Monday, 17 December 2012

Evangelizing an anti-intellectual culture

The recent Census revealed that in England and Wales the number of professed Christians in 2011 fell to 33.2 million, or 59% of the overall population, from 37.3 million (72%) in 2001. People who said they had “no religion” rose by more than six million to 14.1 million, almost double what it was ten years earlier. We have of course been aware of the decline for some time, and it has provoked much discussion both of the root causes and of
possible responses. The call to a New Evangelization has focused our thoughts on what it is in our culture that is turning people away from faith and towards materialism. The obvious culprit is something often called “secularism”, and many of us have come to the conclusion that faith cut adrift from reason tends to perish – it turns into fundamentalism and appeals only to a minority of pathetic extremists. A faithless reason, a secular rationality that takes no account of the supernatural, is therefore regarded as our number one enemy.

Some go further, and say that we are now living not just in a post-Christian society, but in a post-secular one. We inhabit a political and technological order that does not require us to believe, or even to think, anything at all. It makes no assumptions except pragmatic ones. It cares not about what is true or false, but what will work. Not what is good or bad, but what a majority will accept. Not what is beautiful or ugly, but what price someone will pay for it. This is the kingdom of will and of desire, the “dictatorship of relativism”. Words like “true” and “good” may still be used when convenient, but they have been evacuated of content.

If this is true, the real problem in our culture is not just the rise of reason and the decline of faith; it is the decline of reason. The Enlightenment, the cult of universal reason, with all its high hopes, has failed. This has become a stupid culture, a culture without intelligence, a culture that does not respect reason. It is a culture that is based not on thought but on feeling and instinct, on gut reactions and base desires. It isn’t interested in ideas, or consistency, let alone truth. (And without an interest in truth, it won’t be interested in goodness or beauty either. The three live or die together.)

Evangelization, many of us have thought, is easiest through art and literature – the Way of Beauty. But beauty is not enough. While it can stir the emotions and even awaken interest, beauty can only prepare the ground. To be effective, evangelization in the modern world has to address the root cause of faithlessness, which is not lack of art, but lack of philosophy.

This is a much more serious problem. How do you get a whole culture to think again? How do you even get a whole generation even reading again, after they have stopped? Reading is the essential prelude to thinking, because it slows things down and puts things in order. The kind of reading and writing we do now is reactive, instantaneous, prejudiced, colloquial. It is an extension of the chat room.

The only answer I can find is to begin with education. We need to build a thinking, literate, intellectual culture. Only then will a New Evangelization become possible. The foundations for the New Evangelization can be laid by re-booting the educational process. We might call this a process of “re-enchantment”, because enchantment conveys a sense of wonder and mystery – precisely the elements that are lacking in an education designed to fragment our sense of ourselves and the world. Wonder and mystery, amazement and appreciation, are the beginnings of curiosity and thought.

The essence of the ancient idea of the “liberal arts” was to prepare the mind for philosophical thought and thus for real human freedom. This could be done by studying the world as an inter-related whole reflected in man as the image of the Logos. It can be begun at any age, and indeed the foundations must be laid early, when the child is already awakening to the wonder that is the dawn of philosophy.

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