There’s a popular notion which suggests that it can be helpful to compare every century of Christianity’s existence to one year of life. That would make Christianity 21 years old, a young 21, grown up enough to exhibit a basic maturity but still far from a finished product.
How insightful is this notion? That’s a complex question because Christianity expresses itself in communities of worship and in spiritualities that vary greatly across the world. For instance, just to speak of churches, it is difficult to speak of the Christian Church in any global way. In Africa, for the most part, the churches are young, full of young life and exploding with growth, with all the strengths and problems that come with that. In Eastern Europe, the churches are still emerging from the long years of oppression under communism and are struggling to find a new balance and new energy within an ever-intensifying secularity. Latin American churches have given us liberation theology for a reason. There, the issues of social injustice and those advocating for it in Jesus’s name and those reacting against them have deeply coloured how church and spirituality are lived and understood.
In Asia, the situation is even more complex. One might talk of four separate ecclesial expressions and corresponding spiritualities. There is Buddhist Asia, Hindu Asia, Muslim Asia and a seemingly post-Christian Asia. Churches and spiritualities express themselves quite differently in these various parts. Finally, there is still Western Europe and North America, the so-called “West”. Here, it would seem, Christianity doesn’t radiate much in the way of either youth or vitality, but appears from most outward appearances to be aged, grey-haired and tired, an exhausted project.
How accurate is this as a picture of Christianity in Western Europe, North America, and other highly secularised parts of the world? Are we, as churches, old, tired, grey-haired and exhausted?
That’s one view, but the picture admits of other interpretations. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, along with many Enlightenment figures, saw Christianity as a spent enterprise, as a dying reality, its demise the inevitable death of childhood naïvity. But Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, looking at the same evidence, saw things in exactly the opposite way. For him, Christianity was still “in nappies”, struggling to grow in maturity, a child still learning to walk; hence its occasional stumbles.
The contemporary spiritual writer Tomáš Halík, the recent winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize, suggests yet another picture. For Halík, Christianity in the West is undergoing a “noon-day fatigue”, a writer’s block, a crisis of imagination. In this, he is very much in agreement with what Charles Taylor suggests in his monumental study, A Secular Age. For Taylor, what we are experiencing today is not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of imagination and integration. Older Christian writers called this a “dark night of the soul”, and Halík suggests that it is happening to us not at the end of the day but at noon time.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection