Mark Johnson, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
In the larger religious arenas beyond those of Friends secularisation is a major concern, and much effort is poured into combatting what is seen by assorted religiously based cultural warriors as a “desert-like” space of relativism and amorality. In the Western world religious institutions no longer wield the political influence they once did, and we can see by the predominant focus upon an increasingly narrow understanding of sexuality that religious institutions reveal what they have often been about: self-interest, control, and power.
The religious domain, however, is not solely occupied by the religiously neo-conservative – despite their desires to be the only ones in the room. Nor is God the property of the immature and violent. Many other people of faith live in a secular world. Friends are part of this reorientation. We can choose, as many do, to throw our lot in with closed and aggressive atheistic notions, or to abandon God to those who in fact have no faith in God – who in fact pervert God for their own ends. Fundamentalism easily embraces both poles. In mindful rejection of both of these extremes, we can dig a little deeper and more faithfully and be part of a solution which can listen to that of God free from the constraints of religious privilege and from a too-ready dismissal.
What is peculiar to the current context for Friends is that they have never been companions to those forces which now –too late – see secularisation as that desert eating into their cities of God. In a sense Friends have always been living in that time when the self-interest of the Church is exposed and rendered ineffectual. This is because Friends have always been orientated to the lived experience of the Kingdom of God, towards its in-breaking into the world – the seed of which is scattered both within and without the Church. For Friends there has never been a privileged location or narrative for encounter with God. So too have Friends never been companions of the State, as the Kingdom of God is “not of this world”.
Friends have been historically enabled to experience that of God free of the self-interests of Church and State. A benign secularisation does not necessarily exclude that of God, but instead casts down many an idolatry which has long polluted our relationship with God.
Secularisation can be an opportunity, and one which leads us into spaces of deep spiritual and faithful encounter. We can choose between wasteland or desert; a space of desolation or of encounter; of brutality or love. But choose we must otherwise others will choose for us.
Typical of the religious establishment’s struggle against its perceived enemy is the following statement from the current Pope. Of course other contemporary religious figures could also be cited such as the current Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, and numerous Evangelical figures in the United States and Africa to name but a few, but the Vatican has taken a special interest in secularisation, and for questionable reasons.
In June of 2010, from the Basilica of St Paul-Outside-the-walls in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to establish a new pontifical council. That council was to focus upon the address of the “progressive secularisation” of once predominantly Christian cultures and territories. During the speech in which the new council was announced Pope Benedict inadvertently indicated two important themes that are of special concern for those not willing to automatically conform to the rhetoric of “culture war” or to that of the “clash of civilisations”, both of which well-used vehicles are clearly implicit in any simplistic division of world into us and them. The themes that were inadvertently addressed were those of “powerlessness” and of “desert”. In this article I will explore some of the ramifications of these unintended allusions, and also add a third: that of the “stranger”, a figure so deeply imbedded within the history of spirituality and so deeply challenging to those that strive to assert their rigid certainties upon the world.
Pope Benedict remarked that in the face of so many historical, social, political and (especially) spiritual changes, all of which overwhelm our human capacities “It seems sometimes we pastors of the Church (are) reliving the experience of the Apostles, when thousands of needy people followed Jesus, and he asked: what can we do for all these people? They then experienced their powerlessness.” It is worth pausing to listen to the nuances that are swirling under this one sentence and the content of the speech generally, because here is revealed a primary matter of concern: that of power.
For a while now the rhetoric of a siege mentality has dominated the evangelical content of neo-orthodox mission. The declared “culture wars” of the 1980’s have continued unabated within the churches, despite having reached their apotheosis outside of church boundaries in the slaughter that some commentators construct as the “clash of civilizations”. In harmony with the deeply destructive range of narratives manufactured within a “culture war”, enemies are identified, ever more strict criteria of purity and legalism are enforced, and Gospel and Tradition become malevolently transformed into the weapons by which cruelty is given legitimacy.
In such an atmosphere of manufactured menace and threat we are led to forget that our faith is based upon the very thing that many now so fear: powerlessness. Faith is not based upon a triumphant messianic warrior, or upon ritual righteousness and privilege. Faith is built upon the self-emptying of God, a scandal and a blasphemy to the religious and cultural respectabilities and self-sufficiencies of the first century; and, too, dismissed by todays versions of the same.
Just as once the small imaginations of humanity created an elaborate divide between matter and spirit, time and eternity, profane and holy, so now one is constructed between secular and ‘Church’. Advocates of such partition live as if Christ has not already healed that breach, as if the Kingdom is not already here and ahead of us, independent of us, leaven-like and as the mustard seed, beyond the confines of Church. For faith, it is the Incarnation itself that is the Holy “yes-saying” to that we too narrowly and presumptuously define as alien to God. It is not our place to be creating new categories of ‘Gentiles’ so to once again exclude. There is no Church-secular divide in the Christian understanding of the Incarnation or of the Kingdom of God.
Powerlessness should not be feared, as it is the very reason for being of faith. Power erases faith. The insularity of power creates the illusion of self-sufficiency, and it is this that we then worship: the cold and hollow-eyed certainties of power.
Pope Benedict went on in the same speech to state “…in the deserts of the secularised world, the soul of man is thirsty for God, for the living God”. But rather than despair in the deserts of the secularised world could it instead be that human being can again become aware of its need for God? The secular as desert is a potentially rich means by which to understand our contemporary experience of God.
The desert has long been regarded as that space into which we are led or into which we enter to be stripped of our illusions and our comforts. It is not just a place; it is a space, an environment — a state of mind and heart. We do not enter the desert if we take with us minds and hearts full of our pantheons of little chattering deities and narcissisms. Do we seriously think that God is to be found within the confines of familiar comforts? We see here that desert is not a place of romance or of sentiment. This is no place for concerns for feeling as its own end, or other sentimental substitutions for actual faith. Such will soon perish in the dry extremes. Nor is this a place for the phalanxes and armour of analytical reason alone; ordered patterning cannot withstand the barrage of wind and sand.
Rather, the desert is the space of radical Silence, and of being stripped; and in such a space – one not of our choosing – we trustingly open ourselves to God’s rendering of us. Yes, the Pope is right to say that in such a space the soul will cry out for God, but this may have been the first time that such a soul has cried out for God, rather than been lulled into the usual infantile embrace of placebo and artifice. This may be a needed space, rather than one to be despaired about. How can our souls cry out for God if never tested, if forever corralled –herd-like – within certainties that others place around us? Or if coddled and never permitted to mature?
Finally I want to suggest a third means by which the secular can be appreciated rather than constructed as necessary enemy. I want to suggest that the secular is strange – the secular is the stranger and/or the outsider.
Such a stranger can be responded to with hostility, perceived as threat. But let’s stop the reflex of lonely self-interest. Let’s ask what is it that we regard as under threat? This takes courage, and it takes faith. It is a question that we probably cannot face if asked within our space of suffocating comforts and armour-like certainties. It is a question of the desert, and the stranger can only come to us in such a questioning way if we are already in the desert and vulnerable – if we consent to being seen by the eyes of the other, to be seen anew, beyond our control.
This is liberation from the heavy burdens of our insulating fear, our ego and our pride. In letting ourselves be seen anew, and thereby created anew in environs not of our choosing, we are offered the new beginning: that of the encounter with God.
Pope Benedict xvi. Apostolic Letter UBICUMQUE ET SEMPER, establishing the council for promoting the new evangelization. Given at Castel Gandolfo, on the 21st day of September 2010.