Thursday, February 17, 2005

Religion and Public Life

The preference among most progressives, at least on blogs, is that religion play no part in public life. Which is understandable, when religion is too easily abused by its most vocal practitioners into an exclusive club, a forum from which to judge the deserving and the undeserving, the fit and the unfit. What, then, to make of this, from a man who joined one of the most rigidly ruled and strict of monastic Christian orders?

In Louisville, at the comer of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. ...This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: "Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others."
(Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books 1968), 156-57)

An experience, of religion, from religion, of the worth of others, and of the worth of a public life, which is life with others. Religion can provide that. Not religion alone; but it is part of the human experience, going back to the earliest human memory. More of the human race is "religious" than is not, and to long for the day when "religion" either disappears, or can be completely expelled from public life, is to long for something that will never occur, and, indeed, should never occur.

So, if it is going to be in public life, and a part of public life, how should it be accomodated to, and accomodate, public life?

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