InsightJuly August 2005

The Recovery of Transcendence in Political Order: The Role of Multi-religious Cooperation

Dr. William F. Vendley


I want to acknowledge the presence of our distinguished friends in the French Chapter of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.[1]

Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy has caused a little tempest here in France by challenging laïcité, acknowledging the importance of religion in France, and supporting a “laïcité positive” that contemplates public funding for religions. Whatever we may think regarding this particular proposal, or perhaps about similar ones being advanced by political parties in the United States, there arises a fundamental question as to whether or not there can be space for God in the public order. That profound question goes to the heart of the remarks that I would like to share with you today.  My remarks are focused upon secular political orders, those heirs of the political revolutions that took place some 200 years ago, notably in France.

Sarkozy is controversial in his engagement with religion as a politician, but he is hardly alone. In the United States, President Bush frequently employs religious imagery and acknowledges the influence of his personal faith on his political outlook. Indeed, today in France, in the United States, and in other secular democracies, religion at times appears like a political football advanced by one party and rejected by another. Here in Europe, the debate over whether to mention God in the European Constitution re-exposed old fault lines, but it seems that this debate, at least in the press, explored the issues only superficially.  Has the debate examined the issues at the level of political order?  It seems the answer is no.  And in general, when it comes to politicians it often seems that those who have “favorable” positions in relationship to religion may be using or even distorting religion, while those who refuse to engage the question of religion’s relevance in public life may be trying to pass over what simply will not be ignored.

It is fitting to raise this topic here in Paris, at the seat of UNESCO, the institution charged with marshalling what might be called our “civilizational wealth” for the building of peace.  UNESCO works among diverse political communities.  Some of these communities were inspired by great traditions of transcendence.  Others explicitly rejected notions of transcendence.  So, how can UNESCO work to advance peace in this situation?

The French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, gave an admirable and still relevant account of the challenge in his inaugural address to the second international conference of UNESCO in 1947.  He noted the deep divisions in the human community and that it had become increasingly difficult to even bring to consciousness the implicit philosophies to which each of us, willy-nilly, are committed in actual fact.  However deep we may dig, there is no longer any common foundation for speculative thought.  There is no common language for it.

Maritain’s answer as to how UNESCO can work is instructive.  He notes that UNESCO’s goal is a practical one; agreement among its members can be achieved, not on common speculative notions, but on common practical notions; not in the affirmation of the same conception of the world, humanity and knowledge, but on the affirmation of a similar set of convictions concerning action.  Maritain goes on to note that this is doubtless very little.  It is in his words “the last refuge of intellectual agreement among men.”[2]  Yet, he argues with courage that it is enough to try to undertake a “great work.”

Maritain’s argument, if closely attended, can also serve as an intellectual rationale for today’s multi-religious cooperation.  Each religion can be understood as having its own distinct and quite different grounding and self-interpretation.  But can they cooperate?  How can different religions advance this common work, based upon this “last refuge of intellectual agreement among men?” Can our religious communities find deeply held and widely shared concerns to which they can commit with the full strength of their philosophical and religious convictions?

In my experience, cooperation among the world’s religious communities is going forth on the basis of practical commitment and it has enormous potential to achieve Maritain’s “great work.”

Perhaps no form of cooperation has greater potential to improve conditions for more people worldwide than the cooperation of the world’s religious communities. Consider the following realities:  Of the world’s six billion people, five billion identify themselves as members of religious communities. Of the 25 million who live in zones of conflict, 23 million could be accessed through their religious communities.  Of the 40 million who have HIV/AIDs, up to 35 million could be reached through their religious communities.  Of the 3 billion who live on less than two dollars a day, some 2.8 billion could be reached through their religious communities.  Religious communities are already present on the front lines of today’s major challenges.  Their potential to meet the challenges of our time is a vast, still relatively untapped resource, and I believe that cooperation is a key to unleashing this potential.

Religions for Peace builds, equips and networks Inter-Religious Councils and groups that harness the largely untapped power of religious communities to establish peace, transform conflict and advance sustainable development.

Examples of multi-religious cooperation achieving tangible results on the ground abound within the Religions for Peace international network.  Religious communities are working together to mediate wars, educate for peace and address HIV/AIDS.  This is important and necessary work. But the question I wish to pose today goes deeper.

By framing the work of Religions for Peace in a way analogous to the work of UNESCO, our multi-religious work can appropriately be understood in profoundly practical terms. The related practical ends are relatively non-controversial. They deal with transforming conflicts, promoting peace, and advancing sustainable development. The entire project of multi-religious cooperation is thus framed in terms accessible to all, whether religious or nonreligious. It is framed in terms of deeply held and widely shared concerns regarding major problems cutting across our respective communities.

Surely this practical work will always be necessary in our world and existentially important for committed religious believers, but is it enough?  So framed, multi-religious cooperation does not raise the question of God, and does not even try to relate it to questions of political order.  But could it?  Could multi-religious cooperation help to make space for God in the public order? More specifically, and perhaps a bit more carefully, could multi-religious cooperation be the very way in which an opening to transcendence can re-enter the public square?

The Exclusion of Transcendence as the Cause of Secular Dis-order

 Allow me to restrict my remarks to the modern Western tradition.  I would basically like to maintain that the exclusion of transcendence from political order is the fundamental source of secular dis-order.  This may sound like a profoundly ungrateful, if not deeply cranky position.  Has not the modern secular period been attended by a growth in democratic institutions, personal freedoms and tolerance among different groups?

Surely, there have been tremendous gains made by the traditions we recognize as “modern.”  I live by these gains, am grateful for them and want to acknowledge them as forms of progress.

But, to help me make my point, I ask you to offer me another allowance:  grant the existence of religious believers’ convictions regarding the reality of the experience of transcendence.  This is not the time and place to try to provide an intellectual defense of these convictions, although I believe that one can be offered.

If you grant this allowance, it will not be hard to show that the modern Western trajectory is a history of the successive exclusion of transcendence from political order.   From a religious perspective, this exclusion of transcendence is anything but a minor “disorder.”  Rather, it can be argued that this exclusion is the fundamental root “disorder” of modern Western political life.

The claim for disorder occasioned by the exclusion of transcendence is not addressed either to the political right or left:  an examination of the last century shows that both right and left forms of secular governance, political forms that formally excluded transcendence, have deaths to account for within the range of 100 million.  Eric Voegelin, the European political philosopher whose thought has helped me in shaping my remarks, speaks of the last century as “modernity without restraint,” as if its ghastly record exposes in the last century what was being unleashed at its origins.[3]  Such a record should make us ponder carefully when today we hear, all too frequently, that religion is the major source of conflict.   Surely in the last century, it was secular political ideologies, not religions in the ordinary sense, that clashed with such extreme vehemence.

What, then, do we mean by transcendence?  The fundamental experience of transcendence is the consciousness of an existential tension towards the Divine ground.  From a religious point of view, turning into, even embracing, this existential tension toward the Divine ground has been understood as a “conversion,” a “tuning” of the soul to the good.  Within the soul open to its Divine ground there is disclosed the “order” of the soul.  The soul is poised between earth and its mysterious, uncreated Source that it cannot master or control.  In the experience of transcendence, the soul cannot have itself by itself.  It must turn toward the Divine ground to which it is existentially oriented.  And, only in this turning toward the Divine ground does the soul both find itself with and for the other.

In the classical view, differentiated by Plato and Aristotle but adapted by Jewish, Christian and Islamic theologies, human understandings of truth require the participation of the Divine in the process of knowing.  The participation of the Divine might be understood as mediated by the Platonic Agathon, the Aristotelian Nous, or the Thomistic ratio aeterna.  These words do not refer to a tangible object in the external world, and thus cannot refer to reality according to modern notions of science.  To modern science, these words must be a fiction.  However, for religious people these terms, or variants of them, point to a reality that is experienced.  Further, religious people know that the experience of something like the Nous, by which the Divine participates in our knowing, depends on openness for transcendent experience.  Existential closure and estrangement from transcendence limit our abilities to acknowledge it.

Turning into the Divine ground that opens out beyond the soul attunes the soul to its own transcendental order.  By the same token, turning away from the Divine ground becomes the fundamental experience of disorder.  Plato extends this radical insight by working out the parallelism between the order of the soul and the order of city.  This parallel notion is both kept and transformed by Augustine, refined by Aquinas and was still present in France in a half-modern form in the brilliant 16th century work of Jean Bodin.  But today, it no longer holds in the public square.

But what shall be the basis of political order, if not the fundamental order disclosed by the soul’s existential orientation to its Divine ground?

Thomas Hobbes is particularly clear among the modern thinkers who eliminate the transcendent basis of social and political life in their theoretical analysis.  His thinking is instructive of the kind of fundamental dis-order that arises from the elimination of transcendence from political order.  When Hobbes attempts to remove transcendence from political order, it requires that something else must replace the transcendental ground as the orienting force for existential and social order.  Transcendence orients both the soul and society to the Divine ground, the summum bonum, as the basis of order.  With the removal of the summum bonum by the elimination of transcendence, there also disappears the source of order for both the soul and for society.  For, the order of the soul and the community depends on the common nous, which provides a shared experience of the summum bonum.  With the elimination of the nous, Hobbes is faced with the problem of constructing an order of society from isolated individuals not oriented toward a common purpose, but only motivated by their individual passions.  For Hobbes, the common passion that orders political and social life is fear.  The summum bonum is replaced by the summum malum as the order of society and politics.  This shift in the foundation of political order is not a small change, hardly a mere re-arranging of the furniture in our common room.

The great value of Hobbes is his clarity.  With him it becomes quite clear that if transcendence is not to be the basis of the order of the soul and of society, something else must be.

But from the religious perspective, transcendence is real.  Removing the transcendental source of order from political science does not change the ontological structure of reality.  From the religious perspective, substituting the summum bonum for the summum malum as the basis of order is tantamount to a profound dis-order.  The transcendent ground of the soul is rendered merely immanent, or “this worldly.”  But this is not stable.  On the one hand, the claim that there is any truth at all beyond ideology is easily surrendered.  Everything is relative, everything is situational.  What is truth?  Today, the question is usually met with an existential and intellectual skepticism which feigns tolerance to all views, but perhaps reveals a narcissistic closure to deeper questions of our spirit.  On the other hand, perhaps in reaction to a spirit-deadening relativity, the merely worldly — be it notions of race, ethnicity, economic ideology or even a religion misinterpreted and cut off from its own moorings in transcendence — are all too easily made “absolute.”   Then, the path to political religions can be both short and deadly, as the last century shows too well.  And even short of war, we are right to worry over totalizing dimensions of modern order – be they political or economic – that kill the soul, if not the body.

During the Cold War, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, speaking at Harvard University, critiqued both Socialism and Western materialism, pointed to the flaws in modern humanism and diagnosed the need for a “major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.” “It will demand from us,” Solzhenitsyn argued, “a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era.”[4]

Multi-religious Cooperation and the Recovery of Transcendence

Solzhenitsyn’s call for a “spiritual blaze” is suggestive and awaited amid still burning coals and small flickering flames.  But his suggestive term underlines our thesis.  First and foremost, the overcoming of political dis-order depends upon the recovery of the soul’s experience of its own order disclosed in transcendence.  Surely, this can be no simple return to the efforts and categories of the past.  Carefully contemplating these previous attempts can no doubt be helpful; they can profoundly stimulate and inform our analogical imaginations.  Yet, in the final analysis our work in our time must be based upon our own cultivations of transcendence.  We must work to return again and again to the consciousness of the grounding reality that lies out beyond our selves.  In short, the recovery of transcendence in political order depends in a most fundamental way on the recovery of transcendence by people.

A similar point has been made by Vaclav Havel who now openly points to the need for transcendence in political order.  President Havel notes that “in today’s multi-cultural world, the truly reliable path to co-existence, to peaceful co-existence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies – it must be rooted in self-transcendence.”[5]

Living a life of transcendence always demands courage.  Trying to live transcendence in a dis-ordered society, one that has lost the language of transcendence can demand even more.  Before the accomplished, the captains, the hard-headed realists of secular orders, it can even feel embarrassing.  It seems so out of date, so irritatingly passé, so naive, so foolish to speak of transcendence to those who have mastered the rules of an order that has excluded it.

And yet, it would seem unmistakably clear that the cultivation of genuine, contemporary spiritualities of transcendence must form the base and provide the foundation for a renewal of political order.  Cultivating powerful and sustained experiences of transcendence in today’s world is, without doubt, the most elemental contribution that our religious communities can make.  Further, building on these experiences of transcendence, religious communities are challenged to tackle the shape of political order.  They are challenged to mediate their own understandings of the transcendental order of the person into forms of political order that are open to and respectful of transcendence.

But how can this be done today while respecting a genuine plurality of views?  That is our fundamental challenge.  And it is proper to ask what role multi-religious cooperation can play in allowing for a re-entrance of transcendence into political order.

The question is quite large and my contribution is necessarily limited and formal, really just a hint pointing a way forward.

Recall with me the words of Jacques Maritain. He noted in the words I cited in my beginning that “however deep we dig, there is no longer any common foundation for speculative thought.  There is no common language for it.”

Let’s ponder his last sentence:  “there is no common language for it.” I have great sympathy for Maritain’s reserve, but I also wonder if we may be seeing a development that can give us some hope.

Languages are open systems: they are creative; they develop. And something is developing with the language religious communities are using as they work together to commitment themselves to take practical action on the basis of what Maritain calls “the last refuge of intellectual agreement among men.”

Many religious communities have opened the door to effective religious cooperation by in effect becoming bilingual.[6] Every faith tradition has its own primary language that defines the religious community. Traditions make clear that this primary religious language develops.  It is open, dynamic and genetic.  It provides the grammar of identity for religious communities as they make their way through time, orienting them to their past, presents and futures.

But primary religious language, despite its elemental power, is not a language for engaging other religious communities or the public. Representatives of religious communities are now also learning to speak in public language. Religious communities are learning how to transpose their moral concerns, anchored in their respective primary languages, into a shared public language.  This shared public language provides a medium to clarify agreements and differences on important moral issues, and serves as a basis for cooperative action, the kind of practical action of which Maritain speaks.

But is this all that is possible?  Can only practical concerns be mediated into public language?  If religious communities can transpose their practical moral concerns into public languages, what about their other concerns?  What should stop religious communities from also mediating their experiences of transcendence, the order of the soul, and the exigencies for political order into public language?

We could cite suggestive examples:  HRH Prince Hassan, the Moderator of Religions for Peace, wrote the late Pope John Paul II to share his admiration, as a committed Muslim, for the social teachings of the Catholic Church.  Prince Hassan recognized that, in addition to their religious grounds, the body of social teachings could be largely argued for on the basis of public forms of rationality open to transcendence.  In his letter, Prince Hassan shared his own understandings of core Islamic experiences of spirituality that could also be mediated in public ways as resources for the development of forms of political order open to both pluralism and transcendence.

We might argue that today our public language is precisely ill-equipped to express such exalted topics.  We might point out that today our public language is formally reductive and does not allow such topics to be expressed.  But while this is largely true, is that an adequate response?  Why should we presume that public language is finished, closed, and not open to development?  It strikes me that the development of public language, or languages of transcendence, as well as public notions of political order open to transcendence, is one of the great challenges to our religions.

Let me conclude with an image that has often helped me.  Before I moved to an apartment in New York City, I had a home in the country with a rather large study.  On the wall behind my desk, I fixed a chart some three meters across and over a meter high.  On the vertical axis of the chart were listed the known civilizations of our human family, while the histories of their rising, falling, dying or developing were marked out across the three meter width.   The chart provided me with a wonderful image of our human family.  What struck me, as I pondered it, was the brevity of what we call the modern experience.  It made up about the last 2 centimeters of the three meter chart.

These last 2 centimeters contain the period of political order that excludes transcendence.  And yet virtually everything that leads to these 2 centimeters were periods of political order informed by differing notions of transcendence, however compact or however differentiated they might have been.

Does not this image of the chart suggest a great labor for our religious communities?  A labor that would engage our analogical imaginations as we both recall our pasts and work to summon the creativity required to express transcendence going forward.  Are we to suppress our histories and disallow the profound experiences of transcendence that have brought us into the modern period?  Or, can we, instructed by them as living traditions of transcendence, labor in our own time to transpose our own historically shaped but contemporary religious experiences of transcendence into public language relevant to building political order open to transcendence?

Formulating public languages of transcendence will be no guarantee of progress.  Such language will have to compete with other forms of public discourse that refuse transcendence.  And yet, transcendent public language can express and also guide those who taste the thrall of the soul’s existential pull to its Divine ground.

In short, I believe we in Religions for Peace have two tasks:  The first shall always be with us.  It is the practical task, one freighted with enormous existential meaning, of working together to transform conflicts, build peace and advance sustainable development.  These practical tasks express well the concerns of religious people.

But there is a second task, one to be carried out concurrent with the first.  It is our concern for order:  for political, social and economic orders that are open to and in their own ways honor the full mystery and dignity of each person disclosed in the soul’s orientation to its Divine ground.

While we carry together the buckets of water to put out today’s fires, let us also carry the bricks we need in order to build together.  Let us cultivate our own most radical and inclusive experiences of transcendence and related notions of order, but then, let us learn how to speak of them in our churches, synagogues and mosques, and also in our public squares in ways that embrace differences.

Perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s great “spiritual blaze” shall yet come.  In the meantime, we have our work to do.

[1] Founded in 1970 as an international, non-sectarian organization, the World Conference of Religions for Peace is now the largest coalition of the world’s religious communities. The International Governing Board of Religions for Peace includes Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Indigenous leaders.

[2] Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason (1952), pp. 180-81.

[3] In addition to Voegelin’s many works, helpful for my speech has been Michael P. Federici, Eric Voegelin (Wilimington, Delaware:  2002)

[4] Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, Commencement Address Delivered at Harvard University, June 8, 1978.

[5] Vaclav Havel, The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World, A speech made at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1994.

[6] For a more extended discussion of religious bi-lingualism see William F. Vendley, “Religious Difference and Shared Care:  The Need for Primary and Secondary Language,” Church and Society (September/October 1992), 16-29.


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