“Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.”

Tomorrow and Friday there will be a conference on what it means to combine religion and modernity. Details, speakers, and abstracts Here. Currently, modernity is not seen as secular process, rather each religious group creates its own religious modernity. This means that each and every religious group has its own narrative of modernity. Furthermore, modernity does not mean the 18th and 19th century values of autonomy, rationalization, individualization, or modern knowledge. It involves many other aspects. Those of you who use the words modern Orthodox or Modern Orthodox, the volumes produced by this conference will help you evaluate what you might mean.

On November 18-19, dozens of scholars, religious leaders, business people, and intellectuals will gather in New York for the public launch of a new, multi-year project called “Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.” Based on the premise that Catholic, Muslim, and secular modernities each bring distinctive resources to the task of illuminating and resolving an array of characteristically modern problems, the project will examine the dynamic co-existence and competition of these “multiple modernities”—as well as the conflicts and contentions among them—with the aim of opening “new paths for constructive engagement between and among religion and secular people and institutions.”

In anticipation of the launch of this new project, we asked a distinguished group of scholars: What is gained by framing research on religion, secularity, and modernity in terms of “multiple” or “contending” modernities, and what “new paths for constructive engagement” might such a frame afford?

There are 12 speakers, here are some relevant aspects from the abstracts of 4 of them

R. Scott Appleby, John M. Regan Jr. Director, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Professor of History, University of Notre Dame was instrumental in the Fundamentalist project. He thinks the current criteria is whether the groups are “deliberating and acting together for global justice?” Does Modern Orthodoxy participate in global justice? Does it work on inclusivism?

Modernity, scholars now agree, is not a linear, a priori, exclusively Western-originated, inspired, or driven project. “It” takes multiple forms, admits of no discernible telos, and emerges from discursive communities with both overlapping and incommensurate epistemologies and worldviews.

To make matters all the more complex, these supposedly self-contained discursive communities are themselves internally plural, and their priorities and self-understandings internally contested. Not least, they are culturally, economically, and physically “all over the map.”…

All of this is good news for religious communities, especially, which not so long ago were considered virtually irrelevant to “the project.”

Then the question becomes: how to translate disparate historical experiences into platforms or frames for “deliberating and acting together for global justice?”

Not everyone can or will play: these worlds are vast and divided, with remote or inaccessible parts. But the crosscultural conversation has already begun, and now it must become ever more explicit and, as possible, inclusive.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, J. Donald Monan Professor, Department of Theology, Boston College offers another definition. Does modern orthodoxy fit into this definition? Does it have a universal language? Why does it still buy into the myth that there is a neutral objective secular sphere?

“Modernity” brings global movements for democracy, women’s rights, human rights, and the environment. It also carries increased conflict within states, huge gaps between rich and poor, climate change, “superpower” hegemony, and global economic collapse.

Modern Catholicism has developed a universalizing language of the common good, mutual rights and duties, and global social justice. Catholicism aspires to be a moral voice for all citizens of “the modern world.”

“Contending Modernities” will increase understanding and respect between these different worldviews. More importantly, each can assist the other to renegotiate what it means to live faithfully before God and responsibly in a global environment. The dynamic of productive and self-critical interreligious “contention” is essential to meeting shared modern challenges constructively and creatively.

But there is no such thing as a “neutral” and “objective” secular sphere. “Secularity” is itself grounded in particular historical experiences, such as Enlightenment resistance to religious authority, sixteenth-century religious wars in Europe, evolving democratic regimes, growth of market capitalism, and defending the rationality of Western nation states and their agendas.

Robert Orsi, Professor of Religion, Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies, Northwestern University complains about the term Catholic modernity because Catholicism has been a force for rejecting modernity. Since Orthodoxy has been a social and psychological force for rejecting modernity, people choose it to find safety in the tradition or mesorah, then is the very term Modern Orthodox an oxymoron?

But it is a sleight of nomenclatural hand to rename Catholic life since the 18th century as one among “multiple modernities” without attention to the ironies and contradictions of such a claim and to the tragedies the phrase masks. Catholicism has long stood fiercely against the protections and rights offered by secular modernity, including women’s equality, the freedom of sexual identity, respect for children’s autonomy, and reproductive choice. The church objected to democracy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aligning itself with repressive political regimes around the world. Better the torture cells of a pious dictator than a condom!

The various goods of modernity were hard won; the language of multiple modernities obscures the fact that Catholicism was one of the major obstacles to their achievement

Eboo Patel, Founder and President, Interfaith Youth Coreworks associates modernity with diversity. Since Modern Orthodoxy is about living in an homogeneous enclave then are they modern? Is there any difference between the left and the right if both of them only live in isolated neighborhoods. As one of my students put it. “Modern Orthodoxy means never meeting a gentile until graduate school.” Does modern orthodoxy choose authority over diversity? Does it see Orthodoxy as choice or necessity?

British academic Anthony Giddens claims that modernity has one chief characteristic: frequent interaction between people from different backgrounds. The chief question for religions is how to engage this diversity. Or, as Peter Berger bluntly put it, “Modernity pluralizes.”

Many religious leaders view the presence of diversity as a serious challenge to their authority. They could once pass down their ways of being, believing, and belonging to the next generation without multiple sets of other ways competing with them. To draw from Berger again, where they could once reasonably present their traditions as fate, now the next generation views those ways as a choice.

This post of mine from Dec 2009, Modern Orthodoxy- Modern meant Moral Self-transformation is relevant to this discussion. Since everyone is modern in the temporal sense, to go out of one’s way to call yourselves modern needs a specific aspiration.

2 responses to ““Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.”

  1. I find it interesting how quickly everyone has changed in such a relatively short time. When Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese rulers were on the ascendency, no one except fascists spoke of different paths to modernity, even though those countries were prime examples of modernity in terms of science, industrial development, sexual relations and aesthetics. When Stalin and Mao were transforming their countries all in the name of modernization, no one except diehard Stalinists spoke how we should not judge these societies on the basis of enlightenment values. But when it come to Islam, no matter if they are promoting Gulf brands of medieval intolerance or the Iranian Shiite version of messianism, we line up to do apologetics… You have to understand that democracy, liberty, free markets, autonomy are only one way amongst many ways, etc,. and in any case Protestant values are the ideological face of neo-liberalism, ie. capitalism run amuck… Everybody has become a cynic.

    So I smell a rat. I think in only inviting Catholics and Muslims and some “modernism has nothing to do with secularism” types, plus the ever affable Martin Marty, there is an implicit criticism of the Protestants and their way to a decent, tolerant society. We are going to hear talk from Catholics about the Muslim way to finding God which morphs into the Islamic path to Jesus. Both groups want global hegemony and have difficulty with exceptions, individualism and autonomy. There is more going on here than a pitch for communitarians, and it is a separate from the recent discussions about Paul. It’s somehow the idea that only a Catholic worldview is sufficiently capacious and universal to find a way to coexist with Islamic universalism.

    (You should take a look at the Milbank-Zizek exchanges which is growing daily, and this book edited by Caputo, “St. Paul among the Philosophers.” This literature is confusing, what is the Maoist Badiou doing darshening St. Paul? One person out there representing Jewish thinking is Boyarin, beginning with his book on Paul. Maybe you can help by giving us a road map of the players and what values they represent. )

  2. EJ-
    I think you put your finger on it. Very sharp. As I was typing, I was wondering, hmm this sounds a bit Marxist of the Ernesto Laclau or Talal Asad variety, and a little Muslim liberation theology thrown in. This is a similar group to the Fundamentalist Project, they noticed a change but got the interpretation completely wrong. If you never read Peter Berger’s critique of the project, you should. We trust Christian Smith and Robert Wuthnow over the Fundamentalist Project. People are Evangelical, Centrist Orthodox or Engaged Yeshivsh not Fundamentalist. I get the same sense here. They do have their finger on a social change and there are things to learn from reading the papers. However, it may need a very different interpretation.
    I will keep my eyes open for the critiques from those not there. Anthony Giddens is solid, and should juxtaposed to Judaism. But there are other interpretations.

    The Caputo volume was from a great conference at Syracuse. I do have a Paul post or two when I get to those pages in something that I am writing. As Jews involved, lets not forget Taubes and Paula Fredrickson.

    I have been bookmarking material on Milbank. But since he is not part of my courses or something that I am working on, then he is ever receding. There are already lots and lots of great blog posts on Zizek-Milbank, even a blogger who just wrote an intro book on the topic. If someone out there like you wants to write a few posts, then I will certainly add my two cents.

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