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The Secular Vs. Religion?

11/8/2007 - 20:07 PST

(Page 2 of 5)

with prayers for everything from lighting the fire to passing someone on the road. If this is a contest, it seems that religion is twenty points down and that the match is well into injury time!
 
How Religion sees the Secular
 
That is one angle on our topic – how contemporary society views religion. But let us now ask the opposite question.  How should religion view the secular?
 
When Pope Benedict set out to describe what he called "the heart of the Christian faith", he quoted what Jesus said to Nicodemus: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should… have eternal life" ( Jn 3:16) [1].
 
Clearly then, Christianity cannot see itself as in conflict with the world, the secular reality, which God loves so much. This is crucial: however we describe this conflict of mindsets, we distort it if we see it as a contest between religion and the secular reality in which we live.
 
This secular reality is not alien from the life of the Christian believer. Pope Paul VI said the Church " has an authentic secular dimension, inherent to her inner nature and mission, which is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate, and which is realised in different forms through her members".
 
Christians, and in particular lay Christians, live in this 'secular dimension':
 
"… in every one of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very fabric of their existence is woven.  They are persons who live an ordinary life in the world: they study, they work, they form relationships as friends, professionals, members of society, cultures etc".
 
What is going on in our society is not a conflict between religion and the secular, but between those who think there are areas of life where God is irrelevant and those who believe that such a position contradicts the very meaning of faith – and of secular reality as well.
 
I am speaking in terms of Christian faith, but I am not suggesting that the secular dimension needs to embrace a particular religious faith in order to make sense.  Nor am I saying that all efforts to grapple with fundamental human questions are religious. But the secular dimension of life needs to understand the space that the religious dimension of life occupies, to appreciate the importance of questions about ultimate meaning, to realise that it is good for the health of secular society that citizens would be in touch with their own deepest questions
 
Tensions can certainly occur between the State and religions or Churches, as they can between any institutions.  More fundamental is the conflict between the quest for ultimate meaning, and a secular ist view which thinks that such questions are peripheral or meaningless and should remain inaudible.
 
Many years ago, Frank Sheed pointed to the absurdity of the State failing to see its own limits and seeing itself as an educator in its own right. How could it set out to prepare people for life when it can give no coherent account either of what a person is or what life is for?  The State as such cannot answer these philosophical or religious questions; but it must not fail to understand how fundamental these questions are in the motivation and self-understanding, and indeed the educational development, of individuals and groups.
 
A person's convictions and commitment come from what he or she believes human beings are and what human life is about.  Saint Thomas Aquinas said that all our desires depend on the ultimate purpose and meaning of our lives in much the same way that everything that happens in creation depends on the Creator.  In other words, all our longings and hopes come from our restlessness, our desire to be what we are capable of becoming or, in religious terms, to be what our Creator has made us capable of becoming.  That is where our energy and commitment come from.
 
Our quest for meaning arises from reflecting on life's goal. The questions cannot simply be dismissed: 'why are we here?'; 'where can we find meaning and fulfilment?'; 'with so much evil and suffering in the world, how can we have hope?'; 'what happens when we die?'  Not all answers to these questions are religious, but they are at a level deeper than the scientific or pragmatic. One could with scientific accuracy answer the question 'what is a human being?' by saying that a human being is largely water, with smaller quantities of carbon, calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus and so on – ingredients worth three or four euro. It is accurate, but it empties the question of its meaning.
 
John Humphrys, of the BBC, recently conducted a series of programmes called 'Humphrys in Search of God' .  At the end, he remained an agnostic, but he is far from believing that 'the big questions' can simply be dismissed.  He ...

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