Crisis of Faith in the 21st Century

Social psychologist and member of the Sacred Heart of Missionary Order, Diarmuid O Murchu, explains why there may still be hope for Faith amid bleak times.

There is no shortage of explanations for the current crisis of faith, and it is all too easy to lay the blame at the door of our postmodern secular culture. Nor can we rectify the problem by making church-life more attractive, because this is an evolutionary phenomenon larger than church or formal religion. 

In human terms we are dealing with a complex landscape. There are those who have abandoned religion, mainly younger people who have simply walked away because they find religion irrelevant. Secondly, we have the faithful remnant, older people by and large, for whom Church-attendance is important to keep things right with God and the hope of eternal salvation in a life hereafter. Above and beyond these two groups, is the third complex movement of our time consisting of people searching for new religious meaning, usually outside and beyond formal church or religion. 

Contrary, therefore, to a movement known as the new atheism, we are not living in a faithless world, but witnessing a classical evolutionary transition involving the disintegration of past certainties and securities, and seeking new horizons of transcendent meaning, the nature of which is still vague, amorphous, and even contradictory at times.  How, therefore, do we turn the crisis into an opportunity, move beyond a culture of blaming and denouncing, and embrace a realistic hope for a more meaningful spiritual future. 

An Evolutionary Perspective 

The current religious breakdown is just one of several evolutionary transitions characterizing our time. We are living at a time of huge distrust in all major institutions. The culture of mass information is a major contributory factor. Wisdom from the top down is often met with resistance and scepticism. Millions suspect that the wisdom from on high is not really that wise. They believe there are other ways of seeing and understanding and they want to be involved in a dialogue which they suspect will (in time) lead to a deeper and better understanding of truth. 

Unfortunately, our educational systems have not prepared us for this cultural emergency, and our religions and churches are largely unprepared for what many perceive to be a secular onslaught. But it may not be secular at all; paradoxically it might be exactly how the Holy Spirit of God works, drawing forth creative potential out of a chaotic vacuum (cf. Gen.1:1-2). 

And if the Spirit of God is calling forth and pioneering something new and dislocating then where might the Spirit be leading us forth? 

1. Religious consciousness is thousands of years old, long before formal religions or churches ever came to be. In this time of evolutionary shift we are being called to reclaim an ancient deep wisdom. This is not regression to some idyllic past, but a process known as recapitulation, whereby we reconnect with the deep past as a resource for the quantum leap forward into which we are all being invited. 

2. For indigenous peoples all over our world, our earthiness is the umbilical cord connecting us with the divine. Several contemporary spiritual movements (including Pope Francis’s Laudato Si) seek to reclaim that sacred legacy and integrate it afresh into our spiritual and religious practices. A major challenge here is to outgrow the dualistic split between the sacred and the secular. 

3. Our deep past also reveals a species which creatively used religious ritual long before religious systems ever evolved. All sacraments are derived from this cultural capacity for ritual-making. This means we must revision sacraments as belonging primarily to people and not the reserve of priests or liturgists. 

4. While formal religions tend to institutionalise our faith, organically every faith system grows and flourishes through the development of empowering communities. In the 1970s, we got a glimpse of this is the rise of BEC (Basic Ecclesial Communities) in parts of Latin America. 

On a secular level, we witness it in the extensive spread of transformative networks outlined by social historian Paul Hawken in his book, Blessed Unrest (2007). In this book, Hawken describes the empowering global impact of environmental networks, based on a five year international study.  

 5. All the world religions invest future hope in young people to carry forward inherited  religious aspirations. This time round that will be different. As of 2020, we have more people on the planet over age 60 than under 16 for the first time ever. With the rapid gentrification of the human species, it is wise elders rather than invigorated youth who will become crucial for the advancement of civilization, including an empowering spirituality for the future of human and earth alike. 

6. Our Western world particularly dreads endings, diminishment, and death, all features of the religious world of our time. It is certainly a version of the mystical dark night (of soul and sense), but in the true spirit of mysticism we can bring ourselves to see it as time for purification, realignment, and refounding. It is the classical trajectory of every evolutionary breakthrough. 

Offering Realistic Hope 

I offer these brief insights, inviting a sense of hope in dark times. The one time president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel (d.2011) offers this definition of hope: Hope is not the guarantee that something will turn out well, but the assurance that things make sense, no matter how they turn out.” 

In these turbulent times, what we need above all else is the ability to “make sense” of what is transpiring within and around us.  I hope the reflections above contribute to the awakening of such hope, indicating enlarged horizons in which we stand a better chance of discerning the movements and urgings of the Spirit at this time. 

Diarmuid O’Murchu, a member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Order, and a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin Ireland, is a social psychologist most of whose working life has been in social ministry, predominantly in London, UK 


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