Volume 41, 1998
Edmund F. Byrne
Mission in Modern Life
A Public Role for Religious Beliefs
In this paper I discuss recent scholarly work on ideology, mostly by Europeans, that exposes a secularist bias in current political theory, invites a nonderogatory concept of religion, and (I argue) justifies more flexible church/state relations. This work involves (1) redefining ideology as any action-oriented ideas, whether destructive or ameliorative, including both secular theory and religion, then (2) drawing on hermeneutical and critical studies of the power/ideology relationship to rediscover a role for ‘utopia’ as a social catalyst for amelioration. I then call attention to the relevance of ‘mission’ to this work. For in both secular and sacred contexts, missions are defined and assigned to individuals or groups to enhance some aspect of the organizing entity’s sense of purpose and possibility. What stands out in each instance is that the sense of mission is not passively epistemic but actively project-oriented, goal-directed. It can be used with reference to any end or goal that is at least implicitly normative and which people seek to attain. A mission moves people, however, only if it is tied to some belief-based social identity which can be interpreted as oriented to that end. A case can be made, accordingly, for accommodating religious views in our political discourse, for they have a history of directing people’s thinking beyond what is to what ought to be, and without them we are ever more inclined to tolerate mediocrity in ourselves and despair in others.