Secularisation, progress, Christianity. Commentary on a recent book edited by L. Fazzini.

Publisher: Edizioni Messaggero di Padova
Pages: 80
Price: €7,50

Lorenzo Fazzini is an intelligent and competent journalist who deals with more than cultural trends alone. He has already published a few book-interviews in the area of the borderline between religion and atheism and is the main driver of the series “The Courtyard of the Gentiles” published by the Edizioni Messaggero of Padua, for which he wrote the first volume of that series. Now available in bookstores as part of that series as well is the work by Ch. Taylor – C. Datolo, Una religione “disincantata”, (A ‘Disenchanted’ Religion’), with the preface written by Lorenzo Fazzini himself (Padua 2012, pgs. 80, € 7,50).

This work is intended to be an effort to delve into the link between Christianity and secularisation from a realistic and (Christianly) optimistic point of view. The fundamental idea is set forth in these terms: “Our age is known as the post-modern age and is not entirely alien to the possibility of religiousness; secularisation comes to be in a Christian environment as an opportunity for the purification of the faith; the intentional combination of these two ‘de facto’ situations creates unprecedented ‘chances’ for Christian announcement and presence in the world” (pgs. 5-6).

Personally speaking, I consider these considerations to be overly optimistic. It does not suffice to list the scholars and intellectuals who have become converts to Christianity or have made a profession of Catholic faith during the age of secularisation to reappraise the fact that the Catholic faith is nowadays an insignificant phenomenon in advanced societies. Then again, we would have to ask ourselves if these intellectuals became converts thanks to secularisation or despite it.

Certainly, in the post-modern age the “possibility of religiousness” does exist, but a generic and universally human religiousness, a religiousness as restlessness and journey, as question, but not as response, and even less so as the Response. But if the Catholic faith is not Response, it just isn’t there at all. In the post-modern age it is also certainly possible to rediscover Christianity as a partner in a process of humanization, but Jesus Christ has no intention of being a new Socrates, a partner of other men in a process of humanization. His intention is to be the Fulfilment of said process, and that means the Response. For some time the Church has often been satisfied with ‘accompanying’ men in this journey of humanization, and hence abstaining from proclaiming the Christian Response and thereby thinking it can adapt to the needs of a secularised society and even reading it as a “sign of the times”. In so doing, however, the Church not only fails to confer due dignity upon its own announcement by making it “all too human”, but does not even respect the authentic need of modern man, who cannot settle for journeying and being accompanied, supposing that modernity has yet to stifle this need for truth and liberty. 

Regarding the process of secularisation “coming to be in a Christian environment as an opportunity for a purification of the faith” I think it would be useful to return to Karl Löwith, who is referred to in the book, but only in passing. In Significato e fine della storia (Meaning in History) he does show how the “progress” of modernity is the immanent translation of Christian “providence” and Jewish “prophetism”, such that modernity cannot do without Christianity, at least as the source of its own vision of history. This is the most well known and renowned aspect of Löwith’s thought, but it must be completed with two additional aspects that cannot be disregarded.

The first of these two aspects, and in my opinion the true heart of Löwith’s discourse, is that the outcome of the modern vision of progress is basically anti-Christian due to the fact that Christianity is essentially interested not in progress, but only in ‘salvation’, which issues forth not from an evolution of humankind’s natural progress, but from an absolute stepping away from it. This is the reason why between Christianity and this world, the former maintains a substantial dualism. In history there is nothing new or nothing better. Whatever good or better there could have been has already come about in Christ. Now it is a matter of awaiting the ultimate new things. I do not agree with Löwith’s position, but it is not possible to disregard what he asserts about the anti-Christian outcome of modernity.  

The second aspect is how at a certain point Löwith’s thinking seems to coincide with that of Auguste Comte – in accord with other thinkers like de Lubac – in the sense of modernity reaching a point of no return, that being a refutation of radical Christianity, shaking off any residual “dependence” on Christianity, thus far always expressed albeit in a polemical or even violent form, as, for example in Proudhon. In other words: there is a moment when modernity, supposing it is born of Christianity, sunders the links with its past in a definitive manner. Löwith argues this take place with Comte because positivism reduces reason to recording relations among phenomena, and this is relativism. Disappearing with this are both truth and liberty, and with them the need for salvation.

Pay attention to the ambiguity flagged by Löwith: optimists retain that the season of Christianity is not over and that actually arising are new chances, because modernity depends upon it as its secularised form.  Christianity therefore strives to express itself just like modernity, but the outcome turns against it: “The weakness of modern Christianity is its being so modern and less than Christian that it takes on the language, methods and results of our modern research endeavors under the illusion that modern inventions are merely neutral instruments that can be Christianized by moral or even religious aims. In fact, however, they are the result of the triumph of the lay spirit and man’s confidence in his own devices”. (Karl Löwith)

Touched upon here is a crucial point of the whole question, and I would like to highlight it because I failed to find mention of it in this book, even as a possibility. Is the secularization of the Christian religion able to restrict itself to the secular realm or is it destined to become anti-Christian religion? We have seen that Löwith espouses the second way of thinking, and many others with him. If secularity or laicity, as people say as well, cannot take their distance from the Christian faith and be themselves except by becoming a new anti-Christian religion, equally absolute albeit secular, then authentic secularization – or authentic laicity – is possible only in Christianity.

By seeing this booklet through to publication Lorenzo Fazzini has touched upon truly core issues and questions. As I have made an effort to explain, I do not share the author’s optimism regarding modernity and secularization.

Stefano Fontana