Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Religion has ceased to integrate public life altogether

Seeking Christian interiority: an interview with Louis Dupre - Cover Story - Interview Christian Century, July 16, 1997 LOUIS DUPRE is T. Lawrason Riggs professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale University. A graduate of the University of Louvain in Belgium, he has received honorary doctorates from Loyola College, Sacred Heart University and Georgetown University as well as the Aquinas medal from the American Catholic Philosophical Association. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Belgium. Besides studies on Hegel, Marx and Kierkegaard, he has published works on religion (notably The Other Dimension: A Dubious Heritage and Transcendent Selfhood) and on modern culture (Passage to Modernity).
You have said that it's difficult to be Christian in our age. But hasn't it always been difficult to be a Christian? Why specifically is being a Christian difficult in our time?
Culture as a whole has become secular in a way that it has never been before. One may plausibly argue that the 18th century was the first non-Christian century. Most leading thinkers and artists, even if they were not opposed to Christianity, ceased to take their inspiration from it; secularization became dominant. Still, even at that time Western culture was so penetrated by Christian values and ideas that one might mistake entire passages of Voltaire or Diderot as having been written by believing Christians. Eighteenth-century culture was still steeped in a tradition that had been Christian since its beginning, and it was extremely difficult for these thinkers to free themselves from a language saturated with religion. The 19th century was different. It was an epoch marked by a virulent antitheistic campaign to clean the cultural slate of all Christian traces. Yet these attacks were the work of an elite; culture at large retained distinct remnants of its Christian roots.
Even today ties still exist between Christianity and culture in Europe and more so in the U.S. But on a more fundamental level the West appears to have said its definitive farewell to a Christian culture. Little of the old hostility remains. Our secular colleagues are happy to recognize the debt our civilization owes to the Christian faith to the extent that the faith, having been absorbed by culture itself, has become simply another cultural artifact. Christianity has become an historical factor subservient to a secular culture rather than functioning as the creative power it once was. The new attitude of benign atheism was, I think, prepared in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries by the three most prominent secularizers of the time, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche.
Why single them out? How did they differ from the earlier atheists you mention?
For Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, the idea of forcibly eradicating religion had become unnecessary. Religion for them was a passing symptom that was rapidly vanishing by itself. Already Marx had moved beyond the idea of atheism as a mere assertion of the unreality of God. For Marx. concentrating on atheism distracts us from the positive task of liberating humanity from social oppression. Lenin's active atheism, in which he used the state to try to destroy religion, is actually a fallback to earlier attitudes about religion. Freud admitted that no one can be forced not to believe. But as rational thought shows nothing in favor of religion and everything against it, to persist in a faith because no argument can decisively refute it is for Freud the sign of a lazy mind. Nietzsche preached a spiritual gospel, a new religion without God, beyond Christianity and atheism, that could still learn much from the old faiths.
Moving further in that direction, contemporary secular culture especially in its communications media, shows a surprising openness toward religion. But little suggests that this interest surpasses the purely horizontal cultural level. Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, and it has absorbed all other religion as a subordinate part of itself. It even offers some of the emotional benefits of religion, without exacting the high price faith demands. We have all become atheists, not in the hostile, antireligious sense of an earlier age, but in the sense that God no longer matters absolutely in our closed world, if God matters at all.
Why should the secularism of our time pose a more serious challenge to Christianity than the determined antitheism of the past?
Because religion in the 20th century has ceased to integrate public life altogether. By its very nature faith must integrate all other elements of life if it is to survive. Faith cannot simply remain one discrete part of life. My own writing about religion grew out of the fundamental question raised by the new situation: Is religion something that may or may not be very important to humans, or must it in some way integrate all other aspects of existence? I came to the conclusion that if it isn't somehow everything, it's nothing.
All societies, even the religious ones of the high Middle Ages or of Calvin's Geneva or of the Puritan pilgrims, distinguish between sacred and profane. But religion must in some way integrate the profane with the sacred. Obviously, Christianity no longer plays an integrating role in the life of modern societies. Certainly for most people in the West, especially in Western Europe, it has lost its creative, formative power. Christianity has become simply one element of civilization among many others, and by no means the most important. So here lies Christianity's present predicament. In the past religious integration was handed down by a tradition. But that tradition itself has lost its authority in the eyes of our contemporaries, including most believers.
What then ought the Christian to do to survive as a genuine religious believer?
I see no alternative but that he or she must now personally integrate what tradition did in the past. Nothing in culture today compels our contemporaries to embrace a religious faith. If they do, they alone are responsible for allowing their faith to incorporate all aspects of their existence. Hence the vital importance of a spiritual life.

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