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The Secular Vs. Religion?

11/8/2007 - 20:07 PST

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fullness of its meaning".

Not a conflict but a mutual enrichment

Contemporary culture does not give proper weight to questions of meaning .The result is a false conflict between religion and the secular.

In Ireland today the question, 'Are we forgetting something?' has a particularly unsettling resonance, an unease we share with much of Western society. On the one hand we enjoy new freedoms and possibilities, but on the other we feel like a person skating on a frozen lake who is beginning to suspect that the ice is not strong enough to bear his weight.

There are signs all around us of a world on thin ice, in denial about its fragility and in confusion about its values. For years we have been using energy and resources at a rate which is in the process of irrevocably damaging the planet. For years we have lived in a world full of weapons of terrifying power, desperately hoping that for first time in history weapons have been developed that will never used. For years we have lived with increasing affluence against the background of what Pope John Paul called "the gigantic remorse" that comes from knowing that our human family also contains appalling deprivation. For years we have lived with increasing pressure on the basic social reality the family; we have watched the crumbling credibility of many institutions that have held our society together; we have seen discord, wars and atrocities. Our moral compass fluctuates wildly: choices that were once unanimously condemned are now socially acceptable. We all see the contradictions. A few weeks ago, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin gave a striking example: "You get people using cocaine on Saturday night and eating organic food on Sunday". The fragility is evident but we continue to skate as though the ice was solid!

The attitude of religion to the secular is not that it is evil or that it is false, but that on its own it cannot bear the weight that we are placing on it. Ice formed without reference to the big questions and the deep convictions which for most citizens are grounded in faith is simply too thin. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke of the fallacy that: "Religion and society are two independent entities, so that we can edit God out of the language and leave our social world unchanged". On the contrary, faith is about the meaning of life, including the secular dimension of life.

Faith can challenge and enrich the secular

Religious belief is important to the health of secular reality. But the relationship must be right. In some parts of the world faith and politics are seen as virtually the same, but in Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict sets out a different approach:

"The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper".

All Christians, lay and ordained, are entitled, like everyone else, to engage in the life of society through rational argument. Whatever is said by the Church or Church bodies in the area of politics, economics and social policy is addressed to rational minds and consciences. It has no coercive force; the only power it can have is through being accepted as true by those who hear it. Political discussion cannot be conducted with theological arguments, nor theological discussion with political arguments. They are two distinct languages. We need to be bilingual, speaking the language of the beliefs that give energy to our convictions, but speaking also the language of citizenship when we join with our fellow citizens to discuss what is best for society.

Pope Benedict stresses the believer's role of reawakening spiritual energy and fostering the 'constant purification' of our reason. He speaks about "the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests". We can look back at slave-owners in the Southern US, kind to their aged relatives, considerate of their (white) neighbours and utterly blind to the horror of what they were doing to their slaves. And we might ask about the blind spots of our civilisation, which will cause future generations to look at us and say: 'How could they?'

The first purification and awakening of energy that Christian faith calls for is a universal outlook. It tells us that we will be judged by Jesus speaking in the name of people, whether in Ireland, in Africa, in refugee camps or war zones. Faith warns us we may find ourselves asking: "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not ...

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