by Louis Dupré

For believers, the solution to the problem of secularism lies within the individual,
whose faith must supply the ultimate meaning society cannot.

    LOUIS DUPRÉ is Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and author of numerous books, among them Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection: Excursions in the Phenomenology and Philosophy of Religion (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998). His earlier articles in Cross Currents dealt with the challenge of Marxism (Summer 1963) and the needed Catholic reexamination of church teaching on birth control (Spring 1964).

Western Culture as a whole has become secular in a way that it has never been before. One may plausibly argue that the eighteenth 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. For the first time, the secular became dominant. In the beginning, however, culture continued to be 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 its thinkers to free themselves from a language saturated with religion. The nineteenth 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 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 Christian culture. Little of the old hostility remains. Our secular colleagues are happy to recognize the debt our civilization owes to 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, instead of functioning as the creative power it once was. The new attitude of benign atheism was prepared in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries by the three most prominent secularizers of the time, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.

For them, the idea of forcibly eradicating religion had become unnecessary. Religion, they thought, was a passing, rapidly vanishing phenomenon. For Marx, fighting a belief in God distracts communists from the positive task of liberating humanity from social oppression. Lenin's active atheism, that used the state to eradicate religion, draws on an earlier attitude that Marx had abandoned. Freud admitted that no one can be forced not to believe. But as rational thought has produced not a single argument in support of religion and many against it, to persist in religion because no argument has decisively refuted 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. Contemporary secular culture has moved further in that direction. Although it shows a surprising openness to religion, this interest rarely surpasses the purely horizontal, cultural level. Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, adsorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself. It offers some of the emotional benefits of religion, without exacting the high price faith demands. Even believers have become secular, 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. The secularism of our time poses a more serious challenge to Christianity than the determined antitheism of the past. By its very nature, faith must integrate all elements of life if it is to survive; it cannot simply remain one discrete part of existence. Yet religion in the twentieth century has ceased altogether to integrate public life. The situation confronts us with the fundamental question: Is religion a part of culture that may or may not be important to society, or ought it to be a matter of ultimate concern. I am convinced that if it isn't somehow everything, it will die altogether.

For most people in the West, especially in Western Europe, Christianity has become simply one element of civilization among many others, and by no means the most important. As a result, the unifying element of culture has been lost and our vision of reality has become fragmented. We live on several different levels of meaning that barely communicate with one another, if they are not flagrantly contradictory. Even for the believer, religious life in contemporary culture occupies only one compartment of life -- rarely the most important one. My relation to my task and to my colleagues becomes defined entirely by social and economic considerations in which religion plays no role. I may collaborate with others for years without knowing anything about their religious faith or the absence thereof. If I am engaged in scientific research or education, I find my task dictated by the methods of professional work, not by religious principles. Most, especially the young, have abandoned the search for a unified meaning in their fragmented existence and no longer expect from faith an answer to ultimate questions. Today the famous earthquake of 1755 which destroyed the center of Lisbon and shook even Voltaire's deistic conviction, would hardly cause a ripple: we expect no solution from faith for that kind of problem. The question has shifted to the department of science.

We lack the overall vision that holds these various departments of our life together. Some postmodern writers pride themselves on the liberating absence of a defining unity. But most of us feel lost in a disconnected universe. We may be attracted to noncommittal open-endedness, but we need coherence. The fragments of meaning must somehow be integrated in a manner that modern culture fails to attain. To recapture the lost integration, some turn to reactionary religious or political movements or dream of restoring religious visions of the past. Such complete reversals that attempt to suppress cultural changes are, I think, unauthentic ways for achieving the reintegration of culture or the revival of religion.

Many Christians (I am one of them) may feel nostalgic for a culture that was more coherent and God-oriented than ours, but this religious nostalgia must not encourage us to escape from the present on a magic carpet of illusions. Nor must the need for social and cultural coherence seduce us to invent a Christian "tradition" for social or political purposes, as some social theorists are doing today. They consider religion essential to culture, but their concern is not with the truth of faith but with the order of society.

In the past religion was handed down by a tradition. But that tradition itself has lost its authority in the eyes of our contemporaries, including most believers. Tradition and society no longer define the ultimate meaning of their existence. Each individual is solely responsible for his/her attitude, instead of its being predefined by society or inheritance. Henceforth, the believer is forced to become a religious "from within." If contemporary culture is to be reintegrated, it will have to be done by integrated individuals. Personal renewal may then spread to small communities, which in turn could indirectly affect society at large. But the time of the res republica christiana -- of what some would call Christendom -- is past. I expect it to remain so for any foreseeable time.

What does this mean for religion in the future? Christianity has always started with a personal conversion of the heart. The case of Augustine reminds us of this primary fact. At a time when the unity of our culture has become scattered, we, like Augustine, are forced to rebuild it from within. Augustine's world was more religious than ours. But he shared our predicament of living at a time in which traditional values had collapsed. It's hard for us to imagine what the end of the Roman Empire must have meant for its citizens. The central questions which Augustine addressed in The City of God were of absolute moment to him and to his contemporaries. What or who is responsible for the end of civilization? What can we do about it? In response, Augustine developed a remarkable form of what one might call a Christian humanism that fused the elements of his fragmented culture -- Neoplatonic philosophy, Roman civil morality, the heritage of the great Roman poets -- into a new synthesis within his Christian faith. Although this synthesis became the foundation of a new culture, his first concern was a personal one. The Confessions is not the record of a cultural project, but it presents his life as a constant response to what he sensed to be a personal, divine calling. The Confessions records a dialogue with God in which the first word comes always from God's side.

In speaking of religion's need for inwardness, I am not advocating any form of interiority that isolates the individual or the Christian community from contemporary culture, but rather an integral and all-integrating Christian humanism that derives its inspiration from within. Christians have no right to seclude themselves from society. Even the contemplative is responsible for the civilization in which he or she lives. By its very nature, spiritual life is transformative of all aspects of life. The spiritual Christian belongs to a community, a community that, naturally, in the first place is the church. But it also includes that hidden yet intimate communion of like-minded persons, spiritual men and women of other faiths. The secularization of the West and the revolution in communications have converted our society into an intrinsically pluralist one. Believers living in a pluralist society have an obligation to acquaint themselves seriously with the presence of the Spirit in other faiths. That obligation reaches, beyond tolerance and even beyond dialogue, to an integration of otherness within their own theology.

In our age we have come to understand our particular faith within the context of the aspirations, desires, and needs expressed in so many forms since the beginning of the human race. We must learn to respect these many ways of humankind's longing for God as religiously meaningful in the light of our own faith. Some believers, following ancient examples, have been inspired to adopt practices of prayer and meditation from other faiths without betraying their own religious identity. Obviously, Christians have received much from the Hebrew mother faith of which they are no longer aware. Also, from the fourth century on, Greek fathers borrowed from Neoplatonic speculation to such an extent that, via Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius, and Maximus Confessor, these sources have strongly influenced the structure of Christian mysticism. Why should we then not continue a process that began with the very first articulation of Christian faith and practice? Buddhist silence may help the Christian in deepening insight into the mystery of the Trinity, where the Father is the silent source of the eternal Word. And how could God's omnipresence in Vedantic Hinduism not remind the Christian of the Spirit, qui replevit orbem terrarum -- who fills the entire world? Such analogies cannot be fortuitous; believers would do well to heed them as signs of a divine Providence that, with loving care, rules not only Christians but all humans.

It would be wrong, however, to regard these analogies as justifying a syncretistic relativism that entitles each person to compose his or her own religious smorgasbord. This attitude, all too common today, shows a lack of respect not only for one's own faith but also for those faiths one so casually dismantles for spare parts. It presents yet another manifestation of that radical anthropocentrism, the chief enemy of sincere religion, that tempts believers to bring the language of transcendence down to the level of a purely human choice. Without detracting from the providential nature of other faiths, Christians cannot ignore the fact that this same Providence has led them to a faith that is not a "choice" but, for those chosen, an absolute summons. To relativize faith is to subvert its fundamentally divine character.

In addition, they are also responsible for the culture in which they live, however inhospitable to their faith. That faith should be confident enough to render them capable of living a vigorous, free, and open life within a society of unlike-minded. I see no conflict between a strictly personal, interior life and an integral humanism that embraces, from whatever source it may come, "all that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious," as Paul writes to the Philippians. The spiritual Christian should not be engaged in constant polemics with the surrounding secular world. Since his/her force and strength come from within, he or she can afford to grant society and culture their full autonomy.

Essential for religious life in a secular society is that it originates within the self, as a personal response to an inner call, rather than being derived from inherited habits or from social pressure. That personal attention to the inner voice had been lacking became evident in the massive apostasies of the 1970s and '80s when social support for religion suddenly weakened. Those whose faith was not rooted in firm personal convictions simply abandoned it. Today faith requires an inner life. I am reminded of Rahner's remark that Christianity in the future will be mystical or it will not be at all. That expression is too strong only if we consider the mystical as the exceptional rather than as the spiritual experience that belongs to the essence of religion, accessible to all believers.

The original meaning of mystical included the common Christian awareness -- at whatever degree -- of a divine presence in Scripture, religious doctrine, liturgy, and nature. All great Christian writers attribute considerable significance to such an experience, Luther and Calvin as well as Teresa or John of the Cross. For good reason, for without some experience, however humble, few people would be religious, particularly today when the social pressure for actively belonging to a religious body has become so much weaker. Even Christians disaffected with church services, confused by doctrine, and unconvinced by some principles of moral guidance often somehow remain acquainted with those delicate disclosures of an invisible, inaudible, mysterious presence.

Ironically, the new significance attached to experience in religion occurs at a time when that very experience has become both weak and ambiguous in our secular culture -- so ambiguous that many no longer discern it as specifically religious. So weak that it is hardly perceptible. Even before this century, John Henry Newman said in one of his sermons: "He is still here; He still whispers to us, He still makes sign to us. But His voice is too low, and the world's din is so loud, and His signs are so covert, and the world is so restless, that it is difficult to determine when He addresses us, and what He says." Today far more than in Newman's time that voice is being drowned out by the increasing noise of the ever humming, faxing, ringing world of ubiquitous communications that leave us no time for silence. Nonetheless, the small, thin voice persists, gently urging many toward a faith that, they hope, will yield more abundant and more particular disclosures.

The spiritual emptiness of our time is a symptom of its religious poverty, but it also presents an opportunity for deepening one's religious life. Of course, many people never experience any emptiness: they are too busy to feel much absence of any kind. Yet occasionally some unexpected event may strike at the heart of their existence and suddenly life appears to sink into a bottomless void. At such occasions everyone feels the anguish in Psalm 18: "The sorrows of death compassed me. . . The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me." Contemporary literature has paid more attention to such calls from the abyss than the theology of the past, which tended to be a self-supporting system that, instead of responding to existential anguish, ignored it in self-assumed sufficiency. But precisely this sense of emptiness accounts for the strange attraction mystical literature holds for our contemporaries. The mystics also convey a sense of emptiness that appeals to the absence of religious meaning so many experience today. It is, of course, an illusion -- and one characteristic of our presumptuous age -- to presume that there is more than a remote analogy between the modern actual emptiness, often not or only half experienced, and the intense feeling of absence of those who know God to be present despite that feeling. Yet what attracts the modern believer to the masters of spiritual life is, I think, less affinity of disposition than the fact that in our emptiness we have nowhere to turn but inwardly. The contemporary believer is forced to start the spiritual journey from within, even though there also he/she also encounters that absence. My heart remains as silent as the world in which the creatures have ceased to speak in sacred tongues.

In confrontation with the inner silence of absence we perceive the true significance of what Simone Weil aptly called that sacred "sense of absence." If fully confronted, the emptiness of one's own heart may turn into a powerful cry for the One who is not there, the absent present One. My very godlessness becomes invested with religious meaning, and the loss of the divine presence assumes a positive significance. As in the night of St. John of the Cross, absence, intensely experienced and accepted, may become the meeting place between the soul and the transcendence of a God who has "emptied himself into the world, transformed his substance in the blind mechanism of the world, a God who dies in the inconsolable pits of human affliction."(1)

Some consciousness of absence is inherent in the very nature of religion. A genuine encounter with God summons a person to take leave of the familiar words and concepts to venture out into a desert of unlimited and unexplored horizons. The oldest Buddhist doctrine proposed no other ideal than the attainment of total emptiness. Of "God" there is no question; emptiness itself becomes the space of transcendence. The monk must remain silent, yet silently he thanks the nameless source. Neither Judaism nor Christianity, the religions of the Word, of God's manifestation, can be satisfied with such an a-theist piety. But even those who engage upon a serious spiritual journey in the religion of manifestation invariably begin their pilgrimage by leaving the known for the unknown. All Christian mystics, however much they may assert God's presence in creation, at first emphasize the difference. This negation springs from an intense awareness that anything they know is totally unlike God.

Emptiness tends to make itself felt at the occasion of painful personal experiences -- the death of a loved one, the collapse of a marriage, the alienation of a child, the failure of a business, or simply the lack of appreciation others feel for our work. But the believer also experiences some of it in the discomforts of daily life -- the pain caused by our failures, the dissatisfaction with one's work, or the many disturbances that invade our ordinary existence. They also may be converted into a spiritual sense of emptiness by what has recently been called a "spirituality from below." "The spirituality from below occupies itself with the question what we ought to do when everything goes wrong, how we can deal with the fragments of our life and from them fashion something new."(2) Theology has paid little attention to those negative experiences. But spiritual literature has never ceased to reflect on them.

One might wonder how the inward turn required by the climate of our time relates to the biblical piety that has nourished the church since the beginning. Let it be clear: spiritual Christianity is not an alternative form of Christianity, invented for present circumstances! It intensifies and interiorizes what the church has done for centuries when voicing the variety of human feelings in their relation to God through the words of Scripture -- in liturgy, the divine office, and private devotion. At all times have the Bible's words of desolation, sadness, even despair, but also of joy and of love, expressed the moods of thoughtful Jews and Christians. Underneath the letter of the Bible they have at all times found a spiritual meaning to comfort them in their distress and uncertainty. This spiritual meaning enabled them to bridge the distance between the past and the present of the sacred text. Today many believers feel thoroughly confused. Much of what they once considered to be unshakable truth appears very shaky. In their perplexity they still may turn to the Word. Even when they find no more words of their own, the original ones of our faith remain. No advanced biblical criticism is needed to let these words give voice to our own feelings of joy, sadness, and even despair. The late Henri Nouwen always had the Psalms nearby to bring "before God" the passing moods and attitudes of the day. Another friend, when reading of the recent horrors in Bosnia-Herzegovina, could vent his emotions only by turning to the Book of Lamentations. Who does not recognize the words of hopelessness voiced in Psalm 3: "How are they increased that trouble me. Many are they that rise up against me. Many there be which say of my soul, there is no help for him in God"? Or when regaining confidence, those of Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?. . . . Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. . . ."?

Spiritual life, as Bishop Joseph Butler knew, rests entirely on analogies. The Bible provides the analogies that enable the believer to convey religious meaning to any kind of private experience. But the Word ought not to be restricted to the expression of our subjective feelings. It will extend religious comfort only if we allow it to speak in its own name. The first lesson to learn in a time of need is that of listening. Only when we attentively heed the Word can it lift us out of our private sorrows and convey divine meaning to them. Still, the question remains: How can we seriously listen to stories and claims of a faith that originated in a cultural context so far removed from today's reality? The distance in time has become a major problem for our contemporaries. To be sure, biblical criticism remains essential for understanding Scripture. The literal interpretation of the text must remain the basis of a spiritual reading of the Bible. But there is a literalism that closes off the spiritual meaning. I consider it symptomatic of the spiritual poverty of our age that many believers have lost the sensitivity needed to perceive the symbolic within the literal. They tend to oppose one to the other: events and words are either symbolic or literal. Such a disjunction is fatal to a spiritual reading. The purely literal reading deprives the paradigmatic events of our faith of their enduring redemptive significance and reduces an historical religion to a document of the past. A purely symbolic reading, on the other hand, weakens the import of events and words to mere occasions for creating entirely new symbols. Caught between the horns of this false dilemma, many Christians flee the historical part of their faith to take refuge in some kind of abstract deism. But the historical need not be exclusive of the symbolic, and its richly symbolic content conveys a contemporaneity for all times.

An older conception of religious symbols understood them as both concrete, historical realities in their own right and signs referring to an eternal reality. If the words and events of the biblical narratives are to have more than a historical significance that falls entirely under the jurisdiction of historical criticism, they also must be read as sanctifying symbols. Experience belongs to the essence of religion, even though it never coincides with it. In this age, it has become an indispensable element for the reception and maintenance of faith. That is why the cultivation of an interior life is no luxury, but a necessity for today's Christians.

This reflection on the failings and new possibilities of religion as we enter what Christians call its third millennium has, via many detours and byways, returned us to its starting point. Once again, we find ourselves, even as the early Christians, confronting a message given to all yet demanding a personal decision of each, heard publicly yet to be understood privately. So it was when the message first reached a civilization unprepared for it; so it is again now that the new civilization which Christianity has fashioned is withdrawing from it; so it has always been for those who sounded the depths of the message and followed it most honestly -- the spiritual Christians of the past twenty centuries.


    This essay is offered by its author as a commemoration of the work of Joseph Cunneen as founding editor of this journal.

1. [Back to text]  Susan A. Taubes, "The Absent God," in Toward a New Christianity, ed. Thomas J. J. Altizer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967), 116.

2. [Back to text]  Anselm Grün and Meinrad Dufner, Spiritualität von Unten (Münsterschwarzach: Vier Türme-Verlay, 1994), 9.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 3.