Project Explores Christianity, Islam, Secularism

NEW YORK (CNS) — An ambitious multidisciplinary global research project based at the University of Notre Dame aims to bring together religious and secular people to solve the challenges of the 21st century.

The initiative, titled “Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular,” was launched with two days of cross-cultural programs in New York Nov. 18 and 19.

“The problem of religious violence and tensions among religions and between religious and secular forces are more sharply defined than ever,” said Scott Appleby, director of the initiative and of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame. “Our vision is to harness the power of ideas to forge a way forward across religious and secular divides to advance human rights, democracy, good governance, development and peace.”

Participating scholars at Notre Dame and other universities will examine religious-secular interactions, generate new knowledge and understanding and collaborate on new strategies for a more just and peaceful world, according to literature about the project.

Patrick Q. Mason, associate director for research at Contending Modernities, told Catholic News Service that the project, funded by private donors, has an initial five-year lifespan. He said the initiative’s title reflects an understanding that religious and secular people are grappling with one another, akin to a dance or wrestling match, rather than competing.

Mason said Catholics and Muslims were chosen for the first group of contenders because both groups are “unique, global and immense. He said both faiths are mission-driven and expansive and together represent 40 percent of the world’s population.

Mason said the project will likely expand to include other Christian groups, as well as Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.

Modernity is not easy to define, according to Mason. “Modernity is a very complicated and shifting thing,” he said. “It’s the era we find ourselves in, but it constitutes a whole complex of processes, including industrialism, urbanization, technology and the crisis in community — things that are uniquely modern. We want to wrestle with it in all its forms.”

The launch began with speeches by Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame; Sheik Ali Gomaa, grand mufti of Egypt, who appeared via Skype; Jane Dammen McAuliffe, president of Bryn Mawr College; and John T. McGreevy, dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters.

Father Jenkins said Catholics and Muslims believe faith and reason are twin pillars in the search for knowledge that serves the highest human values. Together, they can call on the accumulated wisdom of nearly half the world’s population.

Sheik Gomaa said it is possible to remain authentic to one’s religious traditions while still being a modern person. “To provide people with practical and relevant guidance while at the same time staying true to its foundational principles, Islam allows the wisdom and moral strength of religion to be applied in modern times,” he said. His address was read in English in New York by Ibrahim Negm, his special adviser.

McAuliffe, an internationally known scholar of Islamic studies, described “the many catholicisms of our modernity” to address the diversity within the Catholic Church. She said women’s education and economic empowerment will be critical to corporate success in expanding markets.

She said that Mary, “Notre Dame,” is the woman who may be the guide star for the Contending Modernities effort.

In a panel discussion on “Women, Family and Society in Islam and Catholicism,” Ingrid Mattson, past president of the Islamic Society of North America, said global religions can help people overcome the displacement common to modern times.

“Our faith communities give people a sense of belonging wherever they are in the world,” she said. “This is one of their most valuable services and gives people confidence that they always have a place in this world.”

M. Cathleen Kaveny, professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, explored the connection between feminism and the Catholic Church. She said Pope John Paul II called himself the feminist pope “and he meant it.”

“The church rightly understands itself as being in favor of the well-being of women,” she said, but there are long-standing tensions in the Roman Catholic world, including concern that minimizing the differences between men and women will denigrate the unique role of women as mothers.

Kaveny said Pope Benedict called for a collaborative relationship between men and women that is built on complementary skills and characterized by friendship.

Shahla Haeri, director of women’s studies at Boston University, described herself as “the unveiled granddaughter of an ayatollah.” She said women in her native Iran may realize their goal of gender justice and a less polarized society through the efforts of a peaceful coalition of women formed in response to the state’s restrictive policies.

Jacqueline Moturi Ogega, director of the Women’s Mobilization Program at Religions for Peace, said people need to apply religious teachings in practical terms to confront the challenges of modern times.

“Modernity has impoverished the African community in the sense that certain problems have been compounded,” she said, citing the proliferation of video games and pornography. “So-called traditional structures have been demeaned and relegated, but new ones are not going to help the community with its challenges.”

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