Friday, October 28, 2011

Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position

Edited by Peter L. Berger,, 209 pages.

Between Relativism and Fundamentalism, a collection of essays by various authors, offers an academic, sociological approach, showing how changes and trends in Christianity were part of larger society-wide changes and trends. The authors retrace some of the errors made by Christianity as it has proclaimed the gospel in a modern world often skeptical of religious belief.

Berger for one accuses Christians of focusing too heavily on morality, and not enough on God. Christians have, he observes, equated morality with spirituality. In the rush to fit into the modern world, they have forgotten to proclaim the simple good news of the risen Christ.

The book's strength is its ability to see weaknesses in the current state of church affairs, rather than the situation from 2 or 3 decades ago. For instance, the authors discuss how the modern push towards individualism in all areas of life has deeply influenced the churches and their messages. Fundamentalists have offered people who feel overly isolated and vulnerable a sense of security and safety, and strong community. This comes at the cost of becoming closed to others, to society at large. A negative result is a we-they mentality.

Fundamentalism, despite claiming to be traditional, is thus a very modern phenomenon. Truly traditional people, from traditional places with corresponding lifestyles, tend towards a middle ground. Outsiders or the unconventional are noted, but not bullied or rejected. Traditional communities tend, in fact, to give such people a place somewhere in the community. Fundamentalists make no such attempt at openness.

Relativism, a more obvious product of the modern world, presents the social sciences, such as sociology, economics, and psychology, as the replacement for traditional wisdom and religious practice, and promotes a sense of subjectivity. These are the people always talking about the latest psychological study. Objective truth is rejected, including the deposit of faith proclaimed by the Catholic church.

Relativism, produced from the mixture of cultures in modern culture that we often call pluralism, tries to create civic peace by lessening the voice of tradition, especially religious tradition, and by celebrating every sort of alternative lifestyle. It claims falsely to be value-free. In reality, it has very strong values, such as accepting anything non white male Christian, and regarding everyone who is not a straight white male as a victim of society (its various -isms).

Berger makes an interesting point, perhaps seen by Catholics on Sunday, of the tendency in an age of relativism to reduce church membership and religious identity to a kind of spiritual consumerism. People shop around for their favorite priest, the one with the jokes, charisma, or shortest mass. This consumer assertiveness reduces the sense of duty and responsibility.

One author notes, "modernization can be described as a gigantic shift in the human condition from one of fate to one of choice." Parish-shopping, among other practices, reflects the "de-institutionalization" of modern society, wherein people no longer feel automatic obligations to their institutions of birth, such as the church in which they were raised or the parish in their neighborhood.

The book also offers hope to the community- and tradition-minded, showing a more authentic way forward. It shows the current of modern beliefs and attitudes against which Catholics are swimming.

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