Reverse in the Trend of Secularization: Are We Ready?

 A report of 1979 Dudleian Lecture  by Paulos Mar Gregorios

 [From The Podium (page 7) Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Oct/Nov 1979


The problems facing the Christian Church in its reversal of a recent emphasis on secularization was the subject of the 1979 Dudleian Lecture, delivered October 10 in Andover Chapel by His Beatitude Metropolitan Paulos Gregorios (sic).               

Bishop Gregorios, 54, is principal of the Syrian Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kottayam, Kerala, India.  He is a former associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches and is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School.               

In his lecture, entitled "A Reverse in the Trend of Secularization: Are We Ready?"  Bishop Gregorios said Protestant theology has recently emerged from "two or three decades of the ascendancy and reign of the secular."  The years 1960 to 1966 saw "a bright but brief flare of secular theology in Protestant thought" marked by the work of theologians Gabriel Vahanian, John Robinson, Paul Van Buren, and others.  The period included student revolts and the accompanying notion that "society could be taken over by right thinking young radicals and be run on a rational basis..."               

Now at the end of the "Sober Seventies" (as opposed to the "Soaring Sixties"), "we begin to see a new trend - a return of the Sacred.  The Death of God theology was a causality to the high infant mortality ate of all new theologies.  Secularization theology will continue to be taught in African and Asian seminaries," he said, "since these provide the last refuges for moribund western theologies."  The new trend, he continued, is marked by Westerners studying and practicing Eastern religions. "The sacred has again become fashionable, " he said. Sacred and secular elements always co-exist in any religious tradition, Bishop Gregorios said, and each element dominates the other at different times.  Each period of domination is followed by "a swing of the pendulum to the opposite side...We are now in a period when the pendulum is swinging again from a predominance of the secular to a period of increased receptivity for the sacred." Such swings are evident in India as well, with the Sankhya school of thought and other secular philosophies existing beside the traditional religion, he said.               

"The secular mode of thinking exists in our cultures with the specific function of calling us back to our senses when we go widely astray in the institutionalization of religion.  The 18th century secular movement definitely fulfilled this function.  But we are today seeing the beginnings of a new process - the renewal of religion chastened by the secular critique."  As evidence he cited the growth of Protestant denominations stressing theistic elements; the tremendous renaissance of religious faith in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe; scientific advances in the area of religion; a loss of nerve about the "omni-competence" of science and technology, and the new political awareness of religions, with their demand for expression in religion-based states such as Israel, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sri Lanka, and others.  "The return of the Sacred is an evident feature of our time. How to respond to it is, however, not so evident," he said.               

The present need is not for a secular theology, but "for a totally new approach to the expression of Christian faith."  The new expression would have to be the inter-meshing of a three-fold pattern of worship, practice and thought.  "The basic content of the Christian faith is such that no system of conceptual theology can contain its essential features.  The Christian faith is deeply rooted in realities which transcend the spatio-temporal and the historical-secular, and therefore cannot be reduced to ANY theological system, not even a plurality of theological systems.  Its transcendent character demands trans-rational, trans-conceptual expression," he said.               

Such an expression calls for a rich body of religious symbols, first and foremost.  The secular movement may have had its biggest effect in the discarding of symbolic communication, the speaker said, but symbols must be recovered from the Church's past or recreated to become a part of the life of the Church, "in such a way that we cannot reform our worship through making the prayers conceptually relevant or verbally modern."

"More than any theology, it will be the imaginative creation of adequate symbols and their persistent use in life and worship that can protect us against another sweep of the cold secular winds which surely will come again as human alienation becomes progressively more and more acute."

In addition to radical reform with regard to symbols, the Church needs a  reform in its openness to other
cultures.  While young Westerners turn East for spiritual meaning, they never learn that "the same elements are present in the Christian tradition itself, but neither the young nor most of the old are very much in touch with these traditional elements of Christian spirituality like the Hesychast movement, the Jesus prayer, the spirituality of the desert fathers of Egypt," and the tradition of Christian monasticism in general.

"A post-secular theology," he said, "will have to make a concerted effort to penetrate the two elements at the same time - the rich heritage of Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist spirituality on the one hand, and the most readily accessible and equally rich heritage of classical Christian spirituality.  Western Christianity has been sadly narrow-minded when it comes to learning from other religions and cultures as a deep enough level."

"Only Christian scholars with a deep spiritual sensibility and intellectual qualities, having immersed themselves for extended periods of time in the spiritual life and practice and thought of the great religions of the East as well as in the Eastern Christian spiritual heritage can help us find our way to expressing our faith anew in the post-secular world," he continued.

With regard to forming a new Christian theology, Bishop Gregorios noted that some of western theology's
preconceptions are so deeply rooted in the western Christian heritage that a critical examination of some of these perceptions becomes often emotionally difficult. Such critical examination would become possible only when a more meaningful alternative world-view is available.

 Critical to the necessary theological revolution is the "radical rethinking" of several points,
  • the stress on the incomprehensibility of God, and thus on the provisional, functional, tentative character of all theological statements.
  • emphasizing the apprehension of truth "at the base level" through symbol-rich community liturgical action and only at the secondary level through conceptual elucidation which can never do full justice to the symbols.
  • stress on the contingent and dependent existence of the universe and ourselves on the will and word of God now, i.e., God, the Creator, not as initiator of a process but as present necessary ground for all existence.
  • stress on "God-Universe-Humanity" as a single infinite package within which there are both basic continuities and discontinuities; at the same time stressing the impossibility of shutting up God within the time process, making his conceptually ungraspable transcendence too easily understandable as temporal transcendence.
  • the inseparability of the "cosmos-ecclesia package," though the discontinuities and distinctions should not be ignored.
  • the corporate and personal as well as cosmic aspects of both sin and redemption-- a Christology-Pneumatology that does justice to personal salvation.
  • an attempt to reintegrate the eschatological and the historical - "so that the passion for justice and human dignity for all, and the passion for worship and personal fulfillment need not be disjuncted as they are now."
  • an opening up "to the religious heritage of mankind in order to appropriate what is of fundamental human value in them, in relation to Christianity's own rich and neglected heritage."
  • an opening up "to the insights, concerns and aspirations of secular thought - i.e., learning from all the physical and social sciences, from all ideologies whether they be liberal of(sic) Marxist  or Conservative ­ so that the return of the Sacred does not become exclusively a return to the inner world of religious experience, but constitutes a firm wedding of inner fulfillment with external justice, peace and dignity."
"What we need today," Bishop Gregorios concluded, "is not a religionless Christianity but a deeply religious and socially conscious Christianity which is adequate to the post-secular age; the challenge of the secular is to be met not by capitulation to its demands but by a trans-conceptual symbol-rich grasp of the fundamentals of Christianity..."

"I do not think that a lazy tolerance of religious pluralism or leaving it to the individual to choose from
a cafeteria of varied religious options will do.  Nor am I arguing for a common world religion.  My concern is for a deeply grounded Christian practice and worship and thought which are less parochial and more actively receptive to the total religious heritage of humanity and also to the concerns and aspirations of what once flared up as secular Christianity."