“All religions,” writes Pope Benedict XVI in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, “try in one way or another to lift the veil of the future. They seem important precisely because they impart knowledge about what is to come, and to show man the path he has to take to avoid coming to grief.”
Has religion lost its potency in the modern world because mankind thinks that science and technology have made the future the present? More than twenty percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation; they have been dubbed “the Nones,” and not all of them are atheists. Many claim to believe in a higher power. They are uninterested, however, in a formal religion shaping and regulating their beliefs.
Multiple causes have sparked the rise of the Nones, but religion’s lost monopoly on lifting the veil to the future is surely one. Science and technology promise all the answers to any future problem—even if they do not know what that problem is yet or even if they cannot solve it currently. Countless people—believers included—have placed their faith in this promise. With it, religion’s import has diminished, for as people worry less about the existential unknowns of the future, they increase their focus on the immediate present.
Hence, “presentism” has contributed mightily to the secularity enveloping America and the nations of the developed world. “Every living culture must possess some spiritual dynamic, which provides the energy necessary for that sustained social effort which is civilization,” argued Christopher Dawson in Progress and Religion. When the present is the exclusive focus, it is no surprise that the individual exalts his place in the cosmos—life becomes “all about me.” In the last few generations, “expressive individualism” has become the spiritual dynamic of American culture and jurisprudence, and abortion is the sacrament of this self-centered spirituality.
Christian religions, of course, have much to offer the present moment and those consumed with it. Countless works of charity, education, and justice seek to alleviate human suffering from current pains. But these works are the necessary consequence of Christianity, not the reason for its existence. Religions exist to put us into communion with God and provide the framework for sustaining this communion. The crucial challenge for Christianity today is liberating so many from the prison of expressive individualism, inside of which there is no room for God nor vision of eternal life. There is only the individual wrapped in the suffocating and insufferable bubble of the present.
Rational arguments pointing out how faith in science is identical in nature to faith in God are important, but they are not likely to shake many free of the individualist, presentist worldview that they have unwittingly absorbed. These arguments should follow and support an appeal to the heart, to which science and technology are incapable of speaking. Neither can expressive individualism speak to the heart—the proof lies in the disturbing number of Americans today consumed by depression, rancor, and addiction. Grief will inevitably strike, and the heart will ache. Religion, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, is the best medicine for a broken heart.
How does religion, especially Catholicism, appeal to the heart? By being true to itself, which is to bring men and women to God through ritual, tradition, teaching, law, and sacrament. By involving all five human senses and the whole intellect in the worship of God, which is religion’s ultimate expression. By exhorting believers to deeper devotion and prayer, which St. Thomas Aquinas calls the interior acts of religion. By demonstrating how we ought to relate to God, and warning us to avoid vice, idolatry, and sacrilege.
Catholicism, through all these practices, raises men and women out of the present and into the eternal realm of God with the goal of divinizing them. Thus transformed, Catholics can then contribute to bringing their friends, coworkers, family, and neighbors to this same life-changing source. That is, they help lead others out of themselves and into the community of believers who seek eternal life.
Too often Catholics in recent decades have thought that the best way to actualize Vatican II’s call to evangelize the world is to become one with the world. Attempts to morph the Mass into a form of popular entertainment comprise the most egregious manifestations of this approach. Consider, for example, how often “Here I Am Lord” is sung in churches, compared to “O God Beyond All Praising,” or “One Bread, One Body” compared to “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All.” The former set of hymns direct our focus to this world, whereas the latter orient us to God.
Evangelization calls us to metanoia, to conversion, to turn away from the world and seek the things that are above. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). To follow Jesus is to leave behind the world, individual desires, and present concerns for the sake of God, His kingdom, and the world to come. This is the adventure of discipleship, a call that reaches the heart because it is invigorating and hope-filled. Science and technology cannot match the grandeur of this adventure.
Some may object that many today will continue to ignore religion or remain indifferent to it, and beautiful rituals are not enough to lure them from their smart phones. To this we can respond with our Lord: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). Human beings are religious animals. They will encounter tragedy, pain, or death and seek authentic comfort. Whenever that moment comes, for individuals or for the nation (recall how crowded churches were suddenly on September 12, 2001), religion has to be ready with the best it has to offer to save men and women from the vortex of presentism.
Yes, religion has a place in the future. For, as Joseph Ratzinger writes in The Spirit of the Liturgy, in the Church’s liturgy, which is the pinnacle of religion, “past, present, and future interpenetrate and touch upon eternity…. [The liturgy] is the turning point in the process of redemption. The Shepherd takes the lost sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home.”
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