Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Vatican reaches out to unbelievers (Contribution)

It seems that the Vatican is about to create a "Pontifical Council for New Evangelisation". Its goal would be to reach out to agnostics and atheists.

(Best guess from one Vatican watcher suggests an announcement on the 29th of this month).

The Pontifical Council for Culture has been thinking along such lines since at least 2004, asking how the church should respond to contemporary unbelief and religious indifference.

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, who heads up the culture council, has explained that any effort would not be aimed at "polemical" atheists because they "read religious texts like fundamentalists", and so are not open to dialogue.

No love lost there, then.

But might this initiate make for a real exchange between those on the inside and outside of faith, who value the Christian tradition?

If so, the Vatican will have to acknowledge that it can positively gain from the insights of agnostics and atheists – much, perhaps, as the priests need the prophets in the Hebrew Bible.

Without such gadflies, the church becomes sluggish simply on account of its size – to recall the remark that Socrates made about ancient Athens.

In other words, the Court of the Gentiles, as the new council is also known, will have to be less about evangelisation, and more about dialogue.

There are occasionally moments when the Vatican sounds open. "Who are the non-believers? What is their culture? What are they saying to us? What can we say to them? What dialogue can we establish with them?" the Pontifical Council for Culture has asked.

Well, here are three suggestions for dialogue where those of us on the outside of faith might have something of value for those on the inside.

The first concerns the Vatican's most pressing contemporary problem, its sexual teaching. Writing in The Tablet, the Catholic commentator Clifford Longley recently identified what's gone wrong by contrasting Catholic sexual teaching with Catholic social teaching.

The social teaching flourishes because it is based upon real relationships, and reflects on the goods, and ills, that arise from shared life.

But the sexual teaching is based upon prohibitions, blunt rules that bear little if any relation to life as people live it.

Witness what the church has to say on celibacy, contraception, divorce, homosexuality.

Absolute rules on these matters don't make for human flourishing. They are stones that sink lives, should individuals be unfortunate enough to find themselves tied to them.

That disconnect is nub of the problem: the Catholic hierarchy has drained itself of wisdom in sexual matters.

It's a wisdom that might be replenished not only by talking to the faithful, but by talking to those on the outside of faith who seek what it means to live flourishing lives.

A second area concerns the way we moderns talk about truth. What seems to have been lost is a dynamic the philosopher Karl Popper called "the wisdom of the Socratic saying, 'I know that I do not know.'"

It's the wisdom embedded in the apophatic tradition within Christianity, that which recognises God-talk as requiring such Socratic modesty.

And yet this kind of theology is substantially marginalised in contemporary western Christianity, not least because of the present pope's fear of relativism.

Now, there is something to fear in relativism. As Benedict himself put it on the eve of his election,

"We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desire."

(Or to you and I, shopping.)

But something's lost when relativism becomes a fixation, namely the idea that all God-talk is relativistic too: I know that I do not know.

Agnostics are only too conscious of their incapacity to know God. And better that uncertainty, we say, than confusing what you say about God with what God would be like.

A third area would be to make common cause against certain philosophies that do the rounds and which undermine what it is to be human. It's been called "parascience" by Marilynne Robinson in her new book, Absence of Mind.

It's a kind of gnosticism: you think the world is one way, it says, when actually the world's different, and here's the secret to understanding it.

So, according to popularist neo-Darwinism, you think you're being kind to someone, when really you're robotically following the imperatives of selfish genes.

According to pop-psych Freudianism, you think you're falling in love, when really you're the victim of Oedipal urges.

Or according to reductionist philosophies of mind, you think you're a willing, fairly free, imaginative mind, when really you're ruled by an electro-chemical, computational piece of meat called the brain.

Parascience is profoundly anti-human. It purports to explain us, and in so doing, explains us away, trivialising and discrediting that which most richly makes us.

Anyone with a concern for what it is to be human should be worried about it, the agnostic or atheistic humanist and the incarnational Catholic alike.

Sex, truth and humanity.

There's plenty of material for a real dialogue.


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