William Allen sees secular chaplains as a call to Christian soldiers
Christian proselytism is by its nature a tricky business—and, it seems, is yet to grow trickier. Catholic Christians, indeed, may have cause of concern or anxiety, that the very tenets of faith they champion for their proselytes—community, family, and the tangible, sacramental life—are being met with indifference, or hostility. This year’s elevation of Greg Epstein— author of Good without God—as head of Harvard University’s chaplain group is a recent atheistic sting to drive home the point. The Western world and seat of Latin Christendom is decidedly turned off to the idea of organised religion, whilst mouth-wateringly expectant of a new, secular breed of spiritual practice.
That spiritual practice is, unlike some well-known and ideological atheists of years past, tracking much closer to a new paradigm of social, societal behaviour than the Church might first have inclined itself to recognise. The history of Christianity bursts with examples of heresies, schisms, crusades, and cracks in the armour of dogma and creed, and it would be, at the least, easier were the proselytic struggles of today being battled out within this dogmatic register. But alas, the issue is not quite of this kind, and any measure of tut-tutting, and stern wagging of the finger towards the Catechism is likely outdated in the Christian toolkit of evangelisation and profession of Faith. The concern, instead, is one of language and custom; especially it is the need for catholics to admit that the corporate religion we believed human souls craved has become at odds with the popularity of today’s individualistic, detached idea of human living—an idea utterly impossible in the Apostolic Age, but now woven into the stubborn fabric of modernity.
Put another way, this strange irreligious Harvardian event, amongst others, is emphasising the recent surges of an inward-looking spirituality which doesn’t need organised religion, but is closer in operation to the mantras—“Make it up yourself”, “Find your own way”, “Don’t listen to what they tell you!”—of which, not unimportantly, the Abrahamic faiths have never been very much swayed. The result is an immense difficulty for catholic Christians who strive to be advocates of the community of the body of Christ, especially within the Academy culture where these views are most popular. Their mission, however unprejudiced, is likely to be spurned for its insistence on membership and union which are non-evadable staples of the Christian tradition. What is preferred is an assortment of advice, a kind of ‘secular chaplaincy’ to which one can subscribe to fulfil their spiritual needs—those human needs which even the most truculent voices have admitted to.
With this state of play in mind, however, it is now incumbent on the Church to act and redress, and to cease its brooding, or at best perplexity, as to what is taking place. Part of that shall involve an important concession: that the excitable shift away from dogmatic religion towards personalised spirituality is not necessarily authored by some unfriendly heresy, but from Church complacency. In the land of England, a vacuum of space has emerged in Christian education in recent years, implicated in the drop-off of many liturgies and practices, such as participation in the sacraments of Confirmation and Marriage, together with the whole epoch of Sunday school catechising in peril. When these kinds of societal black holes emerge, it is unsurprising that other ideas—ideas which Christians do not prefer—emerge to fill in the gaps. This process, if left unchecked, creates all number of unhappy chinks in secular-Christian dialogue. Where marks of catholic witness are no longer taught from the outset, they are no longer to be understood later on, leading to the sort of indifference which many priests from a spectrum of pulpits worthily want to decry.
Some great and wonderful efforts have recently been made along such lines—and a reinvigoration of the Sacrament of Confirmation within the Church of England is something of which some of our bishops and their flocks should be proud. Yet there is much to be said for the combat with which all must still persevere, in prayer, and most of all in deed. In our time, terrific battles have been won in the secular sphere, allowing minorities of every colour and kind to enjoy the full rights and gifts given to them by their Lord and God. But let us not allow this kind of progress cast our Christian offerings into the shadow, or spin out of proportion. Committed to understanding, some admission of shortcoming, and zeal for the future, the Church Catholic can still spur itself to invest in society and the needs it has—those same tenets of community and sacramental life—instituted by God, and only needing to be revealed and re-awakened, in spite of this new trend or that.
William Allen is a current student at St Stephen’s House, Oxford.