The afternoon of Christianity
Dear colleagues, esteemed guests, ladies and gentlemen!
One of the attempts to interpret the concept of religio derives the word from re-legere: reading anew. Reading anew and in a new way, reaching a deeper understanding of the text. We hear a lot nowadays about “new evangelization”. Ought it not be schooling in the art of reading the book of reality – the “signs of the times” – in a different way: more attentively and in greater depth?
What are the “signs of the times” and how are we to respond to them?
The chief message of my book “Patience with God” (which was the first my book translated in Portuguese) is this: There are moments in the history of humanity, as well as in the history of the church and in our own lives, when we are confronted more than at other times with God’s hiddenness, God’s silence.
In the period of latter-day modernity has Christianity of the West been able to experience the darkness of God’s silence. No longer were the individuals who entered the “dark night”; God’s hiddenness gradually became a collective historical experience in many countries with a thousand-year-old Christian culture.
Silence is not the absence of communication. Silence is communication that can have many meanings and which is therefore subject to many different interpretations.
Atheism interprets God’s silence by the sentence “God doesn’t exist”, or “God is dead”. The traditionalists do not hear the gentle music of God’s silence but instead go on repeating the old formulae. Emotional piety drowns out God’s silence with its ardent alleluias. Agnostics shrug their shoulders uneasily. But a mature faith is capable of enduring God’s silence and hiddenness. Faith as I understand it is the courage to enter the cloud of Mystery and live with mystery. Faith, hope and love are three arts of our patience with the silent God.
Where are we now in the history of Christianity in Europe? It has been said on many occasions in the past that Christianity is on its deathbed. Some have claimed, on the contrary, that it is still only in its childhood. It is my opinion that Christianity at the present time (in a large part of Europe, at least) is undergoing “noonday fatigue” and faces the decision about what to do in “the afternoon of its history”.
I found some of my inspiration for using the metaphor of the day for the history of Christianity in the work of Carl Gustav Jung.
Jung uses the metaphor of the day to describe the development of the human personality in the course of a lifetime. The morning of life (youth) is a time for building the external structures of personality. Around the mid-point of life there arrives a “noonday crisis”. It can take the form of shock or loss of previous certainties (crisis of marriage or occupation, financial or health problems, etc.), or “burn-out syndrome”. The noontime crisis is also an opportunity for a major “sea change”, a chance to tackle the tasks of “life’s afternoon”, to move from outward considerations to the depths.
Now we are witness to controversy within the church between those who want to preserve those structures in their present form at all costs, and those who want to radically change them, come what may. I fear that both the opposing “camps” think in terms of “morning” categories: they are both concerned chiefly about institutional structures and the manner in which belief is expressed. I fear that both sides risk overlooking a third option. This consists of not concentrating so much on the outward structure, but of “a journey into the depths” – striving for radical spiritual and intellectual renewal.
This journey into the depths that I regard as the way out of the crisis is by no means some pietist escape into the “paradise of the heart” and the garden of private piety. What I have in mind is a substantive spiritual and intellectual deepening of contemporary Christianity.
In my view we must benefit as much as possible from the “cleansing bath” or purgative fire that the critique of religion represents. We must abandon notions of a “banal god”, concealed behind the scenes of nature and history, one that is immediately available to us. Instead we should open ourselves to experience of God as the depth of mystery.
Let us not expect “certainties” from faith, in the sense of simple answers to complex questions, but have the courage and perseverance to live with mystery amidst the paradoxes of life.
At the moment in modern times, starting with Descartes, when reality was separated into subject and object, God was made homeless. It was then logical for atheism to say: there is no God. God is truly not to be found in a world viewed that way, because God is neither an “object”, a things among things, a being among beings, or even part of the human subject; God is not simply our idea, emotion, concept or fantasy. But this form of God’s absence from the object-subject world need not necessarily be interpreted atheistically. There is another possible interpretation, namely, the encounter with God’s hiddenness and intangibility, God’s transcendence.
The encounter with God’s transcendence is only the first word, however; Christian theology always seeks the complementary pole, the experience of God’s immanence, the closeness of God. I don’t believe that what is described nowadays by the phrase “the return of religion” is God’s “second word”, the real resurrection after “the death of God”. But maybe the spiritual thirst that is undoubtedly manifesting itself in these present-day phenomena (for which, however, the strangest beverages are offered on today’s “religious market”) could be perceived as the first glimmer of a new dawn. After all, doesn’t St John of the Cross tell us that in the night thirst itself is the light that leads us to the springs of water?
In a lecture I gave some years ago, I provocatively compared St. Thérèse of Lisieux (called “Little Flower”) to Friedrich Nietzsche and called these two very different spiritual contemporaries “siblings”.
Nietzsche and Thérèse both lived in the self-confident 19th-century world of science and progress, which, though few realized it at the time, was full of illusions and naïveté and would soon be superseded. It was also a time of piety, which was both sweetly sentimental and full of lugubrious moralizing, rigorism, acquisition of merit, and cultivation of virtues (that pious version of the old Pelagian heresy), and of an obsessively neurotic fascination with sin. And Nietzsche and Thérèse both – albeit in very different ways and circumstances – turned their backs on those features of their time and on the subtle temptations within its spiritual climate.
Before her death, the young Carmelite nun experienced great spiritual conflicts and inner darkness. What is therefore most remarkable about Thérèse is the way she accepted and perceived her contest with God, with darkness and forlornness, her experience with the absence of God and the eclipse of her faith. She accepted it as a mark of solidarity with unbelievers.
Thérèse declares that she perceives unbelievers as her brothers, with whom she sits at the same table and eats the same bread – and she begs Jesus not to banish her there from. Such an attitude to unbelievers was alien to the church of her day, which regarded atheism as error, delusion, and above all sin.
In the case of Thérèse, we may assume that she would construe her experience with this abyss traditionally as a sacrifice, aimed at helping bring sinful unbelievers back into the bosom of the church. However, if I am correct in my understanding of Thérèse and of her path through paradox and constant reinterpretation, then her concern was something else: not simply to draw these unbelievers back into the heart of the church, but rather to broaden that heart by including their experience of darkness. Through her solidarity with unbelievers, she conquers new territory (along with its inhabitants) for a church that has previously been too closed.
Hasn’t the time come for Thérèse’s spiritual path, and particularly “solidarity with unbelievers,” to be an inspiration as a hermeneutic key toward new theological reflection on present-day society, its spiritual climate, and the church’s mission at the present time?
To show living faith not as a set of dusty precepts, but as a path of maturation that even includes valleys of “the silence of God”– but which, unlike the purveyors of “certainties,” does not circumvent them or abandon any further search but patiently moves on.
The existential “truth of atheism,” that experience of pain that was previously the “rock of atheism,” is also part of the treasure-house of faith. Faith construed this way and lived authentically and patiently in the depth of night now carries an existential experience within itself. It lacks nothing of what is part of the human condition. It endures people’s night also.
Atheism is a useful antithes is to naïve, vulgar theism – but it is necessary to take a further step toward synthesis and mature belief. Mature belief involves breathing out and breathing in, night and day; atheism is simply a fragment.
But we must not fall prey to triumphalism or pride in these reflections – we must be aware that even “mature belief” remains unfinished business as far as we are concerned (and if we are to complete the task we need to take seriously the experience of atheism), rather than something that we already possess and could consider our “property.” We too have yet to fulfill the challenge of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity… And we shall do this, if only God permits. “ (Hebrews 6.1–3).
Another saint patron for “the afternoon of Christianity” was Mother Theresa of Calcutta. She led an exceptionally active life of ceaseless charitable work. The posthumous publication of her diary provided an insight into her personal spirituality and spiritual life. It was an abyss of almost permanent “dark night”, reminiscent of the mystics from St John of the Cross to Thérèse of Lisieux. That woman possibly endured out of solidarity not only days and years of social distress of the present-day world, but also at night its mental and spiritual distress, depression and the experience of God’s silence. She took during the day the solidarity with those who have suffered in their bodies and during the night with those who have suffered in their night of soul, night of the faith.
How should the church look like in the afternoon of Christianity?
The most promising model in my view is the church as a school – a school in the three basic Christian virtues: faith, love and hope. That trinity needs to be rediscovered, subjected to theological reflection and put into practice in people’s lives. A distinction must be made between faith and mere “religious conviction”, between love and mere emotion, between hope and mere optimism. The “theology of virtues” must be reconsidered as a dialogical encounter between the gift (of grace) and human freedom, openness and responsibility.
Yes, today’s and tomorrow’s church should draw inspiration from one of the most valuable forms of its presence in European culture – the original mediaeval ideal of the university, the university as a community of teaching, life and prayer of masters and pupils, a community governed by freedom of conviction, based on the belief that discussion is essential on the path to truth, and that teaching must be based on prayer and meditation: “Contemplata alliis tradere.”
Let us not fear that we would thereby lose ourselves in the crowd and lose our Christian identity. What will distinguish us from the mass of people around us (but what will unite us at the same time with those with whom we ourselves would not seek an alliance), will be the willingness to “take upon ourselves the form of a servant.” This life orientation of kenosis, self-surrender, means, within a civilisation oriented mainly towards material success, a conspicuously non-conformist attitude. Those who live this way can be a hidden “salt of the earth” and also a highly visible “light of the world”. Only then will the “new evangelisation” be truly new. Only than we will be ready to overcome its “noontime slump” of contemporary Christianity in Europe, only than we will be ready to face the tasks of the afternoon of its history.
Universidade de Coimbra, Capela, 3.5.2016