Cultures et foi - Cultures and Faith - Culturas y fe - 1/1993 - Plenaria 1994
The Holy See
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Australian Catholic University, Strathfield, Australia

The Complexity of the Contemporary Situation

It has become clear that Christians in Western cultures look out on a very different religious and ideological landscape from that with which they were once familiar. In the past, indeed, in the still recent past, the central features of the landscape were the tensions between Christians themselves and the conflict between Christianity and various forms of the heritage of the Enlightenment. Today, although important elements of the old landscape remain in view, a new cultural and religious topography is forming. The old quarrels between Christians have been largely replaced by a willingness to dialogue and to emphasize commonality under the auspices of the ecumenical movement.

In the general cultural context, however, this very welcome change has not meant that significant points of tension have been reduced to the single front of confrontation between Christianity and the Enlightenment. On the contrary, a new three-fold front has developed: the mainline Christian churches find themselves in tension not only with the significant continuing Enlightenment tradition, but also with a powerful fundamentalist movement as well as with a congeries of ideas and groups loosely known as New Age, emphasizing the self-realization of the individual in relation to nature and the cosmos. The purpose of this essay is to briefly delineate this situation and to consider what its implications are for the communication of the Gospel.

The Enlightenment

There are many indications that the heyday of the Enlightenment is past. Marxism, the most radical form of the Enlightenment in the socio-political sphere, is now in decline. Marxism derived much of its immense social dynamism from the coupling of the application of critical reason to the capitalist economy with a utopian expectation of a realm of freedom and justice once the contradictions of capitalism, the highest stage of human pre-history, had been resolved. These utopian expectations, a secularized form of the eschatological traditions of Judaeo-Christian faith, remained immune from criticism within the ranks of orthodox Marxism. The demise of Marxism is a historically significant weakening of utopian forms of the Enlightenment, but not of its sceptical and politically liberal elements.

These elements do remain strong in Western culture, despite the emergence of fundamentalism and the New Age. The tension between this disillusioned and sceptical variant of the Enlightenment continues to be of great importance in the relationship between the Christian churches and Western culture. Many influential members of the scientific, political and media communities remain committed to it. Its conflict with Christian faith remains essentially the same as it was when first enunciated during the heroic age of the Enlightenment. The deists rejected Christianity because if claimed an absolute significance for a historical revelation. The truth of historical revelation, they argued, could be demonstrated neither by history nor by reason. It could therefore be accepted only on the basis of authority. The Christian religion, then, was intrinsically authoritarian, rejecting the universal God of reason in favour of a creed which compelled its adherents to accept arbitrary historical data as divinely significant. The atheists of the radical Enlightenment went further by developing a radically empiricist epistemology which could allow no place for God or any other metaphysical entities. In the sphere of morality, while Kant continued to affirm a foundation for morality in the value of every rational being as an autonomous end, the radical Enlightenment rejected any other criterion of ethical action than the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain.

The contemporary Enlightenment tradition continues to insist that human science and human morality need no recourse whatever to the hypothesis of divinity. While religious tradition affirms that a sacred mystery is at the source of truth and value, the sceptical Enlightenment argues that we need no such ultimate source for our search for truth or our mutual moral commitment. All that is needed is a continuing, empirically based, confidence that scientific method is adequate for understanding natural reality, and a prudential commitment to mutual benevolence as the form of association to which evolution has pre-disposed us. From this perspective, the claim that all reality is grounded in a sacred mystery, an inexhaustible creative source of the mysteries of nature and of the transcendent dignity of human persons, is unwarranted and superfluous. The claim that his sacred mystery is personal and has been revealed in particular historical events receives even more trenchant rejection, with arguments essentially similar to those advanced by the deists and, more radically, by Hume. For contemporary exponents of the Enlightenment, then, it is Christianity's affirmation of sacred mystery, and a fortiori, the historicity of revelation, that are unacceptable.


The influence of the Enlightenment on Western society has been very powerfully associated with the development of the secular and pluralist society that we now experience. Politics and morality no longer have any public religious warrant, and all opinions and life styles are permitted, so long as they do not interfere with the free exercise of the rights of others. This state of affairs is experienced by many as legitimate and liberating, but for others it is a nightmare of uncertainty, confusion and disillusionment. The sociology of religion has good grounds for advancing the thesis that religious fundamentalism is a reaction to secularization and pluralism, an affirmation of particular beliefs and values as certain and a firm rejection of any modes of reasoning which might abstract from commitment in order to consider the truth claims of rival beliefs. It is evident, however, that although fundamentalism rejects critical rationality, it embraces technical rationality with gusto. Fundamentalist groups typically exclude critical or reflective examination of the grounds of their own central beliefs, while employing sophisticated variants of technical rationality for group organization and the propagation of their convictions.

A central critique of Christianity by the Enlightenment was the historicity and hence particularity of revelation. For the fundamentalist, however, this particularly is of the essence of religious allegiance. If the sociological seedbed of religious fundamentalism is alienation in the midst of pluralism, its catch-cry is religious identity through exclusive commitment. The historical particularity of Christian belief, the paradoxes of the Gospel, the stumbling-blocks to the wise - all these are for the fundamentalist signs of the truth of the Christian faith, since they are rejections of that world of critical rationality and universal tolerance which engenders such anxiety and alienation. It is the stubborn, arbitrary particularly of the Christian Gospel, as they perceive it, which can engender such passionate feelings of allegiance in rejection of the infidel public world. For the fundamentalist, particularity, identity and concrete community are central.

While the Enlightenment rejected the religious claim that a sacred mystery dwells at the heart of things, fundamentalism affirms the category of the sacred, but not of mystery. While rejecting the scepticism of the Enlightenment, it retains its preference for clear and distinct ideas. The fundamentalist Gospel is affirmed in an interrelated set of clear propositions, just as scripture itself is understood to be the verbal and propositional result of divine inspiration. The category of the sacred is focused on the experience of personal redemption, on the holiness of God burning away the sins of personal vice. The sacred mystery revealed in nature and in sacramental worship are outside the fundamentalist's concern because they do not answer to the perceived needs of an alienated individual in a post-Enlightenment society, needs focused on personal acceptance and group allegiance, rather than on the less introverted discernment of the subtle and multifarious forms of divine immanence in the created world. Just as fundamentalism reduces the mystery of the sacred to the experience of personal redemption, so it reduces the historicity of Christian faith to the individual's encounter with the personal Jesus, a personal Redeemer, but not a historical individual who can be known through Scriptures that must be understood as the witness of historical Christian communities.

The New Age

It was the confident expectation of the leaders of the Enlightenment that the demise of Christianity and Judaism would mean the end of the influence of religion in Western culture. Christians, too, from a different perspective, expected that their opponent was militant atheism, but nor forms of religiosity that they confidently and often arrogantly associated with the paganism that the Christian Church had heroically overcome in its earliest centuries. The post-Enlightenment world has taken a very different form: as well as witnessing the resurgence of religious particularly in fundamentalist form, it is characterized by an efflorescence of many and varied forms of religious or spiritual search that owe no specific allegiance to the Judeo-Christian tradition. These religious movements are often grouped together under the heading of New Age spirituality.

These movements make a very different critique of the Enlightenment to fundamentalism. While fundamentalism rejects critical and reflective rationality and embraces technical rationality, the New Age is sharply critical of technical rationality and affirms the primacy of reflection and contemplation. Its attitude to critical rationality is more complex. Rather than simply rejecting critical rationality outright, especially the rationality of the natural sciences, the New Age argues for the primacy of contemplative over critical consciousness. Science is insufficiently critical of its own limitations, stubbornly unaware of depths to reality which cannot be known by empirical means but rather by techniques of intuition and meditation. These techniques claim to be an alternative science of nature, to have an empirical content although rejecting empirical method.

In clear rejection of the Enlightenment, the New Age affirms the primacy of sacred mystery. The spiritual wasteland of the secular world is overcome by a sense of the presence of the numinous in diverse and liberating ways. In contrast to Christianity, and in common with Indian and primal religion, the New Age rejects the doctrine of creation in favour of the doctrine of emanation. The cosmos is truly One, and from this oneness many forms of life emanate. The cycle of emanation from oneness and return to oneness is eternal, and the path of union is the path of wisdom in perceiving the truth of oneness rather than being blinded by the error of division. Because the cosmos is emanation rather than creation, the notion of historical revelation is alien to such movements.

Historical revelation, in contrast, presupposes a created world, a world which has a certain autonomy in relation to its creator, a world within which there is a unique history of freedom, rather than a cycle of emanation and return. This history of freedom includes the abuse of freedom, the history of sin, a history which threatens to obliterate the goodness of creation. It is within this world that God communicates Himself to human beings: freely, gratuitously, unexpectedly, irrevocably and definitively. The freedom and uniqueness of history means that the revelation of God in the history of Israel, culminating in Jesus Christ, is not only good but that it is news, i.e. an unpredictable novum. For the New Age, on the contrary, all religious wisdom is the repetition of ancient and eternal truth in fresh and diverse ways, truth recollected from our original communion with Oneness, truth known by removing the veil of error, multiplicity and division.

Like the Enlightenment, then, the New Age rejects historical revelation, and like the Enlightenment it associates such revelation with arrogance and authoritarianism. Like fundamentalism, these movements affirm the Enlightenment in their rejection of it: its technical rationality is judged to be the source of ecological disaster and spiritual emptiness, but its emphasis on individual freedom is crucial to the New Age's emphasis on personal spiritual search. While fundamentalism affirms group identity, based on the particularly of historical revelation, the New Age encourages individual ways and fluid associations, in harmony with its philosophy of many different paths to the one truth.

Affinities and Polarities

The contemporary situation, then, is characterized by the emergence of religious fundamentalism and new spiritual movements which are characterized by different forms of rejection of the Enlightenment and at the same time crucially marked by it: they are distinctly modern rather than traditional movements, a modernity evident in their emphasis on individual choice, whether in allegiance to a fundamentalist church or in choice of a path to spiritual liberation. Despite this commonality, however, the continuing Enlightenment tradition, fundamentalism, and the New Age reject the main-line Christian churches for very different reasons: for the Enlightenment, it is the existence of God, of sacred mystery, and the notion of historical revelation that are incredible; for fundamentalism, it is the freedom of these Churches, a freedom of life and a freedom of critical and reflective rationality that are infidel; finally, for the New Age, it is historical revelation, with its implications of concrete and normative scriptures, of community authority and allegiance, and of an acceptance of the real (although relative) autonomy of a created and profane world that are perceived to be stultifying and divisive.

The communication of the Christian Gospel in contemporary culture can only be engaged in effectively with an awareness of this complex situation. Its difficulty is evident from the fact that values that appeal to one group appear to be anathema to another. Very different reactions to our common secular and pluralist situation exist cheek by jowl, and Christian preaching and religious education must be pursued in a way which can do justice to the genuine human needs which are implicit in each of them. Christian communication ignores these needs at its own peril: it cannot reject the Enlightenment's emphasis on critical rationality, nor the individual's search for strong communal identity in the alienating secular city, nor the search for spiritual wholeness in communion with nature inspired by the traditions of India and primal religion. Perhaps what it should aim at is a careful reflection on what is essential to its own Gospel in relation to these great contemporary needs. It is part of Christian faith that the Gospel does have the power to speak to and answer human needs, and at the same time part of Christian historical experience that the way in which this Gospel is addressed to and lived within a concrete group is crucial for the success or failure of the attempt to communicate it. This reflection on the character of the gospel might focus on some key themes, themes which the contemporary movements under discussion accept or reject in varying ways: sacred mystery, historicity and freedom. It can only be through a careful and reflective balance of these crucial characteristics of the Gospel that an adequate response to our situation will be possible.

Sacred Mystery, Historicity and Freedom

A balanced emphasis on these values of sacred mystery, historicity and freedom will attempt to respond to the truth implicit in each of these three ways of life and thought and at the same to criticize what is, from the perspective of Christianity (or, in the case of fundamentalism, from the perspective of the main-line Christian denominations) alien to the Gospel. In relation to the enlightenment, the Church must remain aware of all that humanity and the Church itself have gained from the Enlightenment's emphasis on freedom and critical reason. The conflict and tension between the Church and the Enlightenment have often been creative in unpredictable ways: the deist critique of the veracity of the Bible was a spur to critical Biblical studies which have borne great fruit for Christian faith and life, Darwin's ideas have challenged Christian theologians to situate salvation history within a cosmic history of creative evolution, and Marx's critique of religion has compelled theology to critically reflect on its own and the Church's social context, These few examples indicate some of the debt owed to the Enlightenment, a tradition whose emphasis on critical thought, on freedom, and on the secularity of the world have profound links with the Gospel. At the same time, the Church must affirm, in critical debate with exponents of the Enlightenment tradition, that these values receive their most comprehensive and meaningful context within the perspective of belief in God, the sacred mystery who is at the source of human freedom and reason, who is the creator of a world which is the object of free human activity and enquiry and of human stewardship.

In relation to fundamentalism, the effective communication of the Gospel must focus on the need for identity in a critical and discerning way. The satisfaction of the urge to belong and to be at home cannot be achieved at the expense of critical freedom, a freedom essential both to the Church's relationship to the secular world and to its own theological reflection. An authentic appreciation of the implications of the historicity of the Gospel can minister to the need which fundamentalism answers in distorting and irrational ways. The rejection of historicity, of historical traditions, historical revelation and historical communities was the fatal flaw of the Enlightenment. The notion that rational activity could create a new and free society, abstracted from all the hidebound traditions of the past, paved the way for the alienating urban societies of the present, which, in their liberal forms, can offer freedom, the rule of law, and, to greatly varying extents, distributive justice, but which can offer community and identity only through those groups that recognize the importance of their own traditional character, of their historicity. The Gospel's historicity, its inextricably association with the concrete individual Jesus of Nazareth and the community of his disciples, means that community and identity must be an essential part of it. The Christian community must be a community of shared history and shared memories, affirming its distinctive traditions, and affirming the identity of its members. In this way it is true to itself and can help those who seek meaning and community.

For fundamentalism, the historicity and particularity of the Gospel implies the rejection of all other forms of religious belief, as well as of the critical reason which purports to judge all such beliefs and find them wanting. In answer to this, the Church must preserve its own historical and communal identity while at the same time affirming that this historical identity, this historical revelation is precisely the revelation of sacred mystery: a mystery which invites and inspires critical and reflective thought, which can never be exhausted by any form of expression, which encourages an openness to all authentic spiritual quests, and which is the immanent and universal spirit of nature as well as the consoling Redeemer of the individual human heart. Historicity implies a community of shared identity, but the revelation of God in history was the revelation of the Kingdom of God, a community embracing all humanity in justice and freedom: a truly evangelical sense of historical identity must be a solidarity with suffering humanity. It cannot be restricted to an inward-looking and self-affirming group, as if the revelation of God in Jesus were the revelation of my personal redeemer in contradistinction to the revelation of the creator of the universe and the Lord of history.

In relation to the new spiritual movements, the Church must first of all welcome, as a sign of the times, the spontaneous and unexpected resurgence of the spiritual quest. Against all the predictions of the prophets of the Enlightenment, religion has not withered away - rather the religious spirit has reasserted itself amidst the decline of the utopias of the Enlightenment. Much empirical research has shown that, although the number of regular church-goers in Western countries is a distinct minority of the population, those who believe in God are very much in the majority. An immense challenge faces the Churches in articulating the Gospel in a way which may be able to enter into dialogue with this majority's sense of God. Many of those who are committed to the spiritual quest, and have been brought up in a secular and post-Christian environment, are clearly not re.discovering Christian texts, symbols and traditions as the expression of their own search. They are turning rather to a multifarious range of religious ideas, among which the notions of spiritual self-fulfilment and cosmic oneness play a significant role.

In response to these movements, it will be crucial for the Church to show that its own religious vision is not an authoritarian set of dogmatic formulae and prescribed texts, but rather a rich and diverse body of symbols and sayings which encapsulate the religious experience of countless generations of human beings, the experience of sacred mystery. The Church's insistence on the historicity of revelation is not in order to limit the scope and forms of sacred mystery, but rather to assert its super-abundance, freedom and gratuity: God gave himself in a way that was and is above and beyond anything that we could have expected from meditation on nature or our own inferiority. In order to communicate this, the Gospel must be presented in a way which evokes its connections with many different forms of spiritual experience, bringing out its power to discover new meaning in that experience and at the same time its openness to expressing its own content in new ways. It must be shown that the Church's relationship to revelation is not a matter of authoritarian and arrogant management of the sacred, but rather a fidelity to a gift of God, a precious heritage of unique experience.

For all the value of the new openness to the mystery of the sacred, the Church must at the same time affirm those values that it has, in important ways, in common with the Enlightenment and which are put in question by the spiritual movements. There is good reason to think that the Judaeo-Christian conception of the secularity of the world had much to do with the development of a consciousness hospitable to the emergence of science and technology. Both the Enlightenment and Christianity are, no doubt, guilty in different ways of allowing the conception of the secularity of the world to become wasteful and destructive abuse. The need to listen to other religious traditions, inspired by the vision of a sacred cosmos, is of great importance in this regard. Yet this cannot be allowed, for example, to lessen the Judaeo-Christian emphasis on the unique dignity of the human species, on the infinite difference between creator and created, on the real and legitimate distinction between sacred and profane in human experience.

The relationship between the Gospel and any cultural patterns is of its nature a balance of affirmation and denial. The precise nature of that balance is a matter of concrete judgement. Perhaps the most crucial area, in terms of those cultural phenomena under discussion, is the question of evil. One of Bertrand Russell's more well-known aphorisms is the statement that the differences between Christianity and secular humanism could be summed up in the doctrine of original sin. While the convinced utopianism of the perfect society that transcends the morass of class conflict and alienation has declined, the Enlightenment conviction that evil is essentially the result of inappropriate conditioning remains strong. Fundamentalism abstracts personal sin from all social context, thus stifling the socially liberating potential of the Gospel of justice and forgiveness. The new spiritual movements, because they favour the vision of cosmic oneness, tend to understand evil in terms of a failure to know, a lack of insight, rather than the choice of a free creature, conscious of his or her human autonomy. In these ways, the Christian Gospel does teach a different and challenging message.

This essay has attempted to briefly delineate the contemporary cultural situation, and to suggest some emphases in the communication of the Gospel. In particular, the themes of sacred mystery, historicity and freedom were developed in relation to the three movements that loom so large on the ideological and religious landscape. No attempt has been made to suggest more distinctly social solutions to this situation. Clearly, the contemporary conjunction of ideas has much of its genesis in the particular situation of a secular, liberal society and a market-oriented industrial economy. The development of vibrant religious communities will be crucial to answering the needs created by this situation. Yet the answers must also be found on the level of ides, of theological and religious understanding.

Clearly, different groups, whether in terms of age or interest, will see different aspects of Christian communication as relevant to their needs, The complexity of the cultural situation means that the emphasis on free and wide-ranging spiritual quest that speaks to one group ill be of little appeal to another, seeking clear identity and simple and affirming teaching. The discourse appropriate to debate with representatives of secular humanism will not be relevant to those attracted to the certainties of fundamentalism. Nor will the teaching of personal redemption from sin be the immediate concern of those seeking the vision of a sacred cosmos and mourning over the destruction of the living spirit of nature. Yet although all of these different groups require communication in modo recipientis, theological reflection and pastoral action must remain aware of the need to reflect on the Gospel in its multi-faceted wholeness, a wholeness whose richness can speak to all of these needs. Imbalance in the communication of the Gospel may not only alienate certain groups of people, but also affirm the needs of some in a way that does not sufficiently subject those needs to criticism: a one-sided emphasis on Christian identity and belonging for example, could not only alienate those who have a more pluralist identity, but also achieve identity at the expense of largeness of thought and experience. Unsurprisingly, a truly trinitarian theology will be the one most adequate to our situation: the proclamation of the sacred mystery of God the Father, revealed in the historical concreteness of the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, and experienced in the freedom and universality of the Spirit.