The pope offered a vision of a world in which faith can draw the world’s peoples and cultures together instead of pushing them apart. Not because all people share a common faith, or even through the common respect for human life and human dignity that underlies all faiths, although the pope also emphasizes that point. But rather through the ways in which religion creates space for dialogue — dialogue that is itself “the means by which the various components of society can articulate their point of view and build consensus around the truth concerning particular values or goals.” As the pope affirmed, in what was for me the most arresting sentence in his speech, “It pertains to the nature of religions, freely practised, that they can autonomously conduct a dialogue of thought and life.” In other words, religion, as a holistic system of beliefs, codes of conduct, and the connections that build community, creates a space for thinking and talking about the big questions in life, the life and death issues on which peoples around the world must find at least minimum consensus. It is a space in which people of different faiths feel comfortable meeting, divorced from politics but with results that can influence politics. Across the horizons opened up by their different faiths, believers can develop a common “vision of faith,” in the pope’s words, that rests on “complete respect for truth, coexistence, rights and reconciliation.” If we imagine that space as an institution, it would be the United Religions, bringing together all the diversity of the world’s religions to argue and debate and find common ground in support of political action. Compare this vision of the role of religion in the world with dark predictions of a clash of civilizations, of the threat of Islamo-fascism, and of violent schisms within faiths like the divide between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Pope Benedict is on to something, and what better place to articulate that vision than the United Nations.
– Anne-Marie Slaughter is Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and author of THE IDEA THAT IS AMERICA: KEEPING FAITH WITH OUR VALUES IN A DANGEROUS WORLD (Basic Books, 2007).