The Secular versus Religion?Wednesday, November 7th, 2007
This is the full text of Bishop Donal Murray's address to the tenth Céifin Conference, on 6th November 07.
The Secular versus Religion?
The title of this talk suggests a struggle between religion and the secular, but I don’t believe that is the place to begin. The issues about the place of religion in contemporary society certainly have all the signs of a conflict, but there are other, more important, perspectives.
Many voices tell us that religion has no place in the variety, complexity and sophistication of modern life; in economics, politics, science or, technology.
Sometimes people who think that religion has passed its sell-by date accept that it may beneficial in a private, unobtrusive way for those who need it. Religion may be viewed benignly, provided it does not intrude embarrassingly into ‘the real world’.
Others take a harder line and see themselves as fighting to remove the remaining vestiges of religion because it is a force for the perpetuation of superstition and ignorance. The latter view is most powerfully articulated by Professor Richard Dawkins:
“It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, "mad cow" disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”.
Our time is certainly marked by two contrasting views of the world. Religion, or as Professor Dawkins expresses it, faith, is crucially involved in the clash between these views. The point at issue has been described in different ways.
Pope John Paul spoke of the culture of life and the culture of death. He pointed to the contrast between the growing consensus about the importance of human rights, and their growing violation in poverty, slavery, human trafficking, and new threats to life. He sees the roots of the crisis in “an eclipse” of a true sense of God and a true sense of humanity.
As he entered the conclave that elected him Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger described the conflict in another way:
“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires”.
More often, the opposing mindsets are hardly articulated at all. A great deal of modern life proceeds as if the question of faith did not matter. We have passed from a society where faith and public manifestations of faith were the norm, to a society which is, at best, embarrassed by any public visibility of faith. Our world seems increasingly marked by what has been called “tranquil apostasy”.
How many areas, even in the lives of believers, could be described as ‘religion free zones’? What has faith got to do with the fluctuations of the stock market, with the looming energy crisis, with house prices, with multinational companies, with new research possibilities, with the information age? Soap operas, for instance, are largely religion-free: nobody talks about God and, since the departure of Glenroe, nobody goes to church. I suppose you could make an exception for The Simpsons! Large parts of the world, even of the world in which believers live, function without any reference to faith.
Faith appears in the public arena in the form of controversies, scandals and personalities rather than questions about God. Moral questions are often misrepresented as a clash between secular and religious views, as if, for instance, one had to be a believer in God to ask questions about how we should regard the beginnings of human life.
There are two related assumptions, both of which need to be questioned. The first is that religion has no place in public discourse and that what are termed ‘religious views’ may be ignored, perhaps after a token ‘liberal’ nod to say that “of course they should be respected”. The second is the assumption that if a person’s views on social issues have been inspired and nurtured within a religious tradition, they can have no place in a rational discussion about what is best for our society. The same does not seem to apply to people who are agnostic or atheist, whose views have also arisen in the context of assumptions not shared by everybody.
Today’s feast of All the Saints of Ireland, reminds us that contemporary Ireland is a far cry from the days of a culture filled with prayers for everything from lighting the fire to passing someone on the road. If this is a contest, it seems that religion is twenty points down and that the match is well into injury time!
How Religion sees the Secular
That is one angle on our topic – how contemporary society views religion. But let us now ask the opposite question. How should religion view the secular?
When Pope Benedict set out to describe what he called “the heart of the Christian faith”, he quoted what Jesus said to Nicodemus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should… have eternal life” ( Jn 3:16 )  .
Clearly then, Christianity cannot see itself as in conflict with the world, the secular reality, which God loves so much. This is crucial: however we describe this conflict of mindsets, we distort it if we see it as a contest between religion and the secular reality in which we live.
This secular reality is not alien from the life of the Christian believer. Pope Paul VI said the Church "has an authentic secular dimension, inherent to her inner nature and mission, which is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate, and which is realised in different forms through her members".
Christians, and in particular lay Christians, live in this ‘secular dimension’:
“… in every one of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very fabric of their existence is woven. They are persons who live an ordinary life in the world: they study, they work, they form relationships as friends, professionals, members of society, cultures etc”.
What is going on in our society is not a conflict between religion and the secular, but between those who think there are areas of life where God is irrelevant and those who believe that such a position contradicts the very meaning of faith – and of secular reality as well.
I am speaking in terms of Christian faith, but I am not suggesting that the secular dimension needs to embrace a particular religious faith in order to make sense. Nor am I saying that all efforts to grapple with fundamental human questions are religious. But the secular dimension of life needs to understand the space that the religious dimension of life occupies, to appreciate the importance of questions about ultimate meaning, to realise that it is good for the health of secular society that citizens would be in touch with their own deepest questions
Tensions can certainly occur between the State and religions or Churches, as they can between any institutions. More fundamental is the conflict between the quest for ultimate meaning, and a secular ist view which thinks that such questions are peripheral or meaningless and should remain inaudible.
Many years ago, Frank Sheed pointed to the absurdity of the State failing to see its own limits and seeing itself as an educator in its own right. How could it set out to prepare people for life when it can give no coherent account either of what a person is or what life is for? The State as such cannot answer these philosophical or religious questions; but it must not fail to understand how fundamental these questions are in the motivation and self-understanding, and indeed the educational development, of individuals and groups.
A person’s convictions and commitment come from what he or she believes human beings are and what human life is about. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that all our desires depend on the ultimate purpose and meaning of our lives in much the same way that everything that happens in creation depends on the Creator. In other words, all our longings and hopes come from our restlessness, our desire to be what we are capable of becoming or, in religious terms, to be what our Creator has made us capable of becoming. That is where our energy and commitment come from.
Our quest for meaning arises from reflecting on life’s goal. The questions cannot simply be dismissed: ‘why are we here?’; ‘where can we find meaning and fulfilment?’; ‘with so much evil and suffering in the world, how can we have hope?’; ‘what happens when we die?’ Not all answers to these questions are religious, but they are at a level deeper than the scientific or pragmatic. One could with scientific accuracy answer the question ‘what is a human being?’ by saying that a human being is largely water, with smaller quantities of carbon, calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus and so on – ingredients worth three or four euro. It is accurate, but it empties the question of its meaning.
John Humphrys, of the BBC, recently conducted a series of programmes called ‘Humphrys in Search of God’. At the end, he remained an agnostic, but he is far from believing that ‘the big questions’ can simply be dismissed. He became quite irritated about what he described as “the attitude of those militant atheists who hold believers in contempt”:
“For them, what matters is what can be proved to be true. That's it. But in the real world, outside the walls of their intellectual ivory towers, that's not it… Humanity is too complex for that…
Yes, we loathe and fear the fanaticism that leads to a man strapping a bomb to his body and blowing up other human beings. But we should also fear a world in which the predominant values are materialism and consumerism, and the greatest aspiration of too many children is to become a "celebrity".
That is the heart of the matter. The conflict is not between religion and the secular but between the searchers for deeper meaning and those who believe that human life has no meaning beyond what can be measured, analysed and scientifically proved. It is a conflict ultimately between faith and the ideology of secularism.
“While it rejects every relationship between God and the world, between God and humanity, secularism absolutises earthly reality, especially the human being him/herself”.
The secular reality is the world in which we live, the world which God loved so much. Secular ism is the ideology which believes that there is no answer to the fundamental questions about the meaning and destiny of human life.
The Fullness of its Meaning
Contemporary Ireland is not noted for abstract discussion about the meaning of life, except perhaps, towards the end of the evening in the pub. But these questions are not simply abstract; they are about who we are.
As we track the tiger we see that a process that had begun even before the tiger was a cub, has accelerated as he grew in strength. It was a process in which we developed in many ways as a country. But underneath that undoubted progress we could hear the disturbing question which gave the title to the first Céifin Conference: ‘Are we forgetting something?’
Our affluent society has certainly forgotten something. We know – often only in theory I’m afraid – how, a few hundred yards from comfortable affluence, decent people live surrounded by burnt out houses, burnt out cars, intimidation, poverty, unemployment, violence and drugs: conditions which the rest of us would find intolerable. Yet their plight remains largely invisible.
There are many kinds of forgetfulness in our society – ways in which people feel excluded, lonely and neglected, in which the provision for health care and education remains inadequate. In being forgetful in these ways, we diminish ourselves and the way we relate to one another.
By failing to answer the question ‘who are we?’, we reduce ourselves to the level of superficial and limited questions. If we do not ask those questions we no longer see ourselves and one another as we truly are, but simply in various roles – a citizen, or an employee, or an example of a social problem – with no ‘bigger picture’. But there is more to us than that.
Flannery O’Connor once pointed out that, in a world which has lost the sense of the divine power ‘that could produce the Incarnation and the Resurrection’, people become “so busy… reducing everything to human proportions that in time they lose even the sense of the human itself, what they were aiming to reduce everything to.”
The address of Pope Benedict at the University of Regensburg, which generated a great deal of controversy last year, raised very significant questions for the future of civilisation. One of its main themes was how the role of human reason has become reduced. The advance of science has brought extraordinary benefits, but it has tempted us to think that only what can be scientifically proven can be regarded as true. That in turn has led us to view ourselves through this restricted and reductive lens. He describes the situation that has resulted:
“First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion.
… It is the human being himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science" and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective”.
When that happens, ‘the big questions’ get lost – the questions to which faith speaks, to which Christian faith offers a response which “marvellously fulfils all the heart’s expectations while infinitely surpassing them”. Pope John Paul brings the issue more clearly into focus; the secular dimension is “not simply an external and environmental framework, but… a reality destined to find in Jesus Christ the fullness of its meaning”.
Not a conflict but a mutual enrichment
Contemporary culture does not give proper weight to questions of meaning .The result is a false conflict between religion and the secular.
In Ireland today the question, ‘Are we forgetting something?’ has a particularly unsettling resonance, an unease we share with much of Western society. On the one hand we enjoy new freedoms and possibilities, but on the other we feel like a person skating on a frozen lake who is beginning to suspect that the ice is not strong enough to bear his weight.
There are signs all around us of a world on thin ice, in denial about its fragility and in confusion about its values. For years we have been using energy and resources at a rate which is in the process of irrevocably damaging the planet. For years we have lived in a world full of weapons of terrifying power, desperately hoping that for first time in history weapons have been developed that will never used.
For years we have lived with increasing affluence against the background of what Pope John Paul called “the gigantic remorse” that comes from knowing that our human family also contains appalling deprivation. For years we have lived with increasing pressure on the basic social reality – the family; we have watched the crumbling credibility of many institutions that have held our society together; we have seen discord, wars and atrocities.
Our moral compass fluctuates wildly: choices that were once unanimously condemned are now socially acceptable. We all see the contradictions. A few weeks ago, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin gave a striking example: “You get people using cocaine on Saturday night and eating organic food on Sunday”. The fragility is evident but we continue to skate as though the ice was solid!
The attitude of religion to the secular is not that it is evil or that it is false, but that on its own it cannot bear the weight that we are placing on it. Ice formed without reference to the big questions and the deep convictions which for most citizens are grounded in faith is simply too thin. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke of the fallacy that: “Religion and society are two independent entities, so that we can edit God out of the language and leave our social world unchanged”. On the contrary, faith is about the meaning of life, including the secular dimension of life.
Faith can challenge and enrich the secular
Religious belief is important to the health of secular reality. But the relationship must be right. In some parts of the world faith and politics are seen as virtually the same, but in Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict sets out a different approach:
“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper”.
All Christians, lay and ordained, are entitled, like everyone else, to engage in the life of society through rational argument. Whatever is said by the Church or Church bodies in the area of politics, economics and social policy is addressed to rational minds and consciences. It has no coercive force; the only power it can have is through being accepted as true by those who hear it. Political discussion cannot be conducted with theological arguments, nor theological discussion with political arguments. They are two distinct languages. We need to be bilingual, speaking the language of the beliefs that give energy to our convictions, but speaking also the language of citizenship when we join with our fellow citizens to discuss what is best for society.
Pope Benedict stresses the believer’s role of reawakening spiritual energy and fostering the ‘constant purification’ of our reason. He speaks about “the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests”. We can look back at slave-owners in the Southern US, kind to their aged relatives, considerate of their (white) neighbours and utterly blind to the horror of what they were doing to their slaves. And we might ask about the blind spots of our civilisation, which will cause future generations to look at us and say: ‘How could they?
"The first purification and awakening of energy that Christian faith calls for is a universal outlook. It tells us that we will be judged by Jesus speaking in the name of people, whether in Ireland, in Africa, in refugee camps or war zones. Faith warns us we may find ourselves asking: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” ( Mt 25:44 )
Of course, we may not need to ask! Karl Rahner expresses this disconcerting thought:
“The judgment of God will uncover the hidden recesses of our heart and will confound mere introspection; while our heart will admit that at bottom it always knew what now comes to light”
Christian faith is sometimes seen as giving rise to a narrow perspective. That is the opposite of the truth. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ asked the Catechism, “My neighbour is all mankind, without any distinction of persons, even those who injure us or differ from us in religion.” In a world of great migrations, this is a real challenge. There may well be a need to regulate migration. But are we willing to face that issue with the realisation that we are dealing with people in whose name Jesus will say: “I was a stranger…”?
The second purification and awakening is found in something that the secular dimension cannot give, namely a belief that there is a meaning big enough to bring hope where we cannot do so. Even if we loved with all our heart and soul, even if every possible effort was made, millions of our brothers and sisters have already died, their lives blighted by abject poverty, and violence. Even with the most heroic efforts, that sort of poverty will continue to exist for many decades. Do we then live on the basis that, “I’m all right, Jack”? If life is meaningless for any of our brothers and sisters, it is not meaningless for all of us? A “meaning of life” that applied only to some of us, would make no sense. A society that ignores ‘the big questions’ is always on the point of plunging through the breaking ice into absurdity.
The believer works for justice and the common good, not in a despairing effort to do the impossible, but with the enthusiasm of a faith which knows that God’s love is bringing justice to the living and the dead of all times and places. The question is not whether God’s purpose will be achieved, but whether we will be part of that transformation:
When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and enterprise – human dignity, sisterly and brotherly communion, and freedom – according to the law of God and in his Spirit – we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured…”
This points to the important ‘something’ that we have forgotten. In a world of constant change and ravenous demands, we need a commitment built on our deepest convictions, on serious reflection about what it is all for and on the hope that comes from faith. We cannot live on the baseless optimism expressed by the person who said, “I don’t know where we are going, but we sure are getting there!” A lot of the time, we pursue lesser goals with no overall vision and none of the reawakened spiritual energy of which Pope Benedict speaks.
I believe this energy is communicable also to those of faith traditions and non-religious approaches to life. It springs from belief in a God who is love, and from a vision of the dignity of human beings, what Pope John Paul called a “deep amazement at human worth and dignity, (which) is the Gospel. But that Good News, he says elsewhere, “has a profound and persuasive echo in the heart of very person – believer and non-believer alike”. The Good News does not lead to answers to moral and social questions that would be incomprehensible to others – but to a motivation, a “freshness, vigour and strength” that comes from looking the big questions in the face with determined hope. That motivation and commitment can be communicated, but not always in words: “A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and let love alone speak”.
The secular can challenge and enrich faith
We also need to look at the other side of the picture, namely how the secular dimension challenges and enriches faith. Chesterton’s was right: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried". He says in the same context:
“My point is that the world did not tire of the church's ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians”.
The transformation of Irish society from one where faith was seen as relevant everywhere to one where it seems not very relevant at all is an enormous threat to faith. This is not because the role of faith in society is being challenged or ignored; that has happened in many places and at many times. But the present transformation risks persuading Christians and other believers that faith can be put away into a private compartment and can be lived ‘part-time’, that is less than wholeheartedly.
The secular is the world in which faith is lived. If believers do not reflect and pray and understand what the Gospel has to say to all the complex dimensions of that world, and act on that reflection, they cooperate in confining God and silencing the big questions. A being limited in that way, is not God! Acquiescing in the separation of faith from life destroys faith.
Religious people may be irritated when someone says: “I’m not religious, but I’m a very spiritual person”. They think, rightly, that one cannot in the long run be spiritual without others, and when one is spiritual with others that is the beginning of religion. But that statement challenges religious people: we need to be more spiritual. Being spiritual is not in opposition to living in the secular reality. “In fact, in their situation in the world God manifests his plan and communicates to (the laity) their particular vocation of ‘seeking the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God’".
Faith grows from and celebrates and lives in all the realities of life. It is the truth that people find in “those deep recesses of their being where God, who probes the heart, awaits them”. There we find the God, “who alone can satisfy the deepest cravings of the human heart”.
This requires a huge effort of renewal, an effort to be in touch with our own deepest recesses, an effort to enter into the thirsts of the human heart – first of all our own, and then the hunger and pain, physical, emotional and spiritual of our fellow human beings, and the longings deep within us for a peace, justice and love greater than anything we know or imagine. Then we have to respond in all the specialised and complex areas of life with the energy and vigour that come from those longings.
Faith is a real conviction – not just words – on the part of Christians that Jesus Christ is, “the focal point of the desires of history and of civilisation”. Responding to the big questions requires all of us to think more deeply about where we are going and why: about the questions that Céifin has been raising down the years: ‘Is the Future My Responsibility?’, ‘Are we Forgetting Something?’. Perhaps the most striking phrase to emerge from a Céifin Conference was the one about tiptoeing back to the churches. If anyone wants to do that they are most welcome! The conclusion of Emily O’Reilly’s talk best summed up what we need:
“Let me imagine… the creation of a new discourse, where a safe place is created to talk again about values, about the spiritual, where the political class summons the courage to shift its focus even slightly away from the purely economic and focuses instead on what else really matters, what the people they serve need for full and generous minded life…”
This is an urgent challenge is for us all; the skaters are right to fear that the ice is very thin.
The Gospel illustrates what is happening. Jesus was tempted in the desert to do three things – to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the highest point of the Temple, and to wield political power over all the kingdoms of the earth ( Mt 4, Lk 4 ).
We know well the temptation of living on bread alone. There is nothing wrong with affluence, comfort, or a better standard of living. The problem is when they become the answer to the question, ‘What is the purpose of your life?’ If we make these things our god, live for them alone, they will destroy us. The ‘Celtic Tiger’, like all tigers, can be a man-eater.
Nor is there anything wrong with popularity. If Jesus had been carried down from the temple, people would have flocked to him! But the relevance of the temptation is starkly clear to us today. Becoming a celebrity is dangerous. Celebrities can be built up to an impossibly inflated position before we turn on them with an equally inflated hostility. When this happens one can only hope that the people involved, whether pop stars or football managers, or ‘personalities’ of any kind, have understood that there is more to life than this. A society which lives for celebrity will destroy not only its celebrities but itself.
There is finally the obvious temptation to change the world by forcing people do what we think is right. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor told Christ that by not accepting the gift of all the kingdoms of the earth and leaving people to respond freely, he was asking too much. Power can be well used, but it can also destroy the person who wields it and the person who lives simply to obey it. The abuse of power, whether in the Church, or in governments, or by the wealthy or privileged can destroy those it coerces – and those who use it.
They all come down to the same temptation: to put something in the place of God – to live for bread alone, to see God as merely the servant our ambitions, to worship something other than God. If these become the foundation of our lives and of our society, if they become the ice on which we skate, it will collapse.
The same threats to human wellbeing were recognised already in the Greek philosophical tradition. Socrates went to his death repeating his challenge his fellow citizens:
“… aren't you ashamed to worry about money, getting as much as you can, and about prestige and status, instead of intelligence and truth and the soul, getting it to be the best it can be? You don't worry about that, you don't even think about it”
If we begin to admit that possessions, prestige and power cannot provide the meaning of our lives, we may find ourselves not falling through the ice, but on solid ground, free to pursue what we are really seeking as individuals and as a society. Pope Benedict said to young people in Loreto: “It is true that finite things can give glimmers of joy, but only the Infinite can fill the heart”.