Are We at The End or The Beginning? | Dr. Glenn Olson, author of Beginning at Jerusalem reflects on what history tells us about the future of the Church.
I am sometimes asked: Are we standing at the end of the Christian era? Where can we go from here? It is difficult to know how to respond to such questions. I am not a prophet, only a historian. Therefore, my most honest answer is "I do not know." Such an answer satisfies few people. They rightly assume that if one has spent one's life studying history, one must have formed at least some suspicions about the future. And that I have.
My best guess is that the future will be like the past. Deep trends of the past will continue into the future. This said, it is central that we not be confused about the deep trends of the recent past and of our own day. It is often said that we live in a time of secularization.
One of the things that I argue in the later chapters of my book, Beginning at Jerusalem, is that this is only half the truth. Rather, in all periods there are two tendencies, one towards secularization and one towards sacralization. These typically occur at the same time, so, so far as secularization is concerned, the times are always mixed.
Secularization can be defined and understood many ways, but if we take it to mean a tendency to consider the world apart from God, we can see that neither secularization nor sacralization is intrinsically good. Although medicine should not consider health without considering God, there is a sense in which medical advances are made by bracketing God, by at some given moment considering some specific problem, tuberculosis say, in its own right.
As long as we do not forget at the end of the day to bring back what we have learned from such specific study into relation with God, we have here "good secularization," a discovery of how our world works which would not have been possible if we had only looked at God. Similarly, we can not praise every sacralization or centering of the world on God, a witness to which is Islamic fundamentalism.
The point is that desireable and undesireable secularizations and sacralizations occur in tandem throughout history. We should expect that this will continue in the twenty-first century. Those who think that religion is dead, that we are living on a one-way street leading to the elimination of God from life, almost certainly are wrong.
What we should expect, rather, is the same kind of struggle between the cultures of life and of death that have especially characterized the last few centuries. Pope John Paul II has eloquently characterized the nature of these cultures, and his writings will remain central to understanding the times that are upon us. Many will continue vigorously to free themselves from God, and many will struggle in a counter-cultural way to live a life pleasing to God.
To do the latter, certain resources will be necessary, and this is why I wrote my book. It is one thing to lament the times, another thing intelligently to work to change them or be effective within them. Good change rests on correctly understanding what has happened in the past, and why. It is one thing to berate what we dislike in the world around us, another to understand how these things formed. We sometimes feel something is absent from our lives, without exactly being able to put our finger on this.
My argument is that some of the things we lack were possessed in one form or another by other ages. If we want them in our lives now, we have to understand why they took some earlier form, why they were lost, and what they would look like if present in our own day.
I presume that one can never go home in the strict sense of recovering some earlier condition. What my book is in considerable measure about is what things earlier existing and now largely lost would look like if recovered today or tomorrow. This is why I pay such attention to the liturgy, and to the effects of living in an individualistic society on how we think about and experience religion.
I have no delusion that I or anyone else can sit down and in some comprehensive way plan the future. We can know what sides to take in the great struggle of our days, but it can not be stressed too much that God is the author of history, and all history lies in his hands. What is asked of us is fidelity. We should expect neither to succeed nor to fail: this is in God's hand. Likely, our lives and the age that is upon us will be mixed, with both triumphs and losses. In any case nothing in history lasts, and we would be advised to think more in categories of "temporary" or "mixed" successes and "temporary" or "mixed" reverses.
Central is the theological virtue of hope. This is not the same as the cheery but superficial virtue of optimism. Hope means that we place our lives in God's hands, trust him, and by our best lights work for a world which properly acknowledges him. We might speak of living in our times as St. Ignatius Loyola lived in his; of trying to imagine how Ignatius would live if alive today.
Glenn W. Olsen is a Professor of History at the University of Utah, with a Ph.D. in the history of the Middle Ages. He has contributed numerous articles to many historical journals, including Communio and Logos, and is also the author of the book Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (2001).
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:
His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen
Author Page for Hans Urs von Balthasar
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Introduction to Church and State in Early Christianity | Hugo Rahner, S.J.
Crusade Myths | Thomas F. Madden
The Jesuits and the Iroquois | Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J.
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