Yale Center for Faith and Culture Conference

Yale Center for Faith & Culture
New Haven, Connecticut
July 31, 2008

I wish to extend my sincere appreciation to His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi, to Dean Attridge, to Professor Miroslav Volf and to Reverend Joseph Cumming, for our days here together…and for this unforgettable experience to deepen our understanding between, and among, our religious traditions.  I wish to express my further appreciation to all of you for your presentations, your comments, your questions— for your friendship.

I offer my brief reflections this morning from the perspective of a life lived within a university, a Catholic and Jesuit university, in fact the oldest Catholic university in the United States, founded in 1789 just a few months before the founding of this republic.  Georgetown was founded in a state—Maryland—that as a colony, was known for its commitment to religious freedom.  It was to be Catholic, but open to “students of every religious profession,” and to this day we have fostered a respect for pluralism and for a commitment to interfaith understanding.

Because of a background of more than three decades in this university, my comments will reflect a sense of urgency regarding how we move forward beyond dialogue into ways of preparing our young people for lives in which they will be expected to go out and make a difference in the world.  I’d like to offer some thoughts of how we might be able to build from our conversation, our dialogue, about how we might move from a common word to some common work.  I’d like to offer some suggestions for a new kind of engagement together in the world. I think you will find a resonance…

I think for those who work out of the perspective of a university, it is important to step back and reflect for a moment on just how significant it is that we are having this meeting here, at Yale University.  Miroslav, in his opening comments on Tuesday, described this moment as one in which the world, particularly the West, is going through a period of de-secularization.  If we step back a generation, I think we’d agree that such a meeting as this would have been unthinkable—when a religious perspective was not viewed as an appropriate framework for intellectual engagement within the university.

What is it about this moment that enables this meeting now?  And why is it so significant?

On Monday night, Senator Kerry quoted the contemporary novelist Michael Chabon: “Who would like to go back and start the 21st Century over again?”  This is a new century.  From the perspective of the academy, if we look back at previous centuries, there were two dominant strains of intellectual engagement—naturalistic epistemology, the methodologies of the natural sciences; and a historicism that dominated in the social sciences and humanities, both of which severely undermined confidence in religious belief.  The secularization that began in the 18th and 19th centuries—coming out of the Enlightenment—pushed religion further and further away from the acceptable terms for intellectual inquiry in the 20th century.  In this same century, in which the authority of religion in the West continued to be undermined, 170 million people died at the hands of their own governments.

I’d like to offer three proposals for how we might be able to move to a common work, for I believe there is work we can do together.  The first focuses within the academy.  I just stated 170 million people died at the hands of their own governments.  For half of the century, we lived under what political scientists would call a growing “regime” of human rights.  This year is the 60th anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Think of the incoherence—a 1948 agreement, of all of the nations of the world, to a set of universal human rights—and tens of millions dead, billions more dying from chronic poverty within that same time-frame.  We have a crisis within the regime of human rights.

We could discuss at length the nature of this crisis, but at its core may be the question of how one might justify a belief in universal human rights.  In the process of drafting the declaration, much time and effort went into the question of justification—what arguments can we provide to justify our claims for these universal rights?  Jacques Maritain took on a special role for UNESCO in engaging in a survey of the greatest thinkers in the world of what are the strongest arguments that could be developed to justify the claims for these universal rights.  In the end, as you know, the document is silent on this issue. Why?

Mary Ann Glendon recalls in her story about the drafting of the Universal Declaration:

Maritain liked to tell the story of how a visitor at one meeting expressed astonishment that champions of violently opposed ideologies had been able to agree on a list of fundamental rights. The man was told: “Yes we agree about the rights but on condition no one asks why.” (Glendon 77)

Recently some contemporary scholars like Michael Perry have argued that the language of justification always turns on the acknowledgement of the sacredness of human life.  Perry argues that it is only the language of faith that provides us with the resources for justifying claims for human rights:

The idea of human rights is ineliminably religious, that a…fundamental constituent of the idea, namely, the conviction that every human being is sacred—that every human being is “inviolable,” has “inherent dignity,” is “an end in himself (or herself),” or the like—is inescapably religious…” (Perry 13).

So if we have a crisis in human rights—that 60 years into this regime we still confront our failure to prevent the atrocities of Rwanda, Darfur, and Srebrenica…and if justification requires the language and the logic of the sacred, it could be that an invaluable contribution of Muslims, Christians, and Jews together—in interfaith dialogue—is to focus our conversation on our own distinctive approaches to justify these universal human rights.  This is an example, in this new century, of how together, we can bring the resources of our religious traditions to bear on the intellectual challenges that define this moment.  We have a new role to play as part of the “de-secularization” of our age.

Second, if the last century provided a new regime of human rights, perhaps this century could bring into being a regime of human development.  The idea that we could take on anything so ambitious as the Millennium Development Goals—this, too, represents a new moment.  It was only in 1990 that the first UN Development Report was issued.  The logic behind the report, a logic developed by people like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, moves us into a recognition of the need to build the capacities—the capabilities—of every human being in ways that will enable each person to flourish, and the need to create the opportunities for these capabilities to be developed.

An extraordinary framework is provided by the Arab Human Development Reports published in the early years of this decade.  The reports recognize the urgent needs we face as a human community:

About 65 million Arabs are illiterate, two-thirds of them women…Ten million children between ages 6 and 15 years of age are currently out of school; if current trends persist, this number will increase by 40 percent by 2015…Only 6 percent of the population uses the Internet…15 percent unemployment.” (AHDR 2002 3)

And no generation of young Arabs has been as large as today’s—100 million new jobs will be required by 2020 (Khalaf 1).

We can’t miss this moment.  Right now, we have an opportunity, in our lifetimes, to create a new framework—a new understanding of our responsibilities to one another.  The Arab Human Development Reports provide an unprecedented roadmap for human development.  This is an extraordinary moment—let’s ensure that when future generations look back on this moment, they will find a people who grasped this moment and established a new framework of responsibility for each other.

Finally, can we who have the opportunities to be together in rooms like this, can we truly touch our people and share with them the important insights we have learned through our work together, in ways that make their lives more meaningful and provide a greater chance for security in each of their lives?

The most common concern raised in every one of these gatherings—and it has come up in several comments over these days—is always: How do we connect our understanding—developed and deepened by the conversations that take place here, through the trust that is built here—with those who will never have these opportunities, but who instead confront day-to-day realities shaped by mistrust, resentment, misunderstanding, threats of violence, and confusion?

Can our universities and schools, our churches and mosques, begin the process of preparing the next generations to go out and share, to connect with people in need of the perspective that can make their lives that much more meaningful, and provide a framework for greater human security?  This is not just an idealistic affirmation of an obvious position, it is an urgent necessity.  We do not know each other.  Our people do not know each other.

Look at some of the research findings of Dalia Mogahed and my colleague, John Esposito:

• Forty-four percent of Americans say Muslims are too extreme in their religious beliefs…

• Nearly one-quarter of Americans…say they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor…32 % of Americans say they admire nothing about the Muslim world…

• …A majority say they know nothing or not much about “the opinions and beliefs of people who live in Muslim countries.”

And yet,

the more Americans report knowing about Muslim countries, the more likely they are to hold positive views of those countries.” (Esposito and Mogahed 155)

I could keep going, providing further insights Dalia uncovered that support the point that we really don’t know each other.  The moral challenge for us: can we prepare young people to come to know one another?  They share so much culture—music, film, fashion…Can we provide them with the skills and abilities they will need to engage with one another and come to understand one another at ever deeper levels?

So three thoughts: First, can together we ensure that the resources of our religious traditions are brought into discourse on the intellectual challenges we face, where previously our traditions were not deemed relevant?  An example—the question of the justification of human rights…

Second, can we bring into this new century the regime of human development, a recognition of the need to develop the promise, the capabilities, the capacities and the opportunities of all of our people?

Third, can we create new frameworks in which the vast diversity of people who identify with a religious tradition are called to engage with one another?  Can we come to know one another?  Can we prepare our young people to go out and be embodiments hope, embodiments of love, and instruments of justice?

In the answers to these questions we will find our call to action.