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Commentary » International

A new age is being born

Christians must find new ways to live their faith

A new age is being born
Fr William Grimm, Tokyo International

July 31, 2014

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Throughout history, evolving worlds of thought, economics and society have called forth new ways of being for the Church, ways that incarnated, encouraged and critiqued the signs of the times.


In the fourth century, when Christianity was finally free of the danger of persecution in the Roman Empire, it became not only accepted, but even prudent, for people to join the Church. The risky zeal of the age of persecution no longer predominated among Christians. So, the Desert Fathers and Mothers developed a style of life and spirituality that gave witness to the fact that in every age and circumstance, following Christ requires wholehearted dedication.


By the fifth century, the Western part of the Roman Empire was crumbling. Wars, migrations and the rise of small, isolated political entities presented new challenges and opportunities. St Benedict and others developed a model of religious life that was rural and communal. Monks and nuns preserved and developed ancient wisdom while restoring agriculture and even gradually developed the earliest elements of what has evolved into today’s major economic system: international capitalism.


Thirteenth century Western Europe was marked by the rebirth of urban culture, a new challenge for the monastery-focused Church. Saints like Dominic and Francis developed new styles of religious life that left the rural monasteries behind in order to serve a population that included the urban poor, the merchant and artisan classes, and the newly developing universities.


The sixteenth century saw the beginnings of what has come to be known as the Modern Age, an unfortunate name, since every age is modern in its own time and every age inevitably becomes ancient. It has been the dominant intellectual and social reality not only of the West, but increasingly across the world. However, it is beginning, perhaps, to be superseded by a new age.


Modernism has been marked by an increased focus on the individual within the context of objectively verifiable and universally valid knowledge, and reliance upon research over revelation and tradition.


Once again, new ways to live faith in this developing reality were explored and (as might be expected in an age of scientific endeavor) codified by St Ignatius of Loyola’s Jesuits and others. Their style dispensed with much of the communal focus inherited from monasticism, focusing instead upon finding community in the midst of society and living a spirituality of action.


We are now, it appears, in an age of transition. Something new is being born. It is not clear what it might eventually be, but so far it has been dubbed Postmodernism. Though the phenomenon has a name (several, actually), there is as yet no clear definition of what that name might mean or come to mean. It is probably too early to know what will evolve over the next few decades, considering that one of the characteristics of this new age is flux.


Old certainties are rejected as not being as objective as was previously thought as it becomes clearer that cultural and other prejudices have shaped the framing of those certainties. Rapid change in technology and society undermines old convictions that there are such things as unchangeable truths, including religious truths. The austere functionalism of modern architecture is giving way to expressiveness, even whimsy. Individuals’ experiences and opinions have taken on a new centrality, symbolized – perhaps – by selfies and tweets.


What are the implications of this for Christianity? What would it take to develop a new model of Christian living in a Postmodern world? Not all that presents itself would or should be embraced, but it must be dealt with. For example, Francis confronted the new money economy of the thirteenth century by his commitment to poverty. That was a counter-sign, but one appropriate to the world in which he lived, a sign that presented the Gospel challenge in terms of reality.


Until now, adaptations to changing times have usually been embodied in religious orders. It might be, however, that whatever ways Christians find to live and proclaim the Gospel in a Postmodern world will take entirely different directions.


We may see reinterpretation or even abandonment of the traditional vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. It is likely that ties will be looser both with the institutional Church and even with people’s own groups. They may be ecumenical or even interreligious.


We are often admonished to "pray for vocations”. Perhaps those prayers should take the form of asking that men and women who are natives of this new world might discern how the Holy Spirit is at work today and, seeing that, might find ways to incarnate the "Beauty ever ancient, ever new" as encouragement, comfort and challenge to a Postmodern world.


And we denizens of the Modern and pre-Modern must pray for ourselves, that our nostalgic confusion, consternation and un-understanding not hinder them in their search.


Maryknoll Fr William Grimm, based in Tokyo, is publisher of

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