Heroic Materialism in European Culture - II

The next difficulty is the identification of those secular matters that already exist within religion as such. This is not an easy task, since the time of Marx’s stigmatization of religion as “the opium of the masses,” ushering in secular atheistic humanism. To be sure, an anti-religion stance was already in place within Western civilization with the advent of Cartesian rationalism and Voltaire’s idolization of reason ushering in rampant rationalism, but the anti-religion stance became more intransigent with Marx’s above statement; since then those who consider themselves “enlightened” tend to look upon religion as inimical to a secular humanism which claims to overcome man’s religious alienation. That is a caricature of religion in general and Christianity in particular but many have misguidedly thrown out the baby (religious faith) with the bath-water (religious corruption and fanaticism). They usually end up grinding an axe against religion making it the scapegoat for many of the failures of the post-modern rationalistic mind-set.

As is well known, Marx contended that it is such religious alienation that turns Man away from the building of history on earth and the acceptance of 'inevitable progress' as contemplated in Hegel's philosophy of history. He denounced religion on the grounds that it abolishes history by making human destiny ultimately reside outside of history as a sort of pie in the sky. Another caricature if there ever was one. For him Christian humanism was nothing short of a fraud and an oxymoron. Perhaps the French surrealist poet Andre Breton expressed this philosophy best when he branded Jesus Christ as “that eternal thief of human energies,” not to speak of Nietzsche’s outlandish view of the same. In effect this is the challenge of secularism to religion, the hidden agenda of the eventual elimination of religion as such, often ambiguously disguised as “clear separation” of the secular from the sacred, or as “strict neutrality” on religious matters. More often it comes out of a biased slanderous caricature where the facts are cavalierly distorted and selected.

In facing this challenge religion needs to answer this crucial question: Can it supply men and women of today with a convincing rationale for building up historical tasks within a humanistic philosophy of history, while at the same time bear witness to transcendence? In order to answer this question one needs to analyze the secular commitments which all authentic religions already implicitly advocate. Teilhard de Chardin did that for Christianity in insisting that matter and history matter, that evolution does not contradict creation that building the earth is the responsibility of every human being. He once compared a contemporary pagan with what he called a “true Christian humanist.” The former, he said, loves the earth in order to enjoy it; the latter, loving it no less, does so to make it purer and draw from it the strength to escape from it. But the escape is not to be construed as an alienating flight from reality, but rather as the opening, or the issue which alone confers final meaning on the cosmos.

This is the basic difference between an Epicurus and a St. Francis of Assisi. They both loved the world but the first proposed a closed, deterministic immanent world or one based on an eternal return; the other proposes a world with windows to the transcendent tending toward what the ancient Greeks called a telos, or a purpose. That distinction is crucial. To discern it better, all one needs to do is look around at modern Europe to realize that indeed Epicureanism, since Lucretius, is alive and well in the West: there, soccer games are much more popular than Sunday worship. The rather convenient scapegoat for this phenomenon is usually to blame the “corrupting” pragmatism and materialism of American popular culture. Ironically, some 60% of people in the US worship on Sunday, compared for 25% in Western Europe, which is not to say that merely going to Church makes you a Christian.

In any case, De Chardin insisted all his life that it was a Christian duty to build the earth and history, to contribute to the solution of pressing secular tasks dealing with justice, wisdom, creativity, human development, solidarity, peace, ecological balance, as penultimate responsibilities and goals to be achieved right here on earth. Another example of the commitment to secular values implied in Christianity is the concept of “liberation theology” which embraces the struggle for a more just world that better responds to human needs; fostering the building of history, in other words, without forgetting the witness to transcendence. A creative tension between the immanent and the transcendent needs to be kept together; not unlike the horizontal of a cross (the historical) intersecting the vertical (the transcendent).

What we have argued so far may intimate to those open to it that it is a mistake to assume with Marx that development is incompatible with religion, just as it is a great mistake to assume that democracy is incompatible with religion. This is especially so today, when most religious institutions allow for, even encourage, “religious freedom.” I suggest that if one manages to overcome those unfortunate, stereotypical modern notions originating in the so called “age of reason” which some secular humanists have reduced to caricatures parading as ideas, one may be surprised to discover that a respectful dialogue between religious values and social development plans, usually proves beneficial to both. In the final analysis the greater challenge today is not that of secularism to religion to become more tolerant, but that of religion to secularism to become more holistic and humane, to open itself to a greater gamut of values, thus leaving history and human endeavors open to the transcendent.

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