This is an overview of Bishop Edward Weisenburger's five-part series on the "Five Wounds of Secularization" published during the "Year of Faith." The subsequent installments are posted in consecutive order.
The call of Pope Benedict XVI to a “Year of Faith” is timely, and Catholics around the world have responded in many ways. The Holy Father was motivated, in part, by what many view as a crisis of faith with its origins in secularization.
The Office of Evangelization for the Diocese of Salina, under the direction of Father Steven Heina, began our response by struggling to identify those features of secularization that wound the spiritual life.
With time these reflections resulted in what we term the “Five Wounds of Secularization.” While we do not presume our list to be complete, we do believe that much of the world’s suffering, and much of what wounds the spiritual life, can be identified through:
• Materialism and consumerism
• Violence and revenge
• Individualism and relativism
Each of these produces a wounding of the soul. It is our belief that struggling against these cultural tendencies is one way to help bring about the life of grace within us, as well as build up the kingdom of God.
The first wound is busyness.
We place it at the head of the list because the beginning of the “Year of Faith” coincides with Advent. While the Church celebrates Advent as a season of spiritual preparation for Christmas, our secular world urges us to use these four weeks as a frantic spree of shopping, parties, travel preparations and programs.
Admittedly, much of this is done with the best of intentions, but somewhere along the way the goal of celebrating Christ’s advent in the world gets lost. We can begin to see just how out-of-kilter the Church is with our culture. I offer the example of Advent not because it is the problem but rather because it is a symptom of the way our secular culture buries what really has value in the busyness of life.
The truth is that God’s voice is vibrant and alive within us, but we silence it when we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with the busyness of life. Abraham needed the silence of the desert to hear the voice of God. Scripture and sacred tradition reveal this consistently in the lives of the patriarchs, prophets, saints and indeed Jesus himself. There is no spiritual alternative to silence and simplicity of life if we are to nurture a relationship with the Father. We can heal the wound of busyness only when we rediscover the joy of simplicity — of doing less and discovering more, of quieting our lives to hear God’s voice.
The wound is busyness. The healing balm is a simplicity of life and quiet stillness that allows the voice of God to begin a conversation with us.
The second wounding of our secular world is consumerism and materialism.
This violence to the soul is as old as the human race itself. The tendency to judge our worth by our wealth and possessions always has been with us and remains at the root of much anxiety and sin. The inordinate demand for money and possessions has resulted in violence between individuals, as well as a deep mistrust among the nations.
In our own era, we need look only to the television programs and marketing that promise life’s meaning and bliss are to be found in the perfect home, automobile, clothing, travel, entertainment or a host of other possessions — material goods that promise much but in the end deliver so very little.
There seems to be growing evidence in neurology that compulsive shopping for some triggers a chemical reaction in the brain, a release of dopamine. The result is an actual addiction that demands ever more accumulation. And thus, even science increasingly confirms that the endless craving for money and consumption of material goods is for many a god that never can be appeased. Many in our culture are like addicts being offered an endless supply of their drug of choice. Moreover, those who become possessed by the craving for money and needless possessions end up desensitized to the real needs of those who suffer from great poverty.
In the face of such a powerful and deep wounding, we are confronted by the poignant words of St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” St. Augustine reminds us that life’s purpose, joy and true meaning never have been found in possessions. True life — the kingdom of God — is found only in right relation with God and neighbor. Fighting our culture’s passion for money and its addiction to consumerism may seem an almost superhuman task. A comforting truth is that God’s grace enables us to try.
The secular wound is focusing our lives on the passing things of this world while sacrificing the things that last into eternity. The grace that heals the wound is found in the call to simplicity of life, sharing with others and discovering right relationship with God and neighbor.
The third wounding of our secular world is violence and revenge.
I must pause momentarily to note that as I write these words, the memory of a gunman killing 20 small children and six adults in an elementary school is painfully fresh. Moreover, in light of two world wars and numerous international conflicts that led to the violent deaths of millions, there are those who refer to the 20th century, so recently behind us, as the most violent in human history. In light of all the advances in science, technology and communication, one is left almost dumbstruck at the resulting violence and enmity among individuals, communities and nations.
The advances in communication and the Internet have been a great blessing for the world, but they clearly have their dark side. Human communication has evolved from being “in person” to increasingly isolated in the digital world. This divorces action and thought from its consequences and makes violence all the easier to embrace. The media and the Internet often reward the shrillest voices and the darkest sentiments.
In this atmosphere of hyperbole and hate, our words seem detached from any real consequences. The rise of bullying on Facebook provides a perfect example — bullying that tragically has led to suicide in the case of some victims. When I can torment another without facing them or remain removed from any community to hold me accountable, then the seeds of destructive acts are sown. Moreover, violence breeds more violence when we call for revenge to the actions that frighten and disturb us.
How striking the difference when we call to mind that Jesus met violence with love, compassion and forgiveness. Crying out against the violence of his own day, he knew that the only way to break the cycle of revenge was to deny its illusion of justice.
A related issue that cannot be ignored concerns human sexuality. The adage “sex and violence” seem so linked in our culture that it is hard to consider one without the other. Beginning with the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, our culture ceased viewing sexual acts as related to the love expressed between married men and women — a love open to procreation and reflecting something of the divine act of creation itself. In its place, we began to view sexual acts, instead, as a recreational pastime.
Such an approach to human sexuality has resulted in the objectification of human bodies, the dehumanization of persons, an explosion of sexual crimes against women and children and an emotional receptivity to the termination of life in the womb. This secular view of sexuality — so dysfunctional and at the same time so guarded as an icon of individual rights — has contributed greatly to the violence taking root ever more firmly in our culture.
For the follower of Christ, it would seem that we must approach so painful and daunting a topic from within. Violence wells up from within the human heart. Peace among individuals, communities and nations will begin only as peace grows within individual hearts.
We must ask ourselves challenging questions: Have we also grown desensitized to the humanity of others? Have we isolated ourselves and embraced our culture’s love of the rhetoric of violence and revenge? Moreover, if all we offer the victims of violence is the secular world’s answer of “revenge,” then have we really helped them to heal? Have we interiorized Jesus’ call to radical forgiveness, mercy and peace, or do we relegate it to the saints or perhaps to the clergy or religious of our Church? Certainly to do so is to abandon our baptismal dignity and call.
The cultural wound is violence and revenge that leaves in its wake a trail of broken lives and broken souls. The healing balm, which leads to human health, as well as holiness of life, is a spirit-inspired rejection of violence and the embracing of forgiveness, mercy and compassion.
The fourth wound is individualism and relativism.
We who have looked at these wounds inflicted by our culture believe that this issue is at the very core of our secular world’s ethics. In essence, it is a radical form of existentialism that maintains that every human being determines his or her own values. There is no objective truth to which we must acquiesce, no timeless meaning. God does not reveal what is good and evil, right and wrong, true and false. Rather, I determine all these things for myself and only for myself.
For me to presume a timeless, eternal truth for anyone but myself is a violence to the dignity of others. The situation grows even darker when we pause to consider that contemporary culture has largely divorced itself from a 4,000-year old Judeo-Christian ethic. Moreover, Christians are largely without knowledge or understanding of formal Church teaching, conciliar documents or Church Fathers. The result is that many have been set adrift without a paddle in the midst of a culture that tells them the paddle doesn’t exist.
In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Blessed John Paul II addressed many of these issues, concluding that good and evil can be discerned (not created), that sin is real and that there is no true contradiction between human freedom and acquiescing to revealed truth.
We would add that when one probes the formal teachings of our Church, as discerned from Scripture and sacred tradition and reflected upon by the great minds of our Church, one discovers a truth that is not created but indeed given — given as a great gift by the Creator himself. Meaning is not created as much as it is discovered. Once discovered, it demands that we give our lives over to it.
The cultural wound is an aching anxiety as one struggles to be God — to create our own system of values and meaning. Spiritual healing is found in discovering God and then embracing the truth revealed in his son Jesus.
The final wound of our culture is the growing sense of entitlement.
Many believe this to be perhaps the most insidious of all the attacks on our faith life. This sense of entitlement reflects the firmly held belief that my life is not a gift, that there is no God to whom I need to be grateful, that I deserve all the good things I have for they are owed to me, that I am due anything I want, and that I have the right to punish anyone who impedes me from whatever I desire.
While I have articulated this in a somewhat outlandish manner, I believe most who read these words will recognize this aspect of our culture. It pervades our politics, it wounds family life and it puts us at odds with the God who does not respond as we please to the demands we place at his feet.
In the face of such a wound, the Church reminds us that an attitude of thanksgiving and gratitude to God is the foundation of the spiritual life. This is reflected in the Church’s use of the term Eucharist for its worship, a word that literally means “thanksgiving.” No one can worthily approach God without first acknowledging that life itself is a gift and the first words to God must always be words of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Moreover, those who ponder the Scriptures, as well as the lives of the saints, cannot help but conclude that gratitude must endure even in the midst of hardship or suffering. The parable of Job, as well as the writings of Isaiah, St. Paul and even the example of Jesus’ passion, all reveal this timeless truth. From there we can come to recognize that the many additional blessings of family, friends, love, possessions, freedoms, etc., are all gifts freely given by the Creator. None are ours by right.
The wound is a sense of entitlement that can all too easily put us at odds with God and neighbor. The healing balm is the grace of recognizing that we are stewards of all that we have, including the gift of life itself.
We in the Diocese of Salina continue to ask for God’s grace that we may be healed of the wounds we have named. A critical starting point is to recognize and name the wounds of secularization. Otherwise, we will be struggling forever against what is not only evil but nebulous. But recognizing the wounds is only the first step. A quick review of Scripture, sacred tradition and the Holy Father’s writings all reveal that the only true healing from these wounds is a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Moreover, while our personal response to the wounds of secularization is critical, the healing never begins with us. In every instance, it is always God who begins the conversation, calling us into union with him. The life of grace begins with God’s call, is empowered by God’s grace and finds fulfillment in being shared with others.
Just as the wounds have become clear, so too is the true healing, which is always and forever a joyful and life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ.
It is our hope that a worthy response to Pope Benedict’s call might be found in pondering these matters. We unite our hearts and minds with his as we enter into this “Year of Faith,” trusting that the final result will lead to a deepening of our faith and a lasting healing of all that wounds humanity, as well as the Church, the body of Christ.