Anne-Marie Slaughter: Dialogue and Faith

UN Photo/Mark Garten

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).

  • Harold M. Frost, III

    This responds to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s blog of April 18, 2008, “Dialogue and Faith,” posted during the apostolic journey to the U.S. and visit to UN headquarters of Pope Benedict XVI. It starts with Dean Slaughter’s choice of the most arresting sentence in his speech: “It [the Pope’s vision] pertains to the nature of religions, freely practised, that they can autonomously conduct a dialogue of thought and life.” This speech was the Pope’s address in New York City to the UN General Assembly, delivered on the date of her post. My own choice, as a research scientist with a Ph.D. in physics, of sentences in Pope Benedict’s address is: “Here our thoughts turn also to the way the results of scientific research and technological advances have sometimes been applied. Notwithstanding the enormous benefits that humanity can gain, some instances of this represent a clear violation of the order of creation, to the point where not only is the sacred character of life contradicted, but the human person and the family are robbed of their natural identity.” In my view, this phrase of “natural identity” provides the key which unlocks further details of the simile which Dean Slaughter offered in her own vision of a “United Religions.” That is, to create a space or great hall within which all are admitted who wish to talk about the big questions in life, each member of the “General Assembly” of this “United Religions” must be allowed to be who he or she has chosen to be while also being aware that the dialogue that takes place here in which human dignity and rights such as religious freedom and autonomy of thought are protected leads eventually to decision making and then actions taken which evolve from whom each human person really is as made in the image and likeness of a transcendent Supreme Being. As a scientist, I reject the notion that a human being is material only in nature, a vision which so many physicists offer to the world out of a false notion that truth can be known only through sensors or the senses which collect data of observable quantities in space-time. Instead, I accept one’s general identity including my own as a human person with both material and spiritual dimensions to being, thought, choices, and action. When I further accept the particular identity given me by the Supreme Being rather than the identity I had created myself, then indeed in living out my life I can become a building block for that unity of the human race that so many have sought and which underlies any chances for peace and justice within our diverse global human family.