A Field Guide for Young Catholics
This is the first post in a 4-part series by Fr. Hagan.
Young Christians today know well that the background culture of the society in which their grandparents were raised offered basic support to religious commitment. There was a broad social consent given to the Christian decision back then, such that being a Christian was something like a “default” option for most people and thus for most it didn’t feel like a decision at all. This would have been especially true of Catholics and mainline Protestants, who had long understood themselves to be Christians by family tradition, having been baptized as infants, raised in Christian practice, and initiated into an adult society which presupposed that whatever one’s particular Christian outlook, one’s outlook was particularly Christian. There was something pervasive and recognizable as an American “civic religion” which also allowed observant Jews to feel at home in a cultural background that included the Jewish Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”) as canonical for faith and public piety, ethical behavior, and moral reflection.
Times have changed. Younger Christians today realize that a life of faith must be an intentional commitment defined at least in a certain sense against present societal consensus if it is to be at all. Family traditions are felt to be a weak influence which can hardly stand against the social background, dominated as it is by the all-powerful media which broadcasts secularist propaganda day and night. As young Christians step into adulthood today they see their peers opting out of religious practice as casually and unceremoniously as one tosses away an old pair of jeans or a dilapidated car. Christian youth are able to transition seamlessly into secular life as they leave home, identifying with alternative “communities” based in socio-political commitments and ideologies while otherwise looking to get ahead and rack up the good times. Whatever future this secular age dreams of, it agrees that Christianity need have no place in it.
As Christians, we can sense what is going on. It helps, however, to have a way to talk about our secular society that rises to some level of sophistication in its analysis. A good articulation helps prevent us from lapsing into the new tribalism and bigotries we are seeing rise up all around us. I offer this piece in order to help with that articulation, and so I’m going to try my best to take a diagnostic look at the “secular age” in which we live. If we can get a firmer grasp on this reality we will be able better to chart a course of faith through the stormy seas of the present culture.
I’m going to do this by distilling the outlooks of four contemporary Roman Catholic philosophers who have been for many years watching, chronicling, and analyzing our time so that they can help us do precisely the thing we want to do: be joyfully, authentically, and publicly Christian. Each of the four thinkers discussed here have something important to tell us about our present society, each of them representing a feature which, when taken together, will help us form up for ourselves a picture of the reality of “secularism” that makes up the background of our daily experience.
The features I present here each have two sides: the “problem” that represents a challenge or obstacle to be overcome, and an “opportunity” that lies hidden in the problem but which opens a way forward, a hope for overcoming and reconciliation.
PLURALISM and the FRAGILITY of BELIEF (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age)
Charles Taylor defines the word “secular” in an interesting and helpful way. Our society is “secular” not because Christianity is outlawed (it isn’t) and not even because it is often socially frowned upon, considered a “thing of the past”, misunderstood, ignored, or thought by many to be an evil (it is). Rather, our age is secular because belief and faith is just one option among many. Our society is ideologically pluralist. Christians now live with the awareness that there are alternative views of the world and human life that many reasonable, intelligent, educated and sophisticated people apparently find satisfying and hold with conviction. Thus it follows that among Christians there is fragility of belief. Christians know that for any truth claim they might make there is some rival claim that bears serious weight for many people. In such a climate Christians tend to hold their religious commitments with a significant degree of doubt: maybe the Christian view of the world isn’t the only valid one, or even the best or truest. This abiding doubt about one’s faith is paralyzing. Christians find it difficult to expand and deepen their religious commitments and to translate them into action, especially public action. In the meantime, the secular drum of society beats constantly in our ears, beckoning, demanding, that we check our faith at the door of the Town Hall and enter the value-neutral public space of “tolerance”. The secular song is an enchanting and powerful music difficult to resist and Christians become “secularized” almost by necessity. We are vulnerable to a practical loss of faith and thus to assimilation by the secular society. As a young Christian in our time the story of my coming of age is in all probability the story of “losing my religion.”
THE OPPORTUNITY: a new basis for evangelization
Taylor does want to remind us, however, that it isn’t only Christians who suffer this “fragility of belief.” Pretty much everyone else does too, even if secretly, for fear of the culture. To the one who wants to find it, evidence that our secular society remains haunted by God and by Christianity abounds. This God-haunted character of our society opens up an opportunity for those who have been able to pass through the fragility of faith and emerge with a firm commitment: believing and living authentically as a Christian gives me a point of contact with secularized people who themselves might very well wonder if Christianity isn’t going to turn out to be true in the end. Living with fragility of belief is something that, strangely, unifies our culture: believers doubt their faith, but unbelievers doubt their faithlessness. This makes a common basis for authentic meeting between believers and unbelievers, if we all can learn to enter the conversation honestly, without representing artificial certainties in ourselves which undermine this strange new basis for solidarity.
Christians are in principle well-positioned to initiate and mediate the conversation about belief for at least two reasons: firstly, we know that we are believers not because of our own talent for philosophical and moral excellence, but rather because God’s grace has reached down to us and converted our hearts, because God himself has come among us, as one of us, and opened our eyes to the truth by bringing us to a meeting with Truth-as-Person. If we can be converted, others can as well; secondly, because the practice of today’s young and committed Christians, while as always the result of grace, is increasingly animated by an intellectually competent intention, they have more to say than their grandparents did about their reasons for faith, reasons that make Christian practice joyfully sustainable for them amidst the hostile background culture. The well-formed, practicing Christian in our time can dispel by personal witness many of the erroneous, wrong-headed, and even bigoted assumptions that he encounters in conversation with those who think they already know what they are rejecting when they reject Christianity. More importantly, committed Christians will increasingly stand out among their secularized peers, whose uncritical skepticism about truth and value renders them intellectually impotent, indecisive, and simply confused. One who knows who he is and what he is about will be a magnet for those lost in the ideologies and pluralism of our time.
Fr. Byron S. Hagan is the Parochial Vicar of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Northeast Minneapolis and one of the chaplains for Vespers at Lourdes.