WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Time to Challenge Secularism – Part 1

April 2016

Feature

Is it enough to drift along with prevailing views, whether secular or religious? Do we need to sharpen our responses to them both? Emeritus Bishop Peter Cullinane DD explores these questions.

Both religion and secularism should expect to have to account for themselves. Neither should be accepted unthinkingly and uncritically. This essay is intended to challenge secularism, which seems to have been piggy-backing on the tarnished reputation religion has incurred, more than on any merits of its own. But: this is not ultimately about an ‘ism’; it is about people – people to whom religion can seem quaintly out of place in the modern world, or at least unnecessary. And so it is also about why, for others, faith makes sense and really matters.

Secular reality was not always thought of as secular. Animist religions had thought of the world as inhabited by various gods, demons and demiurges who people lived in fear of offending, and needed to appease. In that context, human creativity, human responsibility for the planet, science and technology, and human rights could never easily develop. We humans had first to discover that there is one God, who loves us greatly, and wants us to enjoy the world, and harness its energies. The Hebrew scriptures record how an embattled, struggling people experienced that assurance.

Using methods of thought developed by Aristotle and introduced to the West by mainly Muslim scholars, medieval Christian theologians built upon this biblical insight, showing that the world is not a place where we need fear to tread; all of it is secular. This cleared the way for the development of the sciences. This piece of history is sometimes called ‘secularizatio’. The liberation of secular reality to be its secular self owes much to the faith that came down from Abraham.

‘…members of the Hebrew, Christian and Muslim faiths have been untrue to their own origins whenever they have stood in the way of authentic intellectual, artistic, scientific, social or economic progress, or not respected the proper separation of Church and State; and whenever they have fought each other.’

This is why members of the Hebrew, Christian and Muslim faiths have been untrue to their own origins whenever they have stood in the way of authentic intellectual, artistic, scientific, social or economic progress, or not respected the proper separation of Church and State; and whenever they have fought each other.

However, to respect and welcome secular reality is one thing – that results from ‘secularisation’; to claim that secular reality is all there is, is another – that is ‘secularism’. Because it reduces all reality to secular reality by not allowing for God’s existence, it is also called ‘reductionist secularism’. When God is excluded, even properly secular reality is diminished: it is no longer seen as a revelation of God’s purposes, and to be respected. To believers, secular reality is the place where God’s love for us and our love for God become tangible – all of it is holy.

Reductionist secularism has devastating consequences at many levels. When people do not know how greatly they are loved by God, they do not know how greatly they matter, or even that they do matter. Is there anything they need to know more than that? After all, ‘life isn’t fair’; it can take away the ones who mean the most to us; even the best relationships can fail; people can feel trapped in impossible situations… To live in this kind of world, people need a reason for hope that stands beyond the reach of every disaster, and even uncovers meaning within them. That is what secularism would rob us of, by denying there is a God.

Revealed religion does not invent God to meet our human needs, or to answer our questions, or provide our ‘proofs’. Abraham, Moses and the prophets found themselves confronted by the kind of God they were not expecting, and who was not there to answer all their questions. They didn’t always interpret their experiences well – that would take time. But, for us as for them, discovering what it means to be so greatly loved by God, many of our questions no longer need to be asked. The discovery is a transformative experience, taking love to new lengths, depths and heights; enabling us to take seriously the real world and our place in it.

It is a discovery that involves Contemplation, Conversion and Compassion. Contemplation is a way of seeing. The Judeo-Christian book of Wisdom speaks of the blindness of those who see the world but fail to recognise its maker. What it says of unbelievers can be said also of sleep-walkers, which is most of us most of the time. We see the world around us without seeing ‘the presence of the ultimate in the commonplace’ (Abraham Joshua Heschel); the ‘extraordinary side of the ordinary’ (Pope John Paul II). Those who live with their eyes fully open live in constant surprise and wonder at being part of something whose existence, like their own, was not owed to them. In this way, nature itself ‘speaks’ to them. ‘All the bushes now burn if you have seen one burn. Only one tree has to fill up with light and angels, and you never see trees the same away again.’ (R. Rohr)

This contemplative way of seeing becomes a contemplative way of being: This is Conversion. After all, it is not the bushes that burn or light up; it is ourselves that change. We move from taking the world for granted – as if it were not a gift – to treating it for what it actually is. That changes how we relate to everything.

‘To believers, secular reality is the place where God’s love for us and our love for God become tangible – all of it is holy.’

People of all religious traditions have been ‘spoken’ to like this by the cosmos. Abraham and his descendants found themselves being ‘spoken’ to also by the events of their history. They experienced a love that was not merited, deserved, or due to them. In turn, they were to love in the way they had been loved: this is Compassion. Without this, society becomes punitive, unforgiving, and not open to new starts or rehabilitation or reconciliation. Compassion is a circuit-breaker; it is not trapped within the cycle of just deserts and pay back and getting even. It is the opposite of self-centred, cruel indifference to the plight of others. It makes possible that shalom which is the calling and mission of the spiritual descendants of Abraham. They betray their own faith when they do not honour that calling.

‘…discovering what it means to be so greatly loved by God, many of our questions no longer need to be asked.’

Reductionist secularism is a grim alternative. Why wouldn’t it be? The bits and pieces of a jig-saw puzzle find their meaning within a bigger picture. If there is no God, and no big picture to give our lives meaning, we are like disconnected pieces. Life can become bewildering. A society that trivialises what is sacred ends up making idols of what is trivial. Celebrities, glitter, banality and consumerism make poor substitutes for meaning. Life begins to feel empty. Reporting a recent Hollywood death, the media thought it worth mentioning that she died of natural causes.

Part 2 of Bishop Peter Cullinane’s article will be in the May edition of WelCom.