Being Christian in a Secular Society, Part 4 - A Message for Young Adults
A few weeks ago I began a series dealing with features of our present society. In this the grande finale I speak about another feature which in a certain way sums up the first three under a single idea. Catch up on the first three articles in the series by visiting the “Blog” section of our parish website.
Forgetfulness of God
The Problem: trying to build a new society without God
The day before the death of Pope John Paul II, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger—soon to be Pope Benedict XVI—gave a speech on the occasion of his reception of the St. Benedict Award for the promotion of life and the family in Europe. The address was given at the Abbey of St. Scholastica, in Subiaco, Italy, founded by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century B.C. Think back to our piece from last week on Alisdair McIntyre, who prophesied that the rebuilding of our society would require a “new and different St. Benedict.”
The cultural disease of the Secular Age, says Benedict XVI, is not philosophical atheism but rather practical atheism. We may or may not believe that there is a God or even have any arguments for or against his existence. In fact, most people still do believe that God exists. The disease, for Benedict, is rather this: whatever our intellectual “belief”, we live as if God did not exist. We make no decision in our lives or for society with serious reference to God. We conduct ourselves as if we are totally on our own, as if God is not involved with us or interested in us, as if our lives bear no relation to him. Thus we are thrown back upon our own resources, and how at once awesome and meager they are. Ours is at once the age of singular technological mastery, economic prosperity, and individual liberty, and the age of violence and oppression on a scale unprecedented in human history. In our bid for self-powered ascendency to divinity, in our attempt by politics and technology to create the Kingdom of God on earth, we find again and again that things fall apart and what comes is some new form of oppression, some more technologically sophisticated and diabolical mode of domination by those who have power over those who don’t.
This God-forgetfulness, argues Ratzinger, is not about any god whatsoever. It is neither about some idea of God “as we understand him” nor is it about the God of Deism who merely watches us “from a distance.” Rather, it is the “God of Jesus Christ” who has been forgotten. It is Christianity, after all, that is the original heart and engine behind our western culture of freedom and personal dignity. Through centuries of nourishment by Christianity western society was transformed from the rule of melancholic pagan irrationality, ambition, and power, to a society where the inner aspiration to freedom, truth, and the good brought about a slow but steadily progressive reformation of all social structures. This society was never perfect. Nevertheless there had been laid for centuries a broad and deep foundation for a society within which the idea of personal dignity, rights, justice, and freedom were harmonized with communal responsibility for the good of all. Our western society now projects its “enlightened” secularism across the world. Increasingly we live in a global west which attempts to carry on with progress while rejecting its own animating spirit.
In an age of social media sloganeering and virtue-signaling, the temptation to hypocrisy by giving lip-service to “social justice” (or in the Catholic world, to the “common good”) is a clear and present danger. “Being for” such notions can become an ersatz version of our former religion, which we mistakenly believe was only ever about ethical-political values anyway. Christianity, however, is something else before morality or political ethics. Before anything, Christianity is about God revealing himself to us in order to reveal us to ourselves. Christ tells us that God has brought us into being from his personal, Trinitarian communion and thus that he has made us for personal communion. To live in the communion of God is at once to find our identities and dignity as individuals and also to find our place in the human community. At home in the divine communion, I am at home with the power that makes it possible for me to transcend my alienated, violent, death-stricken self and become a true force for good in the world.
As the document of the Vatican II Council The Church in the Modern World states, “Only in the mystery of the Word-Made-Flesh does the mystery of man take on light.” In our time we are so confounded by the mystery of our own being, so frustrated by our weakness and inadequacies, that we have turned to technology in order to bring about the transcendence only God can give. Human nature is becoming for us a blank slate upon which we imagine we can write our own future, and human flesh is seen as malleable by technology in order to force a reconciliation between our bodies and our consciousness, which aspects of our being we often feel are otherwise alienated one from the other. Yet it is also true that nature can be bent only so far out of its essential shape. Who, if not Christians, will be there to re-form our misshapen civilization?
Benedict XVI gives a commentary on that great announcement of the Council about Christ revealing the mystery of man to himself. The Pope said, “only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” When I learn this truth and live from it I cease to understand myself as just another problem to be dealt with by bureaucrats, the police, or medical technicians. I cease to understand myself as just one member of a victim-group or oppressor-group, or an alienated single soul, adrift and alone in the universe. Rather, I realize that I am a person and I’m aware of my dignity because I know its source. In that very moment I become a light for my world, one who can help it to contemplate its real problems and reflect upon and implement true human solutions. I become a light for those around me who are at once lost in the sea of pluralism, or soul-deadened by pleasure-seeking, or cowering in fear of violence, or merely trapped in cycles of lashings-out at myriad oppressions real or imagined. Converted to the Gospel I become a source of healing for those who have mutilated themselves, spiritually and physically, in the effort to self-transcend through technology. When I have received the God of Jesus Christ, when his truth has been set into my mind and his power into my heart, I can then fulfill the command of the political slogan: “be the change you wish to see in the world.”