By Sr Margaret Ghosn mshf
Joseph Vives writes, ‘God is missing, but not missed.’ It hits at the heart of the matter that
we are experiencing today in Australia. As Maronites, who connect with the deeply religious aspect of life, we can find living in a Western, secularised society, to be challenging. So how do we live in a society when we desire God, but also face suspicion, hostility and increasing religious apathy?
There are three main historical periods that have led to where we are now. In the premodern period people believed in the rationality and order of the universe, but reality maintained a supernatural component. The modern era, associated with the Enlightenment, claimed everything could be explained by rational thought and modern science, but it pushed aside the supernatural. Postmodernism says truth is a deconstructed concept that is based on shifting sands of relativism and has abdicated the search for meaning.
The shift in thought has seen an increase in secularism which purports that one can simply erase God by expelling religion from public institutions and practices. We are living in a society where belief in God is diminishing in all social interactions, there is a decline in public belief and worship, and where faith is now one option among many. Furthermore, we have a media that is hostile of the Church, painting it as a relic of the past, superstitious, conveying repressed sexuality, and outdated rituals, in an age of virtual reality and globalisation.
However, at the same time secularism has its own criticism including sexual irresponsibility, failure to value the family, vulgarising the entertainment industry, a suspicion of authority, individualism that diminishes a sense of the common good, obsession with rights and liberation myths, exclusion of and indifference to God, and the erroneous belief that only reason, science and technology can make a better world.
People no longer see themselves as part of something bigger. There is no consciousness of wholeness and so we have the absence of God. To no longer believe in God leads to belief only in oneself or what one sees around them. They become their own god and worship gods of power, prestige and possessions.
Paul Tillich argued that everyone must live for something in order that life has meaning, and whatever that thing is becomes ‘the ultimate concern.’ Tillich doubted, therefore, that atheism was really possible, arguing if you don’t call the meaning of your life a god, it still functions like one and therefore everyone’s life is based on faith. To have no deity or god would be ‘to remain unconcerned about the meaning of one’s existence.’
And yet, secular culture speaks of moral values that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, at times, has even played a major role in re-teaching those ideals. However so, there still remains a space which religion fills with values of justice, dignity, openness, respect, compassion, forgiveness, hope and love. These will thrive in the most godless environment.
Despite the negative media and secular’s brutal image of Christianity, religion survives because humans are meaning seeking creatures. We ask the existential questions – Who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live?
People of faith see religion as providing a belief system, community, inspiration, morality, culture and meaning. It offers spiritual growth and depth, leading to a contemplative attitude to life that touches all aspects of reality. So, for Maronites, and all people of faith, though living in secular societies, the challenge is to sustain faith through deep, personal conviction.
Believers and non-believers are all in this together and must learn to speak and listen to one another. Ultimately, society must respect a person’s choice to live a life of deep faith in God, as it is that person’s way of expressing meaningful existence.
Margaret Ghosn mshf is a Maronite Sister of the Holy Family. She is currently Principal at Maronite College of the Holy Family in Harris Park, Sydney.