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).
(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
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
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:
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.
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
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
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"