Teaching the Faith in a Postmodern World
What can I say about the reality of the Catholic Church today? The theme is enormous and so much more difficult for me, living as I do in Jerusalem, with little contact with the daily life of our church communities. I am inspired, however, by the words of a great Russian thinker and man of science, Pavel Florenskij, who died in 1937 as a martyr for his Christian faith: “Only through immediate experience is it possible to perceive and value the treasure of the church.” To perceive and value the treasures of the church, one must enter through the experience of faith.
It would be very easy to draw up notebooks of complaints, full of things that are not going very well in our church. But this would be to adopt an external and depressing vision, not to see with the eyes of faith, which are the eyes of love. Of course, we should not close our eyes to things that are not going well, but we need to understand the overall picture in which the problems to be resolved are situated.
A Unique Period in Church History
As I consider the present situation of the church with the eyes of faith, I see especially two things.
First, there has never been in the history of the church a period as fortunate as ours. Our church has its greatest geographical and cultural spread and yet finds itself substantially united in the faith, with the exception of Lefebvre’s traditionalists.
Second, in the history of theology there has never been so rich a period as the last era. Even in the fourth century, the era of the great Cappadocian fathers of the Eastern church and the great fathers of the Western church, like St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, there was not so great a theological flowering.
It is enough to recall the names of Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, of Yves Congar, Hugo and Karl Rahner, of Hans Urs von Balthasar and his master Erich Przywara, of Oscar Cullmann, Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth and of great American theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr—not to mention the liberation theologians (whatever judgment may be made in their regard now that they are being given new attention by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) and many others still alive, including the great theologians of the Eastern church of whom we know too little, like Pavel Florenskij and Sergei Bulgakov.
There can be very different and nuanced views of these theologians, but they certainly are an impressive group such as never existed in the church in times past.
All this has taken place in a world full of problems and challenges, such as the unjust distribution of goods and resources, poverty and hunger, and the problems of violence and maintaining peace. Another problem is the difficulty in fully understanding the limits of civil law in relation to moral law. These problems are very real, especially in certain countries, and they are often subject to a very lively dialectic of interpretation.
Indeed, sometimes it is possible to imagine that we are not all living in the same historical age. Some are still living in the time of the Council of Trent, others of the First Vatican Council. Certain people have digested the Second Vatican Council well or poorly; others are well advanced into the third millennium. We are not all true contemporaries, and this has always been a great burden for the church and requires plenty of patience and discernment.
Yet I would like to put these problems aside for now and consider our pedagogical and cultural situation and the problems associated with education and teaching.
A Postmodern Mentality
To seek a fruitful dialogue between the people of this world and the Gospel and to renew our pedagogy in the light of the example of Jesus, it is important to look closely at the so-called postmodern world, which forms a backdrop for many of these problems and which conditions the solutions.
A postmodern mentality could be defined in terms of oppositions: an atmosphere and a movement of thought that stands opposed to the world as we have known it until now. This mentality willingly distances itself from metaphysics, Aristotelianism, the Augustinian tradition and from Rome, considered as the center of the church, and from many other things.
This mindset keeps its distance from a former platonic Christian world, in which there was taken for granted the primacy of truth and values over feelings, of intelligence over the will, of the spirit over the flesh, of unity over pluralism, of asceticism over life, of the eternal over the temporal. In our world there is a spontaneous preference for feeling over the will, for impressions over intelligence, for an arbitrary logic and the search for pleasure over an ascetic and prohibitive morality. This is a world in which sensitivity, emotion and the present moment come first. Human existence, therefore, is a place where there is freedom without restraints, where a person exercises, or believes he can exercise, his personal empire and creativity.
At the same time this movement is also a revolt against an excessively rational mentality. From literature, painting, music and the new human sciences (in particular psychoanalysis), many people no longer believe they live in a world ruled by rational laws, in which Western civilization is a model for the world to imitate. It is accepted that all civilizations are equal, whereas previously we insisted on the so-called classical tradition. Nowadays there is a little of everything on the same plain, because there are no longer criteria by which to verify what is a true and authentic civilization.
There is opposition to rationality, which is seen as a source of violence, because people believe rationality can be imposed because it is true. There is acceptance of every form of dialogue and exchange because of a desire to be always open to another and to what is different, to be suspicious of oneself and to mistrust whatever wishes to affirm its identity through force. That is why Christianity is not easily accepted when it presents itself as true religion. I recall a young man who said to me recently: “Above all, don’t tell me that Christianity is true. That upsets me, that blocks me. It’s quite something else to say that Christianity is beautiful....” Beauty is preferable to truth.
In this atmosphere, technology is no longer a means at humanity’s service, but a milieu in which someone perceives the rules to interpret the world. There is no longer an essence of things, but only the use of things for a certain end determined by the will and desire of each person.
In this atmosphere, the refusal of sin and redemption is always present. It is said, “Everyone is equal, and each person is unique.” There is an absolute right to be singular and to affirm oneself. Every moral rule is out of date. There is no more sin, nor pardon, nor redemption, nor self-denial. Life can no longer be thought of as sacrifice or suffering.
A last characteristic of this movement is the refusal to accept anything that smacks of centralism or a desire to direct things from on high. There is an “anti-Roman complex” in this way of thinking. We have passed from a context in which the universal counted for more; what was written and general and timeless, what was durable and unchanging was preferred to what is particular, local and dated. Today, the preference is for a knowledge that is more contextual, local, pluralist, adaptable to different circumstances and different times.
I do not wish to say all of this is completely false. A great deal of discernment would be needed to distinguish the true from the false, what is said as an approximation from what is said with precision, that which is simply a tendency or a fashion from what is a solid declaration. What I am saying is that this mentality is everywhere, especially where there are young people, and it needs to be taken into account.
And I say something more. Perhaps this situation is better than the one that existed previously. Christianity has an opportunity to show better its character of challenge, of objectivity, of realism, of the exercise of true freedom, of a religion linked to the life of the body and not only of the mind. In a world such as we live in today, the mystery of an unavailable and always surprising God acquires greater beauty; faith understood as risk becomes more attractive; a tragic view of existence is strengthened with happy consequences in contrast to a purely evolutionary vision. Christianity appears more beautiful, closer to people, and yet more true. The mystery of the Trinity appears as the source of meaning for life and an aid to understanding the mystery of human existence.
‘Examine Everything With Discernment.’
To teach the faith in this world is nonetheless a challenge. To be prepared one must take to heart the following attitudes:
Do not be surprised by diversity. Do not be frightened by what is different or new, but look upon it as something in which is found a gift from God. Prove that you can listen to things quite different from what we usually think, but without immediately judging the speaker; try to understand what is being said and the basic arguments put forward. Young people are very sensitive about an attitude of nonjudgmental listening. This attitude gives them the courage to say what they really feel and to begin to distinguish what is really true from what only appears true. As St. Paul says, “Examine everything with discernment; keep what is good; keep your distance from every trace of evil” (1 Thes 5:21-22).
Take risks. Faith is the great risk of life. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but the one who loses his life for my sake will save it” (Mt 16:25). Everything has to be given up for Christ and his Gospel.
Befriend the poor. Put the poor at the center of your life because they are the friends of Jesus who made himself one of them.
Nourish yourself with the Gospel. As Jesus tells us in the discourse on the bread of life: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Jn 6:33).
Prayer, Humility and Silence
To help develop these attitudes, I propose four exercises:
1. Lectio divina. This is a recommendation of John Paul II: “It is especially necessary that the listening to the Word becomes an essential meeting, following the ancient and present-day tradition of lectio divina, enabling us to discover in the biblical text the living word that challenges us, directs us, which gives shape to our existence” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 39). “The Word of God nourishes life, prayer and the daily journey, it is the principle of unity of the community in a unity of thought, the inspiration for continuing renewal and for apostolic creativity” (Setting Out Again From Christ, 2002, No. 24).
2. Self-mastery. We need to learn anew that the frank opposition to desires is sometimes more joyful than endless concessions to everything that seems desirable but ends in boredom and satiety.
3. Silence. We need to move away from an unhealthy slavery to rumors and endless chattering, from characterless music that only makes noise, and find each day at least one half-hour of silence and a half-day each week to think about ourselves, to reflect and pray for a longer period. That may seem difficult to ask, but when you give an example of the interior peace and tranquility that result from the exercise, the young take courage and find it to be an unprecedented source of life and joy.
4. Humility. Do not think that it is up to us to solve the great problems of our times. Leave room for the Holy Spirit, who works better than we do and more deeply. Do not wish to stifle the Spirit in others: it is the Spirit who breathes. Rather, be sensitive to its most subtle manifestations, and for that you need silence.