The Secular Vs. Religion?
take care of you?" ( Mt 25:44)
Of course, we may not need to ask! Karl Rahner expresses this disconcerting thought:
"The judgment of God will uncover the hidden recesses of our heart and will confound mere introspection; while our heart will admit that at bottom it always knew what now comes to light"
Christian faith is sometimes seen as giving rise to a narrow perspective. That is the opposite of the truth. 'Who is my neighbour?' asked the Catechism, "My neighbour is all mankind, without any distinction of persons, even those who injure us or differ from us in religion." In a world of great migrations, this is a real challenge. There may well be a need to regulate migration. But are we willing to face that issue with the realisation that we are dealing with people in whose name Jesus will say: "I was a stranger…"?
The second purification and awakening is found in something that the secular dimension cannot give, namely a belief that there is a meaning big enough to bring hope where we cannot do so. Even if we loved with all our heart and soul, even if every possible effort was made, millions of our brothers and sisters have already died, their lives blighted by abject poverty, and violence. Even with the most heroic efforts, that sort of poverty will continue to exist for many decades. Do we then live on the basis that, "I'm all right, Jack"? If life is meaningless for any of our brothers and sisters, it is not meaningless for all of us? A "meaning of life" that applied only to some of us, would make no sense. A society that ignores 'the big questions' is always on the point of plunging through the breaking ice into absurdity.
The believer works for justice and the common good, not in a despairing effort to do the impossible, but with the enthusiasm of a faith which knows that God's love is bringing justice to the living and the dead of all times and places. The question is not whether God's purpose will be achieved, but whether we will be part of that transformation:
When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and enterprise – human dignity, sisterly and brotherly communion, and freedom – according to the law of God and in his Spirit – we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured…"
This points to the important 'something' that we have forgotten. In a world of constant change and ravenous demands, we need a commitment built on our deepest convictions, on serious reflection about what it is all for and on the hope that comes from faith. We cannot live on the baseless optimism expressed by the person who said, "I don't know where we are going, but we sure are getting there!" A lot of the time, we pursue lesser goals with no overall vision and none of the reawakened spiritual energy of which Pope Benedict speaks.
I believe this energy is communicable also to those of faith traditions and non-religious approaches to life. It springs from belief in a God who is love, and from a vision of the dignity of human beings, what Pope John Paul called a "deep amazement at human worth and dignity, (which) is the Gospel. But that Good News, he says elsewhere, "has a profound and persuasive echo in the heart of very person – believer and non-believer alike". The Good News does not lead to answers to moral and social questions that would be incomprehensible to others – but to a motivation, a "freshness, vigour and strength" that comes from looking the big questions in the face with determined hope. That motivation and commitment can be communicated, but not always in words: "A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and let love alone speak".
The secular can challenge and enrich faith
We also need to look at the other side of the picture, namely how the secular dimension challenges and enriches faith. Chesterton's was right: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried". He says in the same context:
"My point is that the world did not tire of the church's ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians".
The transformation of Irish society from one where faith was seen as relevant everywhere to one where it seems not very relevant at all is an enormous threat to faith. This is not because the role of faith in society is being challenged or ignored; that has happened in many places and at many times. But the present transformation risks persuading Christians and other believers that faith can be put away into a private compartment and can be lived 'part-time', that is less than wholeheartedly.
The secular is the world in which faith is lived. If believers do not reflect and pray and understand what the Gospel has to say to all the complex dimensions of that world, and act on that reflection, they cooperate in confining God and silencing the big questions. A being limited in that way, is not God! Acquiescing in the separation of faith from life destroys faith.
Religious people may be irritated when someone says: "I'm not religious, but I'm a very spiritual person". They think, rightly, that one cannot in the long run be spiritual without others, and when one is spiritual with others that is the beginning of religion. But that statement challenges religious people: we need to be more spiritual. Being spiritual is not in opposition to living in the secular reality. "In fact, in their situation in the world God manifests his plan and communicates to (the laity) their particular vocation of 'seeking the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God'".
Faith grows from and celebrates and lives in all the realities of life. It is the truth that people find in "those deep recesses of their being where God, who probes the heart, awaits them". There we find the God, "who alone can satisfy the deepest cravings of the human heart".
This requires a huge effort of renewal, an effort to be in touch with our own deepest recesses, an effort to enter into the thirsts of the human heart – first of all our own, and then the hunger and pain, physical, emotional and spiritual of our fellow human beings, and the longings deep within us for a peace, justice and love greater than anything we know or imagine. Then we have to respond in all the specialised and complex areas of life with the energy and vigour that come from those longings.
Faith is a real conviction – not just words – on the part of Christians that Jesus Christ is, "the focal point of the desires of history and of civilisation". Responding to the big questions requires all of us to think more deeply about where we are going and why: about the questions that Céifin has been raising down the years: ' Is the Future My Responsibility?', 'Are we Forgetting Something?'. Perhaps the most striking phrase to emerge from a Céifin Conference was the one about tiptoeing back to the churches. If anyone wants to do that they are most welcome! The conclusion of Emily O'Reilly's talk best summed up what we need:
"Let me imagine… the creation of a new discourse, where a safe place is created to talk again about values, about the spiritual, where the political class summons the courage to shift its focus even slightly away from the purely economic and focuses instead on what else really matters, what the people they serve need for full and generous minded life…"
This is an urgent challenge is for us all; the skaters are right to fear that the ice is very thin.
The Gospel illustrates what is happening. Jesus was tempted in the desert to do three things – to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the highest point of the Temple, and to wield political power over all the kingdoms of the earth ( Mt 4, Lk 4).
We know well the temptation of living on bread alone. There is nothing wrong with affluence, comfort, or a better standard of living. The problem is when they become the answer to the question, 'What is the purpose of your life?' If we make these things our god, live for them alone, they will destroy us. The 'Celtic Tiger', like all tigers, can be a man-eater.
Nor is there anything wrong with popularity. If Jesus had been carried down from the temple, people would have flocked to him! But the relevance of the temptation is starkly clear to us today. Becoming a celebrity is dangerous. Celebrities can be built up to an impossibly inflated position before we turn on them with an equally inflated hostility. When this happens one can only hope that the people involved, whether pop stars or football managers, or 'personalities' of any kind, have understood that there is more to life than this. A society which lives for celebrity will destroy not only its celebrities but itself.
There is finally the obvious temptation to change the world by forcing people do what we think is right. Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor told Christ that by not accepting the gift of all the kingdoms of the earth and leaving people to respond freely, he was asking too much. Power can be well used, but it can also destroy the person who wields it and the person who lives simply to obey it. The abuse of power, whether in the Church, or in governments, or by the wealthy or privileged can destroy those it coerces – and those who use it.
They all come down to the same temptation: to put something in the place of God – to live for bread alone, to see God as merely the servant our ambitions, to worship something other than God. If these become the foundation of our lives and of our society, if they become the ice on which we skate, it will collapse.
The same threats to human wellbeing were recognised already in the Greek philosophical tradition. Socrates went to his death repeating his challenge his fellow citizens:
"… aren't you ashamed to worry about money, getting as much as you can, and about prestige and status, instead of intelligence and truth and the soul, getting it to be the best it can be? You don't worry about that, you don't even think about it"
If we begin to admit that possessions, prestige and power cannot provide the meaning of our lives, we may find ourselves not falling through the ice, but on solid ground, free to pursue what we are really seeking as individuals and as a society. Pope Benedict said to young people in Loreto: "It is true that finite things can give glimmers of joy, but only the Infinite can fill the heart".
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Catholic Online - Publisher, 661 869-1000
Secular, Religion, Catholic, Murray, Ireland
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