Monday, 21 July 2008

Reconcilliation: Traditions and Laws

It has been a while since I have been to Birmingham. The last time was to present a paper on social justice philanthropy at the university and I must admit that I was not greatly taken by the city. Mainly because I was here for such a short time. I am hoping to correct this outlook this time round. I decided not to fly down this time either and opted for the more environment friendly means of transport in the form of Virgin Trains. I was reluctant to undertake this summer school because it has been so close to my 4 week tennis sojourn to Wimbledon and other grass tournaments.

I was invited to this summer school by Adam Seligman, Professor of Religion at Boston University, who I met the Shalom Hartman Institutes Theology Conference. So here is a quick recap of our first lecture. Adam believes that the models of co-existence that we previously held, and by we he is talking about people of a previous generation. Am I excluded? Cheeky! This was the separation of the religious and secular. This is a problematic assumption. This is not about the separation of Church and State as this is easily confused with the notion that you can clearly distinguish with what is religious and what is secular, playing baseball is secular and going to Church is religious. This is something he does not accept. There are sacred traditions which do not separate what is religious and what is secular. The examples, Jewish person who doesn’t observe commandments, no dietary restrictions, does not visit synagogue, does light candles, fasts on Yom Kippur – are they religious or secular? If we are basing our understanding of religious based on traditions then who is defining the tradition?

Traditions are contested and they are continually contested. There are many reasons for this. The main conclusion is that the division is not easy to make. When traditions are based on practice it is difficult to make the distinction between religious and secular because there is an endless movement within practitioners. A tradition that bases itself to a belief or creed it is much easier to make the distinction between religious and secular. It is much easier to dismiss or accept. These distinctions, he says, came from the Christian tradition in European history in the form of the Christian reformation. A lot of the categories that we take as self understood come from a very particular moment in history and they don’t translate all that well in the modern period with other realities.

The liberal solution to living together differently is based on the public/private distinction. This is rooted in the protestant reformation of the autonomy of individual conscience. The right to find God in his or her own way. The first right was the freedom of conscience. Through your own means of reason you will arrive at the correct moral decision. The problem with this is that there are faiths that are heteronymous, which require the believer to do certain things. Reason is not a math – reason is a ‘how to’ and is based on all sorts of factors.

Adam believes that the moral autonomy of the individual is a very European tradition. However, I disagree as there are many examples in the Islamic world of antinomian movements, especially Sufi who wanted to strengthen the direct relationship with God as opposed to set laws and traditions.

We had a short discussion on the issue of fear. Fear – two categories, why do we fear difference? Difference threatens our coherence. The ‘narcissism of the small difference’ by Sigmund Freud. Someone who is totally different is not threatening. Someone who shares a lot with me and is close to me then this becomes threatening. The other fear is based on control. Convincing someone on an issue becomes a matter of control.

In the afternoon we visited Coventry Cathedral which was very sombre as it is the site which took nearly eleven hours of German bombings during the war. It now houses a centre for reconciliation. The statue that you see was created by Josefina de Vasconcellos who made it at the age of 90 in the spirit of reconciliation. Some say the two figures represent Germany and Britain and some say it represents God and Humanity. It is a lovely image. The old building still has its ‘shell’ and is in great contrast to the modern looking cathedral that is situated adjacent to it. Our group stayed for the ‘Evensong’ which was really beautiful, it is a sermon through song and it completed the day in the most Godly sense.

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