Fair notice: this post contains an extended reference to my just-published book, The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age (Berlin and Boston, De Gruyter, 2014). Of course I have a material interest in every reader of my blog purchasing at least ten copies of the book. I have consulted Atwater, Bianchi and Haywood-Papadopoulos, Handbook of Blogging Ethics: Since the main thesis of the book is relevant to many issues regularly discussed in the blog, it is ethical to draw attention to the book in the blog, commercial considerations notwithstanding. In any case, I quote my favorite Zulu proverb: “If I don’t beat my drum, who will?” As I have quoted this wise saying before in these pages, I will add yet another piece of African wisdom: “If you are not going to plagiarize from yourself, who are you going to plagiarize from?”
The phrase “The New Evangelization” was first used by the Italian Catholic student group “Communion and Liberation”, founded in the 1960s and since grown into an officially approved international movement . The phrase was used by Pope John Paul II in 1983, in an important address to a meeting of Latin American bishops. The evangelization was to target “an entire group of the baptized who have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, or live a life far removed from Christ and his gospel”. The phrase was taken up forcefully by Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2010 established the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, with the purpose of seeking strategies for promoting the truth of Catholic Christianity in a situation characterized by “the presence of secularization”.
I think it is interesting to note the three very different contexts out of which the idea emerged: Highly secularized Western Europe, the Italy of Communione e Liberazione and the Bavaria that was the home of Pope Benedict, Poland under a regime of militant atheism, which Pope John Paul resisted and eventually helped demolish, and Latin America, the locale of John Paul’s address, a continent where the main challenge to the Catholic Church has not come from secularization but from the explosion of Evangelical Protestantism. Despite the big differences between the three cases, what they have in common is the loss of Catholic hegemony. Curiously, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in the United States have also mobilized against “secularism”, which, in the most religious Western country, is a numerically small sectarian movement seeking to use the federal courts to banish religion from the public sphere. And of course “secularism” is blamed by religious conservatives of all sorts for the post-1960s changes in sexual behavior of which they disapprove.
Also curiously, the Russian Orthodox Church has defined itself as the defender of traditional values against the alleged degeneracy of modern morals. Not only has the Moscow Patriarchate found an ally in this campaign in the Putin administration, but has sought better relations with the Vatican on the same basis. In 2009 Patriarch Kirill of Moscow established warm relations with Benedict XVI. The Russian Church has staunchly supported every move in Putin’s domestic and foreign policies. In the latter area there have been some problems. Moscow and Rome can agree when it comes to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, but they find themselves on opposing sides in the Ukrainian conflict.
There is an underlying assumption here, shared by religious conservatives and their progressive antagonists (they just differ on what to do about it), and indeed (still) widespread both in academic and popular assessments of the contemporary world: that modernity means a decline of religion and its concomitant morality. Without dissecting this concept any further, this is what is meant by the concept of secularization; for our purposes here we can mean by secularism the idea that secularization is not just a fact, but one to be applauded and promoted. But is it a basic fact of our age? It is certainly a fact; but is it the fact by which our age is to be defined? I think it is not. It is not equally dispersed globally–strongly so in Europe, not at all in Nepal, somewhere in between in Texas. However, what is much more universally dispersed is a fact mentioned by John Paul II in his address to the Latin American bishops: that “faith is no longer taken for granted”. Rather, faith must be based on an individual decision.
The Pope of course hoped that people would choose the Catholic Church, others chose Pentecostalism, or a relaxed agnosticism, or even a militant atheism. And this is why I think that it is not secularization but pluralism that is the clue to understanding the situation of religion in the contemporary world. What I, in collaboration with some colleagues, have been trying to develop is a theory of pluralism, to take the place of the secularization theory which used to be dominant when I started out as a sociologist of religion and which is now hard to maintain in the face of global religious turbulence.
Here are some key propositions of such a theory: eventually to provide a paradigm for religion in a pluralist age. (Of course I cannot develop the full argument here. If the idea tickles you, read my book. Some of it, I promise, is fun.)
Pluralism affects the faith of individuals, the character of religious institutions, and the way in which the state relates to religion. Therefore, the theory must span the psychological, institutional and political dimensions of the pluralist phenomenon. The individual lives with a diversity of worldviews and values, between which he must choose. Faith is no longer a matter of fate, but of decisions that may be reversed. It follows that religious certainty is hard to come by. Faith is typically tinged with doubt.
I would say that this situation realizes more fully what “faith” actually is. Preachers frequently counter-pose faith and unbelief, further suggesting that the latter is a terrible sin for which God will punish us in hell. Leave aside that this (Calvinist) God is not one I would want to worship. More relevant for the present argument is that the aforementioned counter-position is misleading: The opposite of faith is not unbelief but knowledge. I know that the skyline of the city I see from my desk is Boston and that this is where I am right now. I don’t need faith to make this affirmation. I do need faith if I affirm that there is the city of God, beyond all the skylines of this world, and that this city is the eternal destination intended by God for his creatures. Christians in particular should not deplore the fact that the pluralist situation points them back to the proposition of the New Testament: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
It follows that religious institutions, even if they don’t like this, become de facto voluntary associations. This creates anxiety, and a nostalgia for certainty. It also provides a market for fundamentalist movements (not all religious), who promise absolute certainty. An important factor in the pluralistic situation is the presence of a secular discourse, which necessarily dominates in a number of modern institutions (notably those based on science and technology, on the market economy, on bureaucracy). This is where secularization theory was not completely wrong; it just exaggerated the hegemony of the secular discourse.
There is another counter-position that it would be advisable to leave behind. Religion and secularity are often seen as opposites: One must be either religious or secular. This may be true of mystics who engage in perpetual prayer or militant atheists who look down on all religion as superstition. But for most people of faith it is a matter of both religion and secularity. Even the most pious individual who is a pilot must operate within a rigorously secular discourse, or his plane will crash. This need not stop him from understanding his responsibility for the safety of his passengers as a religious vocation, and it certainly does not stop his piety from taking over when he leaves the cockpit.
The state must provide the political framework in which pluralism can exist without lapsing into conflict; the state must also define its own relation to religion. Some degree of separation between religion and the state is probably inevitable under modern conditions, though there are different political formulas for this. Looking at our situation in this way, one can speak of two pluralisms—between the different religions co-existing in the same society, and between the religions and the secular discourse.
Even a state that defines itself in strictly religious terms must leave space for the secular discourse if it wants to participate in the modern world. Saudi Arabia, while it makes sure that Islam governs every sector of society, cannot allow its pilots to fly airplanes according to sharia or its hospitals to consult fatwas while surgery is being performed. Religious freedom and some degree of separation between the state and religious institutions may be deemed to be morally desirable, but may also be functional for political stability—not a minor fringe benefit.
This has been a little heavy lifting. I’m sure that readers of my blog are fully capable of it. But I think that I ought to conclude with a mildly relevant joke: –
Someone starts: ”A Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor, and a rabbi meet…” Interruption: “Look, I’m getting tired of jokes that begin with a priest, a pastor, and a rabbi meeting. Don’t you know any other jokes?” – After a pause: “Okay, here we go – a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor, and a Buddhist monk meet…”