Quick Hits: secularism, liturgy, and belief
The influential Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor suggested that living in a secular age means not so much that people are less religious but that even for those who consider themselves religious, truth itself seems unstable, uncertain, up for grabs. James K. A. Smith, another philosopher who wants to make Taylor’s thought more widely accessible to the average reader, was recently interviewed on The Art of Manliness Podcast.
Smith discusses how the advent of the secular age, spurred by the Protestant Reformation, and the modern sense of the self makes it difficult for religion to penetrate our lives more than superficially. He diagnoses problems such as the “commodification of Jesus” and the turning of liturgy into a consumer product designed for a thin modern understanding of human nature: “Churches have bought into the idea that humans are brains on a stick with emotional bellies.”
Smith, who has also written a book on the influence of liturgies in our daily lives, emphasizes that we need to present ancient liturgy in the midst of a post-modern world rather than mundanizing it to fit the post-modern understanding of man. It is in fact the strangeness of liturgy, he says, that makes it continually relevant. He would probably agree that an essential requirement for liturgy to be true to itself is to recover the role of silence, and to that end, Catholic World Report has just published a beautiful and profound interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah on “‘The Strength of Silence’ and the Dictatorship of Noise”. This is not a partisan interview; though Sarah is an advocate of some specific reforms, he says:
I refuse to waste our time contrasting one liturgy with another, or the rite of Saint Pius V to that of Blessed Paul VI. It is a matter of entering into the great silence of the liturgy. ... Without a contemplative spirit, the liturgy will remain an occasion for hateful divisions and ideological clashes, for the public humiliation of the weak by those who claim to hold some authority, whereas it ought to be the place of our unity and our communion in the Lord.
My favorite of Cdl. Sarah’s insights is one which I believe applies as much to human relationships as to man’s relationship with God: “Silence teaches us a major rule of the spiritual life: familiarity does not foster intimacy; on the contrary, a proper distance is a condition for communion.”
If secularism makes all truth claims, especially religious ones, seem uncertain, it also leads people to believe that religious beliefs are independent of morality. The inability of secularists to understand religious belief, and their attempt to define it ever more narrowly, is rarely more apparent than in the huge blind spot of the West towards Islamic extremism. Yet Shadi Hamid, himself a Muslim, argues that for good or ill, “Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics.” Interviewed by Slate on the topic of Islamic exceptionalism, Hamid offers the refreshing viewpoint that “I don’t think religions can be anything we want them to be”:
I don’t think it’s helpful to maintain this fiction that ISIS has nothing to do with religion or nothing to do with Islam. It’s so obvious to any ordinary American who’s watching TV that religion plays some role. If we’re telling them, “Hey, actually religion has nothing to do with this,” people aren’t going to take us seriously because it’s obviously not true. … It should go without saying, and I always have to offer this disclaimer, that the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS. Polling is quite clear on this. That doesn’t mean that people in ISIS don’t believe what they’re doing is commanded by God. This idea that we’re always assuming people couldn’t possibly believe what they say they believe—I think that’s endemic in the way we talk about religion in the United States. It’s a problem that Obama has. Obama can’t take ISIS seriously. He refuses to take ISIS seriously as something beyond just a bunch of thugs and fanatics, as he said. We can’t take them seriously as an enemy if we just dismiss them as being a bunch of thugs. I’ll say, as an American Muslim: There’s no doubt it’s a perverted version of Islam. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe it.
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