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Opening Up and Closing Off
Relations between religions depend largely on how much cultures and societies open up or close down. I do not say this on a moralistic level of kindness or benevolence, giving a good grade to open religions as against the closed ones. But I would like to discuss how religions alternately represent to societies systems of enclosure and systems of opening up — one could also say a limitation or widening of exchanges.
In order to introduce this “anthropological approach”, I will take up the Claude Lévi-Strauss formulation in Race and History (1952): he wrote that every culture is nourished by exchange, and that “the one real calamity, the one fatal flaw which can afflict a group of men and prevent them from fulfilment is to be alone.” Small cultures will droop if entirely isolated. But, and this establishes the paradox, it is not least certain that if to a certain point the exchange augments the number of combinations, the density of singularities, there is a threshold beyond which the exchange ends in nourishing itself from the differences, and will suppress them: “the inevitable consequence of the practice of playing as a syndicate, which is the source of all progress, is, sooner or later, to make the character of each player’s resources uniform.” We must not underestimate the fact that our civilisation has imposed itself, driving other societies or cultures, by consent or by force, into exchange. The guns forced Japan into opening up, in the nineteenth century, and the colonies rarely had the chance to extend an invitation! That is why a discourse which presupposes that humans desire peace, dialogue, exchange and mutual enrichment (Christina Hofmann) only says half the truth, and even hardly what is wished for!
A definitively unified, worldwide society would be for good alone and condemned to disappear. In “Race et culture” as well as Tristes Tropiques, one sees that the new problem of humanity is less to find a way against partition and expansion than protecting the diversity of languages, cultures and religions: “every genuine creation involves a certain deafness to the call of other values, possibly coming to refusing them if not even to negating them”. An amount of enclosure appears vital, indispensable for the vivacity of a culture, and the same religion that may have been a principle for opening towards exchange becomes a principle of enclosure, protection, or immunisation. Once again I observe it without judging, as a basic cultural process. As for Kant, was he not on the look-out for a premature fusion of states, languages, religions, or even a too hasty worldwide expansion? This is how Lévi-Strauss defined an optimal threshold of exchanges:
The grand creative periods were those when communication had become sufficiently intense for distant partners to be stimulated, yet not being so frequent and rapid as to reduce the indispensable obstacles between individuals or groups to the point when too easy exchanges would minimalize or confuse their diversity.
His pessimism allows us to understand the present oscillation between planetary standardization linked to the worldwide expansion of techniques and the “Balkanized” resistance to all that which refuses to enter into the universal relativism of exchange (nationalism, integrism, etc.). But this nostalgic point of view in turn clashes hard against respectable objections. Is religion no more than regression to the past? Is its sole function to conserve the past, like in a reservation or a museum? And in order to maintain the ecological “quotas” of different cultures, should we incarcerate the populations within their identity, their heritage, their memories, or even within their founding promises?
Thus my problem is formulated. It has to do with thinking through the desired overture of religions, taking into account the necessary degree of closing up, in order to maintain their plurality. What to open and what to shut? Upon which criteria must one base the optimal degree, the optimal equation, between opening and closing? My hypothesis is here that it is necessary to aim at that which allows the greatest creativity, the greatest vivacity of the religions. I would now like to illustrate the problem with two examples from this anthropological paradox of the dialogue between religions: the phenomenon of urbanization and that of tourism. Both are related to accelerating exchange and both have profound religious implications. Here again, it is not only a matter of their offering new perspectives, but of their overturning forms and functions of religions. Here I do nothing but sketch in simple lines the profile of a problem.
The Dialogue of Cultures as an Urban Problem
In 1965 a theologian published a book that was to become a bestseller. The Secular City by Harvey Cox showed that urbanization and secularization to some extent were words written on the entry-ticket to our culture, in the biblical, not to say Pauline, code which animates it: that is, a disenchantment with Nature and desacralization of the State; a sense of perpetual mobility and radical separation between the different aspects of the life, pushing each and everyone towards his or her full autonomy — the Reformation did nothing but keep to this programme. In due time there was to be neither Jew nor Greek, and as one may remark with Jesper Svartvik in his text on the implications of christology on Jewish-Christian relations, this sociological process is not theologically neutral.
The Ultramodern Babel
These ideas found their full blooming in the American mega-city like New York or Chicago: these great cities were, in a few generations, able to break down any kind of segregation due to language, race, sex, religion, etc. One went to the city as one goes to the beach, in order to get lost and to find oneself different; to begin one’s life over again. In the city one sought anonymity, emancipation, the trust granted to every stranger as if he were a child, meant to grow up and nobody knowing what he would become. This required of every city that it would tune into the universal, towards an immediate legibility, in a transparent and open space. But it also presupposed this typically urban form of courtesy, which at all times establishes a distance, a protective film, between passers-by, bestowing upon them the freedom to begin something new together — or not to do so. One went to the city as one goes on to the universal, even if the urban universal of London, Cairo or Paris had taken on different appearances, and as if this sharing could not but increase the combination of possible differences, in some kind of universal urban feast.
But our cities are no longer what they were. First of all, their technical complexity (networks, height, density) makes them fragile, at the mercy of catastrophes and assaults. The proudest reveal themselves as the most vulnerable. And the most cosmopolitan wake up as if deprived of their ideals, with closed and guarded compounds. And if in times gone by the city gave us the idea that we could leave our differences in the cloakroom and casually enter the public space, it now seems as if the obsessive fears of dissolving oneself within anonymity, that is to be without quality and interchangeable, makes us flee from anonymity and demand even more identity, security and familiarity, or belonging, as Frédéric de Coninck called it in a beautiful book on the city and its new marginalized dropouts.
One would like to personalize the ties, re-establish a possible proximity, ask that attachments be considered, restore some kind of village of affinity, founded on elective ties and chosen attachments — which, as a matter of fact, no longer have much in common with the indispensable ties of yesterday, although one would like to think that they were natural ties. Relations should be within the group, as if one knew everybody. It is the age of gated communities, even in France, altogether more communitarian than the French believe. And the solitary individuals are searching for their tribe, their village, forgetting the urban universes conveyed by their own culture. Thus, in every big city of today there is a plurality of invisible cities. How may one render them tangible and restore prestige to the coexistence of cities within the city?
One might think that I have described two epochs of the city; it is not so. Every city at every time has had to cope with this double demand for anonymity and familiarity, distance and proximity, universality and solidarity, emancipation and attachment. Urbanity holds on to this mixture of a longing to distinguish oneself (in an anonymous public space, or in a common space where everything can be named) and a longing to erase oneself and draw back (into a personal and private space, or a space of discretion and incognito). Every form and every epoch of urbanity entails its own specific equation of the relationship between the two poles that attract and reject each other, simply like a braid where the one alternately passes in front of the other. A balance between the two poles has to be found.
The Crisis of the Contemporary City
This does not prevent our cities, somewhat like antique Rome, from turning ill, being torn apart between these two demands. Modernity would have liked to distribute to each and everyone an equal share of the sun and the air, plus the right to dwell someplace. Harvey Cox’s great dream about The Secular City was that urbanization and secularization would succeed in shattering the old segregations. This optimism no longer exists. Our cities, too large, too much dependent on complex technological networks, are vulnerable. People are afraid and barricade themselves in their blocks. The great discourse on secular emancipation is no longer at hand. There are but a few small postmodern discourses “floating around”, one beside the other. At the same time we have discovered the limitless price, and extreme fragility, of the plurality of cultures and forms of habitation. This is the reason why secularization itself has taken a radical turn.
For a long time, we have asked for more and more secularity. The republican State (in this sense not so estranged from Anglo-Saxon secularization) placed upon everyone the obligation to carry out his freedom of thought, leaving in the cloakroom his or her religious or communitarian allegiances before entering into the public space. Secularity instituted separation between religions and the State on the basis of separation between private and public, around a central, growing, blank. Today our democratic societies demand even more of secularization. They want to allow free rein to the various processes through which the religious sphere, like that of sports or leisure, becomes privatised, more subjective, more pluralized. In short, secularity is no longer what it used to be. When it was conceived, interest was mainly directed towards the more intellectual or spiritual aspects of the religious confessions. The intention was never to turn them into museum artifacts; “religious facts” under cellophane. The intention was never, as it is today, to privilege their ritual and closed side as against their open side; that is, the side capable of conversion, of proselytism, but also of critique and of abjuration. Michael Walzer has, in a remarkable way, indicated this problem. He writes:
But these two projects can also be pursued simultaneously by different groups or even by different members of the same group. This latter possibility is in fact commonly realized: some people seek escape from the confines of their religious or ethnic membership, claiming to be citizens only, whereas others want to be recognized and tolerated precisely as members of an organized community of religious believers or ethnic relatives. Strong-willed (or simply eccentric) individuals who have broken loose from their communal backgrounds coexist with committed (or simply settled) men and women who constitute the background and seek to bring it forward. Then the two projects seem competitive with one another: should we prefer individual escape or group commitment? There is no good reason, however, for a fixed preference. The tension has to be worked out case by case, differently for different groups in different regimes (we have already looked at a number of examples). There is no overcoming this tension, for what would individuals escape from if group commitment collapsed? What kind of pride could they take in an escape that was never resisted? And who would they be if they did not have to struggle to become what they are? The coexistence of strong groups and free individuals, with all of its difficulties, is an enduring feature of modernity.
A Little Urbanity
Today, that which we probably look for, beyond the debate on secularity or secularization, but also beyond the debate between communitarians and libertarians, is at least a little urbanity. Urbanity is that which is opposed to the, too frequent, incivility prevailing in a society which, in a limited space, must permit the cohabitation of a great diversity of lifestyles, languages and cultures. On the one hand, urbanity signifies the importance given to the diversity of ways of life, of how to relate to others and how to spend one’s time. Here the risk at hand is to “conserve” these differences, to “ghettoize” them. On the other hand, urbanity develops via the belief that “identity is not what is important”, that our history mixed with that of others consists of irreversible hazards. The risk at hand here is to be left with nothing but a number of small me-sealing temporary alliances without depth, malleable to all kinds of demagogies. This is Walzer’s primary concern:
Imagine now, some generations down the postmodern road, men and women entirely cut off from any such ties, fashioning their own “selves” out of the fragmentary remains of old cultures and religions (and anything else that may be available). The associations that these self-made and self-making individuals form are likely to be little more than temporary alliances that can be easily broken off when something more promising presents itself. Won’t tolerance and intolerance in such a setting be replaced by mere personal liking and disliking?
Such a urbanity, currently so lacking, opposes, on the one hand, the incivility of a world whose homogeneity is nothing more than a generalized state of indifference, and the incivility of a world in which diversity is but the confinement in untranslatable differences, and, on the other hand, a world where even the increase of differentiations — endlessly crossing and intersecting each other — bestows upon everyone a complete freedom of connections. It is because everyone belongs, at the same time, to many networks, to many communities, that he or she is relatively free in relation to each one of them. But it is also because everyone assumes non-chosen attachments, due to the fact that he is born somewhere, and in some way indebted, that this urban courtesy becomes possible. Urbanity does not ask us to let go of our connections, but to unite them in order to allow for the new civilities which come out of it. It gives everyone the possibility to make oneself seen, but also to draw back and to give room to others. But can one, at the same time, respond to the demand of identity that the nations and the traditions can no longer defend against the world market, and to the demand of tolerant coexistence at the level of planetary exchange? This urbanity that we search for in the age of networks and megalopolises is, however, not a magic formula: I have only tried to indicate, behind the grand “secular” or “communitarian” altercations, the everyday form of the question we are asked.
Interreligious Dialogue and the Problem of Tourism
The second example illustrating the anthropological paradox within the dialogue between religions is related to the phenomenon of tourism, which is also due to an acceleration of exchanges, and informs the developement of a new global relationship to what is religious in our societies. However, here again one may say that this process of uprooting, of general displacement, is printed on the entry-ticket to our culture, for example in the apostolic travels of Paul. But let us first look at the amplitude of the phenomenon.
A Global Social Fact
More and more, we only work so as to provide for our upcoming holidays, to buy or book a place in the sun. This, as far as we have the financial means. Anyway, statistics show that it is henceforth our primary way of spending money, because there lies our treasury, our vital resource. Without noticing it, we participate in a phenomenon which has become the most important financial activity of the planet, and profoundly structures our ways of life, our social rhythms and our need for displacement.
Tourism is a total social fact which spans the biggest sectors as well as the smallest localities. It disrupts the social tissues in the receiving areas, substitutes a landscape of tourism for the traditional rural landscape; sometimes rehabilitating it, but sometimes also diverting water for the benefit of a luxurious golf course which the children can only look at through high fences. With the seasonal increase of prices, one may experience the dizziness of a dual society, and we have seen how tourism has split families, as a village could be grasped by the intoxication of gain. Touristic sites are often overloaded and seem crushed by flows now out of control.
However, we have also seen tourism increasing curiosity for other cultures: it may generalize awareness of our incapacity to judge “Persians” (those of Montesquieu’s Letters) with criteria common to Parisian salons. And there are millions of observers poking their noses, year in and year out, into the domestic affairs of countries that thought of tourists as nothing but merchandise only able to report strange things. We must state that the frontiers are magic, that let tourists pass; but not refugees or immigrants! Tourism has the distinctive feature of reversing the function of the ordinary market. It transports people (on vacation, liable to spend the time they have saved) to contacts with others who really cannot be displaced but remain bound to specific places.
Because it has to do with the sphere of an unprecedented power, we find problems related to unprecedented responsibilities. It is that which interests the ethic philosopher that I am. It may not trouble the tourist; on vacation one is also often on an ethic vacation. Not that we are all adepts of sexual tourism or stupendous bronzing, but simply because we are there (at the others’ place) in order to do what we normally do not do (at our own place). How many addresses hastily jotted down or postcards never sent? These questions concerning the ethics of tourism often get very close to the questions about cultural encounters: modesty, respect, etc.
Tourism as a Major Cultural Phenomenon
The principal beneficial effect that we have the right to expect from tourism is reciprocal knowledge about cultures. After all, tourism feeds on the differences between frames or modes of life, and expresses that vital desire of our societies not to simply exchange merchandise or already standardized conceptions, but to experience real differences. However, at the same time, tourism is the most formidable accelerator of exchange and of that intermingling which ruins the diversity of cultures. Lévi-Strauss wrote that the only unique fatal defect of a society was to remain isolated. We return to our previous problem: how to escape from the ultimate alternative between isolation due to hateful Balkanization, and isolation due to worldwide homogenization? Under what conditions might tourism escape from merely vampirizing the significant differences between cultures, leaving behind nothing but the distinction of rich and poor, and contenting itself only to exploit new pockets of market viability? Lévi-Strauss sketched a major anthropological phenomenon, which we find is better applied fifty years later for explaining the form of our society and world, than it was when used on the old communism-capitalism conflict.
Likewise, we must not underestimate the cultural and economic importance of migratory flow — in both its directions, because there is a cultural dimension to immigration, and far too often we think that people leave their country for financial reasons, when as a matter of fact it is the only form of “tourism” accessible to them: they simply look for the means to go somewhere else, to see if some other culture or lifestyle suits their needs better! In short, curiosity and covetousness, for better and for worse, have their importance in the migratory fluxes which bypass the classical category called tourism.
And what complicates the problem further is that of the most cultivated form of tourism, the most alternative one (that kind that does not call itself tourism), sometimes proves to be even more dangerous: it penetrates the social fabric in a more profound way than totally isolated “clubs”. Integrating with the host society (buying houses, open and reciprocal relations with hosts, ethnically mixed couples setting out to found the worldwide village, etc.), it believes itself to support a sustainable financial development and a worldwide communication which mixes cultures. This is what is ambiguous. Who gets richer by this development? Which new disparities does it produce? And this worldwide communication: is it so imperative that one must live up to it, or disappear?
Since the problem is part of an excessive acceleration of communication, it is mandatory to develop all that in tourism and “holiday” includes retardation. For once let us invent machines that slow down, that retard communications. This implies that one must no longer believe that one may take part in an easy cosmopolitism: all true uprooting is also destruction, a disturbance in our ways of inhabiting this world. Because that is what we are really looking for: other ways to inhabit time and space. So, the encounter of cultures may allow for the recreation of new ones on basis of the old. Something to slow us down a lot. The difference, which Aasulv Lande observes, between the Christian “grammar” of me and the Zen which tends to blur it out, is an example among others of these “differences”.
Thus, there is not only resistance to the erosion of traditional and cultural differences. Why does not tourism participate in the necessary invention of new forms of difference, in the invention of cultural, religious, artistic, economic or even political utopias? The filibusters who left the old world in order to go and create their utopian cities, were not they the adventurers and tourists of their time? Maybe we ought to imagine vacation “cities” as even more utopian than all revolutions and sects? Why not propose to tourists vacation villages, summer cities, which at the same time would provide experimental legislation, feasts, childhood, invented cultures, exceptions to the established order and ephemeral passions? Places where one could see and be seen, but also hide, draw back; monasteries, places in which to change habits and rhythms and together recreate another imaginary world?
Tourism as the Essential Element of the Encounter of Religions
Reviewing the list of the wrongdoings of tourism and how difficult it is to turn them into good things, one must ask oneself if good tourism is the one that does not exist. But still, tourism exists; it is better to face facts, put a limit to the wasting and learn how to travel. Often enough trips are multiplied simply for no reason. The great American philosopher Emerson wrote, at the beginning of the nineteenth century:
He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself … Travelling is a fool’s paradise … I … wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern Fact, the sad Self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.
Curiosity is a good quality, but one must be a bit clear about one’s motives. Sometimes one finds the visited country’s equipment lags behind to the point where one feels back in the land of one’s childhood. On holiday, one desires to feel at home, as a matter of fact, often more at home than one ever is.
This feeling increases when it has to do with mythical places, which have nursed our childhood or the childhood of our cultures (Greece or the “Holy Land”). In this soil of origins, all moving about is a pilgrimage.
There is, in this regular exodus of charter buses provided by our tourist companies or by some ecclesiastic enterprises for evangelical tourism, some kind of reappropriation of the ancestral territory, that of our “origin”. The return to the sources motivates all these activities, more than the simple uprooting one gets through other long trips, the nostalgia of the intensity of the first encounter with the Gospel, of this first love to which the discovery of faith looks like. That is, the group leaves in order to regain something, at least as much as they think that they leave in order to discover something. They rarely leave in order to meet with the other.
Even the archaeological gestures become immediate experiences of the origin, without any linguistic effort, without curiosity for the actual geography or the real history. This well indicates that one has not come in order to encounter the other, but in order to come back to oneself.
On the other hand, one may say that another kind of religious tourism has developed, which statistically is probably more important than expressions of fanaticism. It is the “consumerist” model, or maybe this eternal voyage, in which at the beginning one calmly converts: one changes religions as one changes shirts, and finally one walks about as if plundering that which is the best of each of them — probably without noticing what is ridiculous in this New Age attitude. But then again, ridiculous or not, spiritual tourism is a fact, a massive fact, and disturbing. Ricœur wrote:
It is not easy to remain yourself and to practice tolerance toward other civilizations … at the time when we acknowledge the end of a sort of cultural monopoly … Suddenly it becomes possible that there are just others, … where shall we go this weekend — visit the Angkor ruins or take a stroll in the Tivoli of Copenhagen? We can very easily imagine a time close at hand when any fairly well-to-do person will be able to leave his country indefinitely in order to taste his own national death in an interminable, aimless voyage … It would be skepticism on a world-wide scale, absolute nihilism in the triumph of comfort. We have to admit that this danger is at least equal and perhaps more likely than that of atomic destruction.
Thus, it is not very surprising if tourism becomes the preferred goal of those who feel nothing but hatred towards this universal exchangeability. It is not only because it is strategically a lot easier for terrorists to attack tourists! It is because tourism is, par excellence, the image of what they detest; of this disneyworldization, this homogenisation. Still, and again, the encounter of cultures may follow another trail than that of intellectual and intelligent confrontation. The discovery of the other’s culture as a culture whose creativity one wants to greet, not in order to convert it, or to convert to it — this is maybe the most perfidious form of colonialism — but simply in approval of its existence, is possible. And it should be possible to act in such a way that a new kind of hospitality is developed favouring a new kind of tourism:
When the meeting is a confrontation of creative impulses, then it is itself creative. I think that among all creations, there is a kind of harmony in the absence of all agreement. It is in this way that I understand Spinoza’s excellent theorem: “the more we understand individual objects, the more we understand God.” When one has penetrated to the depths of singularity, one feels that it is harmonious with every other.
This is the ambition we may have for the tourism of the future, which will either be a cultural time bomb, or the promise of a redeployment of the alternative in which we are, that is to be able to broaden and diversify even further our perspectives on and of the world, and, with them, our knowledge of ourselves.
Conclusion on the Dying Religions
In the two seemingly heterogeneous, not to say heteroclite, registers of urbanization and tourism, we have spotted the dialectics of enclosure and opening as a constitutive dimension of the debate — whether it puts on its French form in secularity or the more liberal-communitarian, Anglo-Saxon one. Our two examples may serve to situate the stage upon which our churches and religions play their roles. I would like to conclude these dispersed and programmatic remarks by signalling a temporal dynamic which keeps up with the rhythm of our question. I do not wish to underestimate the fact that there exist periods or circumstances where the shape or the major function of our religions is overture and expansion. Everyone will find the examples closest to his or her tradition. But there are other examples in which these forms and functions inverse, and are expressed in terms of containment and partitioning off, of protecting differences — here again everyone knows significant examples.
It would be useful to apply these dialectics, or rather this rhythm, to Ernst Troeltsch’s model of the three types of organisation or lifestyle that he believes he has discerned in the history of Christianity: (1) the sect, which moreover places itself outside the “world” (monasticism, and the Puritan or Anabaptist forms of Calvinism); (2) the more institutional church, eventually sacramental, open to the masses and more linked to temporal power; (3) and mysticism, which is more individualistic, suspicious of any institutionalized mediation (Pietism and Romanticism). It would useful because, for each of these three types, one can discern a form of both opening up and enclosure. And each of the three wears itself out in its effort to close down too much or open too widely or for too long a time. The suggestion that I here propose is, thus, rather “rhythmic”. There is a time for the affirmation of a separated community, another for its durable integration among others, a further one for its self-effacement into something larger.
Moreover, we know that in our Protestantism, for example, people wander quite easily from one form of spirituality to another, tracing marvellously tangled histories, but finally drawing a quite stable configuration. In the most common trajectory, one enters into Protestantism by the evangelical wing, which puts one at the margin of the world, in the imminence of the kingdom of God. Next one passes by the churches, which form a sort of great family attached to its filiations and which know how to place the signs of another world into this one. Finally one leaves by the discrete and dazzling grace of being in the world, a grace so universal that we are superfluous. The period of transition between the basin of alimentation and the cone of dejection is shorter or longer, and the whole configuration is more or less powerful, able to attract from far and to send far away from itself; which presupposes that every dimension plays its role in relation to the two others; with, doubtless, a certain optimal proportion. However, it is related to generations, because the transit cannot take place except from one generation to another. It is a trans-generational dynamic.
But precisely this whole dynamic takes on a different shape in a context of juxtaposed societies, where the religious message pulls its strength and its topicality from its ways of empowering expansion and opening, in mixing appurtenances hitherto separated; also in a context of societies too rapidly intermingled by too powerful exchanges, where the religious message draws its power and relevance from its ways of reinforcing the differences, the enclosures, the limits and the frontiers.
And finally it takes on a different form, depending on whether one takes a religion at its beginning, at the instant when it distinguishes and affirms itself — often at the encounter with another —, or alternatively at its end, at the time when it fades away; not because of failure, but often because of its too great mystic success, as if estranged from interreligious competition. A confession may desire to die from an excess of opening up, for example; but nobody could compel it to do so for reasons of political correctness. That could not be accomplished but from intimate theological motives.
Publié dans Plural Voice, interdisciplinary perspectives on interreligious issues,
 Lévi-Strauss, Race and History, 40.
 Ibid., 43 (italics by the author).
 Lévi-Strauss, “Race et culture”, 461.
 Ibid., 462.
 Coninck, La ville.
 Walzer, On Toleration, 86-87.
 Ibid., 88.
 Emerson, “Self-Reliance”, 51.
 Smyth-Florentin, “Israël, Palestine”, 51.
 Ricœur, “Universal Civilization”, 277-278.
 Ibid., 283.