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A Postmodern Augustinian Perspective

Given as a talk to a gathering of English-speaking Augustinians at Clare College, Cambridge, in September 1998, to celebrate 750 years of the Augustinian Order’s presence in the British Isles, and subsequently published in Religious Life Review 37 (November/December 1998) 330-338, with the title, ‘The Future of Religious Life: A Post-modern Augustinian Perspective’.



We have come here to celebrate 750 years of our Order’s presence in Britain and Ireland and, more importantly, to look to the future. We all share a deep concern about the religious life today: numbers are down, everyone is getting older, and few are joining us. Tony Flannery, the Irish Redemptorist, concludes in his widely read book, The Death of Religious Life? (Dublin, 1997): ‘the last challenge presenting itself to us, the religious of my era, is, I believe, to face up to and plan for an orderly demise’ (p.94). He may be right, and his book is a very compelling analysis of what has been happening to apostolic religious life in the last thirty years; but I believe that there is a future, and I would like to take this opportunity to say why.


I call my perspective ‘postmodern’ not to be trendy nor to get sucked into a precise definition of what is meant by this notoriously slippery term, but because it is the only useful word around to describe what is happening in present-day Western society, which I believe to be very significant both for the religious life and the Church as a whole. I’m neither a philosopher nor an academic, but as a concerned observer of contemporary society, which I think every friar should be, it seems to me that ‘modern’ society has been characterised by three principal things: the supremacy of reason, the autonomy of the individual, and a belief in unlimited human progress. Those who have looked at the origins of modern society, by and large, trace these characteristics back to the rational Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. The 19th century in particular – the Victorian era – was stamped by an optimism based on what were believed to be endless possibilities for human improvement through the exercise of reason and the application of science and technology. Some of that optimism is still around and may be seen in the documents of Vatican II, particularly Gaudium et Spes, the Church in the Modern World.


The mood has changed, however. The optimism characterising modern society has now been replaced by the postmodern mood of scepticism at many of the claims of science and reason, as well as a reluctance to give credence to overarching explanations of reality, or ‘metanarratives’, to use a postmodern term. Science has had to eat humble pie and admit that it does not know all the answers. In this century, Western ‘civilisation’ – the epitome of what is modern, rational and scientific – has brought us two world wars, the Holocaust, potential environmental disaster, and poverty on a global scale as the price of the good life enjoyed by those living in the developed world.


But something else is happening, too: if the modern was also characterised by the rejection of religion because of the claims of scientific reason, the postmodern is characterised by a return to an openness towards non-scientific and religious explanations. As science is found wanting, religion is making a comeback. The American theologian, Harvey Cox, wrote an influential book in the Sixties called The Secular City, which predicted that one of the consequences of secularisation and the ‘post-religious’ age would be the gradual withdrawal of religion to the margins of society; it would become largely irrelevant to people’s daily lives and if it did survive it would be as a privately-held belief. That has not happened. Indeed, Harvey Cox himself, in a later book, Fire from Heaven (London,1996) says: ‘religion… seems to have gained a new lease on life. Today it is secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction’ (p.xv).


However, this return to religion needs to be viewed with caution, because what we have today is a supermarket of religions and spiritualities. Apathy towards religion has been replaced by spiritual hunger – and spiritual gullibility. The occult, paganism, and superstition are also making a comeback.


If we turn for a moment to the history of religious life since the Second World War, we can see that is has quickly moved from a pre-modern to a modern, and now, I believe, a postmodern phase. The apparent security of the religious life in the pre-Vatican II period was largely due to the Church’s adherence to a pre-modern view of reality, in which God was in his heaven and the Church was deemed to be a reflection of the heavenly society on earth. Religious faith was supreme, not reason; the will of God and the teaching of the Church were prior to individual autonomy; and human progress was of temporal significance only. Religious life reflected this. Hence the uniform dress, the institutionalised lifestyle, and the certainty and security of it all. Or so it seemed.


In fact, the modern was already breaking into this secure, pre-modern world, and these tensions surfaced at the Second Vatican Council. The reaction was swift and immediate. The claims of reason, individual autonomy, and an acknowledgement of the gains of modern science all found their way into the Council documents, heralding, so it was thought, a brave, new Church. But the pre-modern could not cope with the modern and confusion reigned. This was experienced most painfully in religious life, which saw a mass exodus of personnel and a kind of Babylonian exile when religious found themselves rootless and uncertain about the direction in which they should be going.


Part of the reason for the confusion in the last thirty years has been, I believe, a somewhat naïve embracing of the modern. Regarding the claims of science and reason, for instance, I think we had subtly allowed our faith to be so undermined that a kind of agnosticism had set in. Looking back at my time of training, it was all rather cerebral, as if the very rationalism that the Church was seeking to counter had found its way into the theology and spirituality that was supposed to be preparing me for life as a religious and a priest. The transcendental Thomism (Lonergan and Rahner) that was in vogue in the Seventies, when I was studying for the priesthood, seemed to be based on the assumption that the big enemy was unbelief. So theology had to prove its rational and scientific credentials. That was fine, up to a point; but it left out the experiential. This was symbolised by the post-Vatican II fervour in clearing out what was perceived to be the devotional junk from our churches and the tidying up of our liturgies so that they could appeal more to the perceived rationalism of the times.


The irony is that while theology was trying hard to prove its scientific credentials, scientists themselves were beginning to rethink the foundations of science and coming to the realisation that it may be based as much on antecedent belief as theology. The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, in his famous analysis of scientific method, Personal Knowledge (London, 1958), said that ‘We must now recognise belief once more as the source of all knowledge’ (p.266). Interestingly, he cites in support St Augustine’s nisi crediteritis, non intelligitis, that is, understanding is founded on belief. A host of other philosophers of science have come to similar conclusions: reason does not stand alone and can never be the arbiter of its own truthfulness. Faith and imagination play as much a part in science as they do in the arts.


Likewise, in the rush to assert the autonomy of the human person within the Church and religious life, the fact that we are persons in relation to others was perhaps lost sight of. While psychotherapy and counselling, which have been very much in vogue in religious life in recent years, undoubtedly helped many to take hold of their individuality after years of conformity, there is always the danger of seeing the individual in isolation from his or her living context, the community. As has been pointed out in a well-known book on Christian counselling: ‘If God is essentially Persons in relation, then this opens up a way of conceiving human persons as “persons in relation”, for it is in this light we must understand the nature of human persons. Personal identity must and can only arise out of a person’s relations and community with others’ (Bridger and Atkinson, Counselling in Context, London, 1994, p.142). The notion, stemming from Descartes, that we are defined by what goes on in our heads no longer has any credibility. We are who we are because of the way in which our God-given uniqueness has been shaped by the people we live with, the language we speak, and the experiences we have had. Philosophical individualism is not the way ahead for theology, nor is psychotherapeutic individualism the way ahead for the religious life.


As the postmodern mood begins to filter through to those of us who have survived the religious life during the last thirty years or so, I feel we are in a much better position to take stock and plan for the future. Firstly, religion is back on the agenda. Admittedly, there are dangers in this, as I have already pointed out. There is a lot of spiritual quackery around, which a visit to any bookstore will reveal; but at least people are once again asking religious questions, even if they are shooting off in all sorts of directions. I have a cousin, for instance, brought up a Catholic but lapsed, who now finds spiritual sustenance in North American Indian religion, attends powwows, and beats a drum in order to commune with God. This is not to mock my cousin or those who are turning to religions other than Christianity, but to point out that the current mood is such that we as members of a religious order no longer have to apologise for our existence. People are once again looking for spiritual answers. The Anglican theologian Graham Ward says in his Introduction to The Postmodern God (Oxford, 1997) that the current postmodern climate is one ‘within which theological discourse is once more culturally significant’ (p. xxiii).


Also, as has been pointed out briefly, part of this mood is a swing away from individualism and a return to seeing the human person as someone essentially in relation to others. Community, as well as religion, is back on the agenda. Some French postmodern philosophers have been charting this shift. Emmanuel Levinas, in particular, asserts that human subjectivity is to be defined in terms of responsibility for the other, an ethical subjectivity rather than a thinking one (see The Postmodern God, pp. 52-73). Michel de Certeau, also a Jesuit, says, ‘In the organisation of the community no one is a Christian without the others – it is impossible to be a Christian alone’ (ibid., p.146). This, I feel sure, would have resonated with St Augustine, whose own understanding of the human person was very communitarian.


Now that religion and community are back on the agenda in our postmodern world, what shape will religious life take? Firstly, as Augustinians we should be rejoicing that what we regard as our charism – community life and the search for God in common – is more compatible with this new mood in society at large. What we have to offer is what, I believe, many people are looking for in our increasingly fragmented world. But are we living community? Do we come across as people genuinely in search of God? While there are many good communities, there is always a danger that we become comfortable bachelor clubs. How can our communities recover a sense of purpose in the Church? How can we start attracting young people to us once again by the quality of our lives?


One way forward is what I would like to call the inclusive model of religious community. Let me explain. Up to now we thought of religious communities solely in terms of individuals of the same sex, in vows. For the future, I think we should broaden the make-up of our communities to include lay men and women, as indeed is happening already in some religious houses. From my own experience of living in a mixed community of laity and religious, I know that the presence of committed laity in the community acts as a stimulus to more regular prayer life. Familiarity can sometimes breed contempt and our praying together can be so taken for granted that we do it unthinkingly, perhaps even irreverently, or not at all. The presence of laity in our communities can prevent that happening. Also, the presence of women challenges our male attitudes and prevents us from becoming a men’s club. I was not aware of how set in my male view of the world I was until I started living in a community with women. This in turn has led me on to realise just how patriarchal the Church, and indeed much of society, is. When we merely minister to women, it does not provide quite the same opportunities for them to challenge us.


As Augustinians with over 700 years of experience of community living, we should be using that expertise, that gift to the Church, to draw people into our communities and not keep them at bay. At Clare Priory, for instance, the retreat guests pray and eat with the mixed community of laity and friars and experience what it means to live in a Christian community. There, living in such a setting, I feel that I am giving direct witness to the very thing that St Augustine in his Rule is calling me to be: someone seeking God in community. If we have this charism, this gift, there is no point in keeping it to ourselves and building up walls, physical or psychological, to keep people out. It is no wonder that others are not attracted to us if they cannot see us living our life.


It is interesting to note that much of the vitality in Christian community living in today’s Church comes not from the religious congregations but from the new communities. In these communities we have lay people, often young, men and women, single and married, sometimes with priests or religious living with them. They are characterised by their commitment to community living and an intense prayer life. But they are not fenced in by the canonical regulations that encircle traditional religious life. Members come and go. There are varying degrees of commitment. Some stay for life, some do not. There is great openness in terms of membership. I know of one such community here in England where a diocesan priest was accepted on probation – with permission from his bishop – and assigned to a married woman as his ‘novice mistress’!


While I am not saying that every religious community has to be mixed, I am saying that the future of apostolic religious life lies, I believe, in greater flexibility regarding membership, perhaps with vowed religious at the core of such communities, with concentric circles of involvement and commitment radiating outwards from that central core. Already we can see this happening. Most of our houses have people associated with us who in a very real sense share in our community lives and partake in a network of relationships that extends beyond just the friars.


I believe, therefore, that the active or apostolic religious life does have a future and that the Augustinians, too, have a future. The current postmodern climate, with its return to religion and community, is in our favour. But we need to be more open, more flexible, and more generous with our charism of creating community with and for others.


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