Neither Godless nor wordless: Gregorian Thought
by Fr. Bijesh Philip
Evangelical Christians, credited with having significantly helped US President George W Bush win his re election, have a new agenda - include creationism instead of Evolution in biology text books. But those who support Evolution as the basis of the way life developed on earth fear that extremist Christians want to undermine that scientific theory. Almost all of the states in the US are witnessing a debate on the issue as well as some legal challenges. This is just an example of the typical tension between science and religion, secular and sacred, the Church and ‘the world.’
H. G. Paulos Mar Gregorios (Late Bishop Gregorios,
a Bishop of the Indian Orthodox Church) who was a relentless warrior against the ill effects of secularism, used to work hard to resolve this conflict. Most of his works particularly Worship in a Secular Age, A Light Too Bright, The Secular Ideology, Enlightenment East and West, Healing: A Holistic Approach, Science for Sane Societies etc. are beautiful invitations to enjoy a bright future which will neither be Godless nor wordless.
Secularism comes from the Latin word saeculam which means world. Secularization was used first to indicate a process of liberating the properties and institutions from the church and ecclesiastical authorities and bringing them under the control of the public. But secularism is an ideology propagated by the exponents of the Enlightenment movement of 18th and 19th centuries.
Voltaire, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Descartes, Hobbes, Hegel, Kant, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Marx etc thought of religion as a major road block to human progress and tried to reject God and enthrone reason. A general tendency to ignore the transcendent dimensions of reality, a general confidence in the authority of reason and empirical observation, rejection of ecclesiastical authority, tradition and clericalism, a desire and an attempt to understand and explain all reality with in the categories of historical, social, human and infinite entities, a general satisfaction and great pride about the scientific - technological achievements of western civilization etc are characteristics of European Enlightenment which contributed to the spread of secularism in the world.
The foundational faith of secularism is that this world is self existent. So Peter Gay, the most prolific American writer on the Enlightenment depicted the enlightenment and thus secularism also as a “rival to the Christian religion.” Secularism may be a rival to the religious ethos cherished by humankind for thousands of years. Decline of faith and subsequent moral degradation, under use of religion due to too much privatization of religion, the rise of religious fundamentalism all over the world, uncontrolled exploitation of Non Human Creation are a few of the dangerous results caused by the spread of secularism.
Bishop Gregorios makes a critical evaluation of it by tracing the historical development of secularism. The theologizing of St. Augustine in 4th century A.D. which separated this world and spiritual realm very much prepared the ground for the world view of European civilization for long. Development of Christendom where the church and state collaborated actively also indirectly paved the way for the rise of secularism.
During the medieval Christendom, the church hierarchy was at the top of social strata and deciding and controlling everything in society. The strong reaction of the people against the misuse of the authority of the clergy and the ardent desire for self gratification among the pleasure seeking middle class resulted in the renaissance. Reformation was also a revolt against the authority in the Church.
In the Enlightenment Movement of 18th and 19th centuries, the revolt against Church and its authority went to the extent of ousting God from the centre and placing reason as a substitute. Being rooted in this culture, modern science, education, technology, medical system etc developed.
Bishop Gregorios addresses this European Enlightenment process as ‘A Light Too Bright’ which helped a lot to see and understand this universe better but blinded many from seeing the transcendent realities and the guiding stars.
Bishop Gregorios dreams of a dance of the so-called secular institutions and the sacred together. By making a bridge he seems to invite both the secular and the sacred to join together for a global dance to cheer up the humankind and the entire creation.
Science, medicine, politics, and secular education are to be enriched by the positive use of religion. While appreciating the achievements of the western medical system, he strongly recommends integration of religious practices and traditions for an holistic healing. Faith and trust in God plays a major role in healing.
Bishop Gregorios recommends appointing in all hospitals religious counselors from different religious traditions.
Separation of religion and politics, a concept stabilized in the context of European Enlightenment is not at all acceptable to
Bishop Gregorios. The secular agenda brought and introduced by Nehru in India is an impotent remedy for communalism. While criticizing Nehru’s break with the past of India and his suggestion of scientific humanism disregarding religion for a bright future,
Bishop Gregorios praises the philosopher President S. Radhakrishnan’s view of the integration of politics and positive aspects of religion for nation building. But limiting the role of religion to the spiritual regeneration of the people so that they could serve the nation in a better way is not enough.
Bishop Gregorios thinks about a more active role for religion in society: ‘There should be a national network of religious leaders committed to the ideal of religious and communal harmony, who will be vigilant about communal tension in various parts of the country. Such panels could be organized on a district basis and attached to the Zila parishads or the district collectorates. Such a panel could sometimes also help settle conflicts arising within just one religious group, or conflicts between different religious groups.’ Being satisfied with no favoritism or no discrimination against any religion guaranteed in the constitution of India by the adjective ‘secular’ is not sufficient.
Bishop Gregorios repeatedly refers to pluralistic, mutually respectful democratic cooperation of many religious traditions as the age old foundation of Indian Society. This is the essence of Sanatana Dharma. Let secularism be one of the religions or traditions.
Positive use of the world in theology, worship and preaching are also necessary to overcome the unnecessary polarization of divine and human, sacred and secular, churchly and worldly. Fuelled by Gregory of Nyssa’s thought he develops a theology of wholeness or integral vision to resolve this fundamental issue. His understanding of the creation of God and incarnation helps him to develop a very positive approach to the world and a sound eco-theology. Being created by God even matter is spiritual.
Inspired by modern trends, in the second half of 20th century theologians like Bonhoeffer, Paul M van Buren, Bultman etc attempted to minimize or even to eliminate the transcendent dimension of reality.
Bishop Gregorios strongly opposes secularization of theology and worship. An authentic worship is an antidote to the attack of secularism. Our ideal relation to God is not through ideas, but rather through the act of worship and prayer in which God remains a subject and not an object, one who can be addressed, loved and adored, but who can not be described or conceptualized or comprehended.’ At the same time
Bishop Gregorios suggests that our prayer and worship have to become more deeply saturated with a genuine and authentic concern for the life of humanity, especially of the poor and the oppressed. Litanies and intercessory prayers are to be modified and new prayers are to be created which are sensitive to the contemporary world and the people around us.
Philosophers like Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre and a few so called theologians spoke of the death of God from which humanity is to draw the conclusion that man is on his own and he must take the responsibility to shape and control reality.
Bishop Gregorios has no reluctance to show a sympathy to the death of God theory because he interprets it differently: “What has died is not God, but only our idea of God.”
So in the ultimate analysis modernism was attacking a few wrong understandings and practices in the church. Now the time has come to use the positive elements of religious tradition of humankind and the achievements of European Enlightenment / modernism for a better world. We need to continue to reflect on the practical implications of the fusion of two apparently exclusive worlds- religious and the so called secular or divine and human.
(From: Sahayatra, Nov. – Dec, 2004)
Last Will and Testament
This last will and testament from
one of the scholars of Indian Orthodox church provides us with deep
insight into many theological questions we face everyday, such as who is
God, what is beauty, etc.