Religion within the limits of the Civic
At first glance one significant difference between the religious and the civic is religion is concerned with the sacred and the civic with the profane or the common. If that were the whole story, then obviously, we should put the civic within the limits of religion, as some nation-states and fundamentalist groups seem to do. The mistake here is that people of this persuasion seem blind to the fact that any understanding of the sacred (even theirs) is a human understanding. All talk about an “unlimited god” is human talk, and therefore limited by what humans can know from their perspective. The question that needs an answer, therefore, is how we should understand our human perspective on religion. I want to suggest that we understand it as a civic perspective. Then we can think about religion within the limits of the civic.
This title may remind some of Emmanuel Kant’s writing on religion within the limits of reason. As a participant in the 18th century Enlightenment, he believed that human reason could be a constraint on religious enthusiasm. Today, many are critical of the Enlightenment because of its turn away from the emotions, from the importance of community, and from the misery of its economic providers. Furthermore, it turned out that “reason” was not adequate to constrain the outbreaks of destructive revolutions and oppressive regimes. Perhaps most significantly, the Enlightenment privileged some communities over others, and remained largely unconscious of its own social identity.
We do have some advantages today. We have a tradition of social thought that provides us a better understanding of our place in our social structures of privilege and oppression. We also have better communication technology to understand others and even ourselves. And one would think that we have learned something from previous mistakes of treating ideology as reality.
We also have some disadvantages. Psychology has been used to create advertising techniques that focus on our lower desires rather than on our highest capacities. This is true for both conservative and progressive groups. Shouting and ranting at city council meetings and sport stadiums has become the standard way of participating in events. Sometimes it seems that it is all about selling rather than telling; about mesmerizing rather than arguing, about being a true believer rather than a critical thinker.
In such a climate, it is easy to believe that complete conviction can overcome human limitations. As always, this is simply religious hubris. Still, we cannot simply return to the dictates of reason. We need to create a better perspective from which to limit religion. Or to put it another way, reason requires a human context it cannot provide for itself.
That context, I would like to suggest, should be the civic. And what is the civic? I take it, first of all, as that space between our social differences and our common humanity. Secondly, it becomes real in conversations among different people who recognize their commonness and work out how they want to live together. The actual people who participate in the conversation will define, as they enter into dialogue with one another, the common life they share and the design of their social life.
We all are already human. We were born of a woman. We have been cared for. We live a life. There is much we have in common. We share the same planet. We live in the same time. Our grandchildren will inherit the same earth.
We all are already different. We are male and female, fat and hungry, rich and poor, healthy and unhealthy, free and enslaved. We are members of different religious and political communities. We are also members of families and clans. Can we see ourselves as members of the civic? As common citizens? This is the question we need to answer.