29 July 2011

Engaging with secularism: different approaches, east and west

Inside the Main Gate at the Porters’ Lodge in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

On the closing day of the summer school [Friday 29 July] in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, two lecturers invited us this morning o look at a variety of approaches to engaging with secularism and modernity.

Dr Brandon Gallaher of Keble College, Oxford, spoke on: “An Alternate Modernity? Orthodox and Roman Catholic Engagements with Secularism and (Post-)Modernity, and the Nature of Episcopal Authority.” Professor Nicholas Loudovikos of the Superior Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki addressed the topic: “An Orthodox Perspective on Psychology and Secularism.” They were speaking on the closing day of the summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, which has the theme: “The Challenge of a Secular Age.”

Dr Gallaher looked at Pope Benedict XVI’s critique of and his engagement with to secularism and modernity, and the response of the Moscow Patriarchate, including the works of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and his book Freedom and Responsibility. In a Search for Harmony. Human Rights and Personal Dignity, and of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.

He outlined the complexity of secularism and modernity, and rejected an Orthodox tendency to look at them as monolithic. Religious communities will still have a stake in secularised societies, and society will have to deal with that.

Post-secularism has been described by Jürgen Habermas and addressed by Pope Benedict, but has not been addressed as firmly by Orthodoxy, he said. “You have to talk to people who are secular, and not at them,” Dr Gallaher said.

There are multiple modernities, reconstituting multiple constructions over time, and spoke of those who seek a specifically Christian way of being modern.

Pope Benedict has talked about the dictatorship of relativism and the need to avoid. He speaks of a Christocentric vision that could oppose this, and says theology always needs to be done in a Church context.

For Pope Benedict, Christianity is the true humanism. Western society has forgotten its Christian roots, has relegated God to the merely personal and private, and has no absolute or eternal values. Although claiming to be neutral, secularism is merely negative tolerance, leading to negative discrimination. He says: “In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished.”

Freedom becomes an empty goal because freedom is defined as what one can do with power. Reason ends up destroying itself. Reason and freedom need to make contact again with their roots. Reason needs faith and faith needs reason.

The Pope speaks of the necessary relatedness between reason and faith. They are called to hep and purify each other, acknowledging their mutual need, and correcting and purifying each other.

The Enlightenment has its roots in Christianity, and secularism rightly understood can be a good thing. He calls Christianity back to understanding its essential values, and secularism can be profoundly Christian, so that faith is calling the secular realm back to its root.
Turning to the experience of the Russian Orthodox Church, Dr Gallaher was more critical, looking at the conflicting demands of dialogue and tradition. The approach to dialogue has often been characterised by the invitation: “Come in.”

But he pointed out that while the Roman Catholic Church is a multinational organisation, the Russian Orthodox Church is still essentially a national church and is working in the context of a post-Soviet situation.

He looked at the development of dialogue between the two churches, which share similar concerns about militant secularism, which Metropolitan Hilarion sees as a grave threat to Christian Europe.

Metropolitan Hilarion has been a key figure in dialogue between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate. But Dr Gallaher sourced much of Metropolitan Hilarion’s views on population and immigration in the writings of the right-wing American writer Patrick Buchanan.

He also looked at Metropolitan Hilarion’s views on Church-State relations in Russia, and his writings on secularism, in which he sees Christian roots and much good.

Returning to the different ways in which the question of secularism is approached by the two Churches, he concluded that Pope Benedict had found space for dialogue with secularism, which is a child of Western Christianity, while the Orthodox begin with tradition which leaves little possibility for dialogue with what is seen as liberal and secular.

He argued that Orthodoxy had much to learn from the Vatican’s approach to dialogue, which is needed. He said there is a need for a “spiritual daring” and to risk one’s values for an “ultimate modernity.”

Dr Gallaher is Lecturer in Theology at Keble College, Oxford, and is about to take up a British Academy post-doctoral fellowship at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, working on a project on secularism and religious authority in modern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologies.

He studied at the University of British Columbia, McGill University, Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and Regent’s Park College, Oxford. His doctoral work at Oxford under Professor Paul Fiddes was on the role of freedom and necessity in the Trinitarian theologies of Sergii Bulgakov, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. He has published on Russian theologians and philosophers, including Sergeii Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Solov’ev, and is co-editing a Florovsky Reader with Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writing a foreword.

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in the summer sunshine this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Our final lecture this morning was delivered through a conference call. Professor Nikolaos Loudovikos of the Superior Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki spoke to us from Greece on the topic: “An Orthodox Perspective on Psychology and Secularism.” Dr Loudovikos, who is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church, is Professor of Dogmatics and Philosophy at the Superior Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki.

Drawing on Charles Taylor’s definitions of secularism, he traced it to the rise of a society in which self-sufficient humanism, an exclusive humanism, is an option, owing allegiance to nothing else.

He also looked at the psychological aspects of secularism and modernity, and drew on his own studies of Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint Gregory Palamas, Saint Thomas Aquinas and his own work in psychology as he looked at the possibility of humanity becoming what we are made to be.

He spoke of the impossibility of personhood without communion and of the need for a “dialogue of reciprocity.”

Father Nikolaos studied psychology, pedagogy, theology, and philosophy in Athens, Thessaloniki, Paris and Cambridge, and his thesis for his PhD in theology at the University of Thessaloniki examined The Eucharistic Ontology in the Theological Thought of Saint Maximus the Confessor. He has taught in Cambridge, Durham, Winchester, and Patras, and is also a part-time lecturer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies here in Cambridge.

His recent publications include: The strive for participation: Thomas Aquinas and Gregory Palamas (Athens); A Eucharistic ontology: Maximus The Confessor’s eschatological ontology of being as dialogical reciprocity (Athens and Boston); The terrors of the person and the ordeals of love: critical thoughts for a postmodern theological ontology (Athens); and Theopoiia: postmodern theological aporia (Athens).

The bell of the chapel at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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