KANSAS CITY, Mo. (National Catholic Reporter) Ė According to Father Albert Nolan, a Dominican theologian from South Africa, if Christianity Ė Catholicism in particular Ė is to appeal to future generations, it must reformulate its doctrines and dogmas so they are meaningful to a postmodern mind.
Father Nolan is the author of Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom.
How can we leave aside religious interpretations and images that no longer speak to the imagination of people who have seen planet Earth from space, have witnessed the reality of cloning, have experienced instantaneous worldwide communication as routine.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was an effort to bring the church into the modern world, said Father Nolan, but it may actually have been too little, too late. As the church was attempting to make itself meaningful to a modern mind shaped by the forces of the Enlightenment, the world itself was entering a new era characterized by the unraveling of the Enlightenment and the advent of what is now referred to as postmodernism.
ďMore and more people, and especially young people, have given up all the certainties of the past: religious certainties, scientific certainties, cultural certainties, political certainties and historical certainties,Ē writes Father Nolan in Jesus Today. He says that we live in an age of great skepticism about any ideology or authority, an age where more and more Catholics are alienated from the church and find little meaning in the rituals and language of a religion they experience as unrelated to their lives.
Todayís Catholic grandparents are often perplexed when their children and grandchildren participate in nontraditional spirituality centers or choose secular gatherings over sacramental practices. Many Catholics dismiss church teachings that are inconsistent with their own experience of relationships and sexuality, or ignore proclamations affecting the beginning and end of life.
Religious vocations within the United States have declined by more than 50 percent and vocations to the priesthood by more than 30 percent since 1965, and Mass attendance in the United States has dropped off by 30 percent since the peak years of 1957 and 1958.
Some attribute these trends to inconsistent implementation of Vatican II initiatives. Others point to Vatican II itself as the cause. And still others blame the clergy sexual-abuse crisis as a major contributing factor.
Father Nolan suggests that we must consider societal forces other than these more popular justifications if we are to understand how we arrived at the current situation.
Tom Fox, former editor and publisher of National Catholic Reporter, interviewed Father Nolan. In his remarks, presented here in an edited version, Father Nolan considers how to resolve a cultural and religious reality that both sits on the edge of chaos and promises a hopeful future where faith, spirituality and religious conviction play a role.
The hunger for meaning, peace and freedom
National Catholic Reporter: Would you define postmodernism as you understand it and explain why it has led, for example, to the splitting off of spirituality from religion?
Father Albert Nolan: The usual understanding of postmodernism is that itís the age after modernity. Modernity stands for the emphasis on reason as the measure of all things, the possibility of sorting out all our problems by means of science, religion and technology. Modernity promised humankind a great future where everything was going to improve. There were differences of opinion about whether the improvements would come by means of capitalism or communism. Nevertheless, everyone saw progress as inevitable.
What we gradually began to realize was that these reasonable humans were acting unreasonably. We had the Nazis, the Second World War, great civilizations that suddenly became violent. Even the great nations of today fail as well.
All the things promised with progress are not working. The great ideologies are all shown today to be faulty. The grand narratives, as they are called, are all falling apart. People are disillusioned. Postmodernism is part of that disappointment.
Sometimes itís called deconstruction, because it takes apart all the grand ideas, all the principles and certainties of science, of religion, of economic progress. All these things are being recognized as having failed us.
Thereís not necessarily one truth; you can have your own truths and listen to someone elseís. You have to find what interests you.
Thatís a very broad idea of what postmodernism is about.
One result is that the churchís authoritarianism, for example, doesnít wash with young people today: ďYouíve got to believe or else.Ē For them, the doctrines and dogmas of the church are formulated in ways of thinking about life and the world that belong to the past. The teachings are fine. Thatís not the problem. The problem is in the way they are formulated.
The young find it difficult to accept those doctrines and dogmas as they are presented in churches. The Second Vatican Council began to try to reformulate them, but this process hasnít gotten far, by and large. Theologians have been working at it, but the church hasnít caught up.
One of the most significant developments of our time is the separation of spirituality from religion. You hear young people say, ďIím spiritual but not religious.Ē Once people have that genuine hunger for spirituality, they discover that hunger for meaning, for inner peace and freedom is not being satisfied by the church.
I point out in my new book that Jesusí spirituality, for example, was both social and individual. He looked at the needs of society and also the needs of individuals and did not separate the two. When you do this, you have a holistic spirituality that addresses young peopleís needs. Itís not far away and long ago; itís about right now.
What the young do get from the church is a feeling of being terribly guilty and condemned if they donít live up to the teachings. They are not taught how to pray. Theyíre not taught how to live with one another. Consequently they look in other places for this. But Jesus did just that; he taught how to pray, how to live well together.
I speak in my new book about an ďappropriateĒ spirituality for a postmodern age. By that I mean one that speaks to the concerns, issues and insecurities of people today. It doesnít speak to the past and how people lived in the past.
This ďappropriateĒ spirituality is developing mostly outside the church, which doesnít mean outside any Christian or religious influence, but not specifically developing within the church the way Thomas Merton, for example, would have developed had he lived longer.
Seeing the world and ourselves right side up
National Catholic Reporter: The subtitle of your book is A Spirituality of Radical Freedom. Could you explain that?
Father Albert Nolan: What has always struck me about Jesus is his holistic spirituality. It was both individual and social. He looked at the needs of his society but also at the needs of individuals, and he didnít separate the two. I see people separating these too much.
A component of the hunger for spirituality today is a hunger for healing. The opposite of healing is condemnation: making people feel guilty, imposing things on people, telling them what they must do and the terrible consequences if they donít.
Jesus was not like that. Jesus saw people as certainly having faults and problems, but more as the wounded who are in need of a healer or doctor, but not condemnation.
In his spiritual writings, Father Henri Nouwen pointed out that though weíre all wounded and hurt, perhaps in different ways, we can help one another toward healing. To present salvation in terms of healing would be a way postmodern people could understand it.
Jesus was an amazingly free person. Many see the church as constraining, preventing people from being free, as generally restrictive. I think thatís a mistake. Jesus was not like that.
Thatís the reason why the word ďfreedomĒ is there in the subtitle of my new book. I also added ďradicalĒ because I wanted to point out that it wasnít freedom in quite the same way many use that word.
We develop a superficial kind of freedom, which in the end is not freedom at all, because we just imprison ourselves more. Itís not the freedom to choose any brand of toothpaste you like. What people too often seek is freedom of the ego instead of freedom from the ego.
Freedom of the ego means that I can do whatever I like in relation to others. The more my will triumphs, the more free I am. That is nonsense, illusion.
The freedom Jesus was talking about and the freedom I write about is the freedom from the ego. In other words, Iím not tied down to my own selfishness. Itís the freedom to do Godís will, to love other people, to be one with them and with the whole universe. Itís the freedom to work for the common good and not just my selfish idea of whatís good for me.
I think our whole economic system is based upon selfishness, on profit-taking and private property ownership, to such an extent that someone can accumulate much more than they can ever use, while others starve.
When growth means growth for some and not for others, that growth becomes cancerous. Itís not an overall growth for the common good.
Thus, individualism is in crisis. It is being criticized from a Third World perspective. Other cultures look at ours and see it as selfish, self-centered. Of course, there are people around the world who imitate it, but psychologists are seeing individualism as a problem. People who get involved in a deeper spirituality are seeing it as a problem. The church, through its social teaching, is certainly beginning to see individualism as destructive.
In my book I discuss globalization as the growth in concern for justice and for peace. I explain in my book that globalization can be neutral, but so far globalization has been spread from above. It is the rich and powerful that promulgate a particular economic system and understanding of trade.
There is another kind of globalization that comes from below, a resistance to this top-down globalization. People come together when they want to struggle for justice. They have been able to demonstrate, for example, with people from all around the world and from many different organizations because of the Internet. That globalizes the struggle against imperialism and oppression.
Poor women and indigenous people are not just allowing someone else to speak on their behalf. They speak for themselves. They develop organizations and movements, and these come together in the worldís social forum now so that they have more of a voice in the world. Thereís a good dynamic here between the individual and society.
We have to start with getting in touch with the reality about ourselves; we can then begin to see the truth of the world. We begin to see the world right side up by beginning to see ourselves right side up, beginning to see whatís really happening in all humility, understanding ourselves rightly.
We begin to recognize our motives. We recognize that we project our problems onto others, that we have a false image of ourselves and that weíre projecting that false image. We recognize that there are good things in ourselves too.
Until we see whatís happening within, we are, as Jesus would say, people with a huge logs in our eyes. Weíre blinded by something we need to remove in order to see clearly, to see that weíre not the center of the world.
I donít put the emphasis on sin and guilt because I believe Jesus didnít do that. Iím not talking about the traditional examination of conscience, of what sins have I committed. That kind of discovery leads to guilt. Then you begin to reject part of yourself.
When youíre simply trying to get to know yourself without imputing guilt, you begin to see whatís actually happening. You see there are things that perhaps you arenít proud of, that your motives are selfish, recognizing thatís part of who and what you are.
Again, Jesus did not go around blaming people, so we mustnít blame ourselves all the time. We must rather just see whatís there, because that will lead to action.
Spirituality and the mystery of the universe
National Catholic Reporter: You write in your book about the growth of interest in Catholic mysticism. What does that growth mean to you?
Father Albert Nolan: There has been an unprecedented interest in mysticism in the last 40 years. Previously the Catholic mystics would have been regarded as people who were weird or different, and they didnít have any contribution to make to the development and progress of people. You had to be scientific [to make that kind of contribution] and they were not.
I think the reason they are appreciated today is precisely because they question the doctrinal rigidity of the institutional church. More important, they have come into their own today because they talk about religious experience. They are not imposing teachings from another time or people. The fact that they speak of real personal experience makes all the difference.
These direct experiences of God lead to certain personal characteristics. Mystics become happy, joyful, confident, humble, loving, free and secure. Today we look at these consequences of the direct religious experiences of God and we want those same fruits in our lives. People are not interested in proofs of the existence of God. People are interested in anyone who says he or she has experienced God.
Originally, mysticism and prophecy or work for justice were all one. They were not separated from one another. That separation came with modernity, with the age of reason and enlightenment, where you split secular concerns from religious ones. Thatís a long story of its own, but people do not want to divide things up this way any more.
This hunger for spirituality, for direct experience of God, is one of the significant signs of our times. Modernity placed all the emphasis on science and the possibility that scientists can know everything, saying that the material world is all that exists or matters. People now look for something beyond the material, beyond science and technology for answers.
Also, we have a whole new understanding of the universe and, therefore, of ourselves, of who we are and how we fit in that has great potential for the future and potential as well for moving us far beyond selfishness.
We are living on the edge of chaos, but because of a giant leap forward in our knowledge and evolution, there seems also to be a possibility of real advances. The principal thing I have in mind here is the new science, the science of Einstein, where we understand the universe as unfolding, starting with the Big Bang and moving forward. We are trying to understand this mystery of the universe around us.
As a result, weíre going to have a different scientific outlook in the future. It will make a big difference to faith and religion. There will be an important place for faith and religion, and a hunger for a new way of looking at them.
This whole new way of understanding the universe is a tremendous opportunity because itís also a new way of understanding ourselves, of how we fit in, and of how the individual relates to society.
The certainties of the past
National Catholic Reporter: You mention a return to the past and fundamentalism. We see that in the Catholic Church. We see that among Protestant fundamentalists. We see it among Jews and certainly among Muslims. There is this need to hold on and to become rigid somehow.
Father Albert Nolan: Yes ... because in a world that is very insecure, and where all certainties, dogmas and doctrines are being questioned, inevitably there will be some people who seek this security in trying to go back to the absolute certainties that might have been there in the past.
Those certainties werenít necessarily there, but some people feel there were absolute certainties in the past, so they want to go back. Itís perfectly understandable that, in a development like this into the postmodern world, there will be some people who want to go backward.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the National Catholic Reporter (www.ncronline.org), a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.
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