Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The challenge of a post-modern world

One of the preoccupations of the Church at the moment in the US, Australia and elsewhere - not least in the light of the Pope's fresh approach to this challenge - is how to pitch its message to, how to evangelise, our rapidly changing world.

So it should be.

What is to be done?

The reality is that we live in a society where the decline in the number of practising Catholics shows no signs of bottoming out, and where even those who do go to Church regularly can't be counted on to accept or follow what the Church actually teaches.

And instead of converting the West, the proportion of Christians in our society continues to fall.

This is a situation the Church cannot just keep ignoring.

Unfortunately, most people talking about this issue seem stuck in some tired old grooves, and persist in refusing to learn the lessons of recent decades.

Accordingly, I plan to devote a few posts to this subject over the next little while, looking at the merits or otherwise of some of the ideas being put forward.  Because in my view, some of them are positively dangerous.  But you may have a different take on the subject...

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?!

Consider for example the current preoccupation with the apparent lack of a genuine inner spiritual life on the part of many Catholics, most often described these days as a lack of a 'personal relationship with Jesus'.

Shelley Waddell's book on this subject Creating Intentional Disciples is getting a lot of kudos on this subject at the moment, with its claims that only around 5% of practising Catholics are genuinely committed Catholics ('disciples') and that to fix this we essentially need to protestantise the Church, and focus less on liturgy and more on things like actually talking about our personal spiritual lives ('testimony') and the support structures in parishes.

Now I don't dispute that there are some useful insights in this book, and I might say more about this in a subsequent post.   In particular, she is effectively advocating rebuilding some of the Catholic culture and infrastructure that was deliberately destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s, and I do think we need to recover this.

But I think Ms Waddell has missed the crucial point, for I would argue that the reason many Catholics today lack any real sense of a personal God is not because we don't talk about it, but because the liturgy at the average parish Church does not create any sense of transcendence, does not convey a sense of the sacred.

In fact Ms Waddell puts a lot of emphasis on Eucharistic Adoration, perhaps because that is one remaining context in the Church where the sense of awe in the presence of God is still actively cultivated.

The solution though isn't just more Adoration - it is the resacralisation of the liturgy!

Here's the thing: if you are not ever exposed to a sense of the sacred, and if you are immersed in a culture that actively seeks to suppress the truth, how can you be expected to develop an understanding that there is someone out there you are supposed to be connecting to?

And how can you be expected to unconsciously absorb the proper Catholic means of making that connection if instead of being exposed to silence and prayer in the liturgy you are instead constantly bombarded with demands to 'actively participate' in distracting words and action?

There are major dangers too, I think, in some of the other ideas Ms Waddell proposes to address the problem.

I for one don't actually think, as a general principle, that we should go around talking about our inner spiritual lives (except to a trusted priest or spiritual director) for example.  There may be the odd occasion when it is appropriate, but it seems to me that there are huge dangers in this sort of thing (consider the case of the Medjugorje 'seers' and innumerable other charlatans we've seen in recent times).  We would be a lot better of, in my view, pointing Catholics to the lives of the saints for guidance.

Aggiornamento revisited

Even more troubling, in my view, are the advocates of another round of 'updating' of the Church to our times.

The first version of this paradigm is stuck in the 'great grace of Vatican II' paradigm.  The challenge, according to this school of thought, is adapting the Church to modernity, and the problem is that the Spirit's directions to the Church through Vatican II just haven't been heeded properly.

One version of this paradigm is the reform of the reform/neo-conservative one advocated by Pope Benedict XVI.   But the more liberal take on the Council has also been re-energized, courtesy of  by Pope Francis' creative comments and actions.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of Vatican II, though, the reality that I think all in this school need to grasp is that the world has moved on.  We are now living in an increasingly post-modern world, and prescriptions based on a culture of modernity just won't do the job.

Some have recognised this, and are now advocating a fresh round of updating to tailor the Church to this new culture.

Indeed, some argue that this is just what Pope Francis is seeking to do.

The argument goes like this I think.  Modernity exulted the mind, so the neo-conservative emphasis on dogma made sense in that context.  Post-modern culture, however, exults the body, so Pope Francis' emphasis on visible witness is better adapted to the emerging mindset around us.

Dialogue vs dialectics

Personally, I think we do indeed need to try and understand the cultural mindset that surrounds us.

The Church does, after all, always adjust its pitch to the world and the way it operates to the circumstances it finds itself in.

It is not obvious to me though, that those thinking about these issues have really grasped the reality that no amount of 'rebranding' will stop the world from hating the Church, and that we need to be careful to treasure, preserve and hand down the tradition within the Church, regardless of how we pitch to the outside world.

Above all, the thing we surely need to learn from the last fifty years is surely that the Church needs to engage dialectically with the world, not 'dialogue' with it to find common ground, because frankly, there is none.

The fundamental challenge is that post-modernity is not just a reaction to modernity, it is an over-reaction to it.  Where modernity exulted the mind and prized rationality and reason to the exclusion of any sense of the sacred and acceptance of the miraculous, post-modernity exults the body, reflected in its pornification of sexuality and emphasis on the priority of emotion.

What the Church has to offer is not some way of treasuring any of its facets, but rather a way of finding a proper place between two false extremes.

I want to say more about the implications of the culture of post-modernity, but I'll save that for another post!


PM said...

A very thought-provoking piece, with which I mostly agree.

I'm not sure, though, about saying postmodernism exalts the body over the mind. The approach to sexual ethics - and to social obligations - that has become fashionable is, whatever its proponents like to pretend, deeply cartesian. It treats the body as if it were a set of clothes for the 'real' me, which can be modified at will (cf. the array of'genders' propounded by the Human Rights Commission).
And it makes the interior soliloquising 'self' the sole arbiter of meaning and values.

PC postmodernists convict the Church of the primal sin of 'essentialism' because she takes our bodiliness and our biology as normative, not as plasticine to be reshaped at will.

Waht we need to recover, I suggest, is St Thomas's understanding of human nature as a psycho-physical unity - the soul as the substantial form of the body - and with it the understanding of a given human nature that is fulfilled in accordance with its natural - and supernatural - teleology.

One obvious consequence of this is to fix the liturgy, making it less wordy and re-engaging all the senses as well as mind and spirit.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew West Wyalong NSW said...

"Above all, the thing we surely need to learn from the last fifty years is surely that the Church needs to engage dialectically with the world, not 'dialogue' with it to find common ground, because frankly, there is none."
Your statement Kate needs to become our anthem in this quest to present the Church as the way to Christ. And I for one cannot see anything but this in the words and actions of Pope Francis. His recent assurances concerning Summorum Pontificum are proof of that.

Kate Edwards said...

PM - I do think there are actually two competing streams at play at the moment.

One school of thought seems to say that biology does matter (albeit not in a Thomist kind of way!), but homosexuality/transexuality/etc is inherent in some people and should therefore be validated - the God made me like this therefore it must be good kind of line.

It seems to me to start from the Kinsey stuff about permeable sexuality being inherent, but goes well beyond that in its realisation.

Assorted bizarre (and cruel) experiments in bringing up children as gender neutral so that their 'real' sexuality to manifest itself, allowing gender changes in very young children, etc seem to me part of this thinking.

The other is the 'body as mere transport' and we can change its appearance/manifestations (I can be gay for you because I like you etc) being the other.

Personally I see the first school as post-modernist, because although it starts from biology it still seems to treat gender etc as a cultural construction imposed for social control purposes ('discipline') and is grounded in the sexual revolution thinking of the 60s.

The second seems more the logical extension of the the mad scientist (because we can do something we should) modernist paradigm.

But perhaps that is the wrong way around. Or perhaps both have become so far removed from their original manifestations as to warrant being called as post-modern?

I don't know if you've seen the BBC Sherlock, but it seems to me a very good encapsulation of the tension between the two streams, with Sherlock representing the ??modernist scientist hero 'body as mere transport' exulting the rationalist mind (as he was in the original stories), and John Watson being transformed into the post-modern hero (endless stream of girlfriends, porn on his computer, but he is not gay though of course its ok if you are...).

Kate Edwards said...

PS A useful tweet just found (not sure if its in response to this post or not, but I think correct):

Richard James Umbers ‏@Richard_Umbers 2m
Though the sex/gender split is couched in body/mind Cartesian terms, the transgender category has reintroduced the body. Bye, bye Descartes.

PM said...

Apropos your exchange with Joshua on politics, I'm reminded of Chesterton's prophetic remarks onthe madness in matters of sexuality which he rightly saw would envelp the twentieth century - and would come not from Moscow but from Manhattan.

Gary Adrian said...

Excellent points in the article (blog post). I agree completely. I had a post-modernist view on the world in the past, then I converted to Catholicism. I actually grew up in a nominally Catholic household but left the faith at 18.

My mindset was changing even before I came back to the Church but the Church has forced me to change it even further. There is no real common ground between the current culture and Catholicism, just as in Jesus day there was no common ground between Christianity and the Roman empire, yet Christianity won out.

The Church doesn't need to update the product to meet the world, it needs better advertising you might say.