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Belief, Augustine, and the New Religiosity


Given as a talk to the Friends of Augustine, a lay group, at Clare Priory, Suffolk, England, in April 2003. A modified version was published in Review for Religious 62.4 (2003) 354-362.

Today, one feels, disbelief in God has become a source of anxiety. The onus has now switched to those who claim they do not believe in God to prove their unbelief. Indeed, the stridency with which non-believers and secularists proclaim their ‘faith’ suggests an anxiety about their unbelief which was rarely heard in the confident days of triumphant modernity. According to practically every recent survey, non-believers are in a minority. The agnostics are now not those who are unsure about their belief in God but those who are not sure they disbelieve. The present-day anxiety, the anxiety of a post-Christian society, is in the possibility of God. Where do you go when unbelief has run its course?

For those of us who have been freed from the burden – and it is a burden – of disbelief in God, we have a corresponding responsibility not to take our belief for granted. Our belief, our faith, is something that grows and deepens; and doubt, questioning, and challenge are part of that growth. It is never static. In those famous words of St Augustine: ‘Make progress, my brothers and sisters, examine yourselves honestly again and again. Put yourself to the test. Do not be content with what you are, if you want to become what you are not yet… Always add something more, keep moving forward, always make progress’ (Sermon 169).

The shape of our belief is influenced by the world we live in. Had we lived in 13th century Italy or Spain, for instance, our belief would have had a different character to it. Unbelief was not a problem in those days: everyone believed in God. Faith then was characterised by an intense devotion to the person of Christ in his passion and present in the Eucharist. Hence the gory images of a lacerated Christ and the many miracles associated with the sacred host. Belief had a tangible feel about it then and people were not afraid to express it publicly. Or, to take another example nearer to our own times, imagine yourself in communist Poland: faith was shaped by the need to take a firm stand against state-controlled atheism. Belief, therefore, was caught up in nationalism: to be Polish was to be Catholic, like faith in Ireland up to recently. The object of faith remains the same in these different cases, but its expression, its shape, its context is different.

How do we believe today in Britain? What are the outside forces that shape our belief? It is my hunch that most, even if they do not go to church, cling to some form of religious belief. Indeed, it has become fashionable to have a personal ‘spirituality’. The problem is not so much belief but what to believe in. People have become very gullible spiritually in our ‘post-secular’ times. I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said something like, ‘when people stop believing in God, they start believing in anything’. And what characterises this quest for spirituality is its individualism. One can choose from a great variety of wares on display the bits of religion one wants. It has become a lifestyle choice: a bit of Zen here, a little Feng Shui there, and perhaps even some aspects of Christianity, the nice bits. This is non-demanding, non-threatening religion. A former Archbishop of Canterbury called it ‘pick-and-mix spirituality’. Others have called it ‘à la carte religion’.

It has become fashionable, therefore – even among some Catholics – to make a distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. By ‘religion’ is meant institutional religion, the Church. And by ‘spirituality’ is meant the ‘good’ things about religion, without the awkward bits like Popes and bishops telling us how to lead our lives. It is ‘in’ to have a spirituality, even if it means rejecting or sitting loose to the institutional form of the Church. The problem, however, is once spirituality is detached from religion, it quickly becomes self-seeking and inward-looking. Belonging to the Church, which is a community of believers first and an institution second, is a guard against this individualisation and privatisation of religion. We need the example and the insights of others, and the challenge that comes from being corrected, if our faith is to be true.

Saint Augustine is a help here. Tom Martin OSA, in his recent book, Our Restless Heart: The Augustinian Tradition (London, 2003), takes up this issue: ‘Does Augustinian spirituality lead to a privatised spirituality? While it is clear that Augustine privileges the heart and the journey within, he would be the first to decry any reading of him that would turn the Christian life into a solitary journey. It is always a shared pilgrimage, a community of fellow believers on a journey of faith to God’ (p.47). In another passage, speaking of the need to ‘return to one’s heart’, Martin says: ‘Yet for all this talk of “heart”, this emphasis on interiority, its intention is never to lead to an introverted spirituality… From the heart I come to Christian faith, become a member of the church, the Body of Christ… [Augustine’s] insistence upon the heart is thus not a self-serving escape from responsibility into interior religion and privatized faith’ (p.43).

This is one of the greatest challenges to Christian faith today, the challenge posed by the privatisation of belief. As Cardinal Hume once said, ‘Faith is always personal but never private’.

Augustinian spirituality is a great safeguard against this, but because of his emphasis on interiority and returning to the heart, Augustine can be misunderstood. Martin makes it quite clear that Augustinian spirituality is always rooted in the experience of community, the common search for God, the Church. ‘To remove or isolate or separate God or self or community within the thought of Augustine,’ he says, ‘would only result in a profound distortion of his spiritual vision’ (p.49). So as we struggle with belief in a society that wants to reduce everything, including religion, to individual choice, Augustine provides us with a necessary corrective to the ‘McDonaldization’ of religion, as a Scottish theologian calls it (see John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church, London, 2003).

Return to your hearts by all means, but not to stay there, rather to encounter the God who opens up our hearts to those around us. Augustine himself was only too aware of the temptations of interiority. His first experiment in community life was with like-minded friends near Milan just after his baptism, where he established a community apart from the hustle and bustle of life in order to spend time in contemplation and reflection: otium sanctum, ‘holy leisure’, as Augustine called it. He then brought this idealised form of Christian community back to North Africa, to Thagaste, where he established a lay community. But he had a rude awakening. Visiting a church in Hippo one day to look for a candidate for his community, he was grabbed by the congregation and presented to the ageing Bishop Valerius for ordination to the priesthood – and he wept.

Augustine knew that from then on his life would no longer be his own. Gone for the rest of his life was any notion of ‘holy leisure’. The life of contemplation would lead him now to share that life with others. It is a paradox of his life, and indeed of the Christian life in general, that the journey within becomes at a certain point a journey outwards, to God and to others. Hence Augustine’s observation in the City of God: ‘For no one ought to be so leisured as to take no thought in that leisure for the interest of his neighbour, nor so active as to feel no need for the contemplation of God’ (XIX.19). Contemplation and action are held in a balance in Augustinian spirituality.

The current resurgence of interest in religion and spirituality is evidenced in the number of books in the Mind, Body and Spirit sections in most bookstores. Often the Christian section is quite small in comparison. Clearly, many are hungry for spirituality. It has become obvious that people cannot survive for long on unbelief and a purely secular view of the world, in spite of the predictions by the proponents of the ‘theory of secularization’, who are now eating humble pie.

Harvey Cox, the Harvard theologian who once subscribed to the view that religion would be marginalised in modern society by the march of the secular, more recently has said: ‘Today it is secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction’ (Fire from Heaven, London, 1996, p.xv). People yearn for enchantment. Secularity does not feed the human spirit, which, as Augustine says, is made for God.

The Vatican has responded to this phenomenon by publishing Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’ (Pontifical Councils for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue, 2003). It acknowledges that this renewed interest in religion and spirituality is evidence of a spiritual hunger in the contemporary world. The hunger for the transcendent has not been erased by the flat secularity of modernity. Our hearts retain an Augustinian restlessness for God. The document sees in this new religiosity ‘a genuine yearning for a deeper spirituality, for something that will touch their hearts, and for a way of making sense of a confusing and often alienating world’ (1.5). It also notes the positive aspects of this religiosity: its criticism of materialism, its sense of the sacredness of life, and its concern for the environment.

But there is a difficulty. This new religiosity is largely non-Christian. As the document says: ‘…it is on the whole difficult to reconcile it with Christian doctrine and spirituality’ (2). It is important to remember that we are all subject to these influences in the way our own faith is shaped. Some practising Catholics believe in forms of New Ageism, such as the use of crystals. This is a common misapprehension: that you can mix Christianity with alternative spiritualities and think there is nothing amiss - unless they become thoroughly Christianised, as happened with pagan customs in the past.

The current tendency towards the privatisation of faith and spiritual individualism is also picked up by the Vatican document, which refers to ‘spiritual narcissism’ and the ‘private world of ego-fulfilment’ (3.2). It also cautions against looking for religious experiences ‘engendered by turning in on oneself’. This leads on to the fundamental point that ‘Christian prayer is not an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness, and self-emptying, but a dialogue of love’ (3.4). Certain kinds of religion can easily become an ego trip, and this document is not afraid to say so. On one level, Augustine, particularly in his Confessions, can seem to be on a spiritually narcissistic journey; but a closer look reveals that the Confessions is in fact ‘a dialogue of love’: ‘You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself… You called me, you cried aloud to me, you broke the barrier of my deafness’(X.27).

It is important to mention this, as Eastern forms of prayer and meditation, which have many good points and which many Christians find alluring, do have a tendency towards introversion and self-preoccupation. Christian prayer is not ultimately about emptying the mind, breathing properly, or getting the right posture, though these techniques may help. It is a relationship with the living God, a dialogue of love, not so much an individual experience of heightened consciousness. As the Vatican document quoted above points out, ‘… life in Christ is not something so personal and private that it is restricted to the realm of consciousness. Nor is it merely a new level of awareness’ (3.5). To use the phrase of a contemporary theologian about Augustinian interiority, it is not a ‘diving expedition into the soul’. Rather, it is an encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus Christ, the bearer of the water of life.

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