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The Sacred and the Secular:

Complementary or Conflictual in Global Times?

        September 15-October 17, 2008                                                                Washington, D.C.



Thematic Summary



The following is a concise thematic overview of the September 15 – October 17, 2008 five week seminar held in Washington DC. Sponsored by the Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, it brought together 28 scholars from 16 different countries (listed below). The full text of the papers will be published in 2009 under the title, Sacred and Secular: Complementary or Conflictual (Washington, DC: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2009).


Week I began with a consideration of the important new work, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, Harvard UP, 2007), by Charles Taylor and its perceptive narrative description of the gradual transition across modern times from the age of the sacred in which unbelief was difficult to a secular age in which the contrary is true. Noting his focus on the “social imaginary,” the seminar team sought to locate this in relation to the psychological structure of the human person and its faculties so as to appreciate the mediating role and importance of imagination for all human thought and action, physical as well as spiritual. It sought also to extend Taylor’s narrative by exploring the longer passage of time from the so-called “primitive” religious cultures to the Axial Age, from early philosophy to the age of faith.


Week II in order to proceed from a contemporary public debate on the relation of the sacred and the secular began from the political theory of John Rawls. It was noted that his work, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, Harvard UP, 1999 [1971]) proposed removing religious and other “comprehensive visions” from the public sphere and placing them behind a “veil of ignorance.” In this he sought to develop a “public reason” on the basis of which all can come to agreement about fair rules and laws. He modified this in his Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) and still later in “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” (The University of Chicago Law Review (Summer 1997 64.3) 765 – 807), concluding that: “[R]easonable comprehensive doctrines, religious or non-religious, may be introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course proper political reasons – and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines – are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are said to support.”


Week III began with Habermas’ response, on two principle points, in his 2005 Holberg lecture, “Religion in the Public Sphere.” The first is that even this later position of Rawls is “unfair” by its own liberal democratic standards since it assumes a secular default position insofar as religious citizens are required to justify their political statements independently of their deeply held beliefs, while secular citizens are not required to make an artificial split within their own psyches which in many cases may not even be possible. Rather than “balancing the cognitive burdens,” only the religious citizen is required to translate his or her insights into another, namely, a secular language. In contrast, Habermas would see religious citizens as needing to be able to participate in public debate in their own “language,” and for drafting institutional laws the secular citizens need to share the necessary burdens of translating with religious citizens. This changes the atmosphere from exclusive to inclusive; indeed religious citizens alone can be the final determinants of the adequacy of the translation of their views.

This, in turn, calls for significant hermeneutic insight for which the seminar team turned to the work of Hans Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 2003). Two insights stood out. First, the nature of prejudgments and the impossibility of escaping them to some neutral position or “blank tablet” as a point of departure in the Lockean or Cartesian sense. All are born into a culture and language which provides the basic world view with which one approaches life. Hence, prejudgments are indispensable and we must learn to make them work for us. Second, the importance of meeting another cultural outlook as a way of being freed to draw more deeply on one’s own fundamental values and culture for ways to live in new and changing times.


Week IV noted the second of Habermas’ critique of Rawls mentioned above, namely: that the moral intuitions of the religious traditions have substantive and experienced truth content, such as human dignity and solidarity, accessible to everyone as knowledge and foundational for democratic life. Hence, it is, for Habermas, in the interest of the liberal state to have significant numbers who actively practice their religion lest it be cut off from “key resources for the creation of meaning and identity.” He concluded that a post-metaphysical position must: (1) be prepared to learn from religion even if remaining strictly agnostic, (2) distinguish certainties of faith from validity claims that can be publicly redeemed or criticized, yet (3) refrain from the rationalist temptation to itself decide which part of a religious doctrine is rational. This last proposition replaces Rawls, asymmetrical burden by the need for deep cooperation of, and with, religious citizens as they must be the final judge of which of their tenets have substantive truth content able to be brought meaningfully into the public sphere. To this he adds the condition: “…provided [that the truth contents] can also be spelled out in a generally accessible language” when moving from the informal public sphere to the institutional level of parliaments, courts and administrations.

This, in turn, directed the seminar team’s attention to Paul Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), for its notion of symbol and narrative. Here also two insights stood out. First, the way in which the emergence of science freed myth from the burden of explaining the causes of phenomena, thereby enabling it more clearly and fully to perform its function as symbol. And second, that this pointed inexorably to an immanent grounding in a “surplus of meaning.” As such it exceeds any human reality including the declarative ability of language: the “surplus” can be encountered only in silence.


Week V had less time but in the newly global context which brings each people into even more intense relationship with increasingly diverse peoples its designated issue was the need for a new paradigm that joins: (a) Gadamer’s need to encounter the other in order to draw more deeply upon the roots of one’s own culture, and (b) Ricoeur’s rooting of cultures in silence before that unutterable “surplus of meaning” which the religious narrative at the root of each great civilization implies and requires.

It seems not possible even to begin such a task within the present nominalist/rationalist modern paradigm of a world of radically single individuals each conceived as distinct and acting in terms of their separate “self-interest.” Conceiving religious cultures and their heritages of human meaning in an abstract and formal manner either: (a) isolates them from life experience as irrelevant or even as impediments to one another, (b) understands them univocously thereby rendering irrelevant the unique creativity and contribution of other cultures, and even of one’s own; or (c) sees cultures as essentially contrasting and by implication conflictual.

Taken together, this triple threat points to the fact that life in global times exceeds the modern paradigm in terms of which present structures have been conceived and constructed. Whether in the economic or the political, the military or the communicative order the center no longer holds: things truly fall apart.

On the contrary, as one’s culture is one’s sole purchase on meaning and life, the unique cultures or life projects of the many peoples must not be dismissed, but protected, promoted and related. How can this be done? As works of creative human freedom, cultural traditions are differentiated from within, and hence are rich, distinct and unique. Moreover, beyond the divisive ideologies of modernity, the process of globalization now draws them into an intensive intercultural and intercivilizational whole. This, in turn, creates the challenge of finding new ways of thinking in terms of the unity of the whole, and this in ways that enable a more ample appreciation of the fact that the many diverse cultures are deeply related to each other in and through the very distinctiveness of their reality.

In order to appreciate the varied ways of life as complementary, rather than as conflictual they need to be understood as varied expressions or images of the one unlimited existence, consciousness and bliss, to speak with the Hindu tradition, or perhaps as pointed to by Heidegger’s sense of the emergence of the Dasein. This is Ricoeur’s “sacred” or “surplus” which, being beyond anything human, and hence beyond language, can be expressed only in symbol and narrative. This is what is experienced and lived in the religious narratives and rituals which point beyond secular horizons. These various religious rituals: of forgiveness and reconciliation, of birth, marriage and death and of daily life, both personal and public, enable a participation in the perennial sense of the sacred perceptively brought to light by Mircea Eliade in his exploration of sacred space and sacred time (The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, New York: Harcourt, 1987).


In sum, life today calls for a paradigm and metaphysics of the “whole” to enable mutual understanding and communication between cultures in which each people and civilization is truly complementary. It is now especially urgent to appreciate not only the essential differences, but the relatedness of the world’s cultures in their existential living of the “surplus,” and from this vantage point to develop interchange and dialogue. In this way the newly global age opens new hopes for progress on the basic human challenge of diversity in unity. Such mutual appreciation of cultures enables their most basic and characteristic pursuits to be a process of conscious convergence, echoing Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons.”

The more consciously we approach this goal, the genuinely closer we are to other cultures and civilizations. Taken in this existential sense, convergence becomes communication, and in turn founds loving cooperation. This positive road to peace bespeaks the sacred character of life in the new global world.


The following are the 28 seminar participants, representing 16 countries:


The Visiting Scholars:

Arifa Farid (Pakistan), Hsien-Chung Lee (Taiwan), Plamen Makariev (Bulgaria), Agustín Domingo Moratalla (Spain), Hippolyte Ngimbi Nseka (Congo), Alois Agus Nugroho (Indonesia), Debika Saha (India)


The Local Participants:

Margot Badran (USA), Peter M. Collins (USA), Joe Donders (USA/Holland), John Farrelly (USA), John Staak (USA), Gadis Arivia (Indonesia), Lambert Mbom (Cameroon), D.Ali Aykit (Turkey), Khalil Shadeed (USA), Jia Limin (China).


The Invited Guest Lecturers:

Karim Crow (Singapore), Holger Zaborowski (Germany), Abdolkarim Soroush (Iran), William McBride (USA), Very Rev. Alexander Abramov (Russia)


The RVP staff: George F. McLean (USA), Peter J. Colosi (USA), John P. Hogan (USA), Florencio Riguera (Philippines), Ahmed Iravani (Iran). 










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