So we continue on our discussion of Desecularization book...Chapter 2 is written by George Weigel, who is Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C. - and his blog tells us he is pretty important!
Peter Berger, in the previous chapter, mentioned the oscillation
under John Paul II (JPII) between adaptation or resistance to the forces of
modernity.George Weigel begins
his chapter taking us back through the history of Catholic attitudes to
modernity.Wiegel also points out
the vastness of the Catholic Church – with over a billion adherents (15% of the world’s population) – 4300 bishops, 404,500
priests (no wonder you get some distinctly dodgy ones out of that number), and
almost a million women in religious orders.The Vatican has full diplomatic relations with 166 states
and often plays an important, behind the scenes role, in major diplomatic
initiatives (according to Weigel).
Weigel argues in this chapter that the
Catholic Church acts as a carrier for ‘a distinctive set of proposals for the
right ordering of societies and indeed of international life.’These proposals focus on ‘the human
person, human community, human history, and human destiny, all understood in
their relationship to God.’For
this reason the Catholic Church comes across as a bit of a misnomer in the
secularized world because of its insistence of reading the whole of reality
against that relationship – God is central to any thinking about what it is to
be human.(Hence Benedict XVI’s
outburst against rights agendas – and if we all have rights who decides between
us when our rights conflict?).
Weigel is a JPII fan (and wrote his
biography so I understand): he talks about his papacy in exalted terms: ‘a
pontificate of greater intellectual significance for the Church and its address
to the world than any other since the Reformation, in my judgement.’So he discusses JPII’s engagement with
the wider European intellectual culture and Karol Wojtyla’s role in expounding
public truths which shouldn’t be dismissed as the ramblings of a sectarian old
Weigel focuses on JPII’s 1995 speech to the
UN on human rights as the best example of this exposition.Interestingly, it is the very process
of adaptation which is being focused on here.JPII argued strongly, against ‘militant Islamists’ and ‘East
Asian autocrats’, that rights were not an example of Western Imperialism but
part of the international, pan-global progress towards modernity – ‘one of the
great dynamics of human history’.This sounds like anything you would find in the golden age scholarship
of Victorian England.JPII argued
for a universal moral law written on the human heart (language reminiscent of
Jeremiah 31) as ‘that kind of “grammar” which is needed’ for a century of persuasion
rather than another century of violent coercion.
Weigel explores this further by
extrapolating the implications of JPII’s assertion on rights.If rights are not universal, then nor
is human nature.If human nature
is not universal, then there can be no common discourse and coercion is the
only possible way forward.
(Personally I think there are a few
alternative steps in this rather crude philosophical framework.‘If there are no universal human
rights’ is a totalizing statement which begs lots of questions – what are
rights, how do these relate to what it means to be human, are they not
contextualized, social norms and as such will be different dependent on the
host culture?As a middle-class
heterosexual white man do I have different rights than an underprivileged black
gay woman?Have I got rights to
limit my rights in order to maximize the rights of those who have less
options?Have I got obligations to
do this which override my rights?You just can’t base the argument on the existence of rights in the first
place – that is to cave in to modernity completely.)
But JPII goes further in expounding the
Catholic insight that there needs to be a moral norm at the heart of society to
allow it to function appropriately and not collapse into fascism or communism:
‘unless freedom is tethered to certain basic truths about human beings, freedom
becomes its own undoing, as liberty becomes mere license and politics descends
into Hobbes’s war of all against all.’There’s some interesting discussion to be had there about the recent
collapse within the humanist communities over the demise of Dawkins’ website
community.What is the moral
compass or drive behind the secular agenda?
Weigel’s chapter peters out in a series of
recapitulations of this central proposition – that Catholicism under JPII
offers a post-Constantinian approach to political life – not grasping political
power or trying to confront power.But rather engaging with power to highlight the centrality of a
universal moral law – a kind of ‘common good’ argument, I suppose.Weigel clearly regards this as a new
thing.I’m not so sure.Isn’t it what those who have been in
less prestigious places have been arguing for many a year?
What this chapter does not do is to explore
secularization or argue about how the Catholic Church can seek to desecularize
the world.It offers a view of
JPII’s pontificate and a validation of a Catholic worldview.But it doesn’t address the questions of
declining hegemony, of internal fraction and external criticism which the RC
Church is facing.But that may be
because under JPII the Catholic Church seemed to be a much more stable entity
than under Benedict XVI?Or does
it just prove that JPII’s policy of aggiornamento was misguided in the first
On the back of the book is printed in large capital letters, "THIS IS A STORY". It's worth remembering that emphatic statement as you read the book. This is not a speculation about the beginnings of Christianity, a claim to have uncovered the real, suppressed history of Jesus. It is a fable through which Philip Pullman reflects on Jesus, on the tensions and contradictions of organised religion – and indeed on the nature of storytelling.
Firstly, a great deal of the story is a fairly straightforward retelling of the gospels and in particular the parables and teaching discourses of Jesus. There are a few tweaks to some of the teaching and yet nothing which really alters the character of the discourses. I guess those unfamiliar with the teaching of Jesus won’t spot most of the changes made by Pullman and I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few Christians don’t pick up the alterations either.
OK - so I promised a series on this book and so here is the first. I have to say that as I read it, I am not learning as much as I wanted and then found this review by Rhys Williams from 2001 and probably now understand why...but it's a start...
I have to say that Peter Berger is a name I was aware of - when the book was written he was Professor and Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston Uni (now Culture, Religion and World Affairs [cura]. He even has his own wikipedia entry. So I suppose all that kudos allows you to write an article which provides no background evidence for all the affirmations you make in the article. This first chapter sets the scene for the whole book and its comments are repeated throughout the rest of the articles and I can even recognise some of the material in both God is Back and in David Lehmann's arguments in the seminar. So this is a pretty influential chapter - probably a distillation of work Peter has done elsewhere.
Berger points out that from a global historical perspective the anomaly is not religion or religious institutions but rather non-religious institutions. In other words, the University of Chicago (his example) is the anomaly not Iranian mullahs. He's got a good point. When we look at the secularization agenda (as any other agenda), we need to recognise the perspective we are imposing. I caught up tonight with the show on UK TV over the Easter Weekend about the possible persecution of British Christians in the UK. From a global historical perspective there is no such thing. But from a contemporary and contextual perspective, the drive towards liberal secular rights within UK culture would seem to be making our institutions less tolerant towards religion. Berger would point out how anomalous this would be both in an historical perspective but also in a contemporary global perspective. I was surprised in the TV programme to see the number of non-Christians advocating a case for Christian expression in the UK.
Berger traces back the secularization theory to the Enlightenment and the simplistic argument that 'modernization necessarily leads to a decline in religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals'. In other words, advance was towards a secular society. However, Berger makes it clear how wrong this assertion is. Cultural secularism does not mean the same as or necessarily lead to individual secularism. And cultural secularism seems to produce robust processes of counter-secularism as well. The main responses to the Enlightenment secularization project were either rejection or adaptation. Rejection was in the form of religious revolution (pan-cultural like Iran, or sub-cultural like the Amish or Mormons or, to take a contemporary UK example not used by Berger, the indigenous African churches popping up all over London). Adaptation was in the form of those institutions which adopted modernism including the predominance of reason and rational thought - a kind of secularized religion - perhaps exampled in liberal Christianity or in Methodism or something similar - a faith where key aspects of modernity are accepted and fused into the DNA of the institution. You can play the 'spot the secularization' game with just about any denomination or movement including pentecostalism.
Berger argues strongly that the secularization project along with any rejection and adaptation of it have failed. He suggests that the proof of this is in the abject failure of rejection (who can create a religious ghetto in the world of mass communication and transcultural media? Ask the Amish!) and adaptation (see the figures for the major modern denominations across the Western so-called secularised world. So, Berger maps Roman Catholic responses - first through rejection (flouting Enlightenment ideals by promulgating Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception) and then by adaptation - the aggiornamento of Vatican II. Of course, this oscillation between rejection (Aids, contraception, equality) and adaptation (acceptance of historical criticism, reform of the curia) has continued on through the times of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and helps to explain Benedict's response to contemporary rights based equality.
Berger then cites lots of examples of how religion is making a come back through conservative, orthodox, traditionalist movements - like Pentecostalism in Latin America, Orthodox Judaism in Israel, Orthodox Church in Russia, as well as similarly traditional movements within Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism among others. Berger argues that all of these movements either undermine the modernism=secularism link or at least create a new link: modernism = secularism+counter-secularism. Religion simply will not play ball with the Enlightenment.
Of course, none of these movements are monolithic. Within Islam, revival movements include both ultra-conservative Saudi-based Wahhabism and the pro-democracy, pro-pluralist Nudhat'ul-Ulama movement in Indonesia. Similar alternatives appear across the world. There may be family traits across what some commentators persist in calling 'fundamentalist' revival movements across different countries and religions, but the one key factor seems to be that religion matters to these people - and it matters more to them than assent to liberal dogma.
Berger lists two exceptions which may well be linked - Western Europe and the urban elite. Western Europe was not experiencing the same kind of religious backlash that the rest of the world knew and understood at the turn of the millenium. It may be that that has now changed. But even if it has, Europe is much more secular than most of the world - even than North America which would seem to be more modernized but less secular despite the much more radical separation of church and state which is enshrined in the law there.
Secondly, Berger points to the common urban educated global elite (UEGE) who tend to act as power-brokers and intermediaries between societies. This elite is in the main strongly secularized and 'acts as the principle carrier of progressive, Enlightened beliefs and values'. Moreover, it is an isolated often self-perpetuating elite which controls elite education, government, media and legal institutions. Since that elite mimics European values and the European academy (even in Euro-based cultures like North America and Australasia which have adapted basically the same systems and institutions), then it acts as a carrier for the most secularized form of civilisation. Moreover, as the main resource pool for diplomats, it provides a particularly de-contextualised resource pool. In other words, countries end up speaking to one another in secular terms which their citizens do not recognise. It is the voice of the secular elite rather than voice of the religious people.
Berger draws two conclusions from this. First that the source of the current upsurge in religion is due to either counter-secularism or counter-elite activities. In other words, secularism still sets the agenda. But second, he also refers back to his argument that it is the university which is more odd than religious expression. We have always had strongly felt religious expression - why would we want to regard it as odd - or more odd than liberal European secularism which is a much less common phenomenon within human society. Get your perspective right - in historic, global and contemporary terms.
It's a fascinating and deeply influential article - but non-referenced! You can read part of it here if you want to get a flavour of it.
Next, we'll pick up one aspect of this in George Wiegel's piece on John Paul II.
A few weeks ago, I posted on a lecture by David Lehmann about the state managing religion. The lecture was the first of a series of Faith and Globalisation Seminars at Durham University. At the end of the seminar in the Q&A time, Dr Lehmann eventually agreed that probably the secularisation process has really run into the ground.
The lecture called to mind a book I had read a few months ago called God is Back. It was written by two jourmalists - John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge and makes some very similar comments about the rise of religion that Dr Lehmann was also making. It's a good read. Although a rather scary read if you believe in the whole secularisation concept.
The reason for looking at God is Back is because I started getting involved in the Faith and Globalisation project here at Durham and wanted to check back and see what other people outside the circle were saying. When Tony Blair came to Durham back in May last year, I was pretty well convinced that the Blair Faith Foundation (TBBF) was saying some of the right things that needed to be said about the impact of a faith perspective, but I wasn't convinced that they had hit the nail completely on the head, as it were.
Following a few of the British Humanist Association/Richard Dawkins/New Atheist threads online, alongside some attention to the whole 'Is the BBC fair on Christians' and Jon Bartley's explorations on Ekklesia (inter alia!) has made me realise a few things:
I don't know much
Something is happening about religion and its influence
That something is different from institutional church decline
In other words, I'm convinced that the religious voice is gaining power within the media and within the world's conversation. That has to happen since so many of the our problems circulate around religion and because so many of the places we talk about are massively religious - and there is a difference. I don't think Israel/Palestine is a religious issue. I think it is a political issue about land rights and security. Israel is essentially a political state - a secular state even. Palestine could be too. As such, the whole debate could be discussed in non-religious terms. But to do that we would need to ignore the interests of Islamic revivalist groups and orthodox Jewish groups within the governing elites in both states. In other words, the religious nature of the people involve make the situation less easily definable as a secular situation. Their important involvement implicates religion in the conversation whether or not the conversation was religious to start off with.
So, David Lehmann talked about the secular development of state constitutions within Latin America. Such developments are secular but are involving more and more religious issues because of both static religious institutions in Latin America and the huge upsurge in revivalist, especially Christian Pentecostal movements there. A secular conversation becomes religious because the participants are themselves religious. Part of the TBBF issue is to look at the need for elite diplomatic appreciation for religious belief. In other words, our secular trained diplomats don't understand people of faith. Or rather, there is a huge culture shock involved when a member of the urban educated global elite (UEGE) encounters influence which believes. This is because the UEGE is trained to factor out religion as a irrelevant datum or as a sign of weakness rather than as a fundamental aspect of human existence. The UEGE talk of revivalist groups as a being 'fundamentalists' largely because they simply can't compute religious involvement as a valid activity for those engaging in governance. (OK some of this comes from the reading I have already done and needs to be explored in the following posts...it will make sense in the end, I hope!)
"The Desecularization of the World: A Global View", Peter L Berger
"Roman Catholicism in the Age of John Paul II", George Wiegel
"The Evangelical Protestant Upsurge and Its Political Implications", David Martin
"Judaism and Politics in the Modern World", Jonathan Sacks
"Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?", Grace Davie
"The Quest for Meaning: Religion in PR of China", Tu Weiming
"Political Islam in National Politics and International Relations", Abdullah A. An-Na'im
So, I am going to take each chapter in turn and write a brief review of the chapter's contents and then make some comments associated with those wider questions about the changing nature of religious talk in the media and my gut feeling that this has nothing whatsoever to do with mainstream religion. These posts will emerge over the next few days/weeks. I'll make sure the titles all begin with the same word ('Desecularization') and categorize them more carefully than normal in case people want to find them in one place on my site.
I'd be really glad of any comments people want to feed through to me either through the blogsite (probably best) or through facebook comments on the thread as it appears there too. I can even cope with some tweets commenting as long as you include my twitter address @pmphillips. I'd be glad of a conversation on this rather than a one-sided monologue.
This collation of polls associated with attitudes to Easter mostly in the UK is based on some preliminary links sent to me by David Keen - to whom I am enormously grateful and arise from the possibility of doing an interview on the Beeb - so it's really some prep work. But it is fascinating...
Update: A few people contacted me during Easter day to say they had seen a report featuring me during the day. I finally tracked it down on Easter evening - about 20 secs of a report which used the National Biblical Literacy Survey mostly rather than the stats below - although there was a reference to more people believing in the resurrection nowadays! As usual, lots of prep and lots of words spoken into a camera = very little actual relevant sound bite being used.
7 polls taken between 1996 and 2008
Belief in the resurrection of Jesus = 50, 43, 52, 48, 47, 55, 57 Trend is upwards. Note that just about half the population surveyed across a range of polls and the last 14 years maintain their belief in the resurrection. There is no trend downwards.
Four polls between 1984 and 2008 asked the further question about what kind of resurrection and there is an amazing consistency between the answers with a third of people opting for a bodily resurrection, a third for a spiritual resurrection and a third offering some other answer. Again – flat graph – early nineties saw lowest figures released.
1984 – 34
1996 – 29
2001 – 33
2008 – 30
National Biblical Literacy Survey (CODEC, Durham University) 2009
(sample size = 1009 – face to face in the high street)
NB 80% of people knew what the crucifixion meant in some detail or other, 83% the resurrection
Paraphernalia of the celebration less clearly understood. Little link between festival artefacts – eggs, hot cross buns, palm crosses, talk of links with Passover – all seem to pass people by without them understanding why we do it.
85% of Australians do not consider themselves to be born again. But of these 45% believed in the resurrection of Jesus.
57 per cent knew Easter was connected with the death of Jesus but 87 per cent knew it concerned the resurrection.
John Dickson – “it shows there is a base-level assumption among the Australian public that accepts the Jesus story even if it has no relevance to their lives”
What might the figures be saying?
Re-awakening or continued practice of Spring rites? Chocolat and the Chocolate Festival – new life, fun, laughter, light after a dismal winter. Seems to match general post-winter moods/needs.
Easter focuses on a pretty horrendous death involving torture, whipping and crucifixion of an apparently innocent man. Since death is a taboo, it’s possible that people prefer to focus their mind son chocolate and daffodils at Easter to avoid contemplating the taboo?
Different from Christmas because that’s about birth and life, about a baby born in a stable and its easy to romanticize about it. But how can you romanticize blood and gore and death?
In fact, Easter is actually about Resurrection and new life – whether you believe that Jesus rose from the dead or not. I do. Out of the despair of Good Friday, comes the new life of Easter Day – from the depths of winter to the new life of Spring.
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