Making Belief More Believable

Conference Address Question of Faith in Secular Age

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By Kirsten K. Evans

WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 25, 2009 ( Can belief be made “more believable” for both seekers and the faithful alike?

This is the question Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. episcopal conference, and Charles Taylor, professor of philosophy at McGill and Northwestern Universities and 2007 Templeton Prize Winner, sat down to discuss on the campus of Catholic University of America last Thursday evening.

The public forum kicked off a 15-month research project that will re-examine religion and faith in this secular age.  

Sponsored by Catholic University’s Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, the project “Faith in the Secular Age” will be developed in conjunction with the university’s Center for the Study of Culture and Values and the Jesuit Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown.   

Thursday’s forum drew a standing-room only crowd at the university’s conference hall, filled with priests, religious, academics, lay faithful and university students. “I came because innovations in the transmission of the faith is connatural to what I do for a living,” said one professional Catholic artist, also a graduate student at Catholic University.  

World of seekers

“We live in a world of seekers,” explained Taylor in his address. “People who think they are not quite there yet knowing God, but are on the way. There are an endless number of itineraries by which seekers become believers.

“People come to the faith through different routes and events, and each way leaves a mark.”

“Christian communion means we come from different places to a common ground, were we hope to experience communion,” added Taylor, whose recent book, “The Secular Age” (Harvard University Press, 2007), explores the phenomenon of searching for the religious in the modern world.

Cardinal George, whose own book “The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture,” was published in October (Crossroads Publishing, 2009) noted that “people are interested in being holy.”

“One of the very nice things about being a bishop is that I get to go from parish to parish to parish where you meet many holy people,” he explained. “Those people are believers, at least publicly, but in their interior many will admit to still being seekers — not just on peripheral issues, but in more substantial things as well.

“And yet they are holy. They are being made holy by the proclamation of the Gospel, by the celebration of the sacraments, by being gathered in communities where they are loved not only in their families but also by pastors who love them in the name of Christ.

“It works. People are holy in this age as in others. But they become holy in different ways, that is for sure.”

An art

Cardinal George pointed out that Church has been dialoguing for the last half-century on how to make belief more believable in the modern world.

He recalled how the Second Vatican Council enable the Church to respond to a world deeply divided after two world wars: “John XXIII thought that the sublime unity of the Church could speak convincingly enough to a divided world, that it could bring healing of the world’s brokenness.”

Paul VI went even further, insisting that the Church not only be open to the world, but reform itself in order to be able to better speak to the modern world.   

“The response of John Paul II was not just about the Church of the ages, but about the transforming power of faith, by bringing faith into a world that prioritizes experience,” the cardinal continued. “He expressed faith in such a way that people who were open to a contemporary vocabulary were challenged to look at it anew.”

“Most of all he expressed faith by locating and promoting witnesses to the faith,” he added, making reference to the pontiff’s canonization of more saints during his papacy than all other papacies combined.

“The present Holy Father, Benedict XVI, feels that the faith must be sufficiently stabilized in its own integrity in order to recall a fragmented world to conversion,” said Cardinal George. “Therefore, he emphasizes the historical continuity of the Church, precisely so that it can become a stable point of reference.

“When I talk to people in their 20s and 40s, they want the Church to be a stable point of reference in the world, even if they do not want to be a part of the Church themselves.

“The Holy Father knows this. So he wants to show the world again the Church of the ages.”

A challenge

Taylor went on to ask the question, if we are making belief believable, are we also making it inviting?

“At times we unfortunately make the presence of Christ, which ought to be transparent, look terribly opaque,” he insisted. “I don’t think we always look as if we are treating each other in a way that invites others to communion with us; when they see divisions or fighting within the Church herself, for instance.”

He posed the question: “Do we believers present faith in a way that invites seekers to join us in communion? Or do we do things that tell them a priori, ‘You need not apply’? When people see us, do they find communion with the faithful inviting?”

Task ahead
Over the next 15 months, two groups of scholars will dedicate themselves to probing these questions, under the tutorage of Jesuit Father John Haughey of the Jesuit Woodstock Theological Center, and Dr. William Barbieri, associate professor of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America.

One team will focus on the individual search for meaning in our contemporary secular age. The other will consider the role of the spirit in the socio-political global order. In February 2012 the forum will reconvene to consider their findings.  

As one event organizer suggested: :The commitment of these leading religious scholars gives us founded hope that more light will be shed on this crucial issue of faith in our world today.”

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