Thursday, November 08, 2007

The relationship between the secular and religion

[Via Zenit] An address by Bishop Donald Murray of Limerick (Ireland). Worht reading in its entirety!
Others take a harder line and see themselves as fighting to remove the remaining vestiges of religion because it is a force for the perpetuation of superstition and ignorance. The latter view is most powerfully articulated by Professor Richard Dawkins:

"It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, "mad cow" disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate".

Our time is certainly marked by two contrasting views of the world. Religion, or as Professor Dawkins expresses it, faith, is crucially involved in the clash between these views. The point at issue has been described in different ways.
There are two related assumptions, both of which need to be questioned. The first is that religion has no place in public discourse and that what are termed 'religious views' may be ignored, perhaps after a token 'liberal' nod to say that "of course they should be respected". The second is the assumption that if a person's views on social issues have been inspired and nurtured within a religious tradition, they can have no place in a rational discussion about what is best for our society. The same does not seem to apply to people who are agnostic or atheist, whose views have also arisen in the context of assumptions not shared by everybody.
Christianity's view of the secular
Clearly then, Christianity cannot see itself as in conflict with the world, the secular reality, which God loves so much. This is crucial: however we describe this conflict of mindsets, we distort it if we see it as a contest between religion and the secular reality in which we live.

This secular reality is not alien from the life of the Christian believer. Pope Paul VI said the Church " has an authentic secular dimension, inherent to her inner nature and mission, which is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate, and which is realised in different forms through her members".

Christians, and in particular lay Christians, live in this 'secular dimension'
At the heart, we are talking about deep questions, questions of the meaning of life.
John Humphrys, of the BBC, recently conducted a series of programmes called 'Humphrys in Search of God' . At the end, he remained an agnostic, but he is far from believing that 'the big questions' can simply be dismissed. He became quite irritated about what he described as "the attitude of those militant atheists who hold believers in contempt":

"For them, what matters is what can be proved to be true. That's it. But in the real world, outside the walls of their intellectual ivory towers, that's not it… Humanity is too complex for that…
Yes, we loathe and fear the fanaticism that leads to a man strapping a bomb to his body and blowing up other human beings. But we should also fear a world in which the predominant values are materialism and consumerism, and the greatest aspiration of too many children is to become a "celebrity".

That is the heart of the matter. The conflict is not between religion and the secular but between the searchers for deeper meaning and those who believe that human life has no meaning beyond what can be measured, analysed and scientifically proved. It is a conflict ultimately between faith and the ideology of secularism.
Contemporary culture does not give proper weight to questions of meaning .The result is a false conflict between religion and the secular.

In Ireland today the question, 'Are we forgetting something?' has a particularly unsettling resonance, an unease we share with much of Western society. On the one hand we enjoy new freedoms and possibilities, but on the other we feel like a person skating on a frozen lake who is beginning to suspect that the ice is not strong enough to bear his weight.
How can the secular inform and enrich the religious?
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". ... 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'". ... 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.
[Emphases added]

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