Pope Francis calls for us to be open and to be an engaging Church. To engage is to commit, not stand on the peripheries, to get below the surface to explore the depth in a relationship to be able to experience, better understand and live it more fully. Fr Joe Grayland offers the following opinion in the second and final part of his article, The Theology of Engagement. Part 1 appeared in last month’s issue.
New Zealand is described by commentators as a secular nation. Here the struggle for the Christian Churches is to maintain their visibility in the public world, as a counterweight to the secularising forces that drive religious belief and discourse into the private or personal world. It is rare for us to hear a judge or public figure lead us in prayer, or for a politician to refer to a Gospel value when articulating public policy. The challenge we face is to inhabit the cultural world through an authentic and mature engagement.
In Voices of Silence. New Zealand’s Chapel of Futuna (Victoria University Press, 1987) architectural historian Russell Walden approached the problem of our contemporary understanding of God through the concept of silence: ‘Many would have difficulty accepting the idea that silence is a primary source of spiritual stimulus. We are living in a secular epoch – a post-religious age, sceptical and cynical about the spiritual, and hesitant about silence – in which urban civilisation has witnessed the apparent collapse of traditional religion. To speak meaningfully about God is an uncertain exercise, although individuals still try. But our demythologised value system, devoid as it is of spirituality, makes it difficult to think and talk about God ‘out there’, and to experience the God ‘within’. God in the Twentieth Century seems somehow elusive and beyond us.’ Walden is mindful of how the modern secular person understands their faith today. However, not to attempt a conversation is actually a worse outcome.
Ruth Page, in her 1990 essay, ‘“Eppur si muove: “Change”, a Sign of Our Times’ (Faith in an age of Turmoil, Essays in Honour of Lloyd Geering, ed. James Veitch, Oriental University Press,1990), writes that ‘while faith and its expression in theology cannot encompass every variation on our multifarious globe, it must, if it is to speak of God in relation to the world we experience, incorporate into its concepts the existence of change, with its implicit pluralism and relativism’ and I would add, its secularism.
Secularism challenges established theological truth at the level of its authenticity and trustworthiness for the human experience. It asks to what extent this theological version of human existence is reliable, especially when it references God as originator of existence. Secularism invites the human listener to look at their own self as the reference point (they know) for existence and then to challenge the concept of God (who they do not know). This is a powerful critique because it looks so logical.
When the theological reference point is brought into question by those who should be articulating it the result is that truth becomes arbitrary and opinion becomes truth. Where theological truth is challenged internally, by the believer to the teacher, to show its authenticity and trustworthiness the work of secularism is made much easier.
Secularism’s challenge to Christianity’s place in the public debate cannot be underestimated, but neither does the fact of secularism, or its challenge, disprove the reality of the transcendent-immanent God. Secularism of itself does not prove that a society is fundamentally better off without God, or that the human person is the ultimate reference point of truth, but it does show that the religious voice can no longer be presumed to carry magisterial truth as of right, at least, not in the Western world.
But people are looking for more. A recent conversation with a former colleague in a café in downtown Wellington focussed on the search for spirituality in a world that offered much, but never a sense of completion. Here is an opportunity for the Church revisit what is very familiar and ask it to recreate itself for people of the present age. A Church, in the words of Pope Francis that is more open and welcoming and more in touch with its own context.
Here is the challenge for the contemporary church community at every level, to seek to understand the evolving ecosystem of belief, practice and secular thinking. Not understanding this evolution leads some church leaders to seek a pure eco-system of previous times that has become polluted or relativised. They then posit that the task of religion is to sanitise and reorder the eco-system, thus restoring it to its former ‘religious’ purity. The most unhelpful of these is to characterise the world as secularised and then define it in contradistinction to a sacral world, as if sacred was the opposite that restores trust and truth. Creating this false duality ignores the evidence of the violence of ‘sacred’ worlds as contributing to the growth of secularism.
Trust and truth are important for the future of the Church and to the world. As Timothy Ratcliffe (in What is the point of being a Christian?, Burns and Oats, 2005) has written, ‘if Christianity is to flourish and witness to the good news, then truthfulness is of the essence.’ In Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II wrote, ‘The church serves humanity with the diakonia – the service- of truth’. The church is a partner in ‘humanity’s shared struggle to arrive at truth’ but this of course means that the Church must also be in that process too, discovering and rejoicing in truth.