An interesting article in today's Otago Daily Times
Stale views cause church to shoot itself in foot"Come back to the Buildings!" Readers who remember the BBC comedy series Take It From Here will recall the recurring plea for "Professor" Jimmy Edwards to come back to the working-class tenements where he had grown up.
Now, suddenly, we hear the same message (though not the same words) from Pope Benedict as he calls the unfaithful of the Western world back from their unfaith.
Last month, he established a Pontifical Council for New Evangelism in a bid to reverse the massive outflow that has accompanied the secularisation of the West over the past 200 years.
The grave crisis that spurred his response is not peculiar to the Catholic Church. All churches have been grappling with it in their own ways, from doing the old things more fervently to innovative outreach, from televangelism to fine-tuning liturgies.
Hardest to face are the root causes of what the Pope describes as a sort of eclipse of the sense of God; and, along with that, the reluctance of so many churches to rethink ancient certainties in the light of new knowledge. Without that, efforts to roll back the secularising tide will be as effective as King Canute's.
Claiming supernatural authority will certainly not work in the new secular setting. Popes, synods, councils, assemblies have all tried that at various times - usually to resist change and entrench conservative views, sometimes to ward off threats to unity if alternative views were to prevail.
The dilemma is that it is those same conservative views - on biblical interpretation, the role of women, creationism, contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, voluntary euthanasia, homosexuality - that turn the secular citizenry off the church.
Rightly understood, however, secularisation is no enemy to sound religion. It merely produces a new context for religion to be practised. Indeed, our modern secular societies are the offspring of Europe's long exposure to a Christian understanding of the world and humankind, so the churches should embrace them.
For secularisation is the process whereby activities once initiated and run by the churches have been gradually removed from their control - and thereby hugely extended. Think education, hospitals, poor relief, marriage, funerals, philosophy, science.
Two major elements of Christian thought have contributed to these changes.
One is that the Judaeo-Christian tradition took the gods out of nature, and over centuries this opened the way for scientists to explore and experiment with the natural world without fear of supernatural retribution.
The other is Christianity's most distinctive doctrine: that God became human in Jesus. This revolutionary vision of human worth confers a unique, even eternal, value on each human life. Its implications are still being worked out, now in secular settings and especially in the modern emphasis on human rights.
Take these together, and secularisation reinforces the view that this everyday world of space and time (that is what secular means) is where religion must be experienced and lived. The church's job is to help them do just that, without necessarily invoking a supernatural world beyond.
That inevitably impacts on ideas about God. Counter-productive in the secular present is the concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing being who intervenes from a world above to change the course of events below.
In place of that, some theologians suggest that the value of the God concept today lies in what it points to in human experience - its heights and depths, whatever is ultimate in the values people live by, their understanding of life and its purposes, the mystery that lies beyond knowing.
That is worlds away from the God of the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, when science and theology seemed mutually supportive. oth seemed to point to a supreme intelligence behind creation, the designer and controller of all that is, the energy present in nature. But as English scholar Karen Armstrong observes, this had the effect of reducing God to a scientific explanation.
So when science later began to find explanations of natural phenomena without any reference to God, the churches were caught flat-footed. The very discoveries that once seemed to confirm their understanding of God now undermined it.
Instead of rethinking the term's meaning for a changing world, however, the churches insisted on the eternal truth of ancient concepts and creeds.And in doing so, they contributed to "a sort of eclipse of the sense of God".
Today's challenge to all churches, therefore, is to fundamentally rethink their heritage in light of the new secular reality. People will never "come back to the Buildings" if all they find there are old men keeping fossils warm.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.