The Gospel in a Secular World, Part 7
by Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
In this final reflection on secularity, I focus on what a very different world we believers now live in, and how carefully we have to be in speaking to this “new” world. Because our world assumes less and less the things that believers assume (e.g., God, spirit, purpose, transcendence, revelation), we cannot presume that much of what we are saying will even be heard.
What, then, can we do? The first step, I think, is to face squarely the reality in front of us, rather than running away from it or pretending it isn’t there. Next, we need to see how much of secularity’s values (rights, affirmation of the everyday, autonomy of nature, secular state, just to mention a few) arose from the long involvement of Western civilization with Christianity—and Catholicism in particular. The story is not that secularity’s scientific knowledge has finally gotten to strip away the illusions of religion; rather, secularity has emerged from threads of wisdom that long ago developed as values in believing communities.
Another step is to avoid bashing secularity in itself. Modernity is a fact, it is our missionary environment. Talking about things modern, like communications or science, as if they are problematic serves little or no purpose. Simply dismissing commercialism, individualism, relativism, atheism, or a host of other “isms,” will hardly earn us a hearing. When we only look like the shrew old lady wagging her finger in disgust at others, we fall into the stereotype that some secularists want us to act out.
More importantly, we need to ask, from within secularism’s viewpoint, how to respond to those issues of human existence which faith has uniquely addressed: human dignity, genuine human community, inherent and unbreakable patterns of sin, moral utilitarianism, true altruism and human self-sacrifice in love, wisdom (not just information), transcendence and life-beyond-death. These matters are not addressed by ignoring them, or by pretending they are irrelevant, as much modern parlance would have it. They touch on the meaning of every human life.
Lastly, we need to keep the dialogue open so that the latent transcendence in secularity can be developed, and the responsiveness to the world in its actuality continues to arise within Catholicism and Christianity. After all, we do believe in the Incarnation, and that means all human existence, even today’s secular world, can be touched and transformed by God.
Most people recognize that the word “world” in the Scriptures has ambivalence—the world can be the seductive force of evil. Nevertheless, as the ever-present reference to John 3:16 at sports events continues to attest, “Go so loved the world that he sent his own Son…” Believers, indeed, have to keep up that love.