A wintry season: such is [Karl] Rahner's metaphor for the situation of faith in the modern world. Keeping his eye on middle-class, educated European persons who are trying to live a Christian life, he sees that this is a world that no longer easily communicates the faith. First off, a person can no longer be a Christian out of social convention or inherited customs. To be a Christian now requires a personal decision, the kind of decision that brings about a change of heart and sustains long-term commitment. Not cultural Christianity but a diaspora church, scattered among unbelievers and believers of various stripes, becomes the setting for this free act of faith. Furthermore , when a person does come to engage belief in a personal way, society makes this difficult to do. For modern society is marked not only by atheism and agnosticism but also by positivism, which restricts what we can know to data accessible from the natural sciences; secularism, which gets on with the business at hand, impatient of ultimate questions, with a wealth of humanistic[*] values that allow a life of ethical integrity without faith; and religious pluralism, which demonstrates that there is more than one path to holy and ethical living. All of these call into question the very validity of Christian belief.
When, nevertheless, persons do make a free act of faith, the factors characteristic of the modern world impart a distinctive stamp to their spiritual experience. This is not surprising, since the path to God always winds through the historical circumstances of peoples times and places Inhabiting a secular, pluralistic culture, breathing its atmosphere and conducting their daily lives according to its pragmatic tenets, Christians today have absorbed the concrete pattern of modernity into their very soul. It runs right through their own heart, shaping their mind-set and psychology. As Rahner observed, agnosticism which knows it doesn't know . . . is the way God is experienced today." Certainly this is not true of all believers. For psychological and historical reasons, some still dwell with an unperturbed God-filled heart in the framework of a previous era. But as Rahner once famously noted, not all who live at the same time are contemporaries. His concern is focused on Christians who are people of their own modern times, surrounded by spiritual ambiguity. When such people "come to church," they do not leave their complex inner and outer worlds at the door but bring the ambiguities right up to the altar. Since mature spirituality requires integrating the basic experience of one's life into a wholeness before God, modernity forms a crucial element in the act of faith.
It is a source of never-ending concern to Rahner that much of what people hear in the preaching and teaching of the church draws on a primitive idea of God unworthy of belief[**],rather than communicating the reality, the beauty, the wonder, and the strange generosity of the mystery of God. The average sermon, along with the popular piety it encourages, has a basically retarded notion of God, he judged, acknowledging neither the absolute difference of God from the world nor the marvelous truth that God's own self has drawn near as the inmost dynamism and goal offered to the world. All too often sermons work with the tired ideas of modern theism, reflecting a precritical mentality that sees God as someone whom we can calculate from our formula of how things work, thus replacing the incomprehensible God with an idol. They fashion the Holy in the image of our own concerns, our neurotic fears, our puny hearts, rather than honoring the impossible outpouring of love by which God not only sets up the world in its own integrity but, while remaining radically distinct, gives the divine self away to the world. They neglect to inform us of the most tremendous truth, that we are called into loving immediacy with the mystery of God who self-communicates to us in unspeakable nearness. After listening to such dismal sermons can we really say that the world "God" brightens up our lives? Unfortunately Rahner wrote, it is more often the case that the words of the preacher fall powerlessly from the pulpit, "like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky."
To be continued.
* I would agree with the use of "humanistic" if with two conditions. One is that these days most people mean nothing more than atheist-materialist-scientism when they say "humanist" and such "humanism" is bound to quickly be at odds with any durable assertions of ethics, corroding those with allowing whatever is culturally dominant at any time to comprise "ethics" never mind "holiness." Atheism as it almost always exists consists of what demands that such ideas as "ethics" and "holiness" can be denied as soon as it becomes desirable and any inhibition on what such a "humanist" wants to be taken as nothing to bother about. The god(less) father of "Humanism" as it is known today, Corliss Lamont, was an unrehabilitated Stalinist right up till the last moment he figured that was viable in the wake of Stalin's death. If Stalin had lived to be 100, I have no doubt Lamont would have stuck with him as long as he was in power. I don't think his successor, Paul Kurtz was any more bound to ethics, as his various schemes and antics prove.
Second, any humanism that makes human being's the measure of all things is an ideology that is bound to have a narrow, parochial and ideological limitation to it.
** That is the same God that atheists want to be everyone's God so they can knock it over. It's been my experience that few things will annoy an atheist like pointing out that you don't believe in the God that they don't believe in and that you've either never believed in that God or you left that God behind in childhood.
I think it's one of the things that will increasingly characterize Christianity that it is a religion that is adopted by adults and will be the product of mature reflection instead of a catechism read before you, as a child, are "confirmed" in a faith you don't believe.