I am taking it that “the world” in the title of this talk means just what it says, and is not just an expansive way of “society today” or “Trinidad society”. Taken that way, what the title suggests is that the world doesn’t have Christian values. It may once have had them, but now no longer does; or, it never had them, and now urgently needs them.
I want to respond to this issue in terms of four areas. First, I think that the connection between Christian beliefs and Christian values in the West or in Western society today has been severed, or is very much attenuated; that what we’re left with is a descriptive Christianity, the moral or ethical ghost that remains when full-bodied Christianity recedes. What we need is a renewal of Christianity itself, not a renewal of Christianpassion values. If the substance is recovered, the values will follow.
Secondly, under the heading of “Christian values” one needs to distinguish at least two levels. Some of what are considered Christian values, e.g., courage, compassion, generosity, justice, moderation etc, are not values of purely Christian origin. They occur both in the Bible and in ancient culture(s). Historically, the Christian vision incorporated much from the latter, particularly ancient classical culture. On the other hand, it gave rise to unique first-order values, as I would call them, which sprang directly from its fundamental beliefs.
Thirdly, I want to say something on whether or not morality is viable without religion; and finally, something on the serious hurdles in the way of recovering the Christian vision.
First of all, my point about the severance between beliefs and values. That there has been some diminution in Christian beliefs in the West, i.e. North America and particularly Europe, cannot be denied. One of the big items on Pope Benedict’s agenda for his pontificate is the return of Europe to its Christian heritage. You will remember how we grew up as Catholics praying for the conversion of Russia. Today Europe, for more than a century the missionary centre of the Church, has replaced Russia as the focus of conversion.
In England today and in parts of Europe, churches are being sold as real estate to enterprising entrepreneurs who convert them to fancy restaurants and bistros (next door to cemeteries). It’s difficult to judge whether this represents an index of the de-Christianization of society. Some observers, for instance, claim that while the numbers of people going to Church may have fallen dramatically, (as is also the case in the Caribbean), this does not mean that people have given up on belief. They may have ceased to be “religious”, (as they say these days), but they are “spiritual”. What this distinction means, however, is something I have difficulty grasping. All Western spirituality owes its origins to Western religious traditions. It is not and has never been a free-floating entity, above or distinct from such traditions, their forms and practices.
For example, you can’t talk about Jesuit spirituality without recognising the connection with Ignatius of Loyola. The same for Franciscan or Carmelite spirituality or the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. In every instance, you deal with connections to a living tradition. How spirituality in the form of “spiritual but not religious” can remain unconnected to specific roots is something quite difficult to imagine. What will happen, I surmise, is that it will morph into different things, continually incorporating other free-floating elements in the environment – as in fact it already has. What else is “new age” spirituality, for instance, except this?
My second point is that Christian first-order values (which secular culture routinely endorses) have direct roots in Christian beliefs. They were never conclusions reached from other premises; nor did they become values because we took a personal decision to espouse them. We are all valuable as persons, for instance, because God values us and created us with immortal souls; not because of some independently natural source of value. We have dignity as human beings not because a constitution gave it to us. Constitutions recognise dignity, they cannot confer it.
They say that rights are entailed by it. It is God the creator who gave us dignity from the fact that as human beings we are made in His image, and because Christ, the paradigm human individual, became “as we are.” We are all fundamentally equal because there is no hierarchy in importance among souls, and God has no favourites. The least among us is as important as the greatest because Christ is identified with the least. You can see from this what is meant by the nexus between beliefs and values.
Implications of these values were often at variance with those promoted in ancient culture. Aristotle, for instance, described the slave as “a living tool”, a piece of machinery with life. The vision that a slave was a person was something that eventually changed the entire social order in the West. It didn’t do so immediately, of course, and for quite some time, but from the beginning the die was cast. The same with the equality of the sexes. We still have a long way to go there, in the Church too; but the same thing applies. The die was cast from the beginning.
Ancient society did not regard the weak and the handicapped as worthy of any kind of personal or social preservation. It practiced a sort of natural eugenics. It left such infants on the hillsides to be devoured by wild animals or die from exposure.How does one account today for the severance that has set these values adrift? The major reason is the rise of secular society. We live today in a secular age, as the philosopher Charles Taylor argues, i.e. an age quite different from conditions under Christendom. By Christendom is meant, according to Taylor, a society where Christianity provided social coherence and self-identity. God was present in a host of social practices and at all levels of society. You couldn’t participate in anything without encountering God. Religious feasts, like Corpus Christi, for example, were occasions when Christian society displayed itself to itself.
In secular society, on the other hand, feasts like Corpus Christi represent vestiges of a bygone era, even for believers. Other public events with some religious import, such as our traditional opening of the Law Term, for instance, hardly reflect any encounter with the sacred, or with “ultimate reality,” despite the rhetoric and the location.
Taylor understands this to be secularity’s first meaning: “public spaces” become “emptied of God.”
This situation is still compatible with high statistics for religious belief, as the US exceptionally shows. What is shown elsewhere, however, in Europe, for instance, is secularity’s second meaning, namely, a declension or a falling off in religious practice, and a turn to privacy; people stop going to church.
The third meaning is the change from a society where belief in God is basically unproblematic and unchallenged, to one where belief is just one option among others. Belief today is no longer socially axiomatic. Alternatives exist, which are not necessarily aggressively anti-religious, though aggressiveness and antagonism have not vanished. One cannot even describe the situation in terms of indifferentism. A life without belief simply represents in lived experience a plausible way to live. It is a form of self-sufficient humanism, where the values formerly associated with an external transcendence are now located within the human.