Radical secularisation?

I have been having more of a look through the website of the Nordic Catholic Church, and in particular a short posting by Bishop Flemestad on The Church of the Future. The thought appears to be cogent, since it is a meme that has gone around the Roman Catholic and Anglican world for decades. I remember my seminary days in Rome (1985-86) at the Nepomucene College with a very dour American community called the Oblates of Wisdom. Msgr John F. McCarthy and Fr Brian Harrison still have a study center in America, and their writings are always interesting. Alongside this community, there were also a few French and Swiss seminarians and priests studying at the Angelicum after having left the Society of St Pius X. Hardly a day went by without hearing the “satisfying” ideas of some catastrophe from which those who assiduously said the Rosary or wore their scapular would be spared. In particular, it was to be a civil war or a clash of civilisations.

Obviously, in such a paradigm, the world has to be made to return to Christianity – but such an idea seems to be unlikely to say the least. I grapple with these ideas myself, and I look wistfully at Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option on my bookshelf which is still waiting to be read. It would seem that if the modern world is not ready to return to Christian Civilisation, an alternative world has to be devised. It seems to be Christenheit oder Europa or Berdyaev New Middle Age theme. The latter would seem to be as much of an illusion as the first. Where does that leave us? I will try to comment on a few of Bishop Flemestad’s ideas.

The collapse of faith in Western society is clear. No less palpable is the cultural collapse around us. The fragmentation of society has imprisoned the individual in “the culture of narcissism“. For the Christian an additional problem is that the moral disorientation is correlated with the destruction of the Christian patrimony.

Here in France, there is a residue of society that still attends Roman Catholic parish churches and cathedrals, nearly entirely in the cities. The traditionalists, both the Society of St Pius X and the “recognised” communities, have now become quite “mainstream” and no one talks about them outside their own circles. Outside churches, religion seems to be as irrelevant as anything outside the immediate experience of the person we are talking with. We tend to take the idea of individualism for granted – make people conform to the collective under threat of punishment, and they will be good Christians. That is the opposite of this supposed excess of individual freedom and ensuing bad morals (sex outside marriage, contraception, etc.). I suspect the contrary is more true when I see the way people dress, get themselves tattooed and sport stereotyped hairstyles. They are following the dictates of fashions and group behaviours. The world is collective, not individualist. It takes a great effort to come to self-knowledge and be oneself. To be brutally honest, when one comes to a degree of self-knowledge, it is impossible to go back to the compulsion in which we have lived in the crowd. I admit my being influenced by Berdyaev when he says: No one who has left a Christianity based on authority can return to anything but a Christianity which is free (Freedom and the Spirit). However, freedom is a gift for those who are free and noble within. This is essentially the gnosis of which authoritarians are so afraid. Therefore gnosis is condemned together with the worst Gnostic excesses in history.

Concerned about the future of the European civilisation after the second world war, T. S. Eliot argued that it is the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is and he concluded: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes”.

What kind of Christianity? Is it the humanism than Christianity engendered or the authority structure of the Roman Catholic Church able to wield authority over secular rulers? Has culture gone? It is true that people don’t seem to care about each other. They no longer read books, not even light novels, and the mobile phone has taken the place of addiction to television. We love repeating that meme, but many people do not fit the profile, even when churchy and religious things are off their radar scanner. It helps to live a little in this world to see how the opposite is true in so many of our contemporaries – those who have learned to be themselves, or at least to be on the way.

I would go even further and maintain that people seek gnosis (knowledge of themselves and the universal consciousness beyond themselves) because churches are too inadequate to give them what they seek. What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Mt 7, 9).

This notion of radical subjectivism keeps recurring. It is not wrong, but it is not universal, even if it appears to prevail. Humanity is at its most stupid in the collectivity. We seem to be looking at things at different levels, so being simplistic is just not going to give an adequate explanation.

There are many layers in modern society, beautifully described by the – – – Gnostics when they divided humanity into those whose principle of life was spiritual, the good law-abiding and rational citizens and the mass of materialists living only for sensual pleasure. For the real Gnostics (the Valentinians), there was no transfer between the three castes, so the mass was predestined to annihilation or damnation. If anything, the most authoritarian and dour Christians are the most “gnostics” however little knowledge they actually possess. The word Gnosticism is made to mean the most contrary of concepts. It is a word that is largely without meaning.

Ends of worlds are very attractive ideas to latch onto, like the end of the modern age or the end of the middle age. For the latter, Berdyaev proposed the idea of living through the dark night of the soul in positive terms. It would bring something far more luminous than the Renaissance that ran out of fuel by the time of the French Revolution and a fortiori the Russian one. If modernity is at an end, what follows it? Boom?

After the war Christian thinkers from different denominations foresaw the displacement of Christianity by an aggressive secular humanism. Of particular interest are perhaps the Roman Catholic voices as one might think that this mighty church would have faced the future with no little self-confidence.

Christians are not the only ones to be making such predictions of doom. Just listen to the radical environmentalists and how the solution is to abolish modern technology within ten years. Imagine it. Most people would have nowhere near the skills needed for a pre-industrial revolution life. It might happen, but not in the way they think. There are also the preppers, especially in America, who hoard up on food and arms. I thought of them this week as my wife and I bought enough provisions for a month in quarantine against Coronavirus – should it actually come to that. Be prepared. Have oil in your lamps, lest we should be told to go away because the time is past. That is Christian eschatology from which so many others have borrowed with so little understanding.

Quarantine? The faithful remnant? It is all so relevant to our anxiety, but we have things to share with the world and our testimony for those who are ready. Our retreat can never be total. Berdyaev also said: Had the Gnostics won the day, Christianity would never have been victorious. It would have been turned into an aristocratic sect (Freedom and the Spirit). For me, this means that there had to be a balance, a via media, between inner knowledge and the Church’s service to humanity at large. The message I see behind Novalis’ parable Die Christenheit oder Europa is that we cannot actually go back to the pre-modern period of history, but we should project its ideal values forward into our future

However, already in 1950 Romano Guardini, a dominant Catholic intellectual in his time, wrote an analysis of the emerging European culture under the title The End of the Modern World, concluding that with the other traditions also the Christian patrimony will be lost. Strikingly, Guardini did not meet this loss by positing the return to a premodern alternative, but with a new way of living the faith. Homeless in this confusion, the Christians must distance themselves from the cultural chaos and seek together in what he called an eschatological togetherness, based on mutual love.

Indeed, we have to find a new way of living the faith, ideally as a balance between the eschatological longing for the Kingdom and our establishment in the world for the service of humanity. We live this eschatology in a small way as our way of life is presently threatened by an enemy that is so small that it cannot be seen without a very powerful microscope. There has always been the distance from the word, yet a presence in the same world in order to serve.

I already mentioned Pope Benedict XVI as a theology professor predicting a new survivalist form of the Church. It is precisely the way of Continuing Anglican churches or traditionalists, though the tightness of “quarantine” has loosened as in the history of the Church since the Peace of Constantine. The expected persecutions and troubles never happened, at least not generally.

The survival process will be painful and the small communities of those who come out of the difficulties, will have to restart from the beginning. Thus, a simple and more spiritual church will make bigger demands on the individual members.

However, one has to be an individual in order to be of use to the collective. I have already observed the stupidity of groupthink, and the need for individuality in order to make creativity possible.

Bishop Roald seems to latch onto Dreher’s Benedict Option, but what exactly is that in terms of something that could exist in reality? Some Catholic version of the Brüderhof and the serious risks of sectarian drifts, notably mental manipulation by people with twisted or psychopathic personalities? That world would certainly be much worse than the modern world we live in. It seems that emphasis is more on individuals and families taking inspiration from monastic rules than the foundation of alternative towns and cities.

Persecution? Obviously, Christians in Muslim and Salafist countries are being persecuted and killed. In the modern secular world, it is much more subtle. You can get hauled up before the courts for hate speech or for torching an abortion clinic. Religious freedom is not there so that we can become bigots, discriminatory and worse than the sinners we are condemning. Political fanaticism does more harm to the Christian way of life than anything else. We cannot lord it over the non-Christian world.

Today, we are living to see the fears come true. In fact, we are the last Christian generation having been brought up in a culture oriented towards humanistic and Christian values. The destructive effects of this moral chaos will necessarily differ according to time and place. Sure is, however, that we are now at a turning point. The radical secularisation entails that church life in the future will not be a prolongation of the past. From the crisis the church of tomorrow will emerge without privileges as small communities of engaged believers, served by tentmakers in the power of faith. In this perspective it is worth to notice that in former core Christian areas like Germany and France, pastoral theologians across the denominational divide are discussing a church model for the future based on the house church. Without the buildings of times more privileged, the altar might again be the living room table.

This is something for which we need to be prepared, as for the Coronavirus. However, we must not extrapolate. We still have opportunities to help and serve humanity, practice good works without which our faith would die. We can still build modest churches and welcome those who want to come to them to attend services. We don’t have to use living room tables. If we are incapable of doing some manual work for ourselves, how do we expect to survive without electricity or supplies from retail shops with empty shelves. If we develop our skills and learn building, woodwork, electricity, plumbing, etc., we can build small churches with beautiful altars, a sanctuary of the Mystery.

Perhaps we are jaded with diocesan structures, committees, Charitable Status Registration, insurance policies and spending money on buildings. Obviously, here in France, I have none of those things other than a converted outbuilding for the chapel. Perhaps I have failed in my mission as a priest because I have not built up a community or “planted” a church. Perhaps my vocation lies elsewhere. These are ideas that disturb my peace and make me question things so much. I participate in my Diocesan business in England, and try to contribute good ideas if I have them. As in that quote in Berdyaev, there must be a “normal” church life alongside our innermost aspirations and longings. Normal church life is always possible even if the contact is only occasional.

The crisis of faith in Western world has left all denominations bewildered, even paralysed. For struggling Old Catholics and Anglo-Catholics the challenge is to find a way forward in a common faith and tradition. Hopefully, the Union of Scranton will serve as one of the vehicles which could begin to stem the tide of a post Christian culture.

I don’t think that a crisis of faith paralysed denominations, but rather the men of those denominations became complacent. They were no longer in adequation with the faith they claimed to profess. We all share in this same inadequacy, and for this, we need self-knowledge and inner gnosis, our true individual creativity and personhood. I hope and pray that the Union of Scranton will prove to be an instrument of this new Christianity in our world. So much progress has been made between the PNCC and the G4 grouping of four main Continuing Anglican Churches, and the official position of the NCC is obviously to support this project. This is very encouraging, and I hope that the NCC will take on a little more American creativity rather than sink into European pessimism.

Perhaps I am being too hard or simplistic about these questions, committing the same faults as I am criticising. These questions are extremely complex as is the modern world and the distance between ourselves and ancient Greek philosophy. As I have suggested in Romantic Christianity, the dualism between eschatological and institutional Christianity can be balanced out to some extent as events come and go in our human history. Sometimes, the going gets tough, and sometimes we can work with other influences for good in the world. I also conceive of the possibility of a new initiatic way, a sort of disciplina arcani to surround the liturgy and the Sacraments, and something like a “church of catechumens” where people can hear Scripture and pray both with the community and alone. In such a way, preparation for the Mysteries can be progressive as it was in the early Church for the catechumens – the very origin and purpose of Lent with its scrutinies and exorcisms in preparation for Baptism. I think there have been experiments along these line in the RC Church since Vatican II, but perhaps their philosophical foundation was faulty and wrong assumptions were made. I would even add something between the “Quaker temple” and the “church of liturgical mysteries”, a kind of school for teaching not only the catechism but also elements of philosophy, history and culture.

At the basis of all this is that I do not believe that most people are “radically secular”, but deep down have a notion of transcendence and universal consciousness, a longing for something they do not yet understand, a deep dissatisfaction with scientific materialism and consumerism. We need to hold onto a certain degree of optimism about most decent people, so that we do not ourselves become the worst Pharisees.

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1 Response to Radical secularisation?

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this, which invites rereading and pondering.

    Probably pretty tangentially – but your saying, “As in that quote in Berdyaev, there must be a ‘normal’ church life alongside our innermost aspirations and longings”, brought to mind Frederik van der Meer’s book about St. Augustine – the comparatively unknown Augustine, insofar as more people are likely to have encountered The Confessions, than anything else of his – but what happened next: what was his “‘normal’ church life”? It’s translated into English as Augustine the Bishop and into French as Saint Augustin pasteur d’âmes. As I remember it, it gives a vivid impression of his workaday life, with generous excerpts from his clear little ‘think-along-with-me’ sermons for his ‘ordinary’ flock. To quote you again, “Sometimes, the going gets tough, and sometimes we can work with other influences for good in the world”, and Van der Meer gives a good picture of Augustine doing just that – in a very tough and messy time (he died while the Vandels were besieging Hippo, after having been called into a political fight by the Governor of Africa who mistakenly thought he could just use them to serve his purposes).

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