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Posts Tagged ‘secularity’

I heard Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna give a talk in London recently. It was part of a promotional event for the International Theological Institute, an English-speaking centre of theology in Austria. See their website here.

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He was speaking about the role of the Church in a Western culture that is increasingly secularised. He was somehow pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. I didn’t take detailed notes, so some of this might have my gloss on it.

The pessimism went like this, and he acknowledged that he was simply repeating themes elaborated by Pope-Emeritus Benedict over many years: There is no doubt that the cultural landscape in the West has become more secularised over the past fifty years or so. The Church seems to have less influence as a cultural and political force; and it has lost or is in the process of losing the big moral battles of the last two generations (abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, traditional marriage, etc).

On top of this, the Church itself has in many ways become more secularised. The ethos of many Christians (their attitudes and behaviour) is often not dissimilar from the ethos of the secular world around them. So the Church is both marginalised for being at odds with the culture, and ignored for having nothing significant to offer to the culture; it is both counter-cultural (in a way that is incomprehensible to most people), and yet too influenced by the culture to give a distinctive voice.

The optimism came as a result of the pessimism. Because the Church, in this analysis, has more or less failed in the mighty cultural struggles of the last fifty years, this failure gives it a new freedom to stop worrying about how influential it is on society and concentrate on just being itself and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Instead of trying to win a political argument, and putting all its energy and anxiety into resisting political and cultural change, it can choose to witness to the truth of Christian values on their own terms.

It’s as if we have been gripping the wheel too tightly, judging our worth by the measure of how effective our campaigns have been in particular ethical issues, of how many people we have managed to convince to change their views. Perhaps this is all misguided. Perhaps we should concentrate on purifying ourselves, and the witness we are giving, and leave the results to God. If the Church becomes less concerned about convincing the secular world, and at the same time less worldly herself, she will actually have more to offer the world in an authentic way.

Cardinal Schönborn quoted St Bernadette of Lourdes, when she was interrogated by the clergy and police after her visions, and one of them said to her, ‘You are not convincing us’. And she replied, ‘My job is not to convince you, but just to tell you’. It’s like Peter and John speaking to the elders of Jerusalem in Acts 4: ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard’.

I’m not 100% sure about all this! Yes, Christians need to have the confidence to witness to their faith, without over-worrying about how this witness is being received. Yes, the Church needs to be purified, converted, and each individual Christian needs to become less worldly and more focussed on Christ and his teaching. Yes, if we fail to convince or even challenge the culture, we shouldn’t give up. This is all true, and makes sense to Catholics who are confident in their faith, and have the support of a strong Christian community.

But there are other concerns too. When the Church loses its influence in society, this effects in a negative way especially the many ordinary Catholics whose faith is perhaps less strong, who don’t yet have the inner spiritual resources to self-identify as a confident and creative minority: those on the edges; the lapsed; those without the energy or time to engage in questions about Catholic identity. When the Church is no longer a strong cultural presence, and when Christian institutions are not nurturing the faith of ordinary people in quiet but significant ways, then the moral and spiritual lives of many people suffer.

And I’m also concerned about this apparent failure to engage constructively with the culture. If we do have something to say, shouldn’t it make sense to at least some people? And if it isn’t making sense, shouldn’t we find better ways of saying what needs saying? It’s about the continuing importance of dialogue and cultural engagement.

To be fair to Cardinal Schönborn, he was not suggesting that we should give up on dialogue and retreat into a self-justifying mode of ‘witness’. Quite the opposite. He explicitly said that the Church should step out more freely to engage with the world, with a new confidence. That was his point. If we worry less about results and influence, if we are less afraid of being a misunderstood minority, we can be more truly ourselves, more faithful to the gospel, more creative, more engaged, and more interesting to those who are genuinely searching for an alternative to the worldliness around then.

I agree. Catholics sometimes need to be counter-cultural, in a joyful and confident way; as long as we remember that we are part of the culture as well, and we need to use as effectively as possible all the opportunities that we have to influence that culture, opportunities that come to us precisely because we do still belong to it in so many ways. Let’s not use the category of ‘witness’ as an excuse to opt-out or as a defence if our appeal to reason seems incomprehensible. We need to continue in the struggle to make the Christian message comprehensible – which it is.

It was interesting that the very last comment from the floor was about the fall of communism. It wasn’t really a question, just a statement that we should really be more optimistic, because the greatest threat to faith in God and Christian freedom of the last century has actually been overcome: communism. We forget, said the member of the audience, what a terrifying foe this was in Europe and throughout the world, how much harm it did to the Church and to Christian culture, and how much worse things could have become. And yet it did not prevail, in part because of the struggles of Christian men and women.

Cardinal Schönborn agreed, and thanked this person for ending on a note of hope. As if to say: yes, let’s be a creative minority on the ‘outside’ of the secular culture, but let’s not give up on using the influence we still have through our historical Christian presence and trying to transform the culture from within. Which is exactly what Pope-Emeritus Benedict said in his speech at Westminster Hall.

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I’ve just come across this phrase ‘non-religion’ as an academic term.

The two concepts of nonreligion and secularity are intended to summarise all positions which are necessarily defined in reference to religion but which are considered to be other than religious. Thus, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s research agenda is inclusive of a range of perspectives and experiences, including the atheistic, agnostic, religiously indifferent or areligious, as well as most forms of secularism, humanism and, indeed, aspects of religion itself. It also addresses theoretical and empirical relationships between nonreligion, religion and secularity.

There is a new website to coordinate research in this area.

The Non-religion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) is an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers; the network was founded in 2008 to centralise existing research on the topic of non-religion and secularity and to facilitate discussion in this area.

This website – launched in December 2011 – is our new home on the internet. To find out more about the changes to the site, please have a look around, or see the ‘About Us’ section for more information. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy the site and welcome your feedback and suggestions for additions and improvements.

See what you think. I like the inconsistent use of the hyphen; as if there is an unresolved philosophical/sociological debate here.

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The focus of inter-faith concern, at least for Catholics, has shifted from Judaism to Islam over the last decade. This is the observation made by John Allen in a recent article.

The Ortaköy mosque, Istanbul (I managed to find a beautiful mosque beside a glorious suspension bridge!)

 

It doesn’t mean that the relationship between Catholics and Jews is less important. Islam, however, is where the bulk of the Church’s time and energy is being invested. Why? Allen gives four reasons.

First is simple arithmetic. There are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians in the world, which adds up to 55 percent of the human population. For good or ill, the relationship is destined to be a driver of global history.

Second, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and subsequent outbreaks of Muslim radicalism such as the assault on Our Lady of Salvation, have made Islam a burning preoccupation for the entire world.

Third, Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006 unleashed massive new energies in Catholic/Muslim relations. The speech triggered a firestorm in the Islamic world […], yet it also galvanized thoughtful voices on both sides of the relationship — most notably, it produced “A Common Word,” an initiative of 138 Muslim scholars, representing all the schools of Islam, acting together for the first time to outline common ground between Christians and Muslims.

Fourth, the demographic transition in Catholicism from the West to the Southern hemisphere is producing a new generation of leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America, where Judaism generally does not have a large sociological footprint. This Southern cohort didn’t live through the Holocaust, and they generally don’t feel historical responsibility for it — seeing it as a Western, not a Christian, atrocity. Relations with Islam, however, are a front-burner priority, since many of these southern Catholics live cheek by jowl with large Muslim communities.

Allen goes on to reflect on four implications of this shift to Islam. One of them is particularly interesting for us in Britain after the Papal visit, where Pope Benedict was sometimes wrongly perceived to be against all forms of secularity and pluralism. It’s aggressive secularism that he is against, and not the idea of a secular society. What does that mean? Here is Allen’s analysis:

During Benedict XVI’s Sept. 2008 trip to France, he endorsed what French President Nicolas Sarkozy has dubbed “positive laïcité” — a French term for which there is no exact English equivalent, though the usual translation is “secularism.” The basic idea is that religious freedom and church/state separation are positive things, as long as they mean freedom for, rather than freedom from, religion.

The emergence of Islam as the church’s central interfaith preoccupation has turbo-charged support for “healthy secularism.”

Proof can be found in the Middle East. Squeezed between two religiously defined behemoths, Israel and the Muslim states which surround it, the tiny Christian minority has no future if fundamentalism prevails. Their dream is to lead a democratic revolution in the region. That outlook reflects a basic law of religious life: secularism always looks better to minorities who would be the big losers in a theocracy.

Momentum towards healthy secularism in Catholic thought has implications well beyond the Middle East.

In both Europe and the States these days, there’s considerable debate about the political role of the church. Critics, including many Catholics, sometimes argue that bishops are “too political.” Americans, for instance, are still chewing over the role the U.S. bishops played in the health care reform debate.

If there is a force in Catholicism capable of balancing the scales, it’s likely to be the relationship with Islam, and the perceived need on the Catholic side to offer a credible model of the separation of religion and politics. That points to a keen irony: The specter of shariah might do more to give Catholic leaders pause about blurring church/state lines than a whole legion of liberal Western theologians.

I like that distinction between a secular political space that gives freedom for religion and one which demands a freedom from religion.

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I went to a debate last week at the main Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road. The topic was ‘secularism’ and its many meanings, in the light of recent controversies about faith schools, aggressive atheists, anti-burqa legislation in France, and of course the state visit of Pope Benedict to the UK.

I don’t want to summarise the content of the discussion here (good though it was), just to comment on how well the evening worked. It was a genuine debate. Eight people sitting round a table having their say. Chaired in a way that allowed the conversation to flow, and move in unexpected directions. Plenty of time to hear from the floor. People not afraid to speak their mind, or admit that their mind was not yet fully formed; people prepared to say something uncertain or unsettling.

There were no votes; no winners or losers. Everyone, I think, came a way a little more enlightened. It reassured me that public debate about controversial issues is still possible, and that there are people willing to argue and to listen.

The debate was organised by the Institute of Ideas. Their big ‘Battle of Ideas‘ weekend is coming up on 30-31 October. Take a look at the amazing selection of topics up for discussion that weekend, in a single venue. This video is from the run up to last year’s Battle of Ideas.

Claire Fox, the director of the Institute, explains the vision here:

The Battle of Ideas festival, now in its sixth year, is very much about a PUBLIC conversation. Since its inception ten years ago, the Institute of Ideas (IoI) has sought to interrogate orthodoxies and debate the challenges facing society, and to make these things public activities. We put an emphasis on audience participation, and the festival is open to anyone with intellectual curiosity and the courage to think critically.

This public orientation may not seem so unusual these days. The rhetoric of public engagement is all pervasive. In politics, much is made of maximising the public’s involvement: ‘People Power’ is the slogan of the UK’s Big Society. Everywhere from science to the arts, participation and crowd sourcing are buzzwords. At the IoI, though, we are sceptical about this flattering rhetoric. Many initiatives look like paper exercises in connecting to an imaginary public. When confronted with the real thing, too often our leaders recoil in horror. When the last Prime minister expressed his contempt for ‘that woman’ in the infamous Bigotgate incident, he gave a glimpse of what those who run society really feel about ordinary people. How dare we offend today’s politically correct etiquette or ask awkward questions?

The rise of an illiberal liberalism silences genuine public challenges to received wisdom. One arena where this intolerance of unfashionable ideas is clearly expressed is in discussions about religion and how secular society should accommodate it, or not. We will tackle these topics head-on at the festival. As the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas is not afraid of dissenting opinions and encourages people to speak their minds and battle over difficult issues. The festival’s motto is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED.

What faux engagement initiatives lack is any content to inspire and engage the public’s minds and passions. Historically, what has moved millions to act upon the world and change things for the better has been big ideas, such as freedom, progress, civilisation and democracy. Today we are offered the thin gruel of ‘evidence-based policy’. When we are told that scientific research demands particular courses of action, ever increasing areas of politics are ruled out-of-bounds for democratic debate; ideas and morality are sidelined by facts and statistics. In contrast, the Battle of Ideas is a public square within which we can explore the crisis of values, and start to give human meaning to trends too often presented fatalistically and technically.

Despite the fashion for ‘localism’, we need to expand our gaze beyond our own back yards. With this in mind, on the IoI’s tenth anniversary, we are launching the Battle of Ideas as an international project. We have a series of Battle Satellite debates in India, the US and Europe, and have invited as many international speakers as resources have allowed. We not only look abroad for intellectual renewal, but also to the past. In a strand of debates on history, we assess whether we can make the best that has been thought and known a source of future inspiration; standing on the shoulders of giants and reinvigorating their ideas for a new era.

One such idea worth rescuing is the ancient Greeks’ notion that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Today, such humanistic thinking is under threat, from those who warn that human-centredness is no more than hubris, that man’s ambitions are destructive, that we cannot trust politicians, bankers, cricketers, even each other or ourselves. Sessions will explore what these ideas mean for our attitude to human life or for our ambitions to engineer our future and use the huge gains of science, technology and biomedicine to solve problems associated with ageing, with the economy or even natural disasters. Is man guilty of playing God? Or would any lessening of our aspirations mean simply accepting our fate? We welcome attendees who are free thinkers, who have verve, passion and idealism, and a dose of irreverent scepticism; who believe mankind has a future worth fighting for. LET BATTLE COMMENCE!

It’s pretty expensive, but I hope to go for as much of the weekend as possible. Maybe we can set up a ‘Bridges and Tangents’ stall or poster-board!

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