A Shattered World Coexistence?
The Foundations of Dialogue Among Peoples and Cultures

In this far-reaching interview, Javier Prades, priest and Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the San Damaso Faculty in Madrid, clarifies the terms of the problem and explains the limits of so-called “multiculturalism.” He indicates the factors for sincere dialogue and peaceful relationships among peoples and traditions

edited by Alberto Savorana

New York, September 11, 2001. Madrid, March 11, 2004. The globalized world felt a fear unlike anything it had felt since World War II, much more than what it felt in the Cold War between the two blocs. International terrorism has generated a suspicion that now leaches into the daily fabric of relationships: we can no longer trust the other. This has re-ignited the debate on multiculturalism, that is, the possibility of coexistence between different ethnic groups and traditions. The political scientist Angelo Panebianco wrote recently in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that “multiculturalism is one of the many fruits of cultural relativism, the idea according to which all cultural traditions, even those that deny the principles of individual liberty and juridical equality, must be respected and legally protected as much as our tradition.”
In order to understand the terms of the problem, we met with Javier Prades, a priest of the Madrid diocese, and Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the San Damaso Theological Faculty in the Spanish capital. Fr Prades has been involved for years now in the study of the anthropological and theological foundations for a debate on multiculturalism. Our conversation occurred in the weeks immediately following the Madrid terrorist attacks, which Prades lived together with the Spanish CL community of which he is the responsible.

Fr Prades, has the happy period of that cultural relativism called multiculturalism definitely come to an end? How do you see the situation?
Perhaps it can be useful to recall the roots of this cultural relativism. From the 1950s to the 1970s, a certain European intellectualism abandoned the illuministic thesis of “a culture” as expression of a universal reason, and began to speak of “cultures” in the plural, to indicate particular lifestyles that could be understood only in the context of their concrete situations. According to these intellectuals, the battle against ignorance and prejudice no longer consisted in bringing everyone toward the truth, but in recognizing the insuperable plurality of cultural positions and the corresponding elimination of universality. Human sciences, from history to sociology, from ethnology to cultural anthropology, became the instrument for promoting relativism, in the name of the battle against European ethnocentrism. In terms of the fate of the individual person, the critique of ethnocentrism ended up closing every individual inside his ethnic group. In speaking of “cultures” only in the plural, men of different epochs or of far-away civilizations are denied the possibility of communicating with each other about meanings and values that go beyond the perimeter from which they come. It should come as no surprise, then, that today we have become incapable of laying claim to a criterion of comparison between the different cultural traditions. We cannot do so, because we have renounced universal reason. Thus, we are defenseless against the exasperation of cultural pluralism, even when it reaches the point of denying human rights and the principles of liberty.

In a controversial book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington preconized the future of the world divided inexorably into cultures, with an inevitable discussion of the superiority of Western culture and its universality. He thus proposed the principle of the “common attributes” among peoples. Is this road of values, common to the various civilizations, tenable?
Huntington postulates a future with the world divided inexorably into cultures, and thus a multi-polar world. He does not propose this thesis with the enthusiasm of the champions of the cultural changes of the 1970s, but with bias. And yet even he holds that multi-polarity is equally inevitable: in the world of the future we will be “us against them,” multi-polarly speaking. This situation would lead to the failure of Western culture to impose its universalistic and ethnocentristic claim. In such a world of multiple civilizations, the constructive road consists, for Huntington, in a radical rejection of the thesis of multiculturality within the West. What these common values or attributes might be, after almost 400 pages trying to convince the reader that the world is multi-polar and no longer directed toward unity, he only says in generic terms. So the question remains open about what bases could be used for building such a civilization common to all, and who would decide them.

Questioned by the Times of London, Labour Party member Trevor Phillips (of Afro-Caribbean origin), President of the Commission for Racial Equality and paladin of the cause of immigrants, close to Tony Blair, strongly contested the principle of the multicultural society, sustaining that it has only promoted separation of groups and thus ethnic conflicts. Phillips proposed introducing a policy of “integrating” immigrants into the English model of society. How do you see things, especially in the light of the historic experience of Spain?
The concept of a multicultural society is ambiguous. One can doubt whether a multicultural society has ever existed, in the sense of a society founded upon a plurality of cultures. Today’s pluralistic society depends much more on its Christian premises than on the concept of a multicultural society, ideologically defended, for example, in Andalusia, with the idea of the “coexistence of the three cultures.” Today, when we speak of immigrants integrating into a society with its own model, we are heading in the right direction. The question that arises is whether there exists the social subject able to integrate those who arrive with a different cultural sensibility. In this regard, the West is called today to rediscover its own identity, the roots of which are thousands of years old. Only a living cultural tradition, aware of its identity, can tell immigrants, “Here is the culture into which you are invited to integrate yourselves.”
In terms of Islamic immigrants, after September 11th and March 11th, the situation is very delicate. If, on the one hand, ideological manipulation of “tolerance” is firmly rejected, on the other, we Christians mustn’t let ourselves be poisoned by resentment and hate, which easily touch our hearts. In this sense, we must have a sure will to welcome others, aware of the problems involved in the coexistence with those who are different. It is just as important to be clear with Muslim immigrants, in terms of their effort at integration into the European culture and tradition.

Often the debate unfolds between two opposing poles, universality and particularity. Those who want to affirm their own particularity defend themselves from universality and those who insist on the universality of their position consider every particularity with suspicion. Can any way out be imagined to save both the former and the latter?
Certainly the problem of anthropological and social unity appeared in the history of thought long before the advent of modern times. But it can be suggested that modernity is responsible for the ever-more radical opposition of the two poles, the universal and the particular. The triumph of so-called absolute reason, which is at the origin of modernity, produced the rupture that sharpens the divisions between universal and particular, in such a way that we have lost the possibility for a polar unity, in which the tension of the poles does not negate but, rather, highlights unity.
In order to overcome this exasperation of the tensions, we have to begin from a question, rather than an answer about man’s true reality. We must not take for granted that we already know, but we better ask ourselves, in the light of the Psalm 8, “What is man that You care for him?” Let’s try to establish a starting point that, based on concrete experience, will enable us to keep the two poles of the anthropological tension together. What is not one at the start will not become one. Hence, we see the importance of finding a unitary starting point. If we start from experience, man appears to us as characterized by a dual unity between living for himself and living for another: both elements are necessary to understand what man is. Starting from dual anthropology, we can understand the intrinsic bond between individual and community, on the cultural, social, and political levels. At any rate, the tension between individual and community cannot be eliminated, since it expresses the human contingency insurmountably, as a sign of his mysterious dignity.

Some have raised the question of the relationships among the cultures tied to the three monotheistic religions, which should find their common root in the one God, and thus promote peaceful coexistence. Is this a tenable option? What would the Judeo-Christian God have in common with the Muslim one?
The Second Vatican Council teaches us that Muslims adore the one, living, merciful, and omnipotent God, Creator of heaven and earth. And John Paul II, in his journeys to Islamic countries, always underlined some meeting points in the conception of a one, indivisible God, Creator of all things. He has re-affirmed that together we must proclaim to the world that the name of God is a name of peace. We are called to always value these dimensions, even while being aware of the ambiguities that can exist within Islam, in terms of the confusion of religion and politics, or the difficulty in resolving the problem of the use of violence. This is far different from the ideological attempt to reduce the so-called “three cultures” to a relativistic minimum common denominator, in function of a normally laicist power. Here we are no longer in the context of sincere inter-religious dialogue, but before an ideological use of religion, unfortunately quite often with an anti-Christian bias.

Then again, there are those who seem to place the great religions against the universal values of tolerance, dialogue, and respect for the other, almost as if the experience of belonging to a religion were by nature intolerant. As a Catholic, how do you respond to this objection?
The question is the question of truth. Modern man’s freedom is felt prejudicially unbound by any ties to the truth. We can see well that the consequence is an exasperation of the freedom left without its object, without the truth of the real. The problem of the tie with the truth–and therefore of belonging to something that does not depend on you, but upon which you depend–is precisely every man’s problem, and in this sense the religious man embraces the final, most interesting aspect of the relationship with the real. The Christian lets everyone see that the nature of the relationship with the truth is an event. It is an event, in space and in time, for any dimension of life. It is also an exceptional and unique event, the Fact of Christ, that demands an answer from man in his freedom, within space and time, and “forces” him to face up to this provocation that cannot be erased from human history.

How can the Christian experience contribute to the problem raised by the coexistence of different people in an open society that is ever-more exposed to the danger of interminable conflict?
Christian revelation places the communional dimension of the human being within his constitutive character as the image of God. In every page of the Bible we find frequent echoes of the original sociality of human existence. From the very beginning, man is never alone in his relationship with God. The original human relationality, by which the “I” does not exist without the other, and the constitutive reference of the individual to the community, do not express the superiority of the communional dimension over the individual, but express a universality inherent in the individual as such. Working from experience, one understands well that, because of the vocation we have received personally, we are placed outside all quantitative series of individuals, and we have definitely become something that is qualitatively unique. Or, to put it better, this singularity serves to enrich everyone, precisely with that richness that is uniquely ours, and this is mission.
If this description of the human is right, then the tension between particularity and universality is not overcome by eliminating it, in an abstract and impossible absolute auto-positing, without roots, but, on the contrary, by redeeming it in its wholeness. The particularistic limits are not corrected by erasing their particular identity, substituting, for example, the universal-State with particular-ethnic groups. Rather, it means opening the particular identity to universality, showing from within that there is no true identity if one does not acknowledge that it is given by another, which is the sign of an infinite Other. This gives identity even to those who do not belong to their own group, so that nobody is completely extraneous to “us.” Thus, there is a direct correlation between affirmation of identity and openness to the other. This is the perfection of the human that Christ makes possible. From this is born a totalizing and catholic human attitude, a universal one.

In the encyclical Fides et ratio, John Paul II inquires into the relationship between Christianity and culture, which in past decades has generated many misunderstandings, even among Catholics. Could you summarize the terms of the right relationship?
Perhaps the easiest thing is to list some of the most salient points of the encyclical Fides et ratio in this regard. 1) Every man is inserted into a culture on which he depends and which he influences. 2) Cultures, if they are human, stay open to universality and transcendence, and simultaneously they carry traditional values that implicitly express the work of God in creation. 3) Christians live the faith under the influence of the surrounding culture. Every culture is reached by the truth of God, revealed in the history and culture of a People. 4) Adhering to the faith does not impede conservation of one’s own cultural identity, because the Christian people is distinguished by a universality that can embrace every culture, promoting the progress of that which is implicit in it toward its full articulation. 5) A culture can never become the criterion of judgment, much less the final criterion of truth in dealing with God’s revelation. 6) On the contrary, the announcement of the faith in the cultures is the real form of liberation from every disorder introduced by sin. 7) In this comparison, the cultures are deprived of nothing, but stimulated to open themselves to the newness of the truth, toward further development.

In what terms can the method of the Christian experience promote a real dialogue that builds a common good even in the diversity of positions?
In order to overcome the heightened tension between individual and community that we spoke of earlier, the Christian experience is able to build socially and postulate theoretically a type of culture that affirms the constitutive anthropological polarity of individual and community, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and in the communion that is born from Him and that has spread throughout the world, embracing men of every culture and mentality, to the point of constituting a “sui generis ethnic reality.” From this anthropological and theological foundation, one can arrive at a dialogue among cultures, which everyone feels as urgent. Christianity’s rebirth as living experience, that is, as integrally human, is therefore the great favorable condition for overcoming differences.

Why doesn’t the Catholic attitude contradict an authentic ecumenical spirit?
Each one of us is called to discover the truth of himself in embracing the truth that is given him, and cannot obtain it in isolation, starting only from himself. For this reason, the verification of a human hypothesis cannot consist of an abstract comparison of different idea systems that are already complete in themselves, one of which claiming to include more factors than the others. Rather, it consists in an introduction to reality, through the invitation freely to verify the hypothesis by following the road together.
The most important instrument of this method is dialogue. In fact, for a Christian, as Fr Giussani underlines, dialogue means a proposal (to the other) of what I live, and attention to what the other lives, because of esteem for his humanity and love of the other. This esteem and love do not in any way imply doubt about myself or compromise what I am. One can see how such an attitude, which is truly respectful of pluralism, also permits the foundation of an education and of a relationship among cultures that do not rest on the doubtful conception of modern multiculturality. The conviction that every man shares a native structure, with the same original needs and criteria, described here as relational and communitarian anthropology, makes it possible to start from the hypothesis of a proposal, to verify as a walk toward the true. This was precisely the method that Jesus of Nazareth used with His contemporaries.