Philip McDonagh, interviewed by Melanie Barbato
This interview with the poet, professor, and former diplomat Philip McDonagh, connects with the recent special issue of CrossCurrents journal, “Interreligious Dialogue and Diplomacy.” The guest editor of the issue and associate editor of CrossCurrents, Melanie Barbato, conducted the interview.
Melanie Barbato: You just co-authored a book on the significance of religion for global diplomacy. How do you see the role of interreligious dialogue?
Philip McDonagh: Interreligious dialogue is an important global challenge. Progress has been made in recent decades. I think of Pope Francis’s meetings with Sunni and Shia leaders. Another positive development is that in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, we are showing more respect for indigenous religious traditions than in the past.
That said, in the context of global diplomacy what matters most is for religions to look outwards and address common challenges together. In that perspective, we religious believers need to work with friends whose life-stance or worldview may not be expressed in religious terms. We should also engage with western “scientific rationalism” and understand more clearly the compatibility between reason and religion – which can be compared to the compatibility between reason and literature.
Through the UN Millennium Development Goals, and subsequently the Sustainable Development Goals, we have recognised that the welfare of humanity cannot be entrusted merely to individual states acting on their own. On the contrary, we need a collective effort and an agreed roadmap. Climate change has reinforced our awareness of this unavoidable political fact. Faith communities need to become part of this intellectual and moral awakening. We need to come together as much as we can to support governments and international organisations as they search for the right path. On practical policy decisions, our public authorities should always have the last word.
MB: Diplomatic dialogue is a term that is sometimes used for the dialogue of religious leaders. A typical criticism of this form of dialogue is that we do not need more declarations because change has to occur from the grassroots. As someone who has served many years in the diplomatic service, how do you view the role of diplomatic dialogue?
PM: “Diplomatic dialogue” in the sense you describe is preparatory to engagement with public authorities and should support and help to clarify public priorities. This form of engagement necessarily touches on specific, complex issues. Therefore, religious leaders should work with experts, encourage new forms of leadership, and network with relevant civic society organisations. Your question implies all this. That is the approach we are trying to facilitate through our Centre at Dublin City University.
Another consideration is that public authorities see faith communities as having “social capital.” Their grassroots presence can make a real difference in the implementation of transformative policies. Faith communities will be more credible as agents of change if they can mobilise grassroots activities, including new forms of networking, and demonstrate diversity among their spokespersons. Youth leadership is especially important.
In making these points, I do not dismiss the role of “declarations” or guiding ideas. Bringing higher-level values to bear on day-to-day policies is the essential nature of politics as defined by Aristotle. We need to distinguish between, on the one hand, day-to-day decisions and the detailed provisions of the law, which are always imperfect, and on the other hand, an underlying ethos or sense of direction, where religious leaders have a great deal to contribute.
MB: One question in dialogue is always who gets invited to the table. What is your view on representation in interreligious dialogue, and especially on dialogue with exclusivists and extremists?
PM: In politics, we need to go to great lengths to ensure the participation or representation of all citizens within a single system of decision-making that enjoys broad consent. Justice is the core political value. I’m not sure that exactly the same principles apply to interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue has its roots in civic society, is voluntary in nature, and can take many different forms. Interreligious dialogue is “preparatory” to politics, as I suggested. The core values that come to mind in interreligious dialogue are hospitality and social friendship.
Of course a specific set of challenges arises when public authorities officially convene churches, faith communities and philosophical organisations for a dialogue on the “great questions of society” (as the French say). The Centre where I am Director undertakes collaborative research on the concepts, values, and organisational principles that can encourage a mutually beneficial engagement by policy makers and other stakeholders with religious actors.
One possible approach is for public authorities to issue the equivalent of a “call for proposals” in a specific sector and to follow up in more detail on submissions that appear useful in the light of the goals that have been set. Under this approach, “exclusivists” and “extremists” would need to earn their place at the table by the quality of their projects or the usefulness of their ideas in the light of current political priorities.
Of course, conflict resolution requires a specific approach to the question of “who gets invited to the table.” There’s no alternative to reaching out to key actors in the conflict, including actors for whom religion is part of their identity. This requires careful attention to “rules of engagement.” Forms of “conditionality” may need to be imposed, as happened in Northern Ireland.
MB: You played a part in the Northern Ireland peace process and served as Irish Ambassador to India, Holy See, Finland, Russia and the OSCE. Are there any transferable lessons that can be learned about the role of religion in conflicts?
PM: Let me start with a word in ancient Greek: stasis. Stasis refers to a form of political breakdown in which a previously peaceful community splits into factions and may disintegrate completely. Some modern translators render stasis as “revolution”. This is misleading. “A time of stasis” more typically signifies polarisation leading to dysfunction and confusion. There is a dynamic, or a pathology, with many associated symptoms.
We need to acknowledge that religion can be a part of stasis, contributing to “polarisation” or “radicalisation.” In our co-authored book, we observe that religion, or a worldview with “religious” characteristics, can serve as a marker of group identity; as a means of removing a political issue from the realm of critical scrutiny; or as an obstacle to integration, whether of people or of ideas.
Against this background, it is essential, I think, for economic, political, cultural, and religious factors in the formation of identity to remain distinguishable from one another. Religious leaders should stand back from conflict as much as they can and keep open channels of communication across the divides. Their first responsibility is to emphasise our common humanity and the importance of actions that reflect that common humanity, even in the middle of conflict. If they can, religious leaders should create a safe space for dialogue, a refuge of fraternity and friendship.
Religion can play an essential role in situations of conflict by introducing what Shakespeare calls “the quality of mercy.” Consider the time required for any real historical transition. What should be our stance towards an injustice that seems for the time being impregnable? The patience and persistence with which we pursue a peaceful transition can be understood as an exercise of the “quality of mercy,” as applied to a wounded social structure. One of the potential obstacles to dialogue is the fear that the dialogue itself will confer legitimacy or credibility on questionable partners or potential adversaries. Our conception of mercy can offer a helpful way of looking at this problem: “let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”
MB: In diplomacy, religious leaders can be seen as important partners because they have unique access to communities. In our upcoming issue, Pasquale Ferrara calls for a shift in perception: diplomats should not only ask how interreligious dialogue can help to achieve specific goals but also how diplomatic activities can serve interreligious dialogue. What are your thoughts on this?
PM: This is a striking idea. As it happens, I have written a forthcoming article on the German jurist Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde who famously held that “the liberal and secular state depends on conditions it cannot itself guarantee” and that “every democracy can only be as good as the societal forces that sustain it.” This thesis, distinguishing ethos from law, is now widely known as “the Böckenförde dictum” or the “Böckenförde paradox.” Böckenförde’s thinking has contributed to new ways of envisaging the creative relationship that can emerge between public authorities and faith communities. In other words, the dialogue between public authorities and churches, faith communities, and philosophical organisations has positive consequences on all sides, including for the self-understanding of faith communities.
Let me develop this idea further. The major occupational hazard of politics is losing touch with essential values that cannot be constituted by the process of politics itself. The major occupational hazard of faith communities is to take for granted their current understanding of the world and positioning in society. Perhaps we can state a general rule: faith communities grow in self-awareness and are drawn closer together as they place themselves at the service of the society around them. One might go further and state that creative engagement between public authorities and faith communities illuminates the meaning and purpose of faith.
A greater understanding of the dialogical relationship between higher-level values and positive law illuminates the scope of reason and the relationship between reason on the one hand and religion or revelation on the other. I think Pasquale Ferrara makes a good point: political engagement, including diplomatic activities, can serve interreligious dialogue.
MB: Are religion and spirituality topics that are discussed freely among diplomats? Or are diplomats expected to keep their own commitments private?
PM: My experience in the European Union and multilateral settings is that religion and spirituality are rarely discussed freely among diplomats. This leads me to a counter-question: is diplomacy a game of power, an interaction of physical systems, or do we expect diplomatic contacts to enable the interaction of moral systems, bringing words and their real meanings into play? Does friendship matter in diplomacy?
At the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that most of our diplomatic frameworks have taken on a bureaucratic character. The agenda is predictable. Meetings take place routinely, according to a weekly or monthly cycle. Everyone is always very busy. In many administrations, officials are subject to a “vetting” process to make sure that their personal attitudes or circumstances will not interfere with the “line to take” – the message that central authorities have elaborated in the light of a wider strategy. The individual diplomat may not even know the full facts or reasoning behind that wider strategy.
During the Cold War, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber identified the prevalence of “existential mistrust” among diplomats. At that time, American diplomats could not imagine that their understanding of the world would be altered in any way by an encounter with a Soviet counterpart. In the circumstances of the early 1950s, we find this understandable. In the long run, however, “existential mistrust” of adversaries greatly exacerbates the bureaucratic tendencies I have attempted to describe.
For many-sided negotiations to bear fruit, personal interactions are a prerequisite. Diplomats must have the freedom to undertake exploratory discussions with counterparts with a view to understanding their points of view, the dangers they fear, and where they see the possibility of new beginnings. The personal, human level, including especially trust, becomes all-important.
I would make two practical suggestions.
In view of the interconnectedness of issues and the need to bring emerging issues to attention, new frameworks of engagement should allow for open-ended, comprehensive agendas. A “sifting process” will then be required to move forward in specific areas.
Second, any framework oriented towards clarifying shared values, principles, and commitments across several “dimensions” needs to operate to a slow rhythm. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was conceived as a process, not an event, and was conducted by means of a chain of conferences in several different capitals. Each conference was extended over years rather than months and included breaks for reflection and consultation.
I would also like to share a personal memory.
As a young diplomat, I served as a delegate at the conference on “confidence and security-building in Europe” (the Stockholm Conference, 1984 – 1986). I had a number of conversations with a Soviet counterpart, the late Vladimir Erefeev, who had once been Stalin’s personal interpreter. During the end-game of the negotiations, the Swedes included me in a high–level working lunch at which Vladimir Erefeev was seated opposite me. Erefeev picked up a piece of bread from the table and held it in my direction. Not quite understanding, I laid down my fork and used my free left hand to accept the bread. Erefeev held fast to the bread until we broke it between us. Then he said: “I am baptized. It is something for your information.” Later on, I learned that Erefeev had been an internal critic of certain Soviet policies and that his son, the novelist Viktor Erefeev, was a dissident.
MB: You are a diplomat and academic, and also a poet. In our upcoming issue, we feature two poems by Abhay K., who is also an ambassador, and there are quite a few other poet-diplomats, like Geoffrey Chaucer or Pablo Neruda. What connects poetry and diplomacy?
PM: If I had to sum up my perspective in one phrase, I would say that the essential art of discerning the “truth of situations” connects poetry and diplomacy. In ancient Greek, mousikē, “activity supported by the Muses,” can include creative interventions by political leaders and judges, as we see in Hesiod in the opening passage of the Theogony.
I will make a few additional points.
In an essay of 1913, Osip Mandelstam states, “The consciousness of our rightness is dearer to us than anything else in poetry.” Mandelstam famously said to his wife Nadezhda, “Poetry is respected only in this country – people are killed for it.” One of Mandelstam’s favourite phrases was this: “A man sits and carves a piece of wood, and out of it comes God.” What all this means, I think, is that to leave the life of the mind entirely to a scientific methodology produces an inevitable conflict with the values of poetry as Mandelstam understood poetry. At least three major ideas are centrally important for Mandelstam. First, poetry is un-biddable and comes to the poet as material requiring careful elaboration. Second, poetry makes a cognitive claim. It enables us to apprehend, or begin to apprehend, reality as a whole. Third, the perspective of the poet as he shuttles between the universal and the particular has ethical implications.
In Ireland, our Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney was reticent about inspiration. However, the quietness with which his flame of truth burns does not mean that literature and prophesy have gone their separate ways. Heaney explains in his Nobel lecture (1995) how a concern for truth transformed his poetic life. “What I was longing for,” he tells us, “was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology.” Heaney attributes this way of looking at poetry partly to Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. For Heaney, to “credit poetry” is to trust and hope in something that in terms of scientific verification, remains unseen. A poem, as Heaney puts it, persuades the “vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it.”
MB: Do you think literature, or maybe art more generally, can make a difference in the world and contribute to peace and social justice?
PM: Yes, I do.
In English, probably the most important text is Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, published after Shelley’s death from drowning two hundred years ago, in July 1822. Anticipating Marx and Engels, Shelley was troubled by new patterns of social injustice deriving from new modes of production. He analysed this as the progressive imposition of the “calculating faculty,” a narrow understanding of reason, on the values implicit in art and poetry. Poetry sees the connection between order and beauty and is open to the whole of reality.
Seamus Heaney is a poetic–political voice for the 21st century. Heaney’s historical context is the sad aftermath of colonialism and the 20th century world wars. “The documents of civilisation,” he states in his Nobel lecture, “have been written in blood and tears…the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.” Heaney’s Nobel lecture takes nothing for granted about the claims of empire and civilization. By contrast, beginning with a story about St. Kevin of Glendalough, Heaney endorses what he calls our “love and trust in the good of the indigenous.” This trust should “encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.” The “crediting” of political possibilities is obviously analogous to the “crediting” of poetry.
In our co-authored book, we look forward to an “axial age” at the global level. Once our orientation is clear, once the compass is in our hands, we can recover a sense of being “present at the creation,” such as many people felt during the peacebuilding work that followed World War II.
MB: What kind of education can equip young people for a future that appears daunting in many ways, for example because of the ecological crisis, the cost of living crisis and the growth of extremism in many countries?
PM: Our Centre at Dublin City University is responsible for the delivery of an interdisciplinary module for postgraduate students which examines the changing character of international relations, with a specific focus on human values and peacebuilding. Among our objectives is to help students to develop a critical understanding of the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and other public policy issues. We are in discussion with other universities, especially in Italy, on possible cooperation in the development of academic programmes. The question you ask is attracting more and more interest.
I am very much aware that education begins in early childhood and passes through several stages before we come to adulthood. In today’s world, vocational training is a lifelong endeavour. Without losing sight of that bigger picture, and not forgetting that social cohesion is a cornerstone of society, I believe that university education has a pivotal role to play and that in this particular sphere we need to focus on the interrelationships between the different spheres of knowledge and on the purpose of learning.
One of my teachers at school, Fr. Joseph Veale, S.J., wrote as follows in an essay published at the end of his life:
If every action aims at some good, is there a higher good, such as happiness, which is valued for its own sake and becomes the ‘unifying focus of all our scattered enterprises’?
Fr. Veale’s consistent concern was with the “what for?” of education. Students need to study literature, the humanities, science, mathematics, and many other subjects. Every department of learning deserves respect. But how do we organise our knowledge? How do we place that knowledge at the service of society and the discernment of the common good? What is our overall perspective?
These questions point, I would argue, to the goal of humanitas, a term coined by Cicero to describe an educational ideal. Humanitas suggests both sympathy for all fellow human beings and openness towards every department of knowledge. There is no dichotomy between “the material” and “the spiritual” – no inherent conflict between the products of culture and the insights of religion. An education in humanitas, alongside the acquisition of specialized competences, can help equip young people for the world of the 21st century. But the humanism of the future must be a global humanism, drawing on the best in all cultures, including the traditions of “indigenous” peoples.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Philip McDonagh is a professor, poet and former career diplomat. He is the director of the newly established Centre for Religion, Human Values, and International Relations at Dublin City University. During his diplomatic career, he served as Irish Ambassador to India, Holy See, Finland, Russia, and the OSCE. Before that, he has played a part in the Northern Ireland peace process. He is co-author of The Significance of Religion for Global Diplomacy (Routledge, 2021).