When the walls come down


Sitting in an airport waiting for a delayed flight, I picked up a newspaper and noticed an article by a prominent Australian Catholic retelling his religious history. There is nothing remarkable here. I had read this type of story, even by this very author, many times before. That was the point. It occurred to me that this type of reflection has almost become the dominant discourse in the public discussion of Catholicism in particular, but also many other so-called mainline Christian churches. The basic premise of these stories is a variation on moving away from a superstitious and intense religious belief to something more satisfactory, usually a type of ethical system which places a high value on morality but has little metaphysical emphasis.

Another aspect of these stories is their focus on the unease the authors feel toward the official line of the denomination. The hierarchy is seen as backward and in need of serious updating before it can once again claim the adherence of the aggrieved authors. Why do these articles appear so often? My short answer is that it is a generational issue. Intellectuals of a certain vintage tend to monopolise the popular expression of religious belief and identity. No conspiracy here, just a question of seniority.

At the time of my airport epiphany I was reading of Jewish reactions to the Enlightenment. One of the most interesting phenomena in 19th-century Jewish life was the relatively sudden emergence of Jews who had ambivalent feelings about their religious heritage. How did this situation emerge so soon after the liberation of Jews from the ghettos of Western Europe? It appears that part of the explanation lies in the sudden and dramatic change in the circumstances of Jews living in those countries under the influence of post-Napoleonic legal codes. The concentration of Jews in ghettos in Europe, with some exceptions such as court Jews, protected them from secular Enlightenment influences.

Perhaps the most famous court Jew, Moses Mendelssohn, sought to develop an expression of Jewish belief and culture faithful to the historic sense of Judaism, that was also in tune with the Kantian ideal that saw the Enlightenment as a time when people freed themselves from self-imposed immaturity. While most Jews remained confined to ghettos, Mendelssohn’s thinking was largely speculative. When the walls literally came down, however, the first reaction, as anticipated, was a greater harmony between the newly emancipated Jewish world and the wider culture. Some of the strategies adopted included making the synagogue and services more reminiscent of Christian worship, not in content, but in tone. This befitted a race that no longer belonged on the shtetl but could take its place in the European mainstream.

Images are important here. What was desired was an image of a well-dressed Jew in frock coat, hat and cane, walking elegantly to temple worship, in contrast to that of a pious Jew, dishevelled, with prayer shawl flying, hurtling off to synagogue. There emerged a more extreme version of this assimilationist tendency, Jews who were uncomfortable even acknowledging their association with a group they saw as irredeemably backward. The particular objection was to what the new group saw as the primitive aspects of Judaism, with its overtones of suspicion and magic, which may have sustained a people in less enlightened times but was now acutely embarrassing. To return to the ways of the ghetto was, of course, unthinkable.

Many Christians, now well into their 50s and beyond, have also experienced a profound change in the nature and expression of their religious beliefs. Many Catholics, for example, wish to distance themselves from the totems of pre-Conciliar times. While such times gave rise to a strong sense of boundary and identity, this sense does not sit comfortably with many who now wish to be integrated into the wider community. Devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for example, do not sit well with those who see themselves as having moved beyond this type of quasi-superstition. I am suggesting here an echo of those assimilated Jews of the 19th century who were disturbed by the piety of their unreconstructed brethren. Yet, some thorny issues remain, chiefly a phenomenon that can be described as a type of sociological dissonance. While encouraged to become involved in the wider culture, Catholics have been expected, more obliquely, to retain dedication and affiliation to Church teaching and practice. Many Catholics have resolved this issue by situating themselves firmly in the emancipated world. But what of those who do not have a strong experience of life in the ghetto?

Generations of Catholics born after the Second Vatican Council have not embraced, in any significant way, Catholic belief and practice. Amongst Protestant denominations the disassociation of young adults is even stronger. Callum Brown has chronicled the decline of what he calls ‘Christian Britain’ by noting the dramatic decrease in religious affiliation of those born in recent decades. One way of looking at the disengagement of young adults is to examine the analogical power of what is being offered to them. In the United States, Andrew Greeley has called the present configuration of Catholicism ‘beige Catholicism’. George Weigel makes a similar point from a different perspective referring to this as ‘Catholic Lite’. Catholicism is, for many, a staid and uninspiring faith that neither engages nor excites neither the intellect nor the imagination. Part of the reason is that it has lost some of its supernatural edge, a loss reflected in sterile and uninspiring ritual and liturgical life.

This parallels what happened to Jews in Western Europe in the 19th century. The result of the post-Enlightenment emancipation of Jews in France and Germany was not a renaissance of high-minded Judaism, negotiating successfully a path between the fervent and all embracing belief of the ghetto and the new rational thought of the salons, but a sudden haemorrhaging of the vitality of Jewish life. The new generations, those born outside the ghetto, did not embrace Mendelssohn’s brilliant but antiseptic conception of faith and practice. They were increasingly attracted to either secularist positions or an affiliation to Christianity.

Many older Christians have placed great stress on naturalistic interpretations of religious belief. Just as many Reform Jews are sceptical of the claims surrounding Moses and Mt Sinai, a Christian reformist sentiment takes an ambivalent stance towards some of the central Christian dogmas. Beliefs like the bodily resurrection of Jesus are downplayed. In effect these strategies replicate the Reform Movement’s premium on updating religious practice so to better appeal to the contemporary spirit. In practice what this often means is the removal, or relegation, of the supernatural elements of belief and religious expression. The price, however, is a blurring of the boundaries between Christians and other groups.

As the 19th-century Jewish story tells us, once this happens the vitality of the tradition is imperilled. By the middle of the 19th century, the Reform movement in France and Germany faced the prospect of overseeing the complete assimilation of Jews. All but one of Mendelssohn’s children, for example, converted to Christianity. A correction was needed. The Orthodox movement, as championed by Raphael Hirsch, took an even stronger stand and insisted that without a substantive link to key religious beliefs, and a ready expression of these, Judaism had no future. The exchange with the wider culture needed to be carefully monitored lest the dialogue became too one-sided. This reflected a more sombre assessment of the ability of a religious community to integrate with a post-Enlightenment secular culture, one that is indifferent, if not inimical, to religious views.

I think there is something in all of this for contemporary Christians. The desire to empty Christian belief and practice from any metaphysical reading leads, in the short term, to a certain confidence. In the long run, it may simply relegate religion to being one social player among many. That young people find this unappealing should not be a surprise. The audience for articles that start with the premise of ‘I once believed this and did this, but no more’ is slowly but inexorably diminishing. I look forward to reading an article in a major newspaper which chronicles the story of a Christian establishing, and maintaining, a religious identity in the face of secular influences, and negotiating a suitable synthesis between their heritage and the demands of living in contemporary culture.    

Dr Richard Rymarz is a lecturer in religious education at ACU. He is currently undertaking longitudinal research into the phenomenon of World Youth Day, and is completing a PhD in the new evangelisation in Australia.



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