Today, on the occasion of Concilium‘s Encounter on “From World Mission to Interreligious Witness: Visioning Ecumenics in the 21st Century”, held at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin, Will Storrar, who heads Princeton’s Center of Theological Inquiry, spoke about “Religion and Theology in Public Life”. He spoke about “doing public theology in a global era” as a public paradigm for mission and interreligious witness, so as to sustain the fabric of the public sphere. Interestingly, he defined the “public sphere” not from Jürgen Habermas’ perspective, but rather from a feminist viewpoint, as found in the work of Iris Marion Young and Denise Ackermann. As a consequence, the public sphere is seen as a connector between very concrete people, who tell concrete stories about their lives, and institutions and structures of power. It also means a reflexive awareness, that third parties may be listening and, therefore, lending support or criticizing what is being said or debated in the public sphere. Moreover, in a feminist perspective, the public sphere cannot but be inclusive and pay attention to the strange voices that are usually not paid attention to. The public sphere is, because it is a space where people can enter to reflect and discuss their lives together, crucially important and today’s mission for the churches may well be to open up, safeguard and sustain such public sphere, even on a global scale. It can be the critical space to listen to lament and anger, it can be the creative space out of which arises empathy that can change human relationships.
Particularly after Ina Merdjanova’s excellent presentation on “Eastern Orthodox Christianity in a Pluralistic World” questions were raised as to the sustainibility of public spheres in contexts of external and internal oppression. Indeed, Ina Medjanova, Director of the Center for Interreligious Dialogue and Conflict Prevention at the Scientific Research Department at Sofia University (Bulgaria), had clarified both the difficult historical legacy of Eastern Orthodox Christianity (under Byzantine, Ottoman, and communist rule) and it theological opportunities to address pluralism in the contemporary world. Obviously, under the historical circumstances and as a consequence of these, the creation and sustaining of a public sphere is not easy (as it is not easy to create and sustain such spheres in dictatorial regimes in Asia, for example).
I am convinced that W. Storrar would consider these remarks as strengthening his own point of the importance of the public sphere and the mission of theologians and churches to create it and sustain it, taking into account the variety of religious perspectives that can become an asset under the difficulties as described, and taking into account also the necessity to open the space precisely in response to God’s call in those who suffer the pain of persecution and oppression. Building up the public sphere would become here, undoubtedly, a witness to the empowering interreligious encounter. I would add that the dynamics of the public sphere as the “locus” for witnessing out of plurality and a particular attention for those whose voices are for whatever reason smothered, reflects the role of transitional spaces in conflict transformation processes.
In several conversations after the presentations of W. Storrar and I. Merdjanova, participants to the conference expressed their fear that the language used would be too abstract and avoid to take stock of the real difficulties that arise in such spaces, particularly when some of the parties involved have an interest in maintaining the oppositions and differences, even up to a violent degree. It is necessary, I think, to realize that such public spheres are inevitable (we are ‘condemned’ to live together and to answer this challenge in creative and never final ways and, therefore, we are always already involved in public spheres that we are called to structure), to keep open the vision of the creative and valuable possibility of such spheres (even if theologians would maintain that this is an eschatological perspective, always to be reframed and redesigned), and to point to some necessary practices to be enacted in view of the creation or sustaining of public spheres (e.g. listening to excluded voices, inviting people to share their inner attitudes in the conversations and to be very honest with the difficulties they experience in the public sphere, designing common activities in which people can come to share a common witness at the service of a world in need, realizing the dynamic aspects of personal and common identities, etc.).
It is extremely interesting in this context to use references to relational constructionism and common apostolic discernment, as was done by Elias Lopez in his recently defended doctoral thesis on forgiveness amidst violent conflicts.
In his contribution on “Islam and Public Witness: Issues in Dawah and Religious Pluralism”, Ataullah Siddiqui gave a wonderful example of such collaborative and constructive public sphere in the difficult encounter of Christianity and Islam, precisely on the issue of chaplaincies, an issue on which concerns and witness can be shared.