ecularization – a process of gradually excluding the areas of common and individual life from the influence of religion – is a very complicated issue. In the West - where the importance of the secular social order has been growing over the last centuries to the disadvantage of christianitas – it has provoked a great number of studies and various reactions. This paper cannot obviously deal with all the complexity of this phenomenon. Its purpose is limited: it aims to draft an overview of the most fundamental strategies of Christian reaction to secularization and it proposes their basic evaluation. But before we can get to that point, we first have to understand the complex origins of this process.
A complex story
If we look for a very general description of the main motif of secularisation, it might be sketched as the shift from a theocentric social order to an anthropocentric one. And the crucial historic moment for this shift – in the light of the history classes we all get at school – has to be connected with the 15th-16th century movement of the Renaissance. But, as we all know, such deep changes always have a much more complex structure. They start centuries before and are concluded centuries after. In order to help us keep in mind that we are speaking about some really polyphonic change, in its structure, one that depends on many factors which should be located on different levels of our social and intellectual life, let’s try to summarize its most obvious factors.
The above list is certainly not comprehensive. But I hope that it is rich enough to help us understand the complexity and variety of different factors that have provoked the process of secularization in the Western hemisphere. One cannot easily sum all these factors up, saying either that it was a kind of fate that had to happen, and that human influence has not been important in its development, or that secularization happened because of the bad will of those who wanted to reject God and cast out his influence from the social order.
How to react?
Christian strategies for dealing with the process of secularization could surely be presented with the help of a nuanced typology. But the main lines of different reactions seem always to have been three. Are they not the lines of our reactions to all the challenges we meet?
1) Back to the better past
The first kind of reaction is quite obvious and well-known. The past order was the right one – with God in the centre of our social order and the church on the highest hill in the village. We should try to keep it going, at least to the extent possible for us, with the help of traditional forms of life that we have inherited from our forebears. Modernity and post-modernity will pass as thunderstorms pass, but the Christian community – perhaps not as big and influential as in the past, but strengthened by adversity – will continue to pass the torch of tradition to future generations.
A good and genuinely noble example of such an approach may be found in the famous essay written by Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World. The end of World War II seemed to this outstanding Christian intellectual to be a very good moment for a bitter accounting with modern ideologies. He drafts a program of renewal which consists in reinvigorating Christianity from traditional, pre-modern sources.
2)Choose a better present
The second reaction aims to evaluate the process of secularization more positively. Christians should learn from modernity. Modernity should be considered as an important step in spiritual growth. There is no way back to the past, or to the way of articulating Christian mysteries as we had them in the past. We should risk a new form of Christian faith, strong in the conviction that God did not act only in the past and that He wants us to reformulate the way we live the faith today.
The most famous example of such an approach are the letters written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison in 1943-44. His idea of a non-confessional Christianity reconciled with the modern world provoked major discussion and a series of different attempts to develop a programme for such an approach in the Western hemisphere (F. Gogarten, J. B. Metz). It is perhaps worth mentioning that quite often the Hegelian scheme “thesis – antithesis – synthesis” came in handy in this context. After the thesis of traditional Christianity (Antiquity and the Middle Ages), we should pass through the antithesis of modernity with its atheism, in order to find the final desired synthesis. According to such lines, Hans Küng has attempted to develop his theological project.
3) Expect a better future
The third reaction is connected with a strong eschatological stress. We should recognize without bitterness or satisfaction that all our efforts to follow Christ on earth have, and will always have, very important limits. The theocentric civilisation created by Antiquity and Middle Ages was not absolutely perfect, while the Modern period has helped us understand that earlier periods cannot be interpreted “the Kingdom of God put on earth”... On the other hand, Modernity has brought with it not only necessary improvements and progress; it has also destroyed the openness of the social order to the Divine. Taking all that into account, we should be open to learn from different eras – different forms of the Christian faith in different times –with a firm conviction that the best possible way of living the Christian faith – the best form of Christianity – is still to come.
To be honest, I do not have an absolutely convincing example of such an approach. To some extent, the Laudato si by Pope Francis contains in itself many elements of such a theological proposal. Pope Francis – perhaps his non-European roots are important here – has the courage to lead us out of our European theological narrative with its overemphasis on the Reformation and the Enlightenment, helping us to understand that we cannot live our mission focused only on a complicated accounting with the past. We should also turn to the future, in the conviction that the Church is not only, nor first of all, about the history we have behind us, and so it should have the courage to consider itself the reality that is about to come, in a new, reinvigorated version, for the good of the whole of human society.
The right way to go?
Well, in each of them there is something important and true: we need a strong identity that may be developed only in continuity with the Christian past (I); we cannot really expect to bring the message of the Gospel to new generations without being in dialogue with the contemporary world (II); we will never succeed in our mission without a strong commitment to its transcendent goal – transcendent in terms of content and time. At the same time, each of these options taken on its own, without relationships to the others, may be a dangerous temptation. Christians will not be able to face the process of secularization just by returning to the past (I), nor only by adapting themselves to the expectations of modernity (II), nor by maintaining an escapist dream about the Church which is only in the future – on its way to come. An adequate and powerful ecclesial strategy in a world touched by secularization needs all these three elements working together and balancing each other. In our body, we need our legs to stand firmly on the ground (I), our heart to make us alive in the present (II), and our hands to handle our future (III). If we help each other to see our task in this way, it will be an important step in discovering how we may – only with mutual respect and learning from each other – experience that only together we are the real Body of Christ.
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* I am using in the first part of this paper my own arguments already published in Polish: “Jak chrześcijanin powinien zareagować na sekularyzację? Dwa typy reakcji niemieckich teologów”, in Przegląd Tomistyczny, v. XXI (2015), p. 469–489. The paper is available online: https://www.academia.edu/29258605. One can find more extensive bibliographical information there.