Interview with French Philosopher on the Call for a “New Beginning”

Benedict XVI and U.S. President Barack Obama are both calling for a “new beginning” in the Middle East. Their common use of the same term brought French philosopher Henri Hude to analyze the proposal that both men have made to bring about peace in one of the world’s most troubled spots.

The Pope’s call (given in the context of his May pilgrimage to the Holy Land) and Obama’s call (given in his speech in Cairo the following month) are the subject of an essay Hude wrote for Humanitas, a journal published by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

Hude is the director of the Center of Ethical Research at the Academy of Saint-Cyr. He spoke with ZENIT about his essay and why certain appeals for “tolerance” are getting nowhere in the Middle East.

ZENIT: Why draw a parallel between Benedict XVI’s and Barack Obama’s addresses?

Hude: Humanity needs to initiate “a new beginning,” not only in the Middle East. Benedict XVI and Barack Obama affirm this and use the same expression. It is their first and final word. The goal toward which this “new beginning” points is universal peace. Both point in this direction, without suggesting a utopia. According to both of them, this “new beginning” is only possible if religion is seriously taken into consideration. Consequently, both pay special attention to the cultural and spiritual conditions of universal peace. Their points of view on the future — different, but intertwined — suggest a possible positive reconstitution of the global spiritual and temporal panorama.

ZENIT: In your opinion, what is the essential contribution of their parallel interventions?

Hude: Their saying that religion can be a factor of peace. Barack Obama believes that religions can live harmoniously by subjecting themselves to the norm of a philosophy that ensures the equality and liberty of opinions and traditions within a political constitution geared to bringing together the whole of plurality in unity, without annulling it. “E pluribus Unum.” And, given this condition, his contribution to society is very positive.

In my opinion, Benedict XVI expresses better how this theoretical model can operate without falling into utopia or manipulation. Benedict XVI speaks less about religion in general, addressing instead methodically and with realism and respect, the different particular relations that exist between Christianity and the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment and Islam, and Christianity and Islam. Of course, he also considers Judaism.

ZENIT: You are including the Enlightenment or the philosophy of light as a religion?

Hude: Of course. And this is true as well for the Enlightenment in its present stage, [which is] entirely relativistic. We say to ourselves that it would be simpler to mutually recognize our “opinions” without seeking an “absolute truth” … but it’s not so simple, given that if there is no absolute truth, this itself becomes the absolute truth and [thus] there continues to be an absolute truth. And this last “ultimate truth” is not purely a practical rule for tolerance, but a specific metaphysical belief linked to a whole system of authorizations and prohibitions. If an absolute truth can arise from each individual spirit, we are squarely within polytheism or pantheism. Consequently it is altogether reasonable that the Enlightenment poses problems to religions on tolerance, religious liberty and religious wars, but only if they include themselves, in conditions of equality, in the problematic contrivance that they pose. So reflecting more deeply on the Reason of Lights, we see that it is also one of the possible concepts of the Absolute, of Divinity, along with all the others.

ZENIT: What is the value of these “parallel points of view” in regard to the work of evangelization?

Hude: Evangelization is only possible if Christians are proud of their faith and don’t feel guilty about it. Benedict XVI exonerates Christians, but also Muslims and Jews. A soul that feels guilty does not dare to speak publicly about its faith. Why?

Benedict XVI answers this: “Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better” (Address before the Al-Hussein Mosque). And the argument to prove this is the existence of religious wars, which would be inevitable.

Barack Obama and Benedict XVI address this problem frankly and profoundly. From here stem two very different but in part convergent ideas of religion as an essential factor of peace. This idea tends to exonerate Christians in regard to being reproached in this way and also keeps them from reproaching themselves .

ZENIT: What is the greatest difference between the two approaches?

Hude: The North American president focuses on religions politically, though he is not without religious sensibility, and helps the progress of public reflection making it evident that he discerns clearly the complexity of the problem. However, he hardly rises above a warm, though somewhat vague, pacifist interreligious rhetoric, whose efficacy in religious spirits will be mitigated in its scope and will often be affected by its degree of secularization. Of course, the dissolution of religions in the secularist and relativistic environment, which Obama does not desire, would automatically be the solution to the problems that their existence poses; but in the same way, the dissolution of secularism would also be a possible solution to the problems it poses to religions … How can we get beyond these pseudo-solutions?

For his part, the Pope focuses meticulously on religions and reflects on the relative difficulty of their political coexistence — which is an undeniable fact — in the first place as a religious problem, which manifests itself seriously deep inside the religious conscience of each one. He does not start from the exigencies of democratic politics or world peace posed as absolutes, but from the search for the will of God in each situation. It is also for this reason that his political philosophy is more profound and penetrates to a greater degree in the specific effective conditions of peace.

ZENIT: But, then, what does the appeal for interreligious peace mean if it is not made only in the name of the spirit of Lights?

Hude: That’s a good question. This appeal must not include in itself anything contrary to the fundamental conviction of each party. Otherwise, it would seem to be an appeal to apostasy. That is why a totally honest dialogue is necessary.

Imagine, for example, that God had revealed that Holy War was a religious duty — I am not addressing here the roots of this question; this is simply a hypothesis for discussion — in that hypothesis, what reaction would you see in a “real believer” in reproaching God for not being politically correct? The appeal for peace formulated in the Western style would be incomprehensible. Instead, it could be effective and not disloyal to point out to this type of believer that, in the new conditions of the world, a Holy War, especially employing terrible means, would be totally counterproductive, which would only lead to the weakening of religion and the increase of what he considers an irreligious concept of liberty and peace. This was the bitter experience of European Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries. This, of course, is just an example.

Hence, an appeal for “tolerance” is altogether superficial if it consists in giving theists a lesson from a polytheist or pantheist point of view. Imagine if Muslims were asked to consider Allah as one of the gods of the relativistic Pantheon: It would be a joke in bad taste and they would take it very badly. Moreover, the same would be the case for a Christian. Because, according to the faith, who is a descendant of Abraham? Someone who believes he was called by God to make a decisive break with pantheism and polytheism. For this reason, the secularist preaching on a vague relativistic tolerance doesn’t promote a serious and profound dialogue at all. It only tends to dissolve religions, reducing them to silence because of guilt, or making them rebel violently against the very idea of tolerance. In order to establish a serious and peaceful dialogue, a person with these ideas would have to begin by saying: “I am a polytheist — or pantheist — and I consider my belief to be the true one. Let’s discuss it, if you wish.” The appeal to profound dialogue implies the truth and accepts the tragedy of dissent on the essential.

ZENIT: But how can we live together in peace if we are separated by dissent on the essential, which we refuse to relativize?

Hude: What allows for coexistence is esteem and friendship through what is common to moral seriousness in a virtuous life. This is how consensus was built in the United States between philosophers and believers since independence. Precisely this consensus was turned to ashes with the decision on abortion. Barack Obama would like to reconstruct it, but how?

If the spirit of the Enlightenment abandons the Kantian duty in favor of hedonism and ethical relativism, “enlightened” democracy is no longer structured around a liberty that rises but around one that falls; then there is no longer a common ground between it and religions or a serious Enlightenment. In this aspect, the moral problems of life are crucial. If the spirit of lights gives up the rigorous need of duty, it is degraded to an intolerant laxity that leads to the clash of civilizations.

ZENIT: Why are there religious wars?

Hude: It is necessary to understand this expression in the broadest sense. The wars between ideologies stemming from the spirit of lights or between a religion and a specific ideology are also religious wars in a broad sense. The Pope warns that religious wars exist in a broad sense, but that they are not necessarily very religious. “[T]he ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, [is] the real catalyst for tension and division” (Address before the Al-Hussein Mosque). One could invoke here the testimony of the philosopher Montaigne in his “Essays,” who lived in France in the time of religious wars. If, with the action of General Petraeus in Iraq, the affairs of the United States improved so much, it is because that action was based precisely on a much finer analysis of the character of this conflict that has a religious dimension, as explained by Professor Ahmed S. Hachim. Moreover, Benedict XVI praised the Jordanian leaders for ensuring that the “public face of religion reflects its true nature” (ibid.).