August 21st, 2010


Theological Notebook: Allen on Africa and More; The Left Is Just Like The Right

Been dragging the last few days. I don't know if that was ridiculously long "crashing" from after the not-too-strenuous traveling I did, or if it was a very slight bug. More like I had post-flu light-headedness and lethargy without the inconvenience of the flu itself. Small blessings, if so.

Read through John Allen's latest "All Things Catholic" column this morning. It was interesting to hear him addressing issues of secularist philosophy in Africa, especially coming out of a self-consciously liberal newspaper. It was probably only in the last five years that, as a student of the phenomenon of secularism, I realized that the European/American Left, for all their passionate denunciations of modern colonialism in the developing world, were now ironically the perpetrators of the same kind of (effectively) racist and cultural condescension, forcing secularist Western ideas upon the developing world with arguably more gusto than white-suited, pith-helmeted white Brits (to indulge in a favourite stereotype) ever pushed the proper British way of life upon a reluctant world. Ironically, the denial that would come from the political Left in this case that they were doing any such reprehensible thing would be an appeal (like those Victorian Brits) that what they (the Left) were promoting among developing countries was undoubtedly correct or right. The same blindness that appalls people looking back a century or two is still with us, and has taken refuge in the ideologies most people would associate with the politically opposite group, who, I suspect, think themselves "immune" from being the latest version of the Evil White European Conqueror. Would that life and reality were so simple!

You can believe in cultural relativism or autonomy, that each individual culture has the absolute right to determine its own course, perspective and values, and you can believe in the truth of certain universal values (like requirements for freedom, political democracy, gender equality), but you cannot believe in both, and the Left has been trying to have it both ways. Al-Qaeda types made such denunciations of Western cultural imperialism as legitimation for their activities, and I think that that made a few inroads into secular Western consciousness, but not enough, of course, to shake the entire intellectual edifice. Like any ideology or fundamentalism, it must presume its own rightness as a given. I'm with the Left on believing in certain unshakable truths about reality, if not always the same ones or in the same way, but I'm not going to pretend otherwise: you cannot absolutize language enshrining diversity while at the same time exporting the most rigid orthodoxy in thinking the world has ever seen, which is what I think that the Secularist Left has consciously or unconsciously done.

So, in light of all this, it was interesting to read Allen's reporting of African commentary on these matters, even if such commentary isn't probably "purely" African (I doubt "pure" regional perspectives are easily possible anymore), particularly given the interest of the Western political and cultural Right in investing in African discourse. Likewise, the other oddments of Allen's column here, particularly the sketches of the late Italian "characters" he offers here, made for fun and thoughtful reading.
Secularism, Africa and characters in Rome
by John L Allen Jr on Aug. 20, 2010 – All Things Catholic

During the Cold War, both sides saw the so-called "Third World" as a battleground for hearts and minds. More and more, the same thing is true in today's ideological struggles over secularism, and this summer has brought some important changes to the strategic map:
On July 15, Argentina became the first nation outside Europe and North America to approve same-sex marriage.
In two dramatic recent rulings, the Mexican Supreme Court has upheld marriage and adoption rights for homosexuals in Mexico City.
Kenyans overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in early August despite objections that it opens the door to liberalized abortion.
For cultural conservatives who believe all this is fueled by Western campaigns to export radical secularism around the planet, Africa usually looms as the great hope for drawing a line in the sand. The latest effort to shore up the African front came during the July 26-August 2 plenary assembly of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), which brings together the Catholic bishops of Africa, and which was held this year in Accra, Ghana.

At that event, three Catholic writers and activists had the chance to address the African bishops, all associated with a fairly hawkish line vis-à-vis faith and culture. How successful such thinkers are in framing the African agenda may have a great deal to say about how Catholicism engages both the promise and perils of secularism in the 21st century.

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