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UK Bishop speaks out on secularism's debt to Christianity
During a recent address at King's College London, his alma mater, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth discussed the rise of secularism in Britain and how Christianity in contrast enables greater human flourishing.
"Secularism is too fragile a basis for a free society ... the Gospel alone can offer an authentic humanism able to transform human living," Bishop Egan said.
He was invited to give his lecture by Fr Joe Evans, the university's Catholic chaplain. It was attended by students and staff of the school, as well as members of the Catholic Society and the Anglican chaplain and his assistants.
Bishop Egan began by noting the increasing clashes between Christianity and present-day secularism, saying that "perhaps surprisingly, secularism ... is a deconstructed version of Christian morality" and "a form of post-Christian ethics that thrives because its values continue to derive their vitality from the Christian patrimony still embedded in British culture".
Based in relativism
Secularism indeed "has its own theological terms such as equality, diversity, freedom, respect, tolerance, non-discrimination, multiculturalism, social cohesion, ethnic communities, inclusivity, quality of life, sustainable development and environmentalism", he observed.
"All these values are derived from fundamental Christian values. Thus, the secular concern for tolerance comes from the biblical 'love of neighbour' but, disconnected from Christian practice and belief, it has become a soft value, free-wheeling, expanded with new meaning, now permitting what formerly was unlawful."
Secular ethics, based in relativism rather than truth, gives rise to "the spectre of dictatorship" when values are divorced from truth and goodness, and thus "what has happened in the modern European context is that a loss of faith has dissolved the foundations of ethics".
He contrasted how Britain's constitution and legal system were shaped over a long period of time by Christianity and the natural law with the present situation, dominated by "pressure-groups and media, business and commercial interests".
Shorn from its moorings, the law "expresses the will of the legislator, the will of the loudest and most powerful, the will of a policy unit or the will of the majority, and this relativism is State-enforced".
Turning to the thought of Benedict XVI, the bishop cited the emeritus Pope's discussion of the appropriate relationship between faith and reason, which ensures Christianity a place in the public square in a pluralistic society.
He quoted Benedict's 2010 address at Westminster Hall, where he said the "world of reason and the world of faith - the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief - need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation."
Bishop Egan also referred to Benedict's 2006 Regensburg address, and a 2011 talk on the "foundations of law" to the German legislature, in which he reiterated the importance of natural law as a point of contact between reason and faith.
Bishop Egan next noted the Church's missionary mandate, which is engaged immediately with the individual person, but the ultimate goal of which "is to evangelise culture and its sectors, so that the Gospel of Christ might leaven the totality of human endeavour".
"The Church must be engaged in a salvific, critical conversation with contemporary culture. Secularism is too flimsy a basis for British culture. It cannot guarantee human flourishing nor sustain long term the advances the British people have achieved, the great value placed on freedom of speech ... respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual's rights and duties and of the equality of all citizens before the law."
Secularism, he said, "is producing a society without foundations, one that develops randomly on the hoof through pressure-groups, legal precedent and political expediency".
Given secularism's relativism that victimises the weak, "its proven inability to support stable marriages and family life", and "its innate tendency towards greater surveillance and state-control", the Church needs to "demonstrate how Christianity, not secularism, can offer ... a transformation of meaning and value that leads to human flourishing. In a word, Christianity proposes an authentic humanism, able to ground a free, democratic and pluralist society".
Outlining the task of the new evangelisation, Bishop Egan said the first task is "to demonstrate that spirituality and religion will never go away [since] the question of God lies naturally within man's horizon and is raised spontaneously by human consciousness".
Secondly, Christians must "help people encounter God" and through "intellectual, moral and spiritual conversion ... enable them to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ". The key to this, he emphasised, is the personal holiness of Christians.
Another task identified by Bishop Egan is to develop "effective Catholic apologetics" which can "rebut popular myths about science, so that schoolchildren especially can appreciate the interaction of faith and reason" and "the complementarity of religion and science".
The most important aspect of the new evangelisation "will be to identify, retrieve and promote Britain's Christian patrimony, its history, art and architecture, its music and literature, its liturgy, theology and ethics".
This, he concluded, means "taking the theological buzz-words of secularism and driving them back to their foundational values in the Bible and the Christian Tradition ... tracing the soft-values of secularism back to their Christian roots and exposing the ideologies that subvert those values."
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 27 No 5 (June 2014), p. 8
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