Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Postmodern Church

The current America takes its lead from the mag's Jesuit confrere Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan now in retirement in Jerusalem.

The fulltext
is subs-only... but as a public service, here are some snips:
What can I say about the reality of the Catholic Church today? The theme is enormous and so much more difficult for me, living as I do in Jerusalem, with little contact with the daily life of our church communities. I am inspired, however, by the words of a great Russian thinker and man of science, Pavel Florenskij, who died in 1937 as a martyr for his Christian faith: “Only through immediate experience is it possible to perceive and value the treasure of the church.” To perceive and value the treasures of the church, one must enter through the experience of faith.

It would be very easy to draw up notebooks of complaints, full of things that are not going very well in our church. But this would be to adopt an external and depressing vision, not to see with the eyes of faith, which are the eyes of love. Of course, we should not close our eyes to things that are not going well, but we need to understand the overall picture in which the problems to be resolved are situated.

As I consider the present situation of the church with the eyes of faith, I see especially two things.

First, there has never been in the history of the church a period as fortunate as ours. Our church has its greatest geographical and cultural spread and yet finds itself substantially united in the faith, with the exception of Lefebvre’s traditionalists.

Second, in the history of theology there has never been so rich a period as the last era. Even in the fourth century, the era of the great Cappadocian fathers of the Eastern church and the great fathers of the Western church, like St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, there was not so great a theological flowering....

To seek a fruitful dialogue between the people of this world and the Gospel and to renew our pedagogy in the light of the example of Jesus, it is important to look closely at the so-called postmodern world, which forms a backdrop for many of these problems and which conditions the solutions.

A postmodern mentality could be defined in terms of oppositions: an atmosphere and a movement of thought that stands opposed to the world as we have known it until now. This mentality willingly distances itself from metaphysics, Aristotelianism, the Augustinian tradition and from Rome, considered as the center of the church, and from many other things.

This mindset keeps its distance from a former platonic Christian world, in which there was taken for granted the primacy of truth and values over feelings, of intelligence over the will, of the spirit over the flesh, of unity over pluralism, of asceticism over life, of the eternal over the temporal. In our world there is a spontaneous preference for feeling over the will, for impressions over intelligence, for an arbitrary logic and the search for pleasure over an ascetic and prohibitive morality. This is a world in which sensitivity, emotion and the present moment come first. Human existence, therefore, is a place where there is freedom without restraints, where a person exercises, or believes he can exercise, his personal empire and creativity.

At the same time this movement is also a revolt against an excessively rational mentality. From literature, painting, music and the new human sciences (in particular psychoanalysis), many people no longer believe they live in a world ruled by rational laws, in which Western civilization is a model for the world to imitate. It is accepted that all civilizations are equal, whereas previously we insisted on the so-called classical tradition. Nowadays there is a little of everything on the same plain, because there are no longer criteria by which to verify what is a true and authentic civilization.

There is opposition to rationality, which is seen as a source of violence, because people believe rationality can be imposed because it is true. There is acceptance of every form of dialogue and exchange because of a desire to be always open to another and to what is different, to be suspicious of oneself and to mistrust whatever wishes to affirm its identity through force. That is why Christianity is not easily accepted when it presents itself as true religion. I recall a young man who said to me recently: “Above all, don’t tell me that Christianity is true. That upsets me, that blocks me. It’s quite something else to say that Christianity is beautiful....” Beauty is preferable to truth.

In this atmosphere, technology is no longer a means at humanity’s service, but a milieu in which someone perceives the rules to interpret the world. There is no longer an essence of things, but only the use of things for a certain end determined by the will and desire of each person.

In this atmosphere, the refusal of sin and redemption is always present. It is said, “Everyone is equal, and each person is unique.” There is an absolute right to be singular and to affirm oneself. Every moral rule is out of date. There is no more sin, nor pardon, nor redemption, nor self-denial. Life can no longer be thought of as sacrifice or suffering....

To teach the faith in this world is nonetheless a challenge. To be prepared one must take to heart the following attitudes:

Do not be surprised by diversity. Do not be frightened by what is different or new, but look upon it as something in which is found a gift from God. Prove that you can listen to things quite different from what we usually think, but without immediately judging the speaker; try to understand what is being said and the basic arguments put forward. Young people are very sensitive about an attitude of nonjudgmental listening. This attitude gives them the courage to say what they really feel and to begin to distinguish what is really true from what only appears true. As St. Paul says, “Examine everything with discernment; keep what is good; keep your distance from every trace of evil” (1 Thes 5:21-22).

Take risks. Faith is the great risk of life. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but the one who loses his life for my sake will save it” (Mt 16:25). Everything has to be given up for Christ and his Gospel.

Befriend the poor. Put the poor at the center of your life because they are the friends of Jesus who made himself one of them.

Nourish yourself with the Gospel. As Jesus tells us in the discourse on the bread of life: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Jn 6:33).

To help develop these attitudes, I propose four exercises:

1. Lectio divina. This is a recommendation of John Paul II: “It is especially necessary that the listening to the Word becomes an essential meeting, following the ancient and present-day tradition of lectio divina, enabling us to discover in the biblical text the living word that challenges us, directs us, which gives shape to our existence” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 39). “The Word of God nourishes life, prayer and the daily journey, it is the principle of unity of the community in a unity of thought, the inspiration for continuing renewal and for apostolic creativity” (Setting Out Again From Christ, 2002, No. 24).

2. Self-mastery. We need to learn anew that the frank opposition to desires is sometimes more joyful than endless concessions to everything that seems desirable but ends in boredom and satiety.

3. Silence. We need to move away from an unhealthy slavery to rumors and endless chattering, from characterless music that only makes noise, and find each day at least one half-hour of silence and a half-day each week to think about ourselves, to reflect and pray for a longer period. That may seem difficult to ask, but when you give an example of the interior peace and tranquility that result from the exercise, the young take courage and find it to be an unprecedented source of life and joy.

4. Humility. Do not think that it is up to us to solve the great problems of our times. Leave room for the Holy Spirit, who works better than we do and more deeply. Do not wish to stifle the Spirit in others: it is the Spirit who breathes. Rather, be sensitive to its most subtle manifestations, and for that you need silence.
Even as this week marks the third anniversary of L'Affaire Reese, love it or not, America remains, bar none, the flagship of American Catholic publications... and now, it's upped its web cachet to the point where electronic subscriptions to the mag -- archives included -- are going for $12 a year.

For the record, this isn't a paid plug... just a friendly bargain-alert.