Catholics — especially those engaged in apologetics, evangelization and catechesis — hear a lot about secularism. There is the challenge of secularism, the spread of secularism, and the dangers of…
Catholics — especially those engaged in apologetics, evangelization and catechesis — hear a lot about secularism.
There is the challenge of secularism, the spread of secularism, and the dangers of secularism. But what is secularism? If you had to sum up secularism in a single sentence, how would you define it? What are the essential features of secularism?
That’s asking quite a bit, especially when I won’t be able to fully answer those questions in a single column, let alone a sentence. In offering three brief observations about the nature of secularism, I will draw on the thought of three men: a Catholic philosopher, a Calvinist professor and a Russian Orthodox priest.
Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher whose 2007 book “A Secular Age” has been widely praised for its thought-provoking insights into secularism. Taylor is especially keen to challenge the “secularization theory” — the belief that as modernity and science spread, religious belief will decrease, eventually becoming either rare or extinct. This is a presuppositon of most so-called new atheists, who pit science against religion and reason against faith. This leads to secularism being understood as the absence of belief in God. Taylor, however, distinguishes between three sorts of “secular.” The first is the classical understanding, referring to the earthly, temporal order. The second is the widely accepted notion of the absence of religious belief and participation. The third is Taylor’s definition of secularism being “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” This is unique to the modern era of human history, for people are now able to embrace “a purely self-sufficient humanism” aimed as material flourishing, without consideration of a transcedent order and reality.
James K.A. Smith is a professor of philosphy at Calvin College whose book “How (Not) to Be Secular” (2014) is a sort of CliffsNotes version of Taylor’s book. Smith, like Taylor, points out that “secular fundamentalists” often act as if their confident appeals to science and reason have adequately explained every aspect of reality. This, Smith argues, is only so much “secularist spin” that is, in fact, “the denial of contestability and thus the refusal to recognize secularity.”
Put another way, such secularists have simply created a narrative based on their materialist, scientistic assumptions, but without actually offering either real proof or satisfying explanations for a whole host of things. Among those is the deep sense of unease and malaise people feel or sense because, Smith notes, “our age is haunted,” bringing to mind the stories of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. Percy, an agnostic as a youth, once wrote of his conversion to Catholicism: “This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and infinite delight.” Secular humanism simply does not satisfy hungry souls and searching hearts.
Father Alexander Schmemann was one of the greatest Eastern Orthodox thinkers of the past century. My favorite book of his is “For The Life of the World,” written just over 50 years ago, a profound study of worship and sacramentality. In the final chapter, “Worship In a Secular Age,” He states that he thinks most people have missed the essential core — or grave defect — of secularism. “Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship…. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being.” Father Schmemann points out that secularism is not the same as atheism; in fact, secularism does not try to eliminate God as much as completely change man’s relationship with God. Put very simply, God becomes a commodity for our use. Man was made to adore, but has chosen to be autonomous. And now man is haunted, trapped in his secularist cage.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com) and writes from Oregon.
In October 2015, a young man opened fire on faculty and students at Umpqua Community College, just an hour south of my home in western Oregon. After shooting and killing…
In October 2015, a young man opened fire on faculty and students at Umpqua Community College, just an hour south of my home in western Oregon.
After shooting and killing nine people and injuring several more, the assailant took his own life. How can or should we think about such acts of evil? I use the word “think” deliberately, because while the emotions of anger and anguish are natural and understandable, it is not easy to reflect on such horrific acts. Following the shootings, I had a discussion with some Catholics who expressed how difficult it was to talk to young people about what had happened in Roseburg, Ore. “They want to know why a good God would allow this to happen,” said one of them. “They are upset that God didn’t stop it from happening.” We can begin by acknowledging, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the difficulty of the question, “Why does evil exist?”, and agreeing that “no quick answer will suffice” (No. 309).
But we must also insist that the mystery of evil cannot ever be explained through merely mechanistic analysis or by invoking medicinal formulas. In fact, such supposedly “scientific” approaches provide little insight and even less hope. Even in the case of mental illness — a sometimes hazy and unsatisfying term — there is the reality of the Fall and the damage done to one’s heart, mind and soul. There is also the distorted, twisted paths man can choose, if he so desires.
Each of us has a natural desire to be known, acknowledged and loved. This, too, can lead down dark paths, warped into the desire to be feared, powerful and in control of life and death. The latter is key, for anyone who freely takes an innocent life is also spurning God, the author and giver of life. We must ask: “What is free will? Is it a good thing?” Having free will means that we, as rational and moral creatures, can make decisions and act upon them. We instinctively know this is a good thing. But why? Well, if we cannot think or act freely, we are not truly human; we would be lacking in an essential way. Even in a culture increasingly detached from a Christian anthropology people believe personal freedom is a great good. As Christians we believe, “Endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude” (Catechism, No. 1711).
Related questions follow: “What are good and evil? And how do we know?” Some atheists argue God cannot exist because God would not allow evil things to happen to good people. But why do they assume there are things such as “good” or “evil” when they believe the world and everything in it is the result of a mechanistic accident and humans are simply accidents, without a Creator or a transcendent end? Evil is the privation of a good. “A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together,” states the Catechism. “An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself” (No. 1755). “A thing essentially evil cannot exist,” argued St. Thomas Aquinas. “The foundation of evil is always a good subject.”
We recognize that evil results from man seeking a good through disordered, selfish and unjust means. We have a desire to be accepted, but hurting others because they haven’t accepted us is wrong. The statement by Aquinas might startle us, but only because we fail to comprehend that evil is the warping of the good.
If God forced us to do only good, would He be God? Would we truly be “good”? No, of course not. Since God is love — free and total gift of self — He does not coerce. We really are free to reject both Him and authentic love. Which means we are free to pursue goods in a way that is unjust and unloving. When man rejects God, man also rejects man. That is what we saw in the horrible actions in Roseburg.
The mystery of evil is daunting, but “there is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil” (Catechism, No. 309).
There are, sadly, some Catholics who do not believe in purgatory. Happily, the Catholic Church still teaches that purgatory is real. Why? Because the Catholic Church believes in the sanctifying…
There are, sadly, some Catholics who do not believe in purgatory. Happily, the Catholic Church still teaches that purgatory is real.
Why? Because the Catholic Church believes in the sanctifying work of Jesus Christ, the reality of God’s justice and mercy, and the fact that man has two options for eternity: heaven or hell.
But why do I say “happily”? Because purgatory, properly understood, is the mercy and grace of God at work, and so is a revelation of His love. Of course, the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of purgatory are many. It is sometimes presented as being on an equal plane with heaven or hell. However, purgatory is not a final destination, but rather a state of preparation for the destination of heaven. Some think purgatory is a second chance, as if upon death there is a sign before us, stating, “Left to Hell; Right to Heaven.” But after death, there is judgment (see Heb 9:27), which means our decision has already been made, on this side of the grave. Likewise, purgatory is not part of hell. Yes, there is suffering in purgatory, but it is the joyful suffering of those being completely cleansed of all impurity so they can enter the presence of God. This is radically different from the torment of hell.
Anyone who thinks purgatory is somehow separate from the work of God is mistaken. The very name, purgatory, comes from a Latin word purgatorium, referring to purification. This should raise basic questions: Who is being purified? By whom? For what reason?
The great Swiss theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar put it very well when he wrote: “God is the ‘last thing’ of the creature. Gained, he is paradise; lost, he is hell; examining, he is judgment; purifying, he is purgatory.” All, in the end, is about God. And that includes purgatory, which exists for a single goal: complete and full communion with God in heaven. This divine purification, then, must be seen within the big picture of what the Church teaches about the last things: death, judgment, hell, heaven.
Yet not all of the righteous are completely free of imperfections and lesser, or venial (Latin, venia, meaning “pardonable”), sins. Once the righteous die, they are bound for heaven. But if they are not yet completely holy, they have need of further sanctification and therefore head to what C.S. Lewis described as a divine “washroom.”
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (Nos. 1030-31, emphasis in original).
Although the word purgatory is not in the Bible, the idea certainly is (just as the word Trinity is not in Scripture, but is thoroughly scriptural).
Paul, in a passage about good works, wrote, “If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, the work of each will come to light; for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work” (1 Cor 3:12-13). In some cases, fire will burn up a man’s work and he “will suffer loss,” yet “the person will be saved, but only as through fire” (see 1 Cor 3:15). The mystics call this “the fire of love.”
God is “a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29); His divine love torments those who reject Him but perfects those who humbly accept Him. And that state of purification between death and heaven is purgatory.
“The Bible,” said Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), “is a stream wherein the elephant may swim and the lamb may wade.” As a young evangelical Protestant, I paid no…
“The Bible,” said Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), “is a stream wherein the elephant may swim and the lamb may wade.”
As a young evangelical Protestant, I paid no attention to Gregory the Great, but I would have viewed myself as an “elephant” when it came to the Bible. I had read the Bible and memorized verses from the age of three, taken correspondence Bible courses, attended regular Bible studies and earned a degree from a Bible college.
Truth to be told, I was a water skipper, barely touching the surface of sacred Scripture. Yet several verses puzzled me; some even bothered me. Here are five passages that stand out to me, 20 years after I began to seriously consider the claims of the Catholic Church.
• John 6: The entire, lengthy chapter is a brilliantly constructed theological tour de force. The final section (beginning with verse 51) contains a repeated claim, made by Jesus, that began gnawing at me (pun intended!) even while at Bible college: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (v. 53). Whatever could He mean? I consulted numerous Protestant commentaries, and they spoke of symbolic language and metaphors; some seemed more intent on what Jesus didn’t mean than on what He did mean! I was not satisfied, as those explanations made little sense of the obvious shock — and awe — intended. Then I discovered the early second-century Letter to the Smyrnaeans, written by St. Ignatius of Antioch, who denounced those heretics (the Docetists) who denied that “that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
• 1 Timothy 3:15: From an early age I had been taught that the Bible was the foundation of all truth, the final word from God on anything and everything of importance. The “Church,” I believed, was the entirety of all “true believers,” bound together by spiritual, invisible bonds. External bonds and signs of communion were fine, as far as they went — which usually wasn’t far at all. Catholics, it seemed, were always talking about “the Church,” while we were focused on Jesus and the Bible. Yet the apostle Paul, who preached Christ constantly, described the Church as “the household of God” and the “pillar and foundation of truth.” How had I missed that? In truth, I had read it many times, but without much thought at all for the deep implications of Paul’s words.
• Matthew 16:13-20: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (v. 18). Those words have been scrutinized, analyzed and parsed a million times. For me, they made more and more sense as I studied early Church history in detail. I found that not only was the authority of the Petrine office recognized and upheld very early, it was a truly catholic belief. Those who rejected it were usually those who also rejected core teachings about Jesus, salvation and the sacraments. Also, I saw how Jesus’ words fit into his identity as the Son of David, the Messiah-King whose kingdom would include offices and positions of authority, in part because the Church was both an invisible and visible Body.
• 2 Peter 1:3-4: As an evangelical, I usually thought of salvation as an escape from sin and death. The part I missed was the call to “become partakers of the divine nature” (v. 4, RSV). The apostle John wrote: “Beloved, we are God’s children now” (see 1 Jn 3:1-3). In short, the Catholic Church teaches that we can be filled with God’s actual, Trinitarian life. “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life” (CCC, no. 1997; see also Nos. 460, 1996).
• The fifth verse is the one that doesn’t exist, the never-written Bible verse that lists the 46 Old Testament books and the 27 New Testament books. As Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa likes to say, “The Bible did not come with a Table of Contents.” It is true: “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tm 3:16). But what scripture? Who decides what is in and what is out? Through the study of history, I learned the truth of Blessed John Henry Newman’s famous statement: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com) and writes from Eugene, Ore.
Imagine someone knocks on your door and proceeds to say: “You need to rearrange your furniture. And paint this house a new color. Oh, and renovate the master bedroom.” What…
Imagine someone knocks on your door and proceeds to say: “You need to rearrange your furniture. And paint this house a new color. Oh, and renovate the master bedroom.”
What little detail would he be overlooking? That he isn’t an interior decorator and has poor taste in colors? No, of course not — he’s ignoring the fact he doesn’t own the house!
Years ago, shortly after my wife and I entered the Catholic Church, there was a knock on our door. It was two Jehovah’s Witnesses, a husband and wife, eager to tell me about the Watchtower Society. The wife was especially anxious to explain how belief in the Trinity was unbiblical, a creation of the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea. Soon she was referencing this and that passage of Scripture, suggesting we examine “the original Greek” together.
She wanted, as it were, to rearrange furniture and argue over paint colors. As a former fundamentalist who had, by God’s grace, journeyed into the Catholic Church, I was tempted to jump into an argument about verse, passage and book. But I took a different approach, asking, “Why are you using a Catholic book to attack the Catholic Church?” In other words, I wanted to talk about ownership!
That surprised them. What did I mean? In short, I explained the following: They accepted, apparently without pause, the divine authority of the New Testament. Why? By what reasoning or evidence did they ascribe authority to those 27 books? I noted that although they denounced the Council of Nicaea for supposedly “creating” the Trinity through papist hook and Catholic crook, they somehow missed how the same papacy, bishops and Church later recognized and defined the New Testament canon. How could they — members of an organization founded in the 1880s — condemn with such confidence the authoritative pronouncements of the ancient Church while referring to a collection of books that was defined, compiled and defended by the same Church?
Their response was both defensive and desperate. “We trace our roots back through men like John Hus and John Wycliffe!” I noted that however much those two men deviated from Catholic teaching, neither one ever denounced the Church’s belief in the Trinity. My guests departed shortly thereafter.
A few years later, there was another knock on my door. This time it was three Mormon missionaries. After the usual pleasantries, I said: “There is just one question I’m hoping you can answer. When was the ‘great apostasy,’ and how did it come about?”
“Well,” said the apparent leader, “surely you agree there has been spiritual darkness in the world since the time of Adam —”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Sure. And?”
“— and that man has constantly fallen away from God and has sinned and —”
“Yes, of course. But when was the ‘great apostasy’? In the 300s? The medieval era? Some other time?”
He took a stab at an answer: “It happened right after Jesus’ death.”
But how is it, I asked, that Jesus, having promised Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, and having sent the disciples out to make disciples of all nations, would let everyone fall into apostasy? After all, there is plenty of historical evidence of early Christians martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ.
“Who?” one asked. “Give an example.” I told him about Ignatius of Antioch, martyred around A.D. 110, who was likely a disciple of the apostle John. To which he replied, with obvious impatience: “Well, clearly you aren’t going to change your mind. You’re set in what you believe.” He then added, defensively, “I know by the testimony of the Holy Spirit that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.”
Since then, I’ve had similar discussions with Mormon missionaries. Each time, they express a solid belief in the fact of a “great apostasy,” yet are unable to provide much in the way of details. Each time, they are consternated by my lack of faith in their lack of knowledge. One urged me, “If you read this booklet” — titled “The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” — “and pray to know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, you’ll recognize the truth.”
Sorry. Just because you knock on my door doesn’t mean you own the house; so step away from the furniture.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com) and writes from Eugene, Ore.
A couple of years ago I was part of a small group talking to an archbishop about evangelization. The archbishop, a very intelligent shepherd, remarked on the challenges facing Catholics…
A couple of years ago I was part of a small group talking to an archbishop about evangelization.
The archbishop, a very intelligent shepherd, remarked on the challenges facing Catholics in a seculiarized, postmodern world. “How are we,” he pondered, “to reach people who do not share a common culture or a common language?” Americans once could assume a common understanding, at least generally, regarding the objective nature of truth and goodness, the reality of a transcendent order, the existence of God, and even the divinity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. No longer. The public square is now shorn and stripped of such common understanding and language. Most Americans are biblically illiterate, and precious few know or care about theology, philosophy and the permanent things. What is the best way to explain and defend the Faith? This is a question that every Christian should ponder and seek to answer.
Years before becoming Catholic, I was introduced to apologetics through the writings of Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, Ronald Nash, James Sire and similar evangelical or Anglican thinkers. Now, having been a Catholic for nearly 20 years, I continue to read the works of certain evangelical thinkers. One such writer and scholar is Os Guinness, a prolific author who was educated at Oxford and now lives in the United States where he attends an Anglican parish. His first book, “The Dust of Death” (1973), was an outstanding analysis of the counterculture of the 1960s; it dug deeply into the philosophical foundations of belief systems ranging from atheism to existentialism to pantheism.
His new book, “Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion” (InterVarsity), is an exceptional reflection on apologetics and evanelization. “We are all apologists now,” writes Guinness. But, he notes, most “apologetics” today are secular in nature, often taking the form of online discussions and debates and facilitated through relentless social media. On one hand, Christians have an opportunity to witness in ways never dreamed of before; on the other hand, “there are oddities in the age of communication that make it actually harder to communicate well today.” We must, Guinness insists, regain the art of Christian persuasion. An essential problem is that most Christians assume “that people are open to what we have to say, or at least are interested.… Yet most people quite simply are not open, not interested and not needy.” In fact, many people are increasingly hostile toward Christianity and the Church.
What to do? First, Christians must work to employ “prophetic persuasion,” which is marked by both creativity and fidelity to the Gospel. It is informed by examples in Scripture and in the history of the Church. The prophets were remarkable for getting people to see and hear what they didn’t want to see or hear. To accomplish this, they directly raised the questions and issues that made people uncomfortable. However, doing so did not ensure success, at least not in terms that we might accept or understand. Second, we must be “more decisively Christian in our communication.” This is not relying on rote formulas but is “a communication of the gospel that is shaped by our understanding of God’s communication in Christ, just as God’s communication in Christ is shaped by God’s understanding of the condition of our hearts.” Guinness posits that our witness must be shaped by the great truths of salvation history: “creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross, and the Spirit of God.” In doing so, we recognize the place of reason but also acknowledge “the primacy of the human heart.” This, in fact, is a deeply biblical approach to witness. Finally, Guinness argues that all good thinking involves three questions: “What is being said? Is it true? What of it?” Unfortunately, most people are preoccupied with the third question and ignore the other two. A major reason for this is how technology has shaped our perception of how things work and should be understood. Technique rules. Yet Christian persuasion and witness is not a matter of technique; it is an art rooted in a biblical worldview and aimed at revealing Jesus Christ.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Oregon.
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