The Way of Beauty Is the world growing more secular? Is religion on the decline?

What is the status of religious belief in America? Those who say that the world is growing more secular are convinced that religion has withered away. It is a psychological illusion, a myth to which the uneducated, the weak, and the superstitious cling to as a crutch. Many use the arts as their god. With so many other options to religion, secularization is inevitable. 

Others affirm that religion is not on the decline say that the problem is wrongly stated and needs clarification. It is true that areas of human life can be controlled to a greater degree than in the past, whereas the sacred, the awesome, the uncontrollable, and mysterious aspects of human life continue to decrease. 

Mariano Rivera and Andy Petitte

On the occasion of his retirement from baseball, Mariano Rivera was asked where he found his elegant and mystifying cut fastball. He had been searching for a new approach to pitching. When the cutter “came to him,” he attributed it entirely to a spontaneous gift from God. He has never wavered in this assertion. Interviews reveal that his first words after a save are: “Thank God,” or, “thank the Lord.” Likewise with Andy Petitte who has continued to thank God for the many years of winning baseball in his career.  These testimonies are unusual in such a competitive sport where humility is a rare virtue.  

Religion on College Campuses

According to a New York Times article (Alan Finder, “Matters of Faith Find Prominence on Campus,” NY Times, May 2, 2007), religion is no longer under siege on college campuses.  “At Harvard, there is probably a more active religious life now than there has been in one hundred years.  Across the country on secular campuses, chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember. In fact, “more students are enrolling in religions courses, even majoring in religions; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like ... what is the human person, what are the longings of young people, what do they expect and hear from faith-traditions, what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.”

A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of its 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God.  Nearly half of the freshmen said that were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Compared with ten or fifteen years ago, “there is a greater interest in religion on campus, both intellectually and spiritually,” said Charles L. Cohen, a professor of history and religious studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who for a number of years ran an interdisciplinary major in religious studies. The program was created seven years ago and has seventy to seventy-five majors each year” (Ibid).

The Mystery of Suffering

How to explain this surge in religious interest? The rise of the religious right in politics explains part of this.  But college students are not shielded from suffering, whether it be a tragedy on campus, divorce in the family or the sudden death of a sibling, or loss of a job. Whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, suffering does violence to the person and to groups of people. It comes from us and others, from places, events, and unfulfilled expectations.  Why are good people weighed down by injustice? Who of us dares to give facile answers to its universal and ubiquitous presence? If life is a riddle, doesn’t someone owe me an answer? It it’s all a joke, what is the punch line? To whom shall we go for answers? For consolation?

Questions about suffering inevitably lead to questions about God. Where is God in suffering? A powerful and all-loving God would not permit suffering to happen. Therefore, God must be a sadist or an impotent entity. Or, God does not exist. Such inescapable questions haunt persons of faith and those of no faith because they affect us at the very core of daily living. And yet, even in dark hours, we do sense a ray of light in the darkness that holds meaning for us.

Conversion of a Harvard Man

The steps to Avery Dulles’ conversion began in his undergraduate years at Harvard University. A thorough-going skeptic, there was no room for God in his life. Supernatural religion was relegated to the realm of superstition. Then he read Plato and Aristotle which prepared him for an ordered and directional life. He came under the influence of Paul Doolin, himself a convert to Catholicism. Of this experience, Dulles writes: “The inward rottenness of my own philosophy [that] was becoming desperately obvious” (Testimonial Grace, 28).  Things and events began to converge within: a random walk along the banks of the River Charles, a long look at the young buds on the branches of a tree, the awareness of an intelligence behind that tree, a silent utterance of the Our Father, an inward look into self and his own acceptance of the existence of God as something more like intuition. Yet, he could not get beyond his objection to Christ’s miracles, and most of all, his Resurrection. Disillusioned with the Protestant churches he had frequented, he attended Mass one day, but instead of being attracted to it, he was repulsed by the elaborate ritual–scent of incense, painted statuary, and Romanist idolatry. He was unwilling to succumb “to any religious emotion before [he] had answered intellectually the religious problem” (Ibid., 64).

Much time elapsed before he entered a Catholic Church before he acquired an appreciation of the exceptional beauty of Catholic ceremonies. He began attending High Mass on Sundays, the Lenten services, and the Easter liturgies. The decisive act of faith was still wanting due to the sugary sentimentalism of church art. Nevertheless, he told himself that he making his assent to the faith on secure theological foundations and not on statuary. He returned to primary sources: Sts. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure as well as to Catholic philosophers, including Fathers D’Arcy and C.C. Martindale, Monsignor Fulton Sheen and Jacques Maritain.

Before Dulles could make his final act of faith in 1940, a full year elapsed, as he began his law courses at Harvard. “It was necessary,” he writes, “to put away every doubt and to commit oneself without reservation. Christ constantly insisted on this act of unqualified faith as an essential step” (Ibid., 59). Yet, he writes, that “it was a reasonable sacrifice for how else could one consent to follow Christ with that singleness of devotion which He, as God, could rightfully exact?” As we see, Dulles’ path into the Catholic Church “was straight, but it was long and steep” (Ibid., 48). His decision was  a leap of faith that resulted from a convergence of mounting evidence that had come together toward the center, Christ and his Church transcended his reason for and his reason against becoming a Catholic. He attributes the assent to God’s grace. For him, the act of faith presented a stumbling block because he had been trained in the habits of skepticism. Because he valued his intellectual honesty, he could not bring himself to surrender just yet what he valued most.

Through his act of faith, Dulles’ intellect made a subjective certainty out of an objective probability, though this was a sacrifice of reason itself, a faculty he much prized. It was a reasonable sacrifice because he saw the good it held out for his spiritual well-being. With the dynamism of his will, he assented to Catholic faith. Dulles again: “That I did eventually make the act of faith is attributable solely to the grace of God. I could never have done so by my own power” (Ibid., 60). Avery Cardinal Dulles died in 2008.

 Sudden Conversions: Saul of Tarsus, Paul Claudel, and André Frossard
In addition to the sudden conversion of St. Paul, there are two other noteworthy conversions: the sudden conversions of two French writers, Paul Claudel and André Frossard. Their conversions are two of the most stunning examples of God’s grace striking two men who had no desire and no knowledge of such extraordinary graces.

Paul Claudel (d 1955) was moved to conversion at the age of eighteen when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris: “In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books and arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor, to tell the truth, have they even touched it.”

More in The Way of Beauty

The conversion of the atheist writer André Frossard (d 1995) is one of the most amazing of the twentieth century. At the age of twenty, finding himself in a chapel waiting for a friend, Frossard experienced an explosion of light emanating from the Blessed Sacrament. In two minutes, his life changed entirely. Frossard narrates: “Having entered a chapel in the Latin Quarter of Paris at 5:10 in the morning to look for a friend, I left at a quarter after five in the company of a friendship that was not of this earth. Having entered a skeptical atheist, indifferent and preoccupied with so many things other than God to Whom I never even gave a thought even to deny. My gaze passed . . . (unaware that I was standing in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament). And at that point, suddenly a series of miracles unfolded whose indescribable force shattered in an instant the absurd being that I was, to bring to birth the amazed child that I had never been. At first, the hint of these words, Spiritual Life came to me as if they had been pronounced in a whisper to me ...  then a great light … a world, another world of a radiance and a destiny that in one stroke cast our world among the fragile shadows of unfulfilled dreams . . . of which I felt all the sweetness . . . a sweetness that was active and upsetting beyond every form of violence, capable to breaking the hardest stone and that which is even harder than stone – the human heart. Its overflowing eruption, so complete, was accompanied by a joy which is the exultation of the saved, the of the shipwrecked who is picked up just in time. These sensation which I find difficult to translate into a language which cannot capture these ideas and images, were all simultaneous. Everything is dominated by the Presence of Him of Whom I would never be able to write His name without fear of harming its tenderness, of Him before Whom I have had the good fortune to be a forgiven child who wakes up to discover that everything is a gift.  God existed and was present. One thing only surprised me. The Eucharist!  Not that it seemed incredible, but it amazed me that Divine Charity would have come upon the silent way to communicate Himself, and above all that He would choose to become bread, which is the staple of the poor and the food preferred by children. O Divine Love, eternity will be too short to speak of You.” Frossard writes of his conversion in God Exists: I Met Him.

The Mystery of Faith

On many college campuses, the renewed interest in faith and spirituality has not necessarily translated into increased attendance at religious services. Still, in a world as robustly religious as ours, a college education is woefully incomplete if it does not offer some familiarity with the Bible and world religions. 

Religious literacy requires the study of non-belief as well. Atheism is part of the religious conversation, and we cannot understand religions in the modern West without taking atheism into account. It is essential to know the basic doctrines, practices, and stories of the world’s great faith-traditions and of atheism as well. But it is also essential to know how these believers and non-believers feel and think, and think about what others think about them – the kind of knowledge that requires imagination, empathy or, what colleges often provide, real encounters.  Why people who were formerly men and women of faith can assert: “I no longer believe,” “I no longer practice any religion,” remains a mystery that can be answered only in the solitude of their hearts.

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