Christian Hope and Secular Realities (2)
by Fr Ian Dalgleish


In the first part of this article I tried to suggest that conservative and traditionalist currents within the Church cannot be characterised as urging a retreat to some private religious realm divorced from the real world. On the contrary, many such currents are emphatically outward-looking and, on their own terms, engaged with secular reality. I also suggested that the majority of men and women in a secularised society like ours are less disposed towards dialogue with Christianity than many church activists like to believe. These latter, I would argue, are guilty of a certain naiveté and wishful thinking.
For one thing, practically speaking, overzealous attempts by Christians to affirm the unbelieving outlook and to find ways of emphasising the positive aspects of secularism have not resulted in a new wave of missionary success. It has resulted in the collapse of religious practice and a thorough secularisation of Church life. The often bizarre and confused mish-mash of beliefs and moral opinions which today one encounters among churchgoers is testimony to the fact that the Church has not transformed society. Rather, the individualist, consumerist and secular values of society have transformed the Church.
Moreover even among our potential dialogue-partners, it has not won us any sort of reputation for broadmindedness and intellectual tolerance. It has gained us the reputation for weakness and compromise and for exhibiting a desperate desire to be accepted (the root cause of "trendy vicar" syndrome, etc.). It has created the impression that we lack earnestness and conviction in holding our faith, and will do anything to avoid disagreement or having to admit real and serious differences.
Another motive here, I am convinced, is a reaction against the loss of our position at the centre of western culture and a desire to resist cultural marginalisation. As society moves further away from Christian beliefs and values, so the Church strains harder to re-shape its presentation of those beliefs and values in order to retain some kind of connectedness to the mainstream. But the result is simply that we get absorbed into the mainstream and the Christian salt loses its saltiness.
Recently I came across a small but revealing example of this. An R.E. teacher in a Catholic secondary school wanted to give a lesson about God's love and forgiveness: a central theme of the Christian revelation. Eschewing the innumerable Scripture texts available, or the many illustrations one could draw from Church history, she chose to read a passage from Bridget Jones' Diary instead.
Now whatever the intention, this kind of approach does not communicate anything about God's grace at work among his creatures. It shows - unintentionally no doubt - that there is nothing in revealed religion which cannot be obtained fully - and perhaps more entertainingly - from the surrounding popular culture. It teaches, subtly, that explicit Christian faith is something to be apologised for.
But the main reason why I feel that the time is long past for any naiveté about secular perspectives concerns the nature of Christian hope itself, the original object of Fr. McGreal's remarks.
Why, fundamentally, do we describe Christian faith as "good news" and as a message of hope? Our basic conviction, surely, is that although humankind is sinful and corrupt, God forgives and redeems us in Christ, through whom he is now uniquely present to us, making us holy and preparing us for life with him in eternity. We experience joy and hope because salvation is possible, life with God - divinization, if you like - has been made available to us.
Nothing could be further from the typical secular viewpoint, which in its essential features goes back to the early Enlightenment period of eighteenth-century Europe. There is no God. Grace is therefore an illusion, human reason is sufficient. The framework of Christian doctrine is a primitive and superstitious fable which prevents men and women from assuming their full freedom and dignity. The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes delineated this form of atheism, which is really an overstatement of purely human potentialities, while adverting also to a peculiarly modern vision of human life which is “blurred by materialism”.[5]
Christians may wish to share their message of hope with their unbelieving brothers and sisters, but it is not enough simply to adopt an outgoing or optimistic attitude. There has to be a recognition that the object of Christian hope is very different from the aspirations entertained within a secular mentality, and that these two worldviews are not simply continuous with each other, or just different ways of stating the same basic goal. A shift from secular hopes to Christian Hope requires nothing less than radical conversion - metanoia - the fundamental change of mind which signals an abandonment of one set of values and attitudes, and the embracing of another, very different, set.
Ironically, perhaps, it is precisely those men and women who come to faith in adulthood and leave behind a secular outlook, who specify the inadequacies of that outlook most graphically, and proclaim quite readily the huge qualitative difference involved in being a believer and a follower of Christ. It is only a certain type of lifelong Christian - often institutionalised church personnel like clergy and religious - who feels the need to eulogise the positive elements of unbelief, despite the meagre scraps of respect which they receive back from the militant Godless.[6]
The remedy for these mistaken postures lies in retrieving an element of confidence in the overwhelming value of our own distinctive Christian vision, and a model of church life and outward mission to match.
Many years ago, in the midst of his struggle against the Nazis, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that when people suffer from a sense of "inward uncertainty" they end up "haggling and cringing for the favour of insolent people, and lowering [themselves] to the level of the rabble".[7] I believe that many Catholics have fallen into this trap: their keenness to affirm rather than criticise secular-mindedness is really a form of moral cowardice, the result of a desire to remain respectable, to keep in with majority opinion and avoid ridicule.
I have raised the example of Bonhoeffer deliberately, because I think the stance of resistance which he and his fellow-members of the Confessing Church took in Nazi Germany points the way ahead for our church life now and in the near future.
Unlike the other congregations, who made their peace with Hitler in order to preserve their ecclesiastical privileges, the Confessing Church preferred to follow a more prophetic path. They interpreted the rationalisations of the churches as apostasy - abandonment of genuine faith in God. For their part they held fast to their beliefs and principles, and were prepared to suffer for it. In the end Bonhoeffer himself was executed on Hitler's orders only weeks before Germany surrendered to the Allies.
Of course our situation is nowhere near as drastic as that of the Confessing Church. But this should not prevent us from recognising the deep antithesis which exists between our Christian worldview and way of life, and the idolatrous culture which surrounds us - a decadent, chaotic and damaging culture which has by no means produced a greater sum of harmony and happiness than its more religious predecessors.
Fascism is not the only form of systematic evil capable of corrupting human society and deflecting men and women from the true, spiritual purpose of their lives. The world-wide reach of the market economy and the globalisation of capitalist culture means that Christians today also live against such a backdrop, in both the developed and in the developing world.
So when it comes to formulating the Church's rules of engagement with secular society, I agree that we must never retreat into some comfortable private utopia. But our "dialogue" with the world must sometimes take the form of confrontation, and not only affirmation; sometimes denunciation and not only collaboration. It is a question of accepting and indeed welcoming our minority status - the inferiority, marginality and misrepresentation that comes with being pushed to the periphery.
From such a position comes purification of faith, genuine, costly discipleship, and prophecy. "Fortunate are you when people hate you, when they reject you and insult you, and number you among criminals, because of the Son of Man" (Lk 6:22). In times like ours, just as much as in Bonhoeffer's, the primary mode of Christian spirituality must be a spirituality of resistance.


Notes and References
[5] Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, on the Church in the Modern World (1965), article 19: "With others, it is their exaggerated idea of man that causes their faith to languish; they are more prone, it would seem, to affirm man than to deny God". The council fathers are highly sensitive and respectful in trying to outline various motives which lead to atheism, but they never suggest that it is anything other than a tragic error. C.f. also Gaudium et Spes, article 10. In general it is the “hopes and joys“ of modernity, referred to in the Pastoral Constitution, which have proved illusory in the years following its promulgation. However the “grief and anguish” which the council fathers also noted as a facet of modern life have, along with their causes, only intensified, and the note of warning which Gaudium et Spes sounded about the evils inherent in our contemporary denial of God has turned out to be prophetic.
[6] Witness, for example, Archhbishop Rowan Williams' praise and broad-minded appreciation of Philip Pullman's novels denigrating Christianity, compared with Pullman's ignorant and mean-spirited attacks on Christian beliefs and values.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (enlarged edition) ed. Eberhard Bethge, The Folio Society, London, 2000.