. Nevertheless we are utterly dependent on it. To have no future means to be dead. Sometimes we explicitly relate our hopes, wishes, fears or plans to the future, but even when we are not thinking of it at all, we unconsciously count on it and take it for granted.
To a large extent, the fate of civilization depends on the relationship of people’s individual faith to religion, tradition and culture. Religion is a treasure-house of wisdom and cultivates our personal faith. Faith requires a certain detachment from the “religion of the fathers”. However, was it to remain entirely cut off from religion, tradition and culture it would run the enormous risk of remaining superficial, dilettantish or non-communicable.
Likewise, a religion totally impervious to the influx of new experiences of faith - absolutely untouched by renewal movements, reforms and re-interpretations - would be dead.
Modernity in Europe, which was a major crisis in the existing form of religion and in the relationship to religion, represented a great opportunity for faith. However, the faith to which that crisis gave rise would seem to have been separated with such finality from religion that it paradoxically gave birth to various “substitute religions”, and to various ideologies.
I have in mind the “religion of progress” - that naive trust in the power of science and technology, or the idolatry of nation or race, the mystique of revolution, promises of an earthly paradise. All those ideologies proved to be blind alleys. The crimes and tragedies caused by regimes based on the pseudo-religions of modernity indicate how much they aped the darker side of traditional religions (they were often incapable of copying its nobler aspects; their leaders tended to resemble latter-day Grand Inquisitors rather than such figures as Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas or Theresa of Calcutta).
This city of Berlin saw the demise of the two most tragic experiments in secular religion. The fall of the one – in 1945 – was marked by bloodshed and torment, the fall of the other – in 1989 – by laughter and jubilation. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by the collapse of the Manhattan skyscrapers and with them the illusion that the liberal society of the West would we accepted by the entire world as the victorious end of history. The global economic crisis set in motion by the collapse of banking houses in Manhattan, demonstrates the dark side of that “moneytheism” that silently supplanted traditional monotheism over the course of the modern period.
The crisis of the “pseudo-religions of modernity” once more represents an opportunity for faith and also a chance to encounter the traditional religion (or religions) of the past. My guess is, however, that most of the phenomena to which we apply the blanket diagnosis of “religious revival” will fail to take the opportunity.
We cannot behave as if modernity never happened. We cannot simply enter the world of the past. Attempts at “playing at the past” have given rise to today’s calamitous forms of traditionalism and fundamentalism, which result in dangerous tragedies when they seek to assert themselves by violence.
As a Christian and a theologian, I consider that the secular character of society (and I live in a country considered to be one of the most secularized societies of the planet) represents a great opportunity and challenge. Religion cannot be for granted; this is a challenge to achieve a fresh (and possibly deeper) understanding of it. If “God is hidden”, we can either ignore him or forget about him, or we can accept this situation as an opportunity for adventurous and courageous seeking.
If the critical attitude to religion that is often described as atheism remains critical and self-critical (and refuses to become a substitute religion) it can be a valuable ally of faith. It can help faith prepare the way by fulfilling one of its important tasks – overturning idols and helping to destroy the pathological forms of religion.
We cannot know how well Euro-Atlantic civilization will manage to tackle the problems that it has caused, we cannot know how well it will fare on the global market of goods and ideas in competition with civilizations that now seem much more vigorous. Maybe we’ll end up playing second fiddle in the global concert, and maybe new and more successful players will bring about a substantial change of repertoire, and the music heard in the planetary auditorium will be alien to our taste and customs.
Europe should definitely take stock of its historical experience and reflect upon it, whether that reflection will serve those who will have the courage to confront Europe’s self-destructive trends or those who are willing to learn from the mistakes that we ourselves will be no longer capable of remedying.
I am profoundly convinced that a major component of such learning from European history is the urgent call for dialogue and complementarity between faith and reason, between religion and secularism, between hope and skepticism and between enthusiasm and irony.
As a Christian theologian I cannot see salvation in a mere return to some of the historical forms of Christianity – to “good old-time religion” - but instead in a realization that Christianity is a “religion of paradox”. “When I am weak, then I am strong,” St Paul wrote. If Christianity manages to find an opportunity in its present weakness, it will prove capable of helping people not to let up in their search for an answer to the question about the meaning of life.