One night this past summer in Cairo, I attended a concert put on by the French Cultural Center at the Citadel of Saladin, locally known as al-Qala'a. The whole event was an incredible mix of culture, faith, and language. The Cultural Center naturally drew what I deemed to be a large portion of the francophone community in Cairo (I dubbed the Citadel "Little France" for the evening), but one could find Egyptians, Americans, Italians, Sudanese, etc. At one point in the evening, I, a native English speaking American, was speaking French with a native Italian about Latin American culture.
The performing artist, Bernard Lavillier (a French musical icon), was performing songs from his new CD titled Causes Perdues et Musiques Tropicales which is filled with world music themes and rhythms. He sang in French, Portuguese, and English; at times his songs made me feel like I was at a Panamanian street party, while at the next moment transporting me to a French cafe, followed by a quick trip to Brazil. His music, what I feel is an exploration and appreciation of world music, especially tropical music, was accompanied by an Egyptian Guitar player who had opened for Bernard. At one point in the opening session, the guitarist played the Egyptian National Anthem, and the whole crowd cheered. Whether you were Egyptian, French, American, Sudanese, or of whatever nationality, you felt at home in this veritable culture smoothie.
I found it funny (and perhaps providential) that the day after this experience, while doing some preliminary reading and research for my MA thesis, I come across an extended discussion on culture, cultural diversity, and cultural identity in the contemporary world by none other than Pope Benedict XVI (see Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions). While I was sipping on this cultural smoothie in Cairo, Pope Benedict united my experiences of cultural diversity and my passion for interreligious dialogue and Islamic studies into a single and beautifully packaged work that has spurred me forward in my own theological explorations. In the book, he, in essence, attempts to address a pretty basic observation about the world in relation to the plurality of religions and the notion of dialogue, an observation that I find fascinating, pressing, and particularly drawn to explore further (perhaps I've found the substance of my thesis): to what extent do religions have the right to claim the "truth"? On what are truth claims based? Does one religion have the right to claim they possess the truth? This is the basic, the most fundamental conundrum of interfaith relations. In the first part of the book, Pope Benedict spends a great deal talking about the notion of culturebecause he sees it as an important first discussion before one is able to properly address these greater questions. Anthony O'Mahony, a theologian, notes this about contemporary society:
Never before has history known so many frontiers as in our contemporary world, and at no period has there been such a frequent violation of frontiers as happens today. It would seem that the establishment and removal of frontiers is the order of the day. This contradictory process is a window into the plight of humanity in these times: a dialectical tension between demarcation of particular identities and crossing over to the other shore. If the consolidation of frontiers is characterized as ethnicity, tribalism, nationalism, and a certain type of religious fundamentalism; the crossing of them is known as global awareness, the mixing of cultures, trans-nationalism and the expression of world religiosity.
("Christianity, Interreligious Dialogue and Muslim-Christian Relations" in World Christianity: Politics, Theology, Dialogues. O’Mahony, Anthony and Michael Kirwan, eds. London: Melisende, 2004, p. 63)
This quote makes me ask the question, how aware are we of our cultural identity? How are our values shaped by our culture and how do these influence our theology and philosophy behind our religious interactions? What perhaps is a more important question is whether or not we act properly according to these values. Do we perhaps act in a way that may lead to some unhappy consequences? A practical manifestation of this can be found in the common social reaction to the very questions posed above.
Read Part 2 by clicking here.