Breaking Down the Wall of Indifference
Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi
President, Pontifical Council for Culture

Analysis of a Secularist Denial to Dig Deeper

The concept of secularization or laicism is one of the most characteristic labels used to describe modern society. However, it is necessary to recall the distinction that must be made between "secularity/laicitι and "secularism/ laicism".

The first pair of terms designates the proper autonomy of the political, economic and social sphere in relation to the religious and the sacred, complying with the Gospel admonition: "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Lk 20:25).

With "secularism/laicism" (parallel, if antithetical, to theocracy and integrist sacralism), there is a desire instead to eliminate every trace of faith that is "incarnate" in history and society and to prevent it from exerting any moral judgment on political or social action. This path leads to the elimination of every public sign of religion, with every theological reference in the cultural context uprooted. A subtle destabilization of the natural ethic in the name of the absolute autonomy of the person creeps in. Priority is given to the libertarian exasperation that gives every value free rein, emphasis is placed on the radical independence of science from any moral scruples, seen as extrinsic, and so forth.

This phenomenon is now undergoing a certain crisis, not only because of the current interventionism of religious fundamentalism on the world scene but also because of what Gilles Kepel in a paper of 1991 called La revanche de Dieu, that is, God's revenge and the return of the sacred. To it, we can associate a kindred theme: non-belief. It is on this last that we wish to focus here.

In the 19th century, the German poet Heinrich Heine paradoxically represented this phenomenon, inconceivable in other ancient epochs and civilizations: "On your knees! The bell is ringing, the sacraments are being brought to a God who is dying".

In an even more dramatic form, Friedrich Nietzsche — a contemporary philosopher and fellow countryman of Heine's — adapted the advance of God's death for the stage with the famous scene appearing in The Gay Science (1882). In it, a man cries out in the streets the brutal news: "God is dead! We have killed him and our hands are dripping with his blood", while the stench of his putrefaction pollutes our cities.

Yet we must recognize that this proud and disturbing atheism (think, for example, also of the writer Albert Camus), which had even pressed for a "theology of the death of God", is now almost extinct. But it has given way to a sort of aping, consisting of irreligious sarcastic grimaces — as demonstrated in various defamatory works such as those of Odifreddi, Onfray, Hitchens, Dawkins and so on.

While perhaps surprising, it is still the Bible that best indicates the three typologies of non-belief that we can classify at a cultural level today. The rigorous atheism described above is reflected in the idolatry that gives rise to vehement Scripture passages.

It is the temptation to replace what is inherent to divine transcendence with oneself or with an historical fact. One can think, for instance, of Marxist dialectical materialism, but also of the Spirit immanent in being and in history in Hegel's idealistic conception of it, or of the atheistic humanism that makes man the measure and exclusive meaning of all being and existence.

In the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans, St Paul sees the substitution of the divine truth with a system based on man's own image and interests as a source of moral degradation.

However, there is a second biblical model to be considered: incredulity. It is not so much the theoretical or programmatic denial of God as it is rather the affirmation of his remoteness or irrelevance to history. As a part of this model, we can list the true and dominant form of disbelief: "religious indifference".

The figure of God must not interfere in human affairs, must not be a principle for existential decisions but must remain in the limbo of his remote transcendence. God is not opposed but he is ignored since he is considered an outdated and, in any case, disturbing reality.

Paradoxically, however, this particular typology of disbelief must be associated with a certain form of contemporary religiosity; it is fluid, subtle and produces surrogate spiritual and religious cocktails that form the basis of various types of syncretistic beliefs.

Perhaps the model that best typifies incredulity is that of the New Age —which has become the Next Age — a path that avoids every serious and severe discourse. It entails a process of consolation that excludes the Augustinian restlessness of seeking (and as long as one is restless, one can be happy, Julien Green warned) and an exaltation of ethereal spirituality that ignores the burden of sin and the onset of the dramatic and tragic realities of history.

The third biblical typology is that of God's mysterious absence. However, this is part of the experience of faith itself, and gravitates around the question that arises in the face of consternation at the scandals of evil, suffering and death: "Where is God?". This question, addressed to the silent and seemingly absent God, marked the entire life of Job, who is a true believer even when his words acquire the incandescence of blasphemy and when he repeats: "I cry to you and you do not answer me" (Jb 30:20).

This is the situation of Ecclesiastes, who feels involved in and enveloped by the non-sense (habel "emptiness, futility") of history and being and finds himself facing a silent Heaven and a taciturn God.

It is then necessary — when confronting the phenomenon of atheism — to make a series of distinctions, remembering that even the most arduous cultural confrontation is not so much with authentic idolatry and atheism sincerely lived as a true vision of life, as rather with the elusive and ambiguous realities of indifference and disbelief.

It is like a fog that is difficult to dispel. It knows no anxiety or questions, is nourished with stereotypes and banalities, is satisfied with a superficial way of life and skims over the fundamental problems, in accordance with the now famous image from The Diary of Sψren Kierkegaard: "The boat is in the hands of the cook on board and the captain's megaphone is no longer transmitting the route but what we shall be eating tomorrow".

The mass media, in fact, teach us everything about how to live but ignore the ultimate meaning of existence, the restlessness of inner seeking, the radical questions on the beyond and on the other in comparison with us and our own horizon.

It is one thing to have to deal with the night of the atheist's or believer's spirit (as did John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart or Angelus Silesius) and quite another to deal with what in the past the philosopher Martin Heidegger, in Off the Beaten Track, called: "the time of the night of the world, that is, the time of the impoverishment of the world, of no longer recognizing the absence of God as an absence".

And this, unfortunately, is the dominant note of disbelief in today's secularized world. It is rather difficult to know which is the best strategy to choose in the face of such a grey cultural atmosphere. It is certain that the Churches must not resign themselves to following this drift, choosing the way of adaptation. In doing so, religiosity is reduced to a weak and inoffensive spirituality that is satisfied with the minimum, although ever aware that the little flickering flame must not be extinguished.

Instead, it is first vital to adopt a language perceptible to ears obstructed by the background noise of society, by the buzz of computers, by superficial distractions. This language must also be able to make use of the weak categories of this culture but must induce others that are strong, as it were, a spur to the flank or a provocation of the mind.

Metaphors aside, it is necessary to proceed towards certain radical propositions that succeed in clawing at the numbed conscience, if only for an instant, making a wound in it.

By this we mean to refer to the "last things" that pass inexorably through every existence: life and death; pain and evil; love and betrayal; mystery and transcendence; truth and falsehood; the prevarication of injustice and solidarity; the world with its beauty, its secrets and its protection and lastly, the Spirit, God, and the Gospel as the apex.

Thus it is necessary to return to the great narratives, to the capital symbols, to the serious ideas expressed incisively and provocatively without easy reductions, and with the lightness and clarity of contemporary communication besides. Next to this real attack that "wounds the areas of habit" characteristic of the "incredulous" — to use an evocative expression of Nelly Sachs, a German Jewish poet — it is vital not to abandon even the horizon of the "penultimate" realities.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 February 2009, page 9

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