Grasso & Rodriguez Castillo (eds.), Theology and Public Philosophy

Here is a very interesting set of exchanges edited by Kenneth Grasso and Cecilia Rodriguez Castillo, Theology and Public Philosophy: Four Conversations (Lexington Books 2012).  The contributors include Charles Taylor, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jeanne Heffernan Schindler, Robin Lovin, Jean Porter, and many others.  The publisher’s description follows.

This volume brings together eminent theologians, philosophers and political theorists to discuss the relevance of theology and theologically grounded moral reflection to contemporary America’s public life and argument. Avoiding the focus on hot-button issues, shrill polemics, and sloganeering that so often dominate discussions of religion and public life, the contributors address such subjects as how religious understandings have shaped the moral landscape of contemporary culture, the possible contributions of theologically-informed argument to contemporary public life, religious and moral discourse in a pluralistic society, and the proper relationship between religion and culture.

Indeed, in the conviction that serious conversation about the type of questions being explored in this volume is in short supply today, this volume is organized in a manner designed to foster authentic dialogue. Each of the book’s four sections consists of an original essay by an eminent scholar focusing on a specific aspect of the problem that is the volume’s focus followed by three responses that directly engage its argument or explore the broader problematic it addresses. The volume thus takes the form of a dialogue in which the analyses of four eminent scholars are each engaged by three interlocutors.

The Inclusive Cross?

Is it permissible, in a religiously pluralistic society, to use a cross as a symbol to honor veterans and remember war dead?  The question is a recurring one.  Many people (and some judges) say “no”: it is not permissible to use a “sectarian” Christian symbol for this purpose.  Others say “yes,” and they will often argue that the cross need not be viewed as a sectarian or exclusively Christian symbol; it can convey other meanings as well.

Here is a different rationale, which I quote from one of the exam answers in a course I taught recently in Lisbon: “[T]he cross can’t exclude anyone without denying itself, for Christianity . . . views non-believers as their brothers and sisters, putting love and understanding towards them on a first place.  It is a core of Christianity to be for all, not excluding anybody, but of course, only on their voluntary acceptance.”  (Please excuse the sketchy syntax, etc., which are no worse than what I often see on timed exams– or even first drafts– from native English-speakers.)  The student goes on to conclude that the cross is an ideal symbol for a war memorial.

I haven’t heard this sort of rationale offered in this country.  Someone making this contention for this purpose could expect to be criticized for a kind of religious bigotry.  Still, I found the answer intriguing.  Might it be defended?

The intention, it seems, is good: the idea is to include others– to include everyone, in fact, not just Christians, not just “reasonable” people.  Doesn’t that intention deserve some commendation?

Still, good intentions only take one so far.  The most obvious objection, I imagine, is that even if Christians view their faith as in some sense universally inclusive, and even if the cross symbolizes this aspiration, this is still a specifically Christian expression of a specifically Christian inclusiveness.  Everyone is being “included” by being viewed as a brother or sister in Christ.  And if the government is associated with that kind of specifically Christian inclusiveness, then it is understandable that non-Christians would object.  They presumably don’t want to be “included” in that Christian way.

Thus, even in its professed (and presumably sincere) inclusiveness, the cross– and the rationale supporting it– are sectarian.  The point seems cogent enough.  So I don’t expect to be making this student’s argument anytime soon.

Still, I wonder.  Won’t every offer of inclusiveness be grounded in some underlying position that not everyone accepts?  Will all forms of inclusion thus be partisan, or if you like sectarian, in the way this student’s rationale is?  We can say why the rationale is problematic in a pluralistic society.  But is there any other position that escapes the problem?  True, the rationale is inclusive on its own terms.  Can any position do better than that?

(Enter at this point Rawls et al.  Repeat questions.)


— Steve Smith

Well, At Least It’s a Madonna

Here’s something that will interest Steve Smith. CLR Forum reader John McGinnis points out this interesting article in yesterday’s Washington Post detailing European governments’ struggle to maintain architectural landmarks in times of declining budgets. Governments have taken to renting out ad space to cover the costs. Here, for example, is photo from the article, showing a billboard on scaffolding that surrounds Milan’s Gothic Duomo. I couldn’t tell from the article, but presumably the Italian government is helping to pay for repairs to the cathedral and is renting out space to H&M to defray the expenses. Or maybe the poster was the contractor’s idea. I assume the Milan Archdiocese didn’t come up with it.

Anyway, to get back to Steve’s post from yesterday. Maybe one reason why Europeans get less upset than Americans about public religious symbols is that Europeans don’t really take them too seriously as religious symbols. Religious sites and images are just part of the cultural background. If it’s OK to license use of the Colosseum in advertising, why not put posters on the Duomo? Judging by the article, Europeans are embarrassed by the commercial use of their heritage and what it suggests about the European political economy. They are not, apparently, too bothered by the sacrilege. Read the whole thing.