The Age of Skepticism: The challenge of relevance in a quickly changing culture

Ever since I first visited St. Peter’s Square as an undergraduate, I have been struck by the architectural image of the two open “arms” reaching from the basilica, welcoming the pilgrim people of the entire world into the church. Yet if we pay attention to the data and to anecdotal evidence, for every one person walking into that embrace there are roughly four walking out the back door.

With this cultural background in mind, Pope Benedict XVI called the Synod of Bishops together to discuss the topic, “the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith.” In addition, he has announced a “Year of Faith.” The October gathering was attended by the bishops of the synod, who were joined by 45 experts and 49 observers, including 10 female experts and 19 female observers, the largest contingent of female ever invited to such an event.


Much of the diagnosis provided by the bishops regarding the challenge to faith and to the church in the late modern world is accurate. There is widespread skepticism about the possibility of knowing the truth in our world today. The sociologist James Davison Hunter calls this phenomena “dissolution”—an intellectual and linguistic breakdown of the trust that words accurately convey meaning or express anything as objectively true. This dissolution manifests itself in both intellectual and popular culture. I see it every day in my students, even if they cannot articulate what it is that makes it so difficult for them to take their required theology classes seriously as an academic pursuit.

Ever since I read Ralph McInerny’s biography of Jacques Maritain, I have been struck by the example of Jacques and his wife, Raïssa Maritain, who, struggling with questions of the possibility of knowing the truth, made a pledge that if they discovered that they could not access truth, they would commit suicide. This was a dramatic response to cultural dissolution, to be sure, but also a poignant example of the need for some sense of truth to make life meaningful, rich and worth living. Many in our culture today would not take the Maritains’ pledge so seriously; but perhaps it is true, as Henry David Thoreau put it, that most people are living lives of quiet desperation. It may not manifest itself in a pact to commit suicide, but many people today are living without a sense of meaning or purpose. I cannot help but think of Jesus’ words: “When he saw the crowds, he was moved with pity for them, because they sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Given the challenges that face us, how are we to proceed with the engagement with culture to which the Gospel and common sense call us as people of faith?

A Modern Disease

Perhaps no one has diagnosed this modern struggle better than the German philosopher and Thomist, Josef Pieper. Writing in the wake of World War II and drawing on a term with ancient resonances in the monastic tradition, he called this spiritual disease the modern manifestation of acedia. For Pieper, acedia is a “deep-seated lack of calm,” rooted in a person’s refusal “to give the consent of his will to his own being,” especially as that being is made in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:26). The human person can only find its true rest in contemplation of and relationship with the divine beauty and goodness. Although acedia can manifest itself as a depressive state (hence it is sometimes inaccurately translated as “sloth” or “laziness”), more frequently in today’s world it manifests itself in excessive busyness—the pursuit of activity, success, achievement, possessiveness—anything to justify my existence in the face of apparent meaninglessness and to keep me distracted from the creeping sense of despair that underlies day to day existence.

The church is the steward of a vast array of spiritual resources—not least among them the liturgy, the word of God and the Eucharist—that speak directly to the suffering and acedia of the human person in the late modern world. The attempt to convey these resources authentically, peacefully and with great love and compassion is literally a matter of life and death for many and is the central task of the new evangelization. So I offer here a few thoughts and suggestions on the new evangelization from my perspective as a moral theologian working in the American context.

Disengage from the “culture wars.” In Jesus’ time no less than now, people are ultimately persuaded to the truth of the Gospel by the visceral appeal and the raw beauty of the truth that Christ embodies. Political bantering and villainizing those with whom we disagree only fosters alienation, resentment and hatred in our culture. Worse, it divides the members of the body of Christ against each other. I am not sure, but I suspect the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:29, Mt 12:30) has something to do with fostering this kind of division. In addition, I am not so sure any more that it is our responsibility to “Christianize” modern culture. The Gospel of John tells us: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over” (18:36). The culture wars are a violent fight (even if only verbally), so why are “my followers” taking up arms? (Let me be clear that this does not mean we turn away from public or cultural engagement or the struggle for justice, but that we make sure we are doing this in ways that align with the Gospel).

Do not compete with pop culture. The old saying is true: “The medium is the message.” For all the benefits of modern technology, its predominant forms of communication foster superficiality and mediocrity at their worst, and even at their best are incapable of fostering the kind of deep contemplation that can address the acedia of the age. People today, especially young people, can sniff out insincerity from a mile away, and modern media cannot fully capture or convey the most authentic and beautiful expressions of the Catholic tradition.

Bring forth out of our treasure what is old and what is new (Mt 13:52). The church historian Jaroslav Pelikan reportedly remarked that it takes approximately 100 years for each ecumenical council to implement the fullness of its vision and genius. If that is true, we are only half way to realizing the fullness of the Second Vatican Council, a process that is still working itself out (see “A Time to Harvest,” by Ladislas Orsy, S.J., Am., 10/8/12). The council’s genius was expressed in the French term ressourcement. The ideal was to go back to the sources, to Scripture and the vast wisdom of the early and medieval church, in order to speak the truth of Christ’s love to the modern world. The Catholic tradition is beautiful in its expression of the truth that it conveys, and we can witness to the beauty of that tradition in as many ways as there are Catholics in the world.

Uphold the truth. The defense of the faith will not appear the same today as in past centuries. It certainly will not look like the kind of reactionism against the modern age that characterized the neoscholasticism of the 19th century. If the presentation of the truth is to appeal to the modern person, it will most likely need to be hermeneutical. That is, the truth of the Gospel should be presented as containing essential and timeless truths about the triune nature of God, about the human person and about creation in a way that is interpreted and lived in as many ways as there are Christians (living, dead and yet to come). Please note: This is not relativism. The rule of faith and the Nicene-Constantinople Creed remain normative, yet within these boundaries of orthodoxy there are an infinite number of ways to live out the Gospel joyfully with faith and authenticity.

Model servant leadership. This applies to every Christian, not just the bishops (although they have a distinctive responsibility in this regard). Christianity can only be respected as a way of truth if public leaders exercise responsibility and power in ways that model Christ’s servant leadership (the washing of the feet, for example, in John 13). Late modern believers and unbelievers are skeptical toward those who exercise any form of authority, and the only way they will trust the church enough to listen to its message is if they see Christian leaders living noble, even if quiet and unassuming, lives. This applies to everyone, as expressed in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” as the priesthood of all believers, and it is an essential element of the “universal call to holiness.” Christians can exercise authentic leadership in a wide array of public forums—business, media, education, literature, art, academia, politics and government, as well as official positions within the hierarchical church. This kind of servant leadership requires attention to the contours of one’s individual life, to the roles one inhabits and to the institutions to which one belongs and exercises influence. By mindfully embracing each Christian’s particular roles and manifestations of the call to holiness, we can embody the Gospel in creative and life-giving ways in all aspects of culture.

Mohandas Gandhi referred to his life’s mission and work on behalf of justice as “experiments in truth.” The modern age, with its hermeneutical approach to truth, recognizes that truth can be discovered only through lived experience, and this often involves wrong turns and ventures down dead-end alleys. But if we believe the Holy Spirit is still guiding the church, then, as the singer Emmylou Harris put it, we just might “stumble into grace.” We should have no illusion that everyone in our culture will turn toward the Gospel and the church, but there is a universal hunger for truth and the church has a distinctive role to play in proposing Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6) to the hearts and minds of the human community. Despite the fears and uncertainties about the future of the church and late modern culture, the open “arms” of St. Peter’s Square continue to challenge us to remain open and hopeful.

Read a selection of articles on the new evangelization.

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Leonard Villa
7 years 1 month ago
"...yet within these boundaries of orthodoxy there are an infinite number of ways to live out the Gospel joyfully with faith and authenticity." Easier said than done epecially when the culture denies there are any boundaries and embraces a subjectivist /gnostic calculus where all is fluid in the higher consciousness. In that intellectual/moral "goo" there ARE no boundaries except the ever-changing visions of the annointed. eg. gay marriage today structured as same sex couples , who knows what arrangements tomorrow? Infinite number of ways? Really?
Bruce Snowden
7 years 1 month ago
It couldn’t have been said better than how Thomas J. Bushlack said it in, “The Age Of Skepticism,” with focus on causes and remedies. May I add my two cents by suggesting that skepticism is the handicapped offspring of human restlessness. Augustine is the best example of one who overcame skepticism and discovered holiness on the way, synthesized in two of his best known remarks, “Too late have I know Thee, too late have I loved Thee,” and “The heart is restless until it rests in Thee!” I am, of course, a person of Faith, but a “restless Believer” with most of the world I guess, and as a result also inclined to skepticism about almost everything, in line more or less with the honest admission of that Gospel person who said to Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” Fortunately being an admirer of St. Augustine, I understand that the heart is indeed restless until it rests in God, so I continually reach out in all the destabilizing experiences of life, to that Divine Stabilizer who said, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will refresh you.” He does! But why is it that skepticism and restlessness are so rampant especially in our day? Because our culture has fragmented Truth scattering it to the wind, content in our discontent to live in lies! Today we tend to call bad things good and good things bad, even in youth-fashions where torn, faded and frazzled clothing is called “stylish” a condition which at one time would have assigned that garment to "dusting cloth" service! Yes, we moderns (many) are confused about the rightness and wrongness of much, calling forth I’d say, Pilates response to Jesus at trial, “What is Truth?” In restless skepticism Pilate tried to destroy it and seemingly came pretty close to doing so.Happily Truth prevailed and prevails when restlessness and skepticism fizzles into dust verifying as did Augustine, that, “The heart is restless (skeptical) until it rests in Thee.” How true! At least so it seems to me.
Paula Ruddy
7 years 1 month ago
Thanks for this post, Thomas Bushlack. I agree with all you say about the Church having the resources to satisfy the human heart. But there is a problem. I think it has something to do with the failure to distinguish between faith and intellectual assent to propositional truth claims. I’m wondering if this explanatory ambiguity doesn’t show up in your “Uphold the truth” section. Perhaps some of the skepticism in our culture can be characterized as a disease, acedia, a refusal of faith, but there is another possibility for its characterization. It can also be a healthy modesty in making claims of knowing absolute truth. Don’t you think that postmodern people are put off by the Roman Catholic Church’s officialdom making absolute truth claims? Faith is another matter altogether, an experiential knowing not dependent on propositional truth claims. People who have faith are absolutely certain of their experience of connection with God, but they can at the same time, know that the human mind is not capable of comprehending God or Truth. That does not mean we cannot express our faith in propositions or have not come to many truths as a human community over the millennia. It does not mean that we can give up the intellectual effort to make sense of everything in dialogue with all other seekers of knowledge. It does mean we have to accept the possibility of better interpretations than the ones that currently make sense to us. It means we have to take other perspectives seriously and apply reason and discernment in responsibly taking action on the basis of provisional truths. For people of faith to engage responsibly with communities of inquiry to come to provisional truths and to act on them with compassion is the best we can do. Is this what the Catholic Church teaches?


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