I visit your website several times a week and I find a lot of nuggets of wisdom there…. But there’s often a nagging doubt at the back of my mind – Can someone be always as positive as this? Have we a right to be so optimistic, with so many people in the world suffering political and religious persecution? And religious people seem to be putting up no battle. Many people today have become very secularized, even the clergy. The thought for the day seems to be relativism, like ‘whatever you’re having yourself’. That will never get us out of the rut we’re in…. So, my question, Should we be far more concerned then we are? Shouldn’t we be doing more to fight secularism and relativism? W.J.
Thanks for bringing up this subject. These are important questions. I won't be able to do justice to them, but I'll do what I can.
Optimism is not one of the Christian virtues; it is only a matter of temperament. The Christian virtue that looks like it, but is really very different, is hope. The virtue of hope is on a par with faith and love: these three are always mentioned together – faith, hope, love. But the neglected one is hope. It is very different from optimism. The optimist says: “Cheer up, the worst may never happen.” (Meanwhile we all know that it could very well happen.) But the person of hope says: “The worst may well happen, but even if it does, God is still God….” (There is a famous expression of this in Habakkuk 3:17-19, worth looking up.)
Optimism often changes quickly into its opposite: pessimism. But hope is far more durable, because it is not turned on or off by circumstances. Optimism is optional, but hope is just as essential for a Christian as faith and love. Even in the teeth of secularisation and relativism we have to hold onto hope. Even if there was nothing whatever to be said for either of these, we have to practise the Christian virtue of hope.
Now, about those two. First, secularisation. “Always distinguish,” we are warned. There is good and bad secularisation. Good secularisation started with the Incarnation. “God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son” (Jn 3:16).
Distinguishing further: the ‘world’ can mean different things. First, it can mean the planet: the mountains and rivers, the seas…. Secondly it can mean all the people in the world. (In French this is very explicit: ‘Il y a du monde’ means ‘there are people around.’) Thirdly, it can have an ethical meaning; for example, in the New Testament it sometimes means the forces in the world that are hostile to the Kingdom of God. See John 17:9, James 1:27; 4:4, etc. It seems clear that when John says “God so loved the world…” he means all the people in the world: the second sense above. (John also uses the word in the third sense – for example, in 17:9 he has Jesus saying, "I am not praying for the world".)
When we rail against ‘secularisation’ we should be clear which sense of ‘world’ we have in mind. As regards the first sense of ‘world’, above: there are some fearful people who are suspicious of anyone who shows any regard for nature, suspecting them of being influenced by ‘New Age’. We can pass over that reaction; it is not a serious position. Then there are people who focus their attention on the second sense of ‘world’, the positive sense. We have no choice but to be ‘secularist’ in this sense. We are commanded to love this ‘world’, which means all humankind, no matter what their religion or their theology, or their lack of these, or even their rejection of these.
Yes, people who reject religion and promote secular humanism are called secularists. They reject not only the religious outlook, but also (and perhaps especially) all religious organisations and their influence. This is certainly a threat and a challenge to people of faith.
Here’s the point I want to make. Whenever there is acrimonious debate about religion, both sides emerge diminished because of the polarisation of their views. It happened at the Reformation, and it is always happening in lesser ways. It would be a great mistake to give up on the Christian sense of secularism, just because there are people who want to replace it. To do so would be to play into their hands. Priests who are not members of a religious order are called ‘secular’ priests. This is a very fine description of their life and work: they live among the people, sharing their life. It is a pity that ‘secular’ is often replaced by ‘diocesan’, an administrative word. If we relinquish the world it becomes the property of people who want to say that religious people have no place in it anyway. Then our faith loses its context, with the result that it now becomes its own context: separate, narrow, churchy. It shrinks to religious politics – to ‘them’ and ‘us’. It has lost sight of Jesus who said, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (Jn 12:47).
How should a Christian stand up to the challenge of secularism in the anti-religious sense? Not by fighting it in the manner of politicians, not by engaging in ‘culture wars’. This is spectacularly ineffective. As I've been saying, it moves us away from our proper ground and puts us exactly where such people want us – there’s nothing they love more than a dog-fight. Don’t stand against the other; stand for what we believe. “Standing for what we believe” means embodying the faith we profess. Don’t argue, but produce the goods. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). These are the only serious arguments for the existence of God.
The other problem you mentioned was relativism. If secularism began with the Incarnation, relativism began with the Trinity! The traditional teaching is that the Divine Persons are constituted by their relationships with one another. They are not simply related to one another; it is their relationship to one another that make them to be who they are. This is the ultimate in relativism. You might say – if it wasn’t a verbal contradiction – it is absolute relativism.
Of course there are false kinds of relativism, as when everything becomes a matter of fashion. But it is necessary to see a wider picture. The danger, as before, lies in conceding too much. If we reject every shade of meaning of relativism, we harden our own positions into false absolutes. Everything is related to everything else. This is obvious when you come out of your head and open your eyes. Every thing is related to everything else, but ideas are always spoiling for a fight with their opposites. Every real thing in the world is related to every other. Someone said that if you had to make a ham sandwich really from scratch you would have to go back to the Big Bang! When people rail against relativism they take it for granted that they are preaching the Gospel, but they may in fact be just reinforcing the tradition of individualism that has blighted Christian theology and spirituality for four centuries.
There, W.J, I've gone on too long. I'm just suggesting a headline for your own thinking.