Faith in a Secular Age

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Faith in a Secular Age:

Disjunctions/Conjunctions between Church and People

June 15-16, 2014                                   Vienna, Austria






Table of Contents


I. Introduction

II. Goals and Objectives: Wholistic Dialogue and Kenotic Vision

III. Interchange between Teams

IV. Themes Suggested by Participants





Rather than beginning with the long and rich history of the project on "Faith in a Secular Age" with its multiple facets in times of promise, crisis and renewal, it seemed more effective to begin from the recent period of Pope Francis. He seems to be putting things right by simple gestures in accord with both the life of the people and the gospel message. But rather than resting with these, it is our task to ask what is missing where a project of scholars might be of help.


Upon reflection one notes that Pope Frances is not going deeply into the secular culture in which all are raised, which is inescapable in daily life, and in terms of which all interpret present events and project their future.


Hence the goal of this project is to support Pope Francis in this regard with professional insight drawn by such various competencies as can be provided by the humanities and the social sciences, by philosophy and theology.


What then is the secularity of which we speak? Charles Taylor, in his now classical work A Secular Age, spoke of three senses of the term in order to focus on the third: (a) separation of Church and state, (b) decline in Church practice, and (c) the cultural conditions which today often make unbelief seem more easy, more natural and more viable than belief.


This has been exacerbated by sexual and financial scandals. Though these can be seen as tragic chances of timing, in fact they may be rather the inevitable results of structures which overstayed their age till finally they became unsustainable and all seemed to be collapsing.


In view of all this what then are the goals and objectives of this project; namely, what kind of vision is needed in order to contribute to the life of faith in these new and cultural conditions which have come to constitute this secular age? Two stand out, namely, an wholistic vision achieved through dialogue and a kenotic vision in the image of Christ and indeed of the entire Trinity.




Wholistic Dialogue


As cultural these conditions constitute what Pierre Hadot defined as an integral way of life, distinctive of each people and nation, and hence multiple and differentiated. As such, the response cannot be by the abstract approaches of scientific reason in which almost all are trained from their early school years. That proceeds precisely by leaving out all except the essences expressed in concepts which are thereby univocal and universal. This would omit all of Pope Francis' populous gospel gestures in which faith is actually lived. It would render rather the "buffered self” which indeed characterizes secularity. Only one team would then be required; more would be redundant and confusing.


In that older style a single speaker, perhaps with one or two critics, corresponded to the abstract approach for which, as Descartes noted, a single author is most effective. The task then was precisely to strip away the cultural differences wherein the religious elements are to be found, so that the secular age followed necessarily and inescapably. To search for a living faith in a secular age requires a fundamentally different, even contrary, dialogic, interactive and mutually suggestive approach.


Further, as the secular condition is a culture, and hence an integral and differentiated way of life, relevant work must attend to the cumulative and creative experience of the many peoples and their distinct cultures. For this not one, but 16 teams have been at work on this project. Each team is writing its distinctive volume.


Thus the challenge of the present conference is to begin to bind these together in a complementary and coherent search for the wholeness and fullness of a religious life; to articulate the cross references between them; and by dialogue to point to what is seen, needing to be seen and faith which transcends all sight.


This requires then not only the work of one keynote speaker, but especially the lively interaction of the many teams of the distinct cultures in dialogue with one another. Indeed this was the new theme of the 2013 World Congress of Philosophy in Athens, Greece, where this Council for Research in Values and Philosophy (RVP) was awarded the "Global Dialogue Prize" for its contribution to this new mode of investigation as we enter upon these culturally differentiated and secular times.


Kenotic Vision


The combination of the growing secular orientation of contemporary culture with the tragically timely scandals, which marked the over-extension of previous modes of Church thought and practice, call now for change and reform. In fact, this recalls and repeats the experience of Christ with the Jewish people of old. Then there was an intensive and enduring expectation of the Messiah. However, this expectation had come to be so popularly misinterpreted and mispresented in human and worldly terms of power and prestige that when the Messiah came he was not recognized. In fact, what was needed of a Messiah was one who would save humanity from itself, that is, not more of human power, but less, or a veritable emptying (kenosis) of self.


As Paul pointed out classically in his epistle to the Philippians (2:6-11), it was not only that the Messiah put aside the form of God to take human form, but that he did so in the form of a servant; indeed of one who would surrender his human life in the most ignominious manner, namely, that of death on the cross. This was to be 'other' to the extent of being the very antithesis of human messianic expectations.


This set a totally different model for humanity: not that of master, but of the ultimate servant, indeed of a slave sacrificing his very life; not of one kingly master but as neighbor to all humankind and in all of its endeavors, whether of health and sustenance, of industry and finance, or of social and political interaction. In all this messiahship in terms of kenosis points to sacrifice and service for human fulfillment and wholeness in progressively inclusive physical, moral and social terms.


Moreover, as the secular perspective inverts the apex from the divine to the human, and even to the world in which we live, this kenotic outpouring is articulated not only with regard to humanity, but to physical nature as well. The power of the creator as recounted in Isaiah is not reserved to some overpowering phenomenon such as lightening or wind, but is found in the whisper of the breeze. Some refer to this as the small or weak god. In any case, it is the kenotic God or creator manifest in and by nature even at its weakest, most fallible and fickle.


Yet even this is not the entirety of the kenosis, for Christ promised to send the Spirit to explain his message, to enlighten minds and guide hearts. But where this might be expected to be booming, inescapable, imperative, in fact it is a weak voice which does not do away with, but enhances human freedom. Even here the kenosis continues, leaving to humanity and nature the responsibility -- and the struggle -- to work toward an ever emerging wholeness.


So whether it be the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, or the Spirit as Guide, the life of the Trinity is marked by a kenosis quite beyond human expectations and comprehension. This assures that the secular is not replaced but enhanced, or as expressed by John F. Kennedy: "In this world God's work is man's own."




In order to initiate this dialogic interaction between the teams Charles Taylor proposed two principles:


1. The disjunction between, on the one hand, the ‘seekers’ which presupposes that they have not found their way and, on the other hand, the ‘dwellers’ doing what has been done better in the past suggests that faith be considered as a journey, meaning that faith is not fully understood and that we proceed by landmarks which give direction and guide our journey.


2. Pope Francis suggests engaging with all others in this spiritual journey in a constant and respectful interchange, and trying to understand what is held by others in a spiritual pluralism.


Both of these entail the need to get beyond the sense of possessing truth, and learning to live apostolically with others, whether as individual seekers or as the plural spiritualities of our day, in an attitude grounded in love.


This generated fruitful dialogue which related the participants around the following three themes: (1) the seekers as individuals, (2) plural spiritualities, and (3) the relation of truth and love. Some samples are described here, followed by a listing of the themes each of the participants suggested at the conclusion of these discussions.


Individuals and Seekers


- The secular inversion of contemporary concern from ‘top-down’ to ‘bottom-up’ has given strong impetus to the individual. This has a number of effects, both good and bad. It can enliven in the person a sense of possibility with corresponding far reaching vision and creativity. This is indicated in terms of authenticity, i.e. whether a person lives what he or she professes


On the one hand, this has been a special characteristic of the success of the pontificate of Pope Francis whose daily life continuously witnesses to the gospel injunction to live for the poor (imaged in his own simple living quarters and mode of transport), to reach out to the margins (to care for the immigrant rather than the rich), and even to think of the Church as a field hospital.


On the other hand, to focus too exclusively on the individual to the extent of judging all in terms of individual human success constitutes a major challenge presented by secularization and the shift it entails from God to man. When understood exclusively in term of an individualism the implication is a competitive society. In some places this has been the strategy for nation building and hence defines as secular all economic, legal and political structures.


- The vast majority of the European teams chose to work on the disjunction between seekers and dweller. This could refer to the tension between two extreme positions. On the one hand, are the ‘dwellers’ who seek salvation in the exact repetition of past Church practices. On the other hand, are the ‘seekers’ who feel that they must dissociate themselves from set ritual practices in order to follow the interior inspiration of the Spirit in response to the present needs of society?


As constituting the context of life today the latter entails special difficulties for membership in communities both sacred and secular, in Church and civil society. For example:


a/ Too little attention is devoted to the creative appreciation and mobilization, to the responsibilities and even the opportunities, which are present in and characteristic of life in religious and secular communities.


b/ As a result the gospel message of love can be read too exclusively as an internal issue of Church service or of the private life of family; while too little attention is devoted to one’s role in public life. That is left to a sense of self benefit and competition with others in zero plus terms. In this case, the transformative, enlightening and enlivening power of the Christian message is not sufficiently appreciated and applied. Too often this bespeaks the situation where the Catholic community is the majority. Elsewhere, the Church is often the minority, at times a very slender minority, and seeks only tolerance. But even in these situations should not the Christian approach be one of active -- if cautious -- service both to Church, e.g. in ecumenical efforts, and to public life both by its transformative social doctrine and active public services (e.g. in health and education).


Plural Spiritualities


Another disjunction is the present encounter with plural spiritualities. In the past, the Church in professing an absolute divine might have felt obliged to seek to impose on others its appreciation of this unique primacy. But what then of the present interactive universe where the need and opportunity is rather to learn from others and from nature, to invite rather than to impose -- and this most particularly in the rich global situation of plural spiritualities? This issue was taken up by teams from Poland, Portugal and Chicago.


- It was suggested that one approach might be to ask what moves a people or peoples to look for a new spirituality. One element might be that in this increasingly active, changing and ever turbulent world there is a felt need for the deeper and more constant path of contemplation. This can be sought in alternate cultures with long traditions of contemplation. In turn this can generate a new respect for "the other" and a search for community with them.


- For Portugal which had a long history as a majoritarian Catholic country this entails coming to the realization today that not all are Catholic. Whereas in the past it was not necessary to articulate one's interest in religious life, that could now be important. And in a time when ‘believing’ but not ‘belonging’ to a religious community becomes more common this might be done through the various arts.


Related elements which emerged in the discussions were the need to encourage Catholics to speak out and articulate their motivation. Indeed this has been central to the transition of Jürgen Habermas from an earlier position in which only a secular language could be proper for public order, and all religious motivations would need to be translated into secular terms. More recently he has recognized that this placed a unique burden on the religious section of the population contrary to the prime liberal profession of equality for all.


- Today this may require not the comprehensive vision of a classical Catholic theology, but attention to its practical implications and to the more brief language that is required for specific projects in support of limited populations and their needs. This can be especially true if the student population of our times is less interested in the institutional and theoretical content of particular religious denominations than in the spiritual motivation to do good in the world.


- From here it was but a short step to the sociological studies often built on statistics regarding the practice of sacramental rituals. These tend to show dramatic decline, e.g., in attendance at mass or the practice of the sacrament of penance. However, this may be missing some other significant religious indices, namely, the practice of the gospel values in small Christian communities or in working toward such specific goals as peace, e.g., the peace building of the Saint Egidio community.


One might note as well that these seem especially fit for bridging the gap between spirituality and religion often cited in the claim to be ‘spiritual’ (as in deep interiority), but not ‘religious’ (as in institutional structures).


- A further consideration appears when one takes account of the psychological dynamics, for then the needs of very different personalities come into play. Many are not able to deal with doubt. Whereas for some doubt could be a reassuring sign that they are proceeding cautiously and that the route taken, though limited, is sure. For others, however, doubt undermines their sense of security. They look for one in whom they can put complete and unquestioning trust. Indeed this latter position can be not only the situation of more simple people, but of earlier stages of a scholar's academic growth. In time, however, one finds that no thinker is always correct and that they themselves must take up their own responsibility for evaluating and sorting out what can be accepted and how this is complemented by other insights that over time become available from their own or other cultures.


Truth and Love


- This is not to suggest that there is no truth, for that has no sense at all. Rather it is that truth is not fully understood: hence it is not that we possess truth, but that truth possesses us. Along with truth there is also emotion or feeling. We need a humble attitude because truth is being continuously created and hence remains beyond us in its fullness. As this can be destabilizing one must see oneself as being in the hands of God. This requires letting go of any possessive dynamic, which in turn implies the search for some common ground between seekers and dwellers. The same is true of the other disjunctions both within the self and in the world.


- Finally, truth and openness are possible in the broader context of love. There one's security is assured by the love of God and expressed in its extension to all one encounters on one's journey. Indeed Christians soon became identifiable precisely by "how they love one another."


This has a number of implications.


1/ that we need to have an open attitude both toward the past for it relevance to the present and to novelty in our changing times;

2/ that we need to work with others in order to have the benefit of their experiences and insights as life becomes ever more complex;

3/ that we gain confidence in ourselves and in our extended community as we move ahead on our journey; and

4/ that it is possible for a person to put greater stress either on holding to the tradition as the more assured path, or to belonging to a community of persons.


The latter gives less attention to issues of truth (as bonds between concepts), and more to the bonds of love between persons (that is to ‘belonging’ rather than to ‘believing’). More probably however everyone finds their proper combination of the two as not mutually exclusive factors along with such others as their internal psychology and their external condition of life in the specific time and place.


- One implication is that gradually we slide toward smaller affinity groupings based on many factors. This is newly possible as transportation and communication are augmented so that geography need no longer be the determining or even the major factor in the organization of Christian parishes or other religious communities. To this must be added, however, the importance of diversity if a faith community is to avoid extremes and witness to the all englobing love of the Creator and Redeemer.


- Here the constant example of Pope Francis is significant with its emphases not on a closed community of believers, but on the openness of living alongside all with their multiple gifts and needs, their beliefs and unbeliefs. In these days the Church, and indeed all societies, are marked by challenging transformation.


- For a detailed treatment of the problematic of the four disjunctions between Church and people (1. seekers and dwellers, 2. the magisterium, 3. moral teaching and 4. plural spiritualities), see Charles Taylor, Jose Casanova and George F. McLean, eds. Church and People: Disjunctions in a Secular Age (Washington, D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2012),




Alex Palmer (Portugal)

- authenticity

- bottom-up approach

- disjunction/conjunction between faith and secularization


Robert Schreiter (US)

- signs of the times: as challenges and opportunities

- kenosis: mission as going out; a kenotic Church

- religion in the public forum

- role of religion in social mediation

- authenticity/integrity

- change from top-down to bottom-up


Przemysław Strzyzynski (Poland)

- language issues

- Imaginaries as kenosis for language

- authenticity regarding language, e.g. post modern concern

- emotion versus the reasoned wall of natural law


Tony Carroll (UK)

- open forum as needing dialogue

- cultural dialogue as key to openness

- welcoming to all


Leon Dyczewski (Poland)

- development of Christianity

- role of the Christian Church in the social life of the communities of family, civil society, etc.


Marthe Kerkwijk (UK/Netherlands)

- trust as in need of being restored through open dialogue and practice


Philip Rossi (US)

- plurality as a value in itself

- polarization: avoiding a gap that divides

- power: the difference between the powerful and the powerless

- thick weight of history: its influence on structures


Yann Raison du Cleuzion (France)

- lack of institutional structures for internal dialogue


Zsuzsanna Bogre (Hungary)

- memory

- recovery

- concern for the future


Joanna Szegda (Poland)

-relation to popular culture, especially for youth, versus the old way of governing people


Sophie Cloutier (Canada)

- using more examples

- modeling authenticity

- a listening Church

Chantal Beauvais (Canada)

- avoid "one size fits all"

--multiple modalities according to different needs

- participation as co-creation, rather than doing something envisaged by or for all

- mission and envisaging the future as permanent states: travelling light, choosing priorities and accepting risks


Holger Zaborowski (Germany)

- polarization as tension in the Church over the nucleus of the Christian meaning

- signs of the times

- challenge of the past

- education of priests in medieval terms as a class distinct from lay people

- the need to treat such concrete issues as social justice and ecology rather than speaking in too general terms

- kenosis and fulfillment

- fidelity: the experience of a lack of God, versus that of fullness and happiness


Peter Jonkers (Netherlands)

- authenticity in the presentation of doctrine as a condition for being a leader, rather than the older disjunction of people and theologians


Pavel Hosek (Czech)

- not only authenticity, but the message is also important

- not mission as trying to sell something or public relation (which gives people the feeling of being instrumentalized by a hidden agenda), but dialogue that truly shares the doubts of others

- not only good communication, but the Good News


Tomas Halik (Czech)

- how to serve people outside of the Church: pastoral care and mission for all

- not so much to convert as to help people to develop the spiritual ground of their life, beyond just social work

- theological sources should lead to care for people outside of Church context

- how to avoid religious fundamentalism and extremism: what are its roots


Wilhelm Danca (Romania)

- develop relations to mass media

- levels of faith as both event and value

- a pragmatic ontology


Joao Vila-Cha (Italy/Portugal)

- if not tied to reality, discourse can lead to overstressing the person

- incompleteness in Christian discourse: in analyzing the experience of faith the goal must be not to close issues, but to continue reflection


George F. McLean (US)

- participation as both pointing to transcendence and manifesting it creatively in all aspects of physical nature and human life



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