22 Sep

Assimilation or identity in Christ

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/22/15

Francisco Javier Martínez Fernández on the choice facing the Church

“[A] Church that understands itself and reality through the prevailing categories of secular modernity (whether in their postmodern or Enlightenment form, or merely constituted as reactions to either of these) is doomed to disappear. Or at any rate, it will undergo such a metamorphosis that its continuity with ‘historical’ Christianity would be broken (indeed, it has in part already been broken). . . . Moreover, a Church that uses secular categories is incapable of having a productive and sincere encounter with people of other religious and cultural traditions. To the extent that it adapts itself to the categories of secular modernity, it takes on the precise role that modernity assigns to it; insofar as it embraces this role, the Church can only dissolve, or else be an instrument of violence and division. In order to meet every man and every woman in a way that allows all of us—Christians and non-Christians—to grow in our common humanity, the Church must free itself from the categories of modernity and recover its identity from within its own particular tradition.”

“The Church only exists in concrete cultural forms, on which the encounter with Christ—which from the beginning has always occurred in concrete cultural form—has had varying degrees of impact. This encounter can be the determining factor of the human experience, or it can remain merely a partial or marginal aspect thereof. The task of Christian education consists entirely of helping people pass from the latter condition to the former. For people in the latter situation, the categories determining Christian life continue to be those of the surrounding culture. And those categories will influence and weigh on the thought of individuals and peoples depending on how decisive the encounter with the Risen and Living Christ, Center and Lord of the cosmos and of history, has been in determining their self-awareness and awareness of reality.”

“Leaving the distinction between modern and postmodern cultures aside—though I do not claim that it is unimportant—the view of Christianity is fundamentally the same in both variations of secular culture: Christianity is a subset of the ‘religion’ category, and this fact clearly sets it apart from other spheres of human activities such as rational knowledge, work and art, the economy, ethics, and politics. Because it is ‘religion,’ it is assigned certain characteristics so that it will fit into the term’s preexisting, modern definition: religion is, above all, a set of beliefs that are not rationally verifiable, and are therefore designated ‘religious sentiment’ and assigned to the irrational realm of preference. They must remain tokens of a past culture fit only for a museum, or they must be contained within the private sphere. Because these beliefs are irrational and rigidly separated from the other spheres of human activity, they may not be guidelines for anything ‘real’ that has social significance or value—whether politics, economics, or family life. In general, these beliefs are depicted in fixed ritual expressions established by tradition and are often used as a foundation for specific ethical codes. An ethical code will be tolerated as long as its members live it as a free, private choice: that is, as long as it is not imposed by any person or institution, and as long as it cannot interfere with other beliefs and other ethical systems. If religion and the ethical code derived from it sought to emerge from the strictly private realm or the realm of folklore, they would become sources of violence. The mission and duty of preventing this violence falls to the state, the supreme protector and guarantor of individual liberties and the common good.”

“Given the assumptions of secular, modern society, the Church is left with two fundamental possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive, and which can be combined in different ways and to varying degrees. Either the Church accepts its role as a cultural leftover from the past, or it must dissolve into the surrounding society. The former means transforming into an optional collection of individuals who share certain beliefs, rights, moral rules, and tastes concerning one aspect of life that remains separate from the other aspects and is called ‘religious.’ The latter road leads before long to the disappearance of any identifiable Christian social reality, or at least of any Christian reality that can be identified with its own Tradition.”

—from Francisco Javier Martínez Fernández, “Church, Modernity, and Multiculturalism: An Extemporaneous Reflection,” in Retrieving Origins and the Claims of Multiculturalism (Eerdmans, 2014), edited by Antonio López and Javier Prades

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