The basic facets of belief
Forty or fifty years ago the Christian Churches recognised the value of dialogue with secular humanism. Discussion and debate proceeded according to the premise that faith and unbelief advanced two distinct visions of life, with areas of possible agreement and overlap but unmistakeable points of difference as well.
Today the lines of demarcation appear to have grown blurred, at least on our side. The humanists have stuck to their unbelieving principles fairly well but visitors to a typical Catholic parish or school might now find few signs of a distinctively Christian mentality. They would be likely to notice two things: an emphasis on belonging, or “inclusiveness”, and a commitment to charitable projects – fundraising for CAFOD, Red Nose Day, Children in Need, etc. What might prove more elusive is a sense of the reality of God.
In many Catholic communities the outward forms of faith are still present but an overall sense of the supernatural and the conviction of God’s sovereignty (and human sinfulness) have been replaced with the priorities of liberal humanism.
Overblown displays of “caring” (which actually involve more “fun” than hard sacrifice on the part of the carers) are often trumpeted as fulfilling the practical demands of discipleship but sometimes even this goes by the board. Then the opportunity for socialising afforded by communal worship is seen as the main benefit of Church membership. The activists are usually proud of their achievements but the end product falls far short of the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus.
In my experience it is often precisely the parish collaborators engaged in the production of liturgy or the religious instruction of the young who are horrified when the basic facets of Christian belief are laid out as opposed to their own jollified, self-regarding philosophy.
The centre of Christianity, for example, is God himself - our Father, Creator and Lord. The response of faith on our part has always involved an acknowledgement of God’s majesty, a sense of awe and the recognition that we owe God humble obedience and gratitude for his “divine pity”. Our human nature is only fully realised in service and adoration of God.
Similarly, Christianity begins from the reality of human corruption. At the most fundamental level we stand in need of rescue and we cannot bring about our salvation by our own powers. This in turn implies an awareness of human frailty and the need for humility since "all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23).
When we look at the example of the saints – the men and women who have managed to cultivate the deepest level of faith and holiness – we find that they were people whose consciousness of God’s grandeur and “otherness” gave them a vivid sense of their own smallness and unworthiness. The more they became acquainted with God’s perfect love and goodness and holiness the more they became aware of their own sinfulness. But far from being depressed or guilt-ridden as a result of this knowledge they were filled with an abiding joy, because recognising their need for salvation always went hand in hand with a sense of God's overwhelming desire to offer salvation.
By contrast a certain strain of human pride finds this hard to accept. To acknowledge that we stand in need of forgiveness diminishes our self-importance and contradicts the assumption, especially prevalent in modern consumer cultures, that the universe revolves around our shifting wants and needs and that everything – including spiritual values - should be ordered according to our specifications.
Modern people, including many professedly religious people, do not feel very deeply that they need to be redeemed. They expect religion to foster notions of self-worth and human fulfilment instead. So they react with incomprehension or indifference to the “Good News” that we are forgiven by God. Religion for them is less a matter of giving God his due and more a matter of indulging their own emotional needs and aesthetic tastes as they amble along the road of personal enrichment. The fact that this involves ignoring or jettisoning centuries of accumulated spiritual wisdom causes them little anxiety of course.
From the “vertical” to the purely “horizontal”
It may be true, as some people allege, that in the past too much emphasis was placed on the “vertical” dimension of religion: God’s transcendence, the sacred character of religious rituals, objects, etc. Perhaps the reverential attitude which believers were expected to foster towards religion was exaggerated. But this is scarcely more damaging than the current gross “horizontalising” of the faith, which acts as though all revealed truth and every aspect of our relationship with God can somehow be conveyed in purely human categories.
It is the liturgy above all which has borne the brunt of the horizontalising tendency. To attend Mass today in many parishes in England and Wales is a painful, infuriating and spiritually demeaning activity.
To begin with one rarely finds a Mass anywhere which is celebrated by priest and people in a quiet, meditative manner. The liturgists have decreed that we must all participate in their community singing, but much recent liturgical music fails to rise above the level of the advertising jingle. The wording of several modern hymns pares the faith down to a few trite assertions about love and togetherness. In addition the Sunday Mass has nearly everywhere evolved into a species of children’s entertainment, full of noisy, infantile dramas which disrupt the flow of the ritual and rob the celebration of all prayerfulness.
Catholic parents apparently no longer teach their children to cultivate inner quiet and a sense of the divine presence, especially in the Eucharist. With few references to God in the home they are now also encouraged to expect noise, constant movement and distraction during Mass, reflecting the noisy, shallow habits of larger society. Their spiritual development is being sabotaged from the beginning: during the crucial years of childhood they make no genuine contact with God and we can hardly be surprised when they drop off altogether in adolescence, or earlier, ignorant of the content of faith, untrained in prayer and devoid of any consciousness of God's presence and activity.
The greatest irony of this secularised religiosity is that, despite its progressive pretensions, it corresponds in essence to Karl Marx’s dismissive description of religion as a man-made fantasy which encourages people to escape from the problems and failures of real life instead of solving them. The air of platitudinous uplift, the insular emphasis on “community”, the drive to create a feel-good effect, all add up to a world-confirming rather than world-challenging form of religion. The dismissal at the end of Mass used to signify the sending-out of Christ’s disciples to evangelise and transform the world around them. The current obsession with “lay ministry” actually indicates the defeat of this aspiration and a retreat into the safer, less taxing realm of church meetings and "liturgy planning".
Conclusion: reconciliation with God or the secular desert
A Christian mentality differs profoundly from the secular outlook and churchgoers who unthinkingly baptise the liberal humanist tendencies of contemporary society are selling the gospel short. Those who realise this best are the men and women who have been converted from an unbelieving stance by a genuine encounter with Christ. They know from personal experience that the perspective of faith involves a whole change in consciousness and self-understanding, a complete transformation in their basic ideas about the value and purpose of human life.
The Church will only succeed in its mission to the extent that existing Christians become aware of this and offer Christ’s message of reconciliation with God as an alternative to the spiritual desert contemporary humanity has made for itself.