The salt of the earth
Fred Dallmayr 8 April 2010

This is the text of the speech held by the author at a symposium organized by “30Giorni” and held in the Palazzo Giustiniani, Sala Zuccari, on March 11, 2010, in Rome.

There is much talk today about ‘”post-secularity”, a term coined by Jurgen Habermas and quickly adopted in contemporary public discourse. However, I want to suggest that there is also a notion of post-secularity in sacred scripture. As we read in Matthew 5:13, religious believers are told: “You are the salt of the earth.” The phrase means that religious believers are expected to be neither identical with the “earth”, nor to be removed from it. In this sense, they are meant to be neither worldly-secular nor radically anti-worldly or anti-secular (thus perhaps post-secular).

As I see it, faith is faced with two basic temptations or derailments: Religion can retreat from the world onto a “holy mountain” and thus separate itself from the world; this can be called the “privatization” of faith. On the other hand, religion can enter the world to the point of being assimilated by, or merging with, the world; this can be called the “secularization” and (in some cases) the “politicization” of faith. In both cases, it is clear that religious faith cannot serve as the “salt of the earth”. Reflecting on the biblical phrase, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote these memorable lines: “After several centuries, we are discovering afresh what is meant by ‘the salt of the earth’. We are discovering that the salt is meant for salting, the light for illuminating, and that the church exists for the sake of those outside itself.” In his view, the passage in Matthew urges us to find a middle path, located neither completely inside nor completely outside the world. Only by following this path can religious faith be the salt, that is, the ferment or yeast transforming the world. But the path is difficult to find and to chart.

To illustrate this difficulty let me draw your attention to a concrete event or incident (because concrete events are better teachers than abstract principles). The event I have in mind happened last May (specifically May 17, 2009) at the time of the commencement or graduation exercises at the University of Notre Dame (from where I come). The President of our university, Father John Jenkins, had invited the American President Barack Obama to deliver the graduation address. By itself, the invitation was nothing out of the ordinary, because the university has habitually invited national leaders for this purpose. In this case, however, the invitation led to intense controversy, mainly due the President’s “pro-choice” stance (which conflicts with the Catholic “pro-life” position). Before proceeding I need to remind you of two central principles contained in the Bill of Rights of the American constitution: first, there can be “no establishment of religion”, meaning that the church cannot govern the country or form a “theocracy”; and secondly that there is a guarantee of the “free exercise of religion”, meaning that churches can freely voice their views in civil society.

The invitation issued to President Obama ignited a firestorm. Organized lobby groups entered the city and even the university campus demonstrating against Obama’s visit. Even the local Catholic bishop denounced the invitation and decided to boycott the event. The “pro-life” activists issued an ultimatum: the university must either cancel the invitation or the President must cancel his visit; otherwise they threatened to disrupt the graduation proceedings. As it turned out, cooler heads and good judgment prevailed. Despite some hecklers, the faculty and the overwhelming majority of the student body warmly welcomed President Obama. In his graduation speech, Obama stressed the need for a civilized public discourse, even and especially in the case of strong disagreements. Such public discourse, he stated, requires “open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words in the pursuit of the common good.” In his turn, university president Jenkins welcomed Obama as the elected leader of the country. In admirable language, his speech pursued that in-between or middle path I have mentioned before.

As he stated: “I am saddened that many friends of Notre Dame have suggested that our invitation to President Obama indicates ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching. The university and I are unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life and to its protection from conception to natural death.” In making this statement, Jenkins clearly invoked and utilized the privilege guaranteed by the American constitution referring to the “free exercise of religion”. But Jenkins also added: “Notre Dame has a long custom of (inviting and) conferring honorary degrees on the President of the United States… It is the university’s expression of respect for the leader of the nation and the Office of the President. In the Catholic tradition, our first allegiance is to God in Christ; yet we are called to respect, participate in, and contribute to the wider society. As St. Peter wrote (1 Pt. 2:17), we should honor the leader who upholds the secular order.” With this statement president Jenkins invoked and paid tribute to the other principle of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits the “establishment” of religion.

Father Jenkins in his speech also paid tribute to one of his predecessors at the university of Notre Dame: Father Theodore Hesburgh who had been president for 35 years and who had guided the university to its present prestige. Father Hesburgh had said that a Catholic university should be both a lighthouse and a crossroads: a lighthouse whereby religious faith illuminates the world, and a crossroads where people of many different backgrounds, faiths and cultures can meet and learn from each other. On a small scale, a religious university thus makes a contribution to what, on a global scale, is often called the “dialogue among civilizations.” Such a dialogue is also dedicated to the pursuit of truth and justice, while simultaneously inviting people of different orientations to participate in that search.

Fred R. Dallmayr is a Professor at Departments of Political Science and Philosophy University of Notre Dame, Indiana.



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