There are two things which prompted me to write this article: the New Evangelization and Pope Francis’ insistence that believers must get out of their comfort zones and reach out to others.
German theologian, Heinz Zahrnt (1915-2003), wrote on numerous topics, but he is arguably most known for his writings on secularization and how Christians can still provide an effective witness in the midst of it. In order to lay the groundwork and provide context for my own comments on Zahrnt’s work, I think it is important to show why I think it is important to study the work of theologians like Zahrnt. First off, I think he rightly defines secularization and it’s spread throughout our culture:
In the modern age, secularization, the ordering of the world on it’s own terms, has overwhelmed every province of life like an avalanche…. The process of secularization has largely been complete and is the accepted characteristic of our whole life and existence (The Question of God).
Therefore, given this “accepted characteristic of our whole life,” Christians must be able to articulate the Good News in a world seeking to order itself on “it’s own terms,” a concept contrary to the Gospel (cf. Prov 16:3, MT 6:33, 2 Tim 4:2). Zahrnt believes Christianity has been presented a challenge:
Christian faith must be confronted in ruthless honesty with the changed reality of the world…and also the changed relationship of man to the reality of the world…” (The Question of God).
In his book, Gott Kann Nich Sterben (God Cannot Die), which was released in 1972 under the English title, What Kind of God? A Question of Faith, Zahrnt offers five presuppositions which he feels need to be accepted as givens when preaching the gospel in the modern world. While he outlines particular challenges associated with each presupposition, I can see there are also unique opportunities which Christians can benefit from individually and collectively. Additionally, I believe both Zahrnt’s challenges and the opportunities I outline help to create inroads for believers to share their faith.
The first presupposition is: there is a scientific explanation for most of our experiences in the world. Whether it is the weather, medical cures, fortunes/misfortunes of individuals, or victories in war, there are explanations for these things, and almost all other phenomena, which do not require any reference to God (I say “almost” because miracles still happen). Many people left the Church over the centuries because their faith had been damaged by the discovery that a reference to the divine is not required in order to know or understand how things work in the world.
There are some who like to create a “tension” between religion and science which, in reality, does not exist. A scientific explanation for many of the phenomena in the world, formerly attributed to God, provides the opportunity to invite people to a more personal, inward encounter with God. People who seek God in secondary effects (e.g. thunder, financial reward) are missing the point of the Incarnation: God has invited us into a personal relationship with him (that is a phenomenon (an experience) science can’t explain).
People don’t (or at least they shouldn’t) maintain close, earthly relationships because of what the other person can do for them; they maintain them because they want to be in relationship with the other person. So too with God. People should want to be in a relationship with him and not just see him as their “genie in the bottle,” granting wishes or showing off his limitless power.
The second presupposition Zahrnt offers is: people’s concept of authority has changed. Nothing is accepted as “true” any more without being subjected to the judgement of reason. No longer will people accept, “because it’s in the Bible” or “because the Church says so” as sufficient justification for anything.
The opportunity now available is Christians can deepen their faith, truly trusting in God with their whole heart, and not only when good fortunes are plentiful (cf. Job 2:10, Mt 5:45). People are not slaves, in the sense that they have no will of their own. Believers can take their faith to greater depths because of what they learn. Consider what Thomas Aquinas writes on this subject:
Reason and intellect in man cannot be distinct powers. We shall understand this clearly if we consider their respective actions. For to understand is simply to apprehend intelligible truth: and to reason is to advance from one thing understood to another, so as to know an intelligible truth. And therefore angels, who according to their nature, possess perfect knowledge of intelligible truth, have no need to advance from one thing to another; but apprehend the truth simply and without mental discussion, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. vii). But man arrives at the knowledge of intelligible truth by advancing from one thing to another; and therefore he is called rational (ST I, Q.79, A. 8)
Christians should not persist in having a “blind faith.” There may be a time when a person first accepts the gift of faith (CCC 162) that their faith is “blind,” in the sense that it has not matured through the use reason. However, Christians are to progress in their faith, deepen it, through the use of their reason and intellect (cf. Rom 12:2, 1 Cor 13:11, 1 Cor 14:20, 2 Pt 3:17-18).
The third presupposition pointed out by Zahrnt is people today are more critical of ideology. The modern world, with all its technological advancements (especially in communications), is able to see the social misuse of religion by individuals or by groups, both inside and outside the Church. The most obvious example is the scandalous actions of some priests brought to light in the last 15 years even though most of the incidents occurred 30-50 years ago. The complicity of their bishops, an arguably even worse crime, who used their power to protect an unjust status quo is what creates and nurtures the distrust of the Church’s leadership. People will not accept a lack of transparency justified by a claim to divine right to protect those who have broken the law.
However in the midst of this there is an opportunity for both individuals and the Church. People should walk before God, and before temporal rulers, with their dignity intact. There is a possibility to (re)discover what it means to be “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the “image of God” with an intrinsic and undeniable dignity (cf. Gen 1:27, Ps 139:14, CCC 1700). Additionally, the Church should focus on it’s primary mission of saving souls by introducing them to love, which is most perfectly expressed in the relationship of the Trinity (CCC 850). I definitely see this message coming through loud and clear in Pope Francis’ pontificate.
Zahrnt writes, as his fourth presupposition, that men and women in modern society are more focused on the here and now and not the hereafter. Modern society recognizes, even promotes, the autonomy of earthly structures (e.g. science, academia, politics, etc.) from religion. The Church will continue to makes its voice heard on issues within these structures, but the days of the Church having any real control, or influence, in those realms is gone, or at least is quickly fading.
However, there is great opportunity in the midst of this reality. Believers can now look at how very intimate God wants to be with his people. God does not want to be the metaphysical “big brother,” enforcing his will through temporal means (e.g. government); that is not what it means to be in a relationship. Additionally, God offers his children opportunities to deepen their relationship with him and to experience the depths of his unconditional love in the midst of secular society, not through its structures. Consider what the Council Fathers taught during the Second Vatican Council:
This life of intimate union with Christ in the Church is nourished by spiritual aids which are common to all the faithful, especially active participation in the sacred liturgy. These are to be used by the laity in such a way that while correctly fulfilling their secular duties in the ordinary conditions of life, they do not separate union with Christ from their life but rather performing their work according to God’s will they grow in that union (AA #4).
The fifth and final presupposition Zahrnt mentions is modern man’s orientation to the future. People today don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the past. In fact, today it could be argued progressivism is regarded as some kind of universal virtue. One of modernity’s critiques of religion is that it is too rooted in the past: rituals used to worship deities are antiquated, steeped in tradition. In today’s culture, even the very idea of God’s existence is considered by many as out-dated. Modern man claims people must move beyond the childish idea of religious superstition (i.e. first presupposition) and recognize the brightness of man’s future can only be dimmed by mankind’s refusal to let go of religious belief.
Within modern man’s obsession with progressivism there is an opportunity for Christians to create new expressions for belief in the eternal dimensions of their faith. Do Christians take seriously Jesus’ eschatological promises: that he will come again to judge all of mankind and that he is preparing a place for his friends in heaven (cf. Mt 16:27-28, Mt 25:31-46, Jn 14:3)?
This idea of a “final judgement,” which often carries a negative connotation, can be showcased positively in light of the previous points made here; specifically, the eternal dimension of faith can begin right now by accepting the invitation to an intimate, loving relationship with God.