The proponents of religion and philosophy don’t exactly have a reputation for being best pals. Lately, however, it looks a bit like they’ve been holding hands. Two recent arguments for new economic and political models are bringing these seemingly disparate groups closer together in a new way—through the use of religious language. The recent work of philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argues for love as the lynchpin to the realization of their entire project in economics and political theory. Similarly, artist Makoto Fujimura recently argued for a balanced model of creative, economic, and social exchange in order for society to achieve shalom. In both cases, religious language is employed in a secular context toward goals that are desirable to both the secular and religious. This should be encouraging to both groups.
Since the Enlightenment, secular philosophical and intellectual circles have rejected religious language and concepts as sentimental or naive. Religion has thus been largely treated as taboo in many secular colleges and universities. Conversely, many religious communities (especially Western Christian ones) have tended to isolate themselves from contemporary culture partly through the creation of alternate cultural industries (such as Christian music, or Christian colleges and universities) and through a general lack of participation in public intellectual life, as pointed out most notably by Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. These factors tended to put secular intellectuals and Christians at odds with one another when it comes to addressing society’s needs. They may have had similar goals in mind in addressing the ailments of society, but until recently, their language and methodology couldn’t have been farther apart.
In October 2009, ArtForum published two extended excerpts from Commonwealth, the latest book by influential political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. In the passages, Hardt and Negri reveal love as the key component in the creation of individual experiences (subjectivity) and the common wealth of the material world (air, water, and all natural resources, referred to as “the common”) through individuals in community (multiple singularities). The resultant “care and cohabitation in a common world” sounds a lot like Makoto Fujimura’s description of shalom.
In March 2010, Makoto Fujimura presented the attendees of the International Arts Movement’s annual conference with a model for a “new capitalism,” re-interpreting personal success through the Jewish concept of shalom. In this model, Fujimura argues for a balanced interaction between artists (creativity), the non-profit sector (equity), and for-profit sector (capital) to produce a society that embodies a healthy relationship between individuals, the environment, and God, as opposed to the rampant accumulation of material wealth for personal gain to the exclusion of others.
Shalom is often interpreted as peace; however, its connotations in Hebrew encompasses much more. Shalom is closer to the notion of wholeness, but even that is limited. It’s a completeness or right relationship between a person, their community, their natural and physical environment, and their God. It is a state wherein each of these components is in harmony with the others.
Examples like Hardt, Negri, and Fujimura show an emerging shift toward using similar religious language in addressing social and economic philosophy, art, and religion. They argue that concepts like love, community, and marriage have become deeply flawed or corrupted in popular culture. In both examples, love is seen as a key component in repairing society. They speak of trying to create a “world that ought to be,” instead of the war- and poverty-ravaged world we inhabit.
Another similarity is in one of the models Hardt and Negri use in their argument. Hardt and Negri see the social solidarity of the poor as an ideal model because of the power of intention and production the poor possess out of sheer necessity. The poor must interact and organize for their very survival. This is seen, in its essence, as a positive method of social interaction. Many Christians would agree, finding it similar to the history of the early church described in the book of Acts in the New Testament. Acts 2:44-45 says, “And all who had believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The early Christian church appears to have embodied, at least at one point, a positive example of social solidarity through poverty akin to that which Hardt and Negri are studying.
Certainly, points of disagreement exist between Hardt and Negri’s arguments and many religious communities, but the use of common language and terminology is significant. When new lines of communication are opened, the potential for new conversations, discoveries, and relationships is opened as well. If proponents of both religion and philosophy aim to address the human condition in some way, surely they can learn and benefit from dialogue.
Love and shalom sound more like they come from a pulpit than a discussion on social philosophy, economics, or contemporary art. Maybe we shouldn’t expect religious and philosophical leaders to skip down the street holding hands just yet, but we might be encouraged at least that they’re speaking the same language.