The New Heresy

Author: Jean Danielou


Jean Danielou

Every period of history sees the rise of new divisions in every field. This is true even of the history of Christianity. There is a line of division between Christians even to-day, which had not appeared in earlier times. This is the line which runs between those Christians who accept the "death of God" as a fact and whose main problem is to know what becomes of Christ in a world without God, and on the other side those Christians for whom this secularized Christianity seems like a pricked bubble by reason of the fact that Christ is God among us.

It is important to state baldly what would happen if these ambiguities were not exposed and cleared up, in order to put the options fairly and squarely before Christians and to make them choose here and now whether they are "for" God or "against" him. The great heresy of the twentieth Century will be that of "religionless Christianity". This already has its prophets and exponents, such as van Buren, Atziger, Hamilton, Kamlah, Solle, and van Leeuwen. For them Tillich and Bonhoeffcr are already out-of-date; thinkers who merely mapped out the way. Now we must work our way through to their fundamental presuppositions. From a God who can be reached only through human relations we arrive at a God who exists only in human relations. These thinkers however are merely putting into words what many Christians already practise in their daily lives, namely, that Christianity consists wholly and exclusively in loving one's neighbour. We have seen some of these Christians aligning themselves with Communism or with atheistic humanism. It is obvious that at that level there is not much difference between a "christianized atheist" and an atheistic Christian.

I take as an example of this "atheistic Christianity" a. book by van Leeuwen entitled "Christianity in World History" (Scribner, New York: 1965). The author is one of the leading experts to-day in the study of Eastern religions and of the theology of history. The book consists of a threefold analysis: of Christianity, of non-Christian religions, and of modern civilization. He develops the ideas of Hendrix Kraemer in a "secularist" direction, and posits a radical opposition between religion as a "sacralization" of daily life and of the universe, and revelation as an event in history which liberates us from this restriction. Revelation was given to Israel; but Israel turned it into a religion. It was given again in Jesus Christ; but the Christian Church turned it into a religion. The "anti-religious virus" of revelation nonetheless spread and can be discerned in contemporary technological civilization. Not only does it destroy Christianity as a religion, but it also penetrates the great religions of the East for the first time and destroys them too. Van Leeuwen holds that we are now living in a secular world, that is, a non-religious one. The problem now is what will happen to revelation in this sort of world which it has brought into being.

This engages van Leeuwen in examining a number of important consequences regarding the dialogue between the Church and non-christian religions, which are destined to disappear in the not-too-distant future. It would therefore be a mistake to try to express revelation through the medium of the various religions. There is no point in trying to forge an alliance between religions, if religions as such are doomed to disappear. There is no sense in "religious liberty" if it is conceived simply as a Charter guaranteeing the freedom of religions. Van Leeuwen sees no place in the modern world for anything except revelation and the secular society which is its offspring, for which it fights against materialism. We can recognize in this argument the thesis of "religionless Christianity" with which Bonhoeffer, Robinson and Cox have made us familiar, though van Leeuwen puts this into the context of world history and of the dialogue between the forces which operate in that arena.

The argument is certainly ingenious; but it is based on a number of confusions which make it impossible for us to accept it. The first of these is the ambiguity in the word "religion", as van Leeuwen uses it. If this word signifies the fundamental relation between God and man, then "religion" is a constituent element of every type of humanism; and there is no reason to suppose that it is in process of disappearing. On this point Teilhard de Chardin is a far deeper and more serious thinker when he writes that the more men become men, the more they feel the need to worship a being outside and above them.

And what can men make of the Word of God given in revelation if God no longer exists for them? Religionless Christianity becomes indistinguishable from atheistic humanism. Even in the sense of marking off a realm of mental and social experience distinct from life "outside the temple", religion is seen to be a form of expressing the Word of God which is indispensable. Van Leeuwen regards the Church as a "sojourner and pilgrim" in this world (p. 423). I hold however that the Church needs to be implanted in the core of human history, even if this means exposing it to the dangers of compromise. The only sense in which van Leeuwen's criticism of religion is legitimate is when he presents religion as an improper sacralization of secular realities. But this is no longer religion but simply idolatry.

Most ordinary Christians reject this secularization of Christianity. But they are often infected by it without realizing it. It is obvious that if we are to believe that Christ is the Son of God, we must first believe that God exists. In so far as certain Christians reach the conclusion that man can never know God by his natural intelligence and that there is no more to philosophy than to question everything, in so far as they believe that the facts of human life (the family, the city, their local culture) ought to be totally secularized, to that extent it is obvious that they could not possibly have a lasting faith in Christ's divinity which they have already voided of all meaning and omnipotence.

We must trace this error to its root and extirpate it. Unless the relationship with God is recognized as a constituent element in man, unless atheistic humanism is rejected out of hand as all outlandish error, then inevitably Christ will be stripped of his divinity, since divinity will be a dimension emptied of all significance. For this reason the question of God will, in the future, constitute the great watershed among men, and especially among Christians.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 April 1968, page 6

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