Being Christian in a Secular Society, Part 2 - A Message for Young Adults From Fr. Hagan

A few weeks ago I began a series dealing with features of our present society, which for some time now has been called “secular.” The definition of the word “secular” that I gave in this context went basically like this: a “secular” society is a society in which there is a plurality of outlooks on the world, some traditionally religious and some not, such that no single view of the world and human life binds us together. Young people in our time realize that all “worldviews” are contestable, that is, open to counter-arguments which many people find at least somewhat convincing, at least enough to make them doubt their own outlook. One outcome of this situation is that for those coming of age in this society making any sort of strong religious commitment is difficult, seemingly impossible for many. I finished the piece—as I will with each piece in this series—with a way in which Catholics can overcome the challenges of our divided, pluralized society. If you missed the previous article you can find it on the parish website in its entirety.

This week (part two of a four-part series) I want to say a little about another feature of our present society, and how Christians can deal with and respond to it.


The Flight from Nature

The problem: confusion about the order of the world and the place of human beings in it

Catholic doctrine says that that there is a realm of reality called “nature”, the world of creation which, though separate from God, is made by God in such a way as to imitate his being, from the lowest of inanimate natures to the pinnacle of creation, the human nature. God is present in his creation, which is no mere collection of objects but rather an ordered whole that reflects his goodness. Furthermore, creation is sustained in being by God’s power and guided by the good will of his providence. Human beings are that part of nature most like God because humans, like God, are personal. The human nature transcends mere animal knowledge because the human nature also has understanding; human nature transcends mere animal instinct and drive because the human nature also has will and freedom. Human dignity far surpasses all other creatures because humans are both a part of nature and capable of rising above it—humans can address their Creator and be addressed by him.

Because creation is an ordered whole, nature has its own rational structure and we can call this structure “law.” More than just what we might call “laws of physics” or “scientific law”, “natural law” pertains to my own life: what I am, and what is the good for me as a human person. I can know this “Law of Nature” by the power of reason, which only persons have. My nature itself is a reality that comes before me and that determines or causes me, always-already setting me on the path of flourishing not as a hindrance to my freedom but rather as the ground of it. Even though I am “externally determined” by natural law I must also choose freely to embrace the law of my nature—that’s part of the dignity I have as a human person, as a “rational animal.” If I embrace the law of my nature then this exercise of my freedom will lead to happiness for me and social harmony for the human community.

Now, the secular society pronounces a definitive “no” to all of that. The secular person says no to this idea of the “natural law” because for him, if there were to be such a law it would not be the source of his freedom but rather the impossibility of it. The secular age is worried about freedom, and it thinks that any prior determination, like “nature” or “God”, is just a limit on freedom. But a freedom that is limited, the secularist thinks, is no freedom at all. The claim that there is any such thing as the “natural law” is rejected, not because there are irrefutable or even convincing arguments against it, but rather because those who reject it do not want there to be such a thing. Even for many who might still want to believe in God, they think that God must be hands-free when it comes to human existence. God doesn’t speak to us and we don’t want him to. If I’m a secularist I’d likely say that I am not under the law of God, and therefore under no natural law at all, but instead I am a radically autonomous, self-created Self, possessing a “consciousness” which can put me in touch with my unique power of self-imagining, and a political will (represented through democracy and market economy and facilitated by technology) which opens the way for the unfettered expression of my conscious-self. “Law” for the secularist is never ultimate but instead merely reflective of the public consensus which is always contingent and thus changeable by human will and power. To speak of the “Natural Law” as a kind of divine communication of reality in the way that Christians traditionally do is a secular heresy.

Our secularist society doesn’t stop merely with pronouncing a “no” to the classical philosophy of nature and natural law, but goes further: the entire system of institutions which enshrine the social practices in which the classical philosophy of the Christian West is embodied must also be transformed in their operating doctrines. The new Secular World is the world where man exists only as he defines himself, only as he self-determines, and in no other way. No public institution can be allowed to stand in the way of the progress of secularism—not healthcare institutions, not educational institutions, certainly not government institutions, nor private institutions (like the Boy Scouts, or any religious institution of any kind). The secularizing world is not content to coexist side-by-side with the classical institutions. Those institutions must be changed and where they cannot be changed, destroyed in their influence if not their existence.


The opportunity: nature fights back

If Christianity is true then there is a problem with this attempted flight from nature and its laws: we can’t really succeed in it. We can only go so far in violating the terms of our own existence before Nature itself rebels and fights back against the distortions we try with all our might to force upon it in our effort to self-create by ourselves. Nature fighting back looks like this: suffering. My suffering. The suffering I bring upon others—on my neighbors, on society. We see this everywhere around us in our time. Suffering, said C.S. Lewis, is like God shouting at us, reminding us of his existence, getting our attention back upon himself. Feeling pain, then, is the first step in healing, since before pain I didn’t know that I was sick. The soul feels pain as well as the body and like the mistreatment of my body brings physical pain and makes me think again about the laws of good physical health so does mistreatment of my spiritual nature make me think again about the health of my soul. Are there laws governing that too? In fact, there are. In both cases I can turn to reconsideration of natural law, the law of my human existence, and discover God speaking to me there. When this happens I need believers standing by in charity and well-formed in their faith as good soul-doctors ready to nurse me back to spiritual health. Furthermore, I will learn the hard way that I am not a discrete, self-contained being but rather a social being. I will learn that the spiritual ills of the community threaten me, and that my ills threaten the community. When such a realization again effects a critical mass in society, we will resolve ourselves to the rebuilding of our institutions which serve to protect the good of the commons, the good of all as individuals-in-society.