Dangerous! Both religious exclusion and religious common cause
In my essay “Time to give the lie to a culture in denial?”, I suggested that we need to take seriously that Christianity is publicly revealed by God. Such seriousness is necessary to challenge one of the most deeply cherished and incontrovertibly false assumptions of our contemporary culture: That religions are all fundamentally the same, all without rational foundation, and therefore all inherently prejudicial to the common good.
One legitimate concern which fuels this assumption is the desire to avoid conflicts in civil society over a matter (religious belief) which ought not to be the province of civil government. This is understandable, and it is certainly not easy to balance the need to be “civil” with the importance of affirming the dramatically superior claim to truth which characterizes Catholicism. But the failure of modern culture to grapple honestly with this issue has seriously marginalized our society’s fundamental grasp of reality. That always happens when we fail to take differences in religious beliefs seriously.
When I say “civil”, I do not mean “courteous”, for courtesy should go without saying even when it does not. Rather, I am referring to the collaboration among diverse groups to promote the common good within a framework of decisions, regulations and laws which are genuine precepts of reason. All men and women of good will have a moral obligation to collaborate within the constraints imposed by the natural law, and it would be absurd to suggest that this collaboration can succeed without broader points of contact and understanding within a society, for such points of contact are necessary for the development of mutual trust.
But one of the problems with what we call “pluralist” societies, especially within cultures which regard everything as ultimately political, is a corresponding tendency to mute differences in religious belief, on the premise that questions of public policy are far more important than questions of religious truth. Unfortunately, this ordering of our conceptual priorities is exactly backwards. It actually contributes to a habit of mind which, sees ultimate meaning as a derivative of politics. Think of what we call “political correctness”.
A similar danger is found in most efforts at mutual religious understanding, including the ecumenism among Christian bodies which has been mandated by the Church since the mid-twentieth century. Certainly people of different backgrounds and beliefs should avoid ignorant judgments. They should make a genuine effort to understand each other, if only to discover where differences in substance are not as great as differences in style and emphasis, thus strengthening bonds of shared faith and morals.
After all, some religious truths are known by reason (such as the existence and singularity of God, and the existence of the human soul). And most religions ground their moral teachings (if any) at least to some extent in the natural law, which is how the human person comes to know right from wrong in the first place. Therefore, many religious traditions carry within them important truths which are formative of healthy persons. These truths provide some genuine spiritual ties as well as a basis for social and political collaboration.
But differences are vitally important as well, and the effort to forestall the debates and conflicts which arise from religious differences carries within it a powerful tendency toward nihilism, forming a culture which denies the significance of transcendent meaning of any kind, whether relating to daily morality or ultimate ends. Paradoxically, it is just this tendency that proves the inherent folly of refusing to take such differences seriously, not just in private life but in public life as well.
The Danger of Secularism
A proper conception of secularity understands that the natural roots of human law are not ultimately derived from particular religions or churches. A particular religious faith is not strictly required to know the natural law, which is why behavior contrary to the natural law can be morally prohibited and punished by government. But this sensible secularity is easily divorced from and even turned against the spiritual nature of the human person, without which we cannot grasp morality at all. When this happens, we slip into a hostility toward everything which shapes and nourishes our fundamentally spiritual and moral nature, eliminating the most important elements in sound social formation.
The separation of the civil from the ecclesiastical—the legitimate separation of Church and State—thus becomes a warrant for a disastrous divorce of religion from public life (and eventually from all of life). This divorce always means the exclusion of the moral and spiritual judgments of those who draw from spiritual traditions independent of the State. The inevitable result is a massive favoritism shown to those who claim to frame policy precisely for ends other than those which significant religions tend to propose. Liberty is defined as the ability to make decisions without that spiritual reflection on means and ends which it is the whole point of religion to promote.
By a process of unjustified reduction, then, influential people become godless (or the godless become influential) and then they use their power to exclude other visions of reality. Yet theirs is by definition the least informed vision, conceiving the human person as a bundle of conflicting desires which must be orchestrated, approved or denied by cultural elites. God is banished not only from human policy but from human thought (which presumably ought to precede policy). The spiritual is routinely denied, and the moral is eviscerated of its essential spiritual core—replaced by the ideological assertions of the privileged and the powerful.
The Danger of Indifferentism
As I suggested earlier, this widespread diminishment of religion does not arise only from considerations of civil order. Broader efforts to build spiritual bridges among members of different religious groups carry a similar danger, and, in an already secularized socio-political environment, this danger can only increase exponentially. When a high profile is given to inter-religious discussion or ecumenism, it tends to create a false impression, namely that what we have in common is fundamentally more important than how we differ. Yet even among the widely varying groups claiming the Christian name, this is seldom true.
For example, the shared belief of most Christian groups that Jesus is in some sense our Savior is not more important than differences which prevent many Christians from separating truth from falsehood while Catholics are able to know and teach the true Faith. Similarly, the shared belief of most religions that there is one God (which, indeed, can be known from reason) is not more important than the fact that most religions do not know the means God has provided for us to get to know Him personally and be united to Him. Or again, the shared belief of many different kinds of people that we ought to be open to spiritual impulses and to a kind of transcendent view of life is not more important than knowing the difference between God and whatever else is blowing in the wind.
In exactly the same way, it is not more important that we all recognize the respect due to our common humanity (a respect always unevenly applied in any case) than that we can give a clear account of the nature of the human person in relationship to his Creator. The proof of what I say is obvious the moment you follow this series of comparisons to its logical conclusion. For unless some altogether arbitrary line is drawn, the result of this myth that commonalities are more important than differences is exactly the same as the result of the myth of secularism. As we traverse down the chain of commonalities we can only be forced in the end to affirm that the most important thing…is nothing.
This is a danger that plagues all programmatic religious discussion, as soon as it is divorced from the imperative of bearing witness to the truth, of insisting on the differences that make something out of nothing, and of inviting conversion for the genuine good of the other. The opposite approach simply dovetails into that programmatic nihilism which characterizes our lost civilization—or our civilization of the lost.
This is, I think, enough to set the stage for a continuing discussion of what we might call “the Resurrection in our common life”. We live in a reductionist culture, not only in the larger social order but often within the Church herself, and so we are constantly pressed toward the classic reductio ad absurdum—a reduction of the human person to an absurdity without God. It is easy enough to see some of the caveats we must keep in mind, since they have been drummed into us relentlessly, but I hope we can also see that “civility” can no longer be allowed to exclude the dramatically superior grip on reality which comes to us through Catholicism.
Whatever might be said about this civility, it is clear that things are badly out of balance now, and that any correction is going to require a renewed insistence on the Gospel of Jesus Christ—including the essential part of the Gospel that is the Catholic Church. This is not only intrinsically good but a necessary service to others, regardless of how it is received. What else can renew our commitment to grasping reality and taking it seriously? What else can supply the grace to restore our awareness of what it means to be human? For it is on these things that human happiness depends, and without which human happiness cannot last.
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Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jun. 02, 2018 6:33 PM ET USA
Many of us have felt and even experienced the dual dangers you describe in your essay. Likewise, many of us "know them when we see them," but have not put our frustrations into so succinct an articulation. This is a valuable essay because it concisely calls into question the ultimate efficacy of ecumenism: is it to bring full unity among Christians, and eventually among all peoples? Or is it to play word games, to do "scholarship," or to go through the motions of "can't we all just get along"?