A current commonplace, the truth of which is taken for granted, is that the modern world is secular, secularized, atheistic, laicized, desacralized, and demythologized. In most contemporary writing, moreover, these various terms are taken as synonyms, and there seems to be little awareness that there may be important differences between laicization and secularization or desacralization and demythologization. As a matter of fact, these writers intend to say only that the modern world has become adult or has reached maturity. This means, concretely, that the modern world no longer believes but wants proof; it obeys reason and rejects beliefs, especially religious beliefs; it has got rid of God the Father and all gods, and if you talk to it of religion, it won’t understand you. It has adopted a new way of thinking, worlds apart from the traditional way of thinking that found expression in myths.’ It cannot understand the language of transcendence and can live only at the level of concrete reality. The day of religion is over.
This is the kind of talk we constantly hear today in most Christian intellectual circles and especially in the World Council of Churches. It is often difficult, however, to decide whether a speaker is stating a fact, expressing a wish, making a sociological observation, or painting an imaginary picture of a hypothetical human type based on the speaker’s conception of the scientifically oriented man.
If we analyze the way such statements are developed, we find that the writer or speaker is presenting us with an a posteriori explanation (arguing from effect to cause). He will usually start with the facts in evidence: “Contemporary man isn’t interested in Christianity any more; he has lost his faith; the church has no influence on contemporary society; it has lost its audience; the Christian message evidently has nothing to say to the men of our day.” Then he connects all that with the scientific criticism of the origins, history, and contents of Christianity and with the fact that modern man’s training is pretty much along technological, if not scientific, lines. Therefore he concludes, at least implicitly: “Modern man is areligious because he is permeated by the scientific outlook,” and thinks that the rejection of Christianity is the result of some new traits of modern man who has become areligious.
This assumption is the basis for the impressive effort at renewal that is now going on in the churches as they attempt to communicate with this contemporary man and to make the gospel acceptable to him. We have new theologies, new ecclesiastical structures, integration into the modern world, efforts to develop nonreligious forms of witnessing and preaching, and so on. The whole “crisis” of the church and all the movement going on within it rest on this assumption or conviction. For this reason I think the first order of business is to find out whether or not the analysis of the situation is accurate and whether or not we live in an age that has thrown religion aside. What if the analysis is wrong? What if the facts (assuming they are certain) are due to some other cause and should be interpreted differently? What if there is error both in the observation of facts and in their interpretation?
I cannot understand pushing this question aside, saying it is unimportant, or claiming that it is not the real issue. I can well understand someone saying: “Even if we concede that Bonhoeffer and Bultmann sin by oversimplification, their questions, which do not depend on their cultural appraisals, remain: what does faith become in the modern world?” That much is indeed certain, but I do not think we can blithely evade the question of fact by saying:
“[Bonhoeffer’s] casualness toward past history seems to me to relieve us from the necessity of discussing the accuracy of Bonhoeffer’s analyses” of the contemporary situation. Bonhoeffer is mistaken when it comes to history; are we therefore exempted from questioning our position when he also proves wrong in his analysis of our society? How can we say it is as useless to discuss the question, “whether man and the contemporary world have really come of age or not,” as it is to challenge the non-mythological outlook of modern man? Isn’t it statements about coming of age (and not any theological principles) that are the basis for everything else? Of course it is basic to determine whether modern man is religious or areligious.
The first thing we must do, however, is gain clarity on the various words used to describe the contemporary situation, for the very heaping up of these words points to a good deal of intellectual confusion. To begin with, we have “post-Constantinian era” and “post-Christian era.” The facts behind the first of these two descriptions are simple enough. From the time of Constantine there was an active alliance between the church and the political authorities. The latter supported the church, gave it preferential treatment, helped it in its undertakings and expansion, gave special and privileged status to its personnel, protected their persons and possessions, put the secular arm at its service, accepted its advice, gave it an important role in the state’s deliberations and decisions, and supported the claim of Christianity to absolute truth. The church in return had to support the secular authorities. It had to give them a part in its undertakings, become their public relations officer, and put up with their interventions into its own sphere, even when they sought to settle the church’s internal problems or theological questions.
The partners were never complete equals, for sometimes the church was subservient to the state, sometimes the state to the church. The association between the two did not arise simply out of the perverse desire of the political authorities to make the church a servant; it also arose out of goodwill on the part of these authorities and a desire to serve the church, for the heads of state had themselves become Christians (and who could object to that?). But the association nonetheless led the church into a position both of conformism and of power, and this was the basic error, the fundamental heresy, of Christendom. As long as the church had maintained the strict and intransigent attitude of an Ambrose of Milan to a Theodosius the Great, there was nothing to fear from the association of church and state. But Ambrose was an exception. For the most part the church sold out and was led astray by the exercise of power and by association with the political powers. This was the most sinister aspect of the entire period we know as Christendom.
Nowadays, however, it can be said that by and large the association of church and state is a thing of the past. Ever since the great break in France between church and state, first during the French Revolution and again in 1905, French life has been characterized by a strict separation between the two. The church today cannot be regarded as in any way a real power, certainly not a political power. This is not to say, of course, that development during the Constantinian era was all in one direction, for while Napoleon subjected the church completely to the state, the state in turn became completely subservient to the church under the Restoration.
The name “post-Constantinian era” refers chiefly, then, to the relations between church and state. The break between the two became final wherever socialist regimes were established; it is now taking place everywhere else, even if at a slower pace. On this point there can be no doubt. The fact is clear and all the easier to observe inasmuch as it is a limited kind of fact relating to a well-circumscribed situation. The term “post-Constantinian era,” however, does not sum up the whole of the contemporary situation. Other terms, therefore-post-Christian era, laicization, secularization are also used, but the reality they describe is less clearly defined.
1. The Post-Christian Era
The post-Christian era, or a-Christian society, is the end-result of a process of dechristianization. I shall not attempt to add another description of the process to the countless ones we already have, but shall simply recall some points we all know.
Christianity had lost some of its vitality and degenerated into a moral code, a philosophical system, an ecclesiastical organization, conformism, hypocrisy, etc. Meanwhile, non-Christian and antiChristian forms of thought were gaining strength, and were reinforced by the discovery that morality and religion were relative things. Wasn’t the world full of moral codes and religions that were quite different from Christianity and were regarded as true by their practitioners? Weren’t there non-Christians who lived lives as good as any Christian’s? The separation of church from state helped, of course, to speed up the process of dechristianization. Finally, the growth of science, and especially of the physical and historical sciences which dealt with different aspects of the real, came along to put the finishing touches on the whole process. All this is well known and I need not dwell on it.
The effects of dechristianization are quite evident. Individuals have no interest anymore in the questions put to them by Jesus Christ; the questions are regarded as irrelevant and the Christian faith and truth are considered to be completely ineffective for transforming men’s situation. The chief preoccupations of men today are political, not spiritual. Modern man no longer understands the language of Christianity. Christian words have no weight, no content, and this shows that the Christian conception of life is so alien that the words used to express it awaken no echo in men’s minds (piety, salvation, grace, redemption, lordship of Jesus Christ) or else evoke false ideas, since the same words now have a political meaning (justice, peace).
A further proof of dechristianization is a materialistic view of life. The materialism I refer to is not intellectual and philosophical but practical (concern for comfort, living standard, longer life) and is connected with a belief in progress that claims to be based on facts (man is constantly moving toward a better state and constantly making the good more of a reality; he will reach perfection as the result of a long-range movement of material progress that cannot be frustrated).
We could go on listing modern man’s ideological and emotional convictions: that fate determines everything; that man is made for happiness; that man is naturally good; and so on. All these positions have fostered dechristianization and the establishment of frames of reference other than Christianity. We shall not attempt to answer the unanswerable question of the real cause of the present situation: has Christianity been pushed back because hostile movements have gained strength, or did Christianity become distorted and thus stimulate the growth of a new outlook, a new vision of the world and man? The only answer that can be given is that the two developments seem to have had an equal share in the end-result.
In any event, we see that individuals today find it much more difficult to “believe” in God’s revelation and that far fewer people claim to be Christians. The movement of dechristianization has led to a “post-Christian era,” which implies that we are now in a post-Constantinian era but also says a good deal more than that. I myself was one of the first to speak of a post-Christian era (in 1937), but my use of the term was not understood. Karl Barth issued a sharp reply to the effect that there could not be a post-Christian era because Jesus Christ has certainly come and is the always contemporary Lord of this world and its history. There can be no “after” in relation to that.
We must, of course, distinguish between a post-Christian world in Barth’s sense (and I fully agree with him that there cannot be such a world) and the post-Christian era which is a historical and sociological concept. The term “post-Christian era,” as I use it, says nothing about the truth of Jesus Christ but asserts only that Christendom, as I described it in the previous chapter, is a thing of the past. On the other hand, it is not enough simply to say: “Christendom used to exist; now it is over and done with.” It is not enough, because the term “post-Christian era” says something very important. It says, first of all, that Christianity is no longer taken for granted; that Christianity no longer supplies a set of shared values, a norm of judgment, and a frame of reference to which men spontaneously relate all their thoughts and actions. Christianity is no longer the “taken-for-granted frame of reference”; in the collective awareness socialism now plays this indispensable role.
The church, then, is no longer coextensive with society; it is no longer a power to be reckoned with. In addition, it is strictly limited to a specific role, and this limitation is an important aspect of the post-Christian era. Spiritual and ethical judgments based on the Christian faith play no role in serious matters. Just as church has been separated from state, so two spheres are carefully distinguished: on the one side, the social, political, intellectual, scientific, and artistic areas in which the church and Christianity are allowed no voice, since each of these areas follows its own proper laws ; and, on the other, the religious, spiritual, and moral areas in which Christianity is allowed a place, even though only as one of many competing ideologies.
The church is carefully limited to these areas. She is not asked to disappear or yield her place, but she is allowed only one seat in the vast amphitheatre of society and she may not budge from it. She has her own special area of activity, just as the universities, the administrative bureaucracies, or the medical profession have theirs. Society at large assigns her, her function, which is to take care of the spiritual and the religious, to provide ritual, and to help man achieve certain of his aspirations. It is taken for granted, however, that she will not attempt to interfere in the more serious business of politics and economics. She is expected to be at the service of the current powers that be, whether in the economic area, so as to foster social stability (as in France or the United States), or in the political area (as in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.). She is tolerated provided she does what is expected of her and nothing more. She is there to promote morality (friends and foes alike expect this of her) ; if she does not raise her voice against crime, adultery, and drug abuse, she is not playing the game in post-Christian society, for in this society she has a definite, limited purpose, which everyone agrees in assigning to her.
The last and most important aspect of post-Christian society is the very fact that it has experienced Christianity and left it behind. Contemporary society cannot, therefore, be regarded as a simply pagan society. It does not have the innocence and simplicity that come from ignorance of Christianity and of all it entails. PostChristian society is marked by its experience of Christianity and at the same time it thinks it knows what it is turning away from.
Post-Christian society has been deeply affected by Christianity, and bears the latter’s mark: the mark of original sin, of the desire for salvation, hope, and a kingdom of God, of the conviction that a Saviour is needed, of the anxiety of those who are aware of radical guilt yet know that they cannot pardon themselves. We have not ceased to be products of the Christian era, but we have managed to reject what is specifically Christian in this product and retain only its psychic aspect. Thus, post-Christian society is a society of men who are at the point to which Christianity brought them but who no longer believe in the specific truth of the Christian revelation.
At the same time, post-Christian society is convinced that it knows all there is to be known about Christianity. Christianity has degenerated into religiosity, as Gabriel Vahanian puts it, not indeed in itself but in the eyes of all who live in post-Christian society. Revelation is identified with religiosity, and consequently faith no longer has any meaning or content. The very movement which inspired Christendom has betrayed it: Christianity absorbed mankind’s whole religious past (and thus identified itself with religion), therefore Christianity is now seen simply as one of the great religions and must take its place among all the other religions in mankind’s pantheon. From now on, people can be at peace, for they know just where they are : Religion? We know all about that! All that is left of Christianity is morality, a bourgeois morality with which everyone is familiar, and a few conventional ideas (the clergy have a role to play in society; the cathedrals are an attractive element of the civic scene). Post-Christian society, therefore, is not simply a society which followed upon Christendom. It is a society which is no longer Christian, a society that has had the experience of Christianity, is the heir of the Christian past, and believes it has full knowledge of the Christian religion because it retains vague memories of it and sees remnants of it all around. Nothing new, surprising, or unexpected, above all nothing relevant to modem life can come from Christianity; the church and the faith are simply vestiges from the past.
That is the contemporary situation to which the name “post-Christian era” must be given; that, and nothing else, is the heart of the matter. Once we have seen that, we can add any number of other points that are purely secondary: the decadence of the churches, the lukewarm faith of believers, the fall-off in attendance at Sunday worship, and so forth.
This negative attitude to Christianity is accompanied, in the post-Christian era, by a positive attitude of atheistic humanism. We do not mean, of course, that men are explicitly promoting a doctrine or philosophy of atheistic humanism; relatively little importance is attributed to such a philosophy. We are speaking, rather, of a change in the basic convictions of contemporary man, a change in the very context in which all their thinking takes place. We are speaking of an ideology that is unquestioningly adopted, a spontaneously accepted frame of reference, something that is usually implicit and rarely is consciously adverted to. It is the basis for a vision of the world that all accept and for a common language and a norm by which behavior is judged. It shows through in the newspapers and advertising, in our approach to contemporary society, in the content of radio broadcasting, film, and political speeches, and in the platforms of all groups whether leftist or rightist.
The ideological content of this attitude can be summed up, I think, as follows. First of all, man is the measure of all things. Henceforth nothing is to be judged in relation to an absolute or a revelation or a transcendent reality. Everything is to be judged by its relation to man and is therefore as relative as man himself. He is both judge and criterion for judgment. In judging and making decisions he is thrown back on his own resources, and the only basis on which he can build is his own accomplishments. He knows of no higher court of appeals and no source of pardon, for he is alone on earth and is alone responsible for all that happens.
Whatever happens, happens within earthly time, for man’s existence stretches only from his birth to his death. His life bears no relation to anything higher than himself, since there is neither transcendent reality nor other world. Consequently his life in this world becomes unconditionally important; to live is the supreme value, for at his death the game is over and lost. The adventures that make up the story of his life are the really serious matter, since in the short time he has he must accomplish whatever he is to accomplish. The greatest of crimes, therefore, is the attack on a man’s physical life. A man has to be given time to make a success of his life; if he doesn’t succeed in that he is a total failure and there is no way of making up for the loss.
At the same time, however, man’s life must contain its own meaning. But man himself, being the measure of all things, cannot give meaning to his own life: that would be totally artificial. The only alternative, then, is for life to be lived to the full; in other words, happiness is what gives meaning to a man’s life. There can be no other meaning, for happiness alone is something objective even though experienced subjectively.
A second principle follows from the first: man is autonomous. The law that is to govern him resides within himself, or rather, he determines that law for himself; he acknowledges no limitation, value, or law imposed from without. He is responsible only to himself and need not obey any objective, “eternal,” or “natural” law or render an account of his life before any supreme tribunal. His decision is the only thing that counts. In the last analysis he decides what morality is to be, just as at an earlier time he determined the content of positive law.
Man himself, then, decides what is or is not to be allowed. Nothing obliges him to decide one way or another, and therefore what is not possible or permitted today may well be possible or permitted tomorrow. If that happens, we can only say that there has been an evolution in the manners and customs of men, but not that any absolute imperative has directed or inflected the development. All experiences and experiments will sooner or later be accepted as legitimate; morality could hardly take any other course in constantly changing technological society. Even when man tries to look outside himself for something to relate to, or when he looks for some overarching meaning for his life, anything he finds and any frame of reference will have its origins in man himself (history, for example). The choice of such a source of meaning is an explicit choice. It must be so, since man’s life has no meaning in itself: it goes nowhere but is simply carried along by the river of history; it is a dimensionless point in a line, and nothing more.
Autonomy is a burdensome dignity, for it means that man is left entirely alone as he confronts reality. Wretchedness, suffering, anxiety, injustice, death : they are all around him and he must face them alone. He must take a position and act, without anything to fall back on, without any source of hope. In atheistic humanism, then, man adopts a very lofty conception of his own fate, but the price for it is high: his own existential anxiety. A high value is set on man. Man is the subject of all discourse, and this leads either to a lightheaded idealism that refuses to face facts, or to a bottomless anxiety and despair which those who experience it are constantly trying to escape. In short, the concern for man, the desire to emancipate him on all fronts, and the determination to make him the sole and final court of appeal-all these set him on a pinnacle, but they also put him in a very dangerous situation.
There is a third conviction in the ideology of atheistic humanism: man is a rational being. But here again people are caught between what ought to be and what really is. Everything should follow the dictates of reason. There is a tendency to reject what is not rationally proved: religion, morality, metaphysical laws, tradition, and even political convictions not based on rational principle (for example, monarchy). Men are therefore tempted to build a rational society and a rational political entity (democracy), and socialism is the usual result.
In this area, however, atheistic humanism has been undermined during the past half century by the recognition of the irrational within man and by the resurgence of “obscure forces.” Examples of these forces would be developments within communism, the phenomenon of nazism, and the contemporary explosion of movements that exalt the irrational as such. All this has been a serious setback for atheistic humanism. The contradiction between his well-established and reassuring convictions and the actual behavior of twentieth-century men is a source of deep distress for contemporary Western man.
A final element in the ideology of atheistic humanism is that man is good or at least free to choose good or evil and that, barring error, ignorance, or passion (which resists rational analysis), he chooses the good. Man has to be regarded as good, since he is the measure of everything, is his own master, and takes it on himself to direct everything else (technology, for example). How could we live in a world in which man has such power, if he were himself evil? It would drive us to madness if he were the measure of all things and the measure were itself deceiving. Such a state of affairs is simply not possible. Even the theater of the absurd or existentialism or the focus on horror is but a dialectical counterpoint to this basic conviction. Tell Beckett or Genet that man is evil, and he will be horrified. It is precisely because man is presumed to be infallibly good that we can put up with all the grimness and all the shameful reality: all that is not man but the negation of man, and the negation does not have its source in man!
This deeply rooted conviction of our contemporaries leads to two further principles. The first is that if evil exists-and it obviously does-it is not the fault of man. Institutions, society, education, the economic system (capitalism), the division of society into classes, bureaucracy-any or all of these are to blame, but not man. Put man into a situation that is free and fosters liberty or is just and fosters equality, and everything will be fine, because man is good.
The second principle is that whatever is “normal” is also good and moral. “Normal” means whatever a majority of individuals do or whatever a group accepts as a self-evident opinion or attitude. This means that in the last analysis everything can be permitted. We must add, of course, that atheistic humanism both rests on and legitimizes unlimited growth of power, technology, and the economy. The higher the living standard and the greater the productivity, the more intelligent, artistic, cultivated, just, and good man will become.
On the basis of these convictions concerning man which are spontaneously held and taken for granted today and which everyone shares, a further doctrine has been developed: the doctrine that modern man has come of age. Since we are not interested here in pure theory, I shall simply recall two facets of this doctrine. First of all, “come of age” means that modern man in his concrete reality and in this society in which we live is in fact able to take charge of his own life; he has no further need of a guardian, a fatherly hand, or indeed any external guidance. Second, it means that he is now free and must exercise choice and authority.
I shall not discuss these two points, but I do want to stress what has been happening, namely, that we are seeing today the transition from a widespread but vague and imprecise belief to a doctrine that claims to reflect the real state of affairs. There were thus two stages of development. After being simply a theory that expressed an ideal, atheistic humanism became a commonplace, a belief, something taken for granted but in a vague sort of way. At this stage it gave men a unified overall picture of life; thanks to this belief men could manage to live in a difficult world. In the second stage, a new set of theoreticians started with the belief and developed new concepts and a new doctrine which, they claimed, explains reality. Atheistic humanism offered an ideal of what man should be. “Man come of age” claims to be a sociological statement of fact.
But, while atheistic humanism could and did become a collective ideology, “man come of age” claims to reflect reality and, for that very reason, will always express a doctrinaire position that bears no relation to reality. This passage from atheistic humanism to man come of age must be understood if the limitations inherent in contemporary claims are to be grasped.
In any event, man come of age is presented to us as necessarily nonreligious. The disappearance of God and the Father is no longer a prerequisite if man is to exist (that was the traditional view in atheistic humanism), but the disappearance did occur and now man does exist. That statement represents something quite different from the collection of beliefs that make up atheistic humanism Today.
We now turn to a new concept the meaning of which has likewise undergone an evolution: the concept of laicization. Initially the term referred simply to the lay state. It was a limited concept that served in the effort to break out of the Constantinian framework; it said only that the state should no longer be subject to the influence of the church. Gradually it was extended to mean: the state should not be subject to any religious influence or allow religion a dominant role.
At this point two new and divergent paths were followed. On the one hand, there is laicism or the doctrine that the state should take an “aggressive” stand against church and religion. Here laicity becomes a value in its own right and not simply a reasonable approach to the exercise of power. On the other hand, there is the doctrine which I have urged since 1944, that the state should not itself promote any kind of belief or religion but should simply be a political, administrative, and economic manager. The only ideas it should have are those needed for effective management, and these are not to be regarded as truths in their own right. The state does not have to know, much less decide on, the true or the good any more than the beautiful. This second position is evidently radically different from and opposed to laicism.
In any event, these various conceptions of the lay character of the state refer to a concrete situation. They express theories of the state that can be translated into institutions and produce a certain kind of organization. For the last twenty years we have been moving from the laicized state to a laicized society, the latter being the product of the former. Society is guided and dominated by the lay state, and consequently religion has no real place in this society. Society is also molded by the lay state, especially through education, instruction, and democracy.
Democracy, when linked to laicization, means for example that political discussion cannot have religion as its subject nor be inspired by religious motives. If it does, the whole discussion loses its serious character for those involved, and the situation becomes somewhat embarrassing. If the current laicity is liberal in outlook, it will put up with such freakish occurrences, but they are nonetheless freakish for being tolerated. Moreover, to the extent that all instruction is lay in character and trains men to think in a lay fashion, socio-political discussion is less and less likely to touch on religion. In such an atmosphere, anyone who uses religion as a criterion tends to be regarded as divisive and sectarian, a disturber of civic unity.
To the extent that the lay state came into being in reaction to the church, the laicized society which emerged from the lay state is also spontaneously thought of as set over against the Christian religion. In other words, “lay society” says the same thing to the non-Christian that “post-Christian society” or “dechristianized society” says to the Christian. Consequently there is no ambiguity about the term “laicization,” nor any difficulty in using it, but it is important to emphasize this fact in order to prevent confusion at a later point. Moreover, everybody knows that the laicized society has also been the result of technological growth, the spread of information and science, and a humanistic movement first toward freedom, then toward socialism; to say this, then, is simply to state a fact and causes no difficulty. There is no doubt that we are called on to live in a post-Christian era and a laicized social order.
2. The Secularized Society
But the question is entirely different when we come to the idea of the secularized society. These terms are often confused, whereas in the final analysis they have nothing in common. The term “secularized society” arose especially in philosophical and theological circles, and principally in the United States. On the other hand, beginning with Bonhoeffer’s famous Letters and Papers from Prison, we find the concepts of man come of age, of the areligious society, and even of areligious Christianity, as characterizing the current situation. Then the cult of Bultmann established simply the idea that the advance of science has transformed modern man. Hence we have to start with a view of man for whom scientific conviction is basic, and who has abandoned the mythical thought patterns in favor of a new thought pattern. That harmonized very well with the studies of Niebuhr and Tillich in the United States.
Thus emerged the concept of a secularized society, which was adopted in its entirety by the World Council of Churches, and which, after 1950, became the foundation dogma for every affirmation, the underlying interpretation legitimizing all research. It goes without saying that society is secularized and that all the problems of contemporary Christianity stern from that fact. How is one to continue to be a Christian in a society of this kind? What possible place can the church have? How make the necessary adjustment to this society?
It took a little longer for the concept of a secularized society to penetrate France. Perhaps we were vaccinated by the laicized society. In the course of time, however, we adopted the secularized society, first of all because the belief reigned in France that good theology was to be found only in Germany and the United States. Then, second, French intellectuals were prepared for it to some extent by their acquaintance (accurate or confused) with SaintSimon and Auguste Comte, and the “law of the three states.” We had obviously entered upon the industrial, technological, and scientific state, which now replaces the earlier religious state.
At least this doctrine had the merit of clarity and of presenting itself as a prophecy. In contrast, what makes thinking about the secularized society seem terribly difficult is the fact that it is an appalling mixture. A common factor among the diverse authors dealing with this subject is a total confusion between the formulation of a moral doctrine, a presentation of what ought to be (secularization is desirable for man), and the observation of a set of facts (the situation is such-and-such). Then there is the interpretation of those facts, which becomes confused with the facts themselves, so that the facts as such are scarcely recognizable, drowned as they are in the interpretive Hood. There emerges finally a derivative doctrine, a formulation which starts with these interpretations of fact (things being what they are, here is what we can say about man, about society, etc.). This derivative doctrine then is used as a justification of the situation, to the effect that things are going very well as they are.
Harvey Cox is a striking and popular example of this absence of method, of this mental confusion. The greater the confusion the more the theory enj oys an outstanding success. It’s the same situation as the one we were examining above in connection with atheistic humanism and man come of age. The underlying mechanism works as follows: first we have a doctrine, which can reHect a certain reality, and which in fact brings concrete results. Then comes a restatement of those results, which one generalizes, absolutizes, interprets. Meanwhile, one claims to be giving an account of the factual situation, whereas one is really formulating a doctrine.
The latter has no chance of being applied because (in contrast with atheistic humanism and the lay state) it is no longer a presentation of a need, of an ought-to-be, of a program to be put into effect. It prefers not to present itself as a doctrine. Instead, it pretends to be an account of the factual situation. It proclaims that these are the facts. However, since the whole rests on true facts falsely interpreted, on ideological generalizations and on dogmatic finalities, it bears no relation at all to reality. These would-be factual reports are in truth illustrative of basic beliefs which one is trying to prove! A radical rupture between what is and the discourse about what is is characteristic of statements about the secularized society.
In this society religion has no place. One bases this position on two principal factors. The first is that modern society is secularized because it is modern, which means that we have broken with the past. Modern man, thrown as he is into the midst of a constantly accelerated progress, into indescribable change, has no roots in the past. Now, not only were the societies of the past religious, but there can be no religion except by reason of a past. All religion refers to a past and embodies it. Such is the very mechanism of religion. That is now over and done with. Science and technology are projecting us inescapably toward a future. Hence the debate is no longer between science and religion, with their differing explanations of the world. The debate now is between that which breaks all connection with the past in order to project us endlessly toward an ever accelerated future, and that which cannot be anything other than a reference to the past, a repeat or a continuation of the past.
The second of these two factors is that modern man has come of age. This statement exhibits perfectly the confusion between fact (dechristianized man) and the interpretive doctrine (man come of age). We shall try to straighten out the tangle.
First of all, there is a preliminary doctrinal explanation, an “ought-to-be.” Secularization is “the affirmation of the self-consistency and autonomy of the sphere of the profane in relation to the sphere of the religious . . . . Formally it does not characterize the objective order, but the attitude of man in confrontation with it. . . . Secularization is defined by its positive content. . . . It is a movement of conscious intent. . . . The thing aimed at includes culture, reality, values. The aim itself is either intellectual or existential. In brief, secularization is a development in man’s attitude which causes him to seize upon the profane aspects of the culture, of the natural and human reality, of values in their consistency and autonomy, and to react accordingly . . . .” We need to bear in mind the secularization of science, then of philosophy and the arts, all of which imply a certain image of the world. Everything takes place as though God did not exist. We are here in the presence of the celebrated formula: “The God hypothesis is no longer useful.”
At a second level of the ought-to-be, secularization which is an expression of atheistic humanism is presented as a formulation of moral values in the domain of the profane : justice, solidarity, equality, dignity of the person, and on the global scale the project of a new earth, a humanity of the future. “The awareness of man’s powers doubles for an awareness of his rights, duties and responsibilities.” This attitude is treated as good, as much for scientific research as for the formulation of values. That is how science can advance (and has in fact advanced). That is how man can become fully himself.
In this first doctrinal approach, secularization is, according to C. A. van Peursen, the means whereby man delivers himself “first from religious and then from metaphysical control over his reason and his language.” This has now been translated into action. Modern man has put the doctrine to work.
That granted, however, a confusion of theory with facts enters the picture. One notes a certain de sacralization of the world. The sacred in this society is identified as a set of social or of neurotic conventions. Until now, there has been a sort of sickness of humanity, but the latter is now achieving its health by ridding itself of the sacred, for it is a fact that modern man no longer believes in the sacred. There no longer is a sphere of the sacred. Man has tangibly profaned everything which previous generations had held sacred, and he is even consumed with a desire to desacralize all sacred objects. “The world is abandoning the religious idea that it had of itself.” Thus secularization is the historic fact in accordance with which society is no longer religious. The world is indeed giving up “sacred symbols.” Man is no longer interested in the sacred.
Right away the confusions begin to appear. “Religion has been privatized,” says Cox, which is strictly laicization. “The gods of traditional religions live on as private fetishes or the patrons of congenial groups, but they play no significant role in the public life of the secular metropolis,” which, for the West, is strictly postChristendom. Thus we have entered upon a new era, that of unbelief, which is in fact characterized by a certain state of mind, an attitude of man toward society, toward the world, etc., which Cox designates as pragmatism and as preliminary to the profane. This is all very simple. Modern man is athirst for action, for efficiency. He judges everything in terms of results and of possibilities for action. On the other hand, he can only understand the world as profane. There is no longer a religious glory. He naturally adheres to any religious explanation for economic or incidental reasons. He is filled with suspicion, etc., though he has never read Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. I shall not get into a new description of this man and of this desacralized society. Hundreds of others have done that and it would be a futile waste of time.
What is most interesting is the transition to the third stage, in which Christian writers put up a bold front by reasoning that, since this is the way things are, it is just as well that they should be like this and Christians should go the way of secularization. But I stress the fact that Christianity and Christians have no choice. They live in a (western) society which has no further interest in Christianity. They are confronted with people who are naturally unbelieving and who do not seek God. It is a factual situation. Consequently, when they say they are going to enter into this secularized society, they are deluding themselves. They cannot do otherwise, and are simply obeying necessity, not their religion.
When, like Cox, they conclude that this secularized society corresponds exactly to what took place in the Bible, they are, as usual and in the wake of numerous Christian writers, proceeding to a justification, a posteriori, of the factual situation. Harvey Cox, with a touching ingenuousness, is the most obvious example of these attempts at Christian recovery through theological justifications ex post facto.
Various lines of argument are attempted. There are those who joyously proclaim that Christians should pursue desacralization. “De sacralization is in progress in the Catholic Church. The Church is about to desacralize herself. The saints are being challenged, and so is the Virgin. God himself does not escape. God is dead. Celibacy is being questioned, and one asks oneself whether we should continue to build churches.” Just as Christianity was a desacralization of nature, so now desacralization is an action onthe part of society addressing itself to Christianity, and the latter should submit to being desacralized!
For others (e.g., Paul Ricoeur), the challenge of desacralization has left the Christian conscience two choices. “One is to agree that man’s growth and his mastery over the world inevitably involve the death of religion. According to this approach, faith is not extinguished by the disappearance of the sacred. It has its own contribution to make to the desacralizing of the universe and of society. The other is to make of religion-that is, the attestation of the sacred-an irreducible dimension of the human conscience.” This second choice, however, is becoming untenable. Hence we must adopt the first. One gives up religion, acknowledging that the world is on the right road and that man is come of age. One saves faith (or thinks to save it) by opposing it to religion and by assigning it its place in the process of desacralization.
How wonderful! According to Cox, “Man is giving up wearing blinders. That is, he is smashing the sacred symbols.” Thanks to secularization, we are making giant strides toward the good. “Pluralism and tolerance are the children of secularization. They represent a society’s unwillingness to enforce any particular world view on its citizens. . . . The world looks less and less to religious rules and rituals for its morality or its meanings.” We are familiar with his efforts to show that secularization has a biblical foundation and that what is happening is in complete conformity with what the Bible tells us.
One is left a bit agog over these discoveries. Poor Christians, who have been deceived continually for two thousand years, and have never discovered that the truth of Christianity is secularization. It’s annoying to think we had to be put in the present fix through circumstance in order to find out what the content of revelation really is.
Immediately after presenting his excellent expose on the biblical roots of desacralization, Cox goes off the track, precisely because his own theology is not primarily biblical but is, rather, a justification of the situation. He goes off the track when he tries to explain how God’s plan for man, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is entirely compatible with urban anonymity, mobility (despatialization), pragmatism (is it working?) – all of which are characteristics of secularization.
Why does Cox never get around to questioning the validity of this secular society as a society turned in on itself ? It seeks no external reference. Secular man has no horizon further than the earthly. All superterrestrial reality which could determine his life has disappeared (at least that is Cox’s assessment). How treat that as something favorable when, in the last analysis, it signifies a society with nowhere to go and with efficiency as its sole criterion? To behave like that is precisely characteristic of the secular mentality. It acts on the assumption that “What is, is-and there’s no reason to pass judgment,” in disregard of the fact that such an attitude calls for at least two correctives. The first is that one should be certain that the statement of fact is correct, and that a whole set of value judgments and generalizations is not mixed in with “what is.” Second, not to pass judgment is in fact to join up, that is, to render a positive judgment.
Such is indeed the attitude in this whole Christian trend. One avoids any evaluation of the factual situation and allows the facts to judge faith, revelation, the Bible, etc. In other words, the very attitude of these Christians is a noteworthy instance of secularization. When all is said and done, they accept the ultimate criteria adopted by this society, to wit, fact and efficiency. With that as a beginning, they employ crude devices like the following: Secular pragmatism corresponds to what the Bible shows us about God’s activity. God is primarily the one who acts, and man is made by God to act, to seek fecundity, hence efficiency, in everything. Score one.
The profanity of the secular world is nothing other than the fact that the God of the Bible gives man an entire share in the creation of the world. Man is made to rule the world without having to bother about anything else. It was through a perversion that the church and Christianity placed man and society under tutelage. They should be free to develop themselves. Man is made to have a share in the creation and to open it out, that is, to exploit it and to bring it up to snuff. Therefore the technological effort is in perfect conformity with the will of God, and the secularized society devolving from that technology is, m a roundabout way, the expression of God. Score two.
Those explanations are quite characteristic of the overall phenomenon known as secularization. Secularization does not consist solely in the fact that man is turning away from God (the Christian God) and from traditional religious forms. It consists as well (and perhaps more importantly) in the reworking of these “facts” by Christians, who pin on them the label of “secularization,” and who give them a justification and an extreme interpretation.
We have just dealt with the justification. Now it is necessary to stress the extremism, which is indeed characteristic of our times, and which is precisely the significant ingredient in secularization. Every time a Christian today takes note of a cultural fact, he not only joins in with it but builds it up. He carries the tendency to extremes and absolutizes it. Perhaps he does this in token of his propensity to see everything from the point of view of God, but, more prosaically and with this particular society in mind, it would seem to me more likely that he does it because he feels relegated to the sidelines.
Surely, if the society is really secularized, neither the Christian nor the church can have any place in it, or rather, they can have only that restricted, minimal place which we noted in connection with the post-Christian society. Isn’t that what drives the Christian to enter this society talking very loudly and clearly, making himself visible to all, attracting attention through the extremism of his statements and thus making a place in it for himself? The non-Christian listener will be slightly surprised and amused in the presence of this self-destructive outburst. So, by claiming to be more laicized and more secularized than anybody else, the Christian assures himself of something more than the obscurity of the back seat.
We need to bear in mind that the secularized society is an invention of Christians. By that I mean that maybe the non-Christians are secularized, maybe they have gone down the road toward the rejection of Almighty God, maybe they are totally pragmatic, but that scarcely concerns them at all. That’s the way they are, and it doesn’t matter to them in today’s world. Non-Christians do not characterize their society as a secularized society precisely inasmuch as the “problem of God” is not their problem and they have turned to positivism.
It is the Christians who are worried by the situation. They would like to play their role, and they desperately want to hold onto it.
Yet they cannot avoid looking back and assessing the difference between the times when people believed and the times when they no longer believe. Those are the conditions under which the Christians set up this concept, but in so doing they push it to extremes. Not content to record the facts, they have to build them into a system. Not content to examine the real, they have to draw absolute conclusions.
All of this means that their doctrine of the secularized society is something entirely different from the laicized society and from post-Christendom. It is a society in which there is no religion at all, in which man is not touched by the language of myth. He has gone beyond that, having advanced toward a total transformation of his thinking, in the process of which the sacred has disappeared.
What is more, the Christian in his ardor formulates all this as a new ought-to-be. On the one hand are facts, circumstances, science and technology, the primacy of production, etc., together with, as we have seen, a certain philosophic attitude. On the other hand is a doctrine which puts all the consequences together, which presents the scattered facts as an ordered whole and links them with a belief in imperatives. Not only is the God-hypothesis abandoned, but the Christian, in his longing for martyrdom and glory at the same time, tells modern man that he should definitely abandon God if he would be a man and fulfill his vocation. For the Christian to speak of God means to speak of the Non-God, and to speak of him as a political and sociological problem. At that stage all is accomplished, for in talking on the level with, and in terms of, the ideological context of the man of these times, the Christian is not talking about anything other than what the non-Christian is talking about, that is, he is no longer talking about God.
It does no good to call this “positive secularization,” in contrast to negative secularization which consists simply in ignoring the situation. The non-Christian can see in it only a confirmation of his own position. We are offered (Fuchs) the theology of the death of God as the dawn of a new awareness of man. I would like very much to agree, but I fail to understand how the abandonment of the God-hypothesis would imply in the slightest a Christianity to be lived in the world come of age. That there should be a desire to bring Christianity into harmony with this society-well and good. That, therefore, there should be a desire to formulate an areligious Christianity for this world which has been described as areligious – that is clear enough on the assumption that the world and Christianity should be on the same wavelength and embrace the same things in the name of an all-powerful culture. Finally, since the sciences imply the abandonment of the God-hypothesis, that Christians should also abandon it as a religious concept-that too I can understand.
But I am less certain that all this is a way of recovering Christianity. In any event, the result is surely to enclose man in his own system. William Hamilton notes, at first with regret, that God has disappeared from the conscience of modern man. Then, since he cannot resign himself to that, he joins in with it joyfully and proclaims that it represents the liberation of man (after Proudhon, Marx and Bakunin). Van Buren affirms the decisive absence of sense in the word “God,” which restricts us to a secularized interpretation of the gospel. Thus, since there are those who reject the meaning of God, witnesses for God must sanction and record this development and follow that trend.
This is indeed the absolutizing to which I referred above, and the formulation of an ought-to-be. It is no longer an observation, but an affirmation by the “experts” that, if man would be man, he should stop believing in this Father, this Guardian, etc. The theologians having joined forces with Bakunin (occasionally using his very words without knowing it), the circle is complete.
Nothing is less certain than that society is the way these theologians say it is. Nothing is less certain than that modern man has abandoned God, and that the word no longer has any meaning for him. I shall call attention only to a passage in Granel (which can hardly be suspect of Christian self-satisfaction) and to which I shall return later. In it he clearly shows that one side of the problem of God has disappeared as a problem (and, I would add, the God-hypothesis has in fact disappeared as a hypothesis for intellectual and scientific work), but the presence of God is still, for the most modern man, just as disquieting and certain, just as vitalizing and challenging as ever. It is a presence which is indeed qualified as God by innumerable people today. Nothing is happening to confirm the absolutizing indulged in by the theologians, according to which modern man is totally and radically atheistic. I shall go no further with that for the moment.
My question is the following: it is easy to see that we are in a post-Christendom and that society is laicized-well and good. But how does it happen that, in a single stroke, we should be whisked from there to this famous secularized society? It seems to me that an initial fact, perhaps unimportant and circumstantial, ought not to be overlooked. The idea of the secular society arose with the Americans. Now, nothing more retained the aspect of Christendom than the United States in 1930. The president was always calling upon the Lord. The Bible was in all the hotels. Advertising was based on Christian maxims, when it wasn’t Christianity itself which was engaged in competitive advertising. There was an identification made between the American way of life and Christianity. The businessman was successful because blessed by God, etc. Everyone was struck by the Christianization of institutions, morals, and habits of thought, as well as by the sociological, outward, and rigorous character of it all.
Then suddenly the whole thing toppled and fell apart, in spite of heroic efforts by religious conservatives. Christianity was no longer the court of final appeal invoked to regulate every situation. The Americans were simply panicked, as though what was happening to them were something terrific, unique, and total. In their magnificent ignorance of what was happening elsewhere, they never considered, for example, the astonishing resurrection of Christianity in the U.S.S.R., after a half century of anti-Christian dictatorship, or the fact that the church found it possible to live in France, which has been laicized for three quarters of a century. The French have a cooler head for the alleged phenomenon of secularization because they are used to it by this time. The American statements have to be treated as a spell of fever on the part of the threatened, and not as something of great importance.
Yet, while this explains the effusive talk by the World Council on the subject, it does not explain the process of generalization. In reality, one passes from the statement that “modern man no longer believes in Jesus Christ” to “modern man is atheistic,” from “modern man is no longer Christian” to “modern man is no longer religious,” from “modern man no longer reads the Bible and no longer listens to sermons” to “modern man is rational and takes no part in mythical discourse.” Finally, modern man scoffs at church ceremonies. He no longer considers as mysteries the things so considered by the people of the Middle Ages. Therefore he no longer believes in the sacred.
I stress the fact that this necessarily presupposes the prior assimilation of Christianity with religion, the mystery of revelation with the sacred, and the recitation of the Bible with myth. To be specific: first of all, we can readily admit that, from a sociological point of view, Christianity is a religion. In any history of religion it is properly classified as one of the monotheistic religions. Second, it is a certainty that the biblical accounts fall into the category of myth, that the Bible contains myths which are explicitly presented as such, and that mythical thinking underlies the whole. Finally, it is certain that the rites, ceremonies, and expressions of the Christian faith can be viewed in the category of the sacred. That is all quite simple and obvious, but it in no way implies as a consequence the transition from dechristianization to the secular society. To arrive at that result, one would have to turn those propositions around, and then proceed to a formalizing principle.
The turning around consists in saying : Christianity is the most evolved religion. It represents the peak of religious evolution (which is what Christians were saying with great satisfaction a century ago), so that, when Christianity falls, religion itself, all religion and every religion, vanishes. Therefore, if man has become non-Christian, he is also areligious.
Yet how can one fail to see that this generalization rests, from the outset, on a great self-conceit and on a reduction of the religious phenomenon? The same is true of the other statements: the God of Jesus Christ is the only God, the true God, a proposition set forth with pride by preceding generations (and, in fact, carefully nurtured by this one), so, ifman no longer believes in the God of Jesus Christ, he doesn’t believe in any God and is atheistic. Again, the mysteries revealed by this God are the most profound of all mysteries. Nothing equals the mysterium tremendum surrounding his presence. Everything connected with him is sacred in the most comprehensive possible way. Since he is the only God, no other sacred counts in comparison with him. Now we have seen his consecrated hosts trampled under foot, his ceremonies ridiculed, his edifices profaned, in fact all kinds of attempts, intellectual and material, made against this sacred, and yet nothing happened after all. Hence modern man has desacralized everything (everything, because this was the highest sacred of all). He is living in a nonsacral universe.
Finally, but this is more recent, the Bible is the myth of all myths, the most elaborated, the richest in meaning, the most explanatory and declarative. If man doesn’t accept this mythical word, it can only mean that he has abandoned the mythical II In truth, the people of the Bible saw this a little before our time! There are numerous passages in which we are told that man ridicules God and the sacred surrounding him without effect one way or the other, but our modern Christians seem to have forgotten that universe. He now has a mode of thinking alien to myth. He is demythicized. Thus we see that it is in the degree to which Christianity has been put at the top of the sociological and psychological categories of religion, of theism, etc., that the abandonment of Christianity by modern man leads to the view of the secularized society, and of man as come of age, scientific, and Rational.
However, the creators of systems are still not satisfied. There remain two additional presuppositions. The first is that, in the end and as systems, mankind and society are of a piece. Such cultivated intellectuals as Bultmann and Tillich bluntly adopt this monolithic position. Since modern man is imbued with science and no longer believes past legends and myths, since his motivations are rational, since he reasons and is absorbed in techniques, therefore he is rational and has left the mythical mentality behind him. Since he believes the scientific explanations of the world, he no longer believes in religion-as though the reality were not, in fact, an amalgam of contradictory convictions and attitudes. Since our society is technological, is dedicated to economic growth, and given over to the search for material well-being, therefore it is no longer a sacral world. It excludes the mythical and the transcendent- as though the mixture hadn’t always existed in varying Degrees.
Finally, this monolithic view of man and modern society leads to the conclusion that the sacred, myth, the religious, theism, are categories corresponding to past, outworn, and obsolete attitudes which can only be nonproductive. Hence one can treat them as museum pieces and can turn resolutely toward the future, a future in which such concepts and categories have no place, and more importantly, a future which they can neither produce nor usher in. Thus, a priori, those concepts and categories are exhausted. They cannot appear in new forms.
This is very interesting, for it shows that the Christian philosophers and theologians, in their very claim to be putting an end to dogmatism, continue to be just as dogmatic. That, in turn, explains their inability to grasp and comprehend the facts of modern man and of modern society.
The intellectual progression which has led from post-Christendom to the idea of a secularized society (or to the secular city) reflects a defect of method and not only a philosophic urge. In particular, there is a complete lack of critique with regard to presuppositions and preconceptions, hence a complete breakdown with regard to the concepts employed.
In declaring that modem man is no longer religious, one is very careful not to say what religion is, or the sacred, or myth. If a definition is occasionally hazarded, it is always an ad hoc definition after the fact and with justification clearly in view. There is still a complete subserviance to uncriticized presuppositions. Thus it is assumed that society is evolving, that it has little in common with the past, and that we are involved in situations which are entirely new. One seldom takes the trouble to specify what is new, but is content instead with featureless generalities about science and technology.
Especially is it accepted, without further ado, that man has changed fundamentally, that he, too, has nothing in common with his ancestors, and that therefore he is beyond the reach of the gospel message. One avoids, for example, taking a closer look at the question whether, in the final analysis, biblical man was not very close to contemporary man-whether the latter’s attitudes, behavior and reactions, including those in the religious sphere, are not already accurately described in the Bible. The following elementary question is never raised: we note that modern man does not understand the language of the Bible, does not accept the proclamation of the gospel, etc., but is that any different from what we find in the Bible? Was the preaching of the prophets, then of Jesus, accepted and understood in their day with any greater ease? To the contrary, the entire Bible bears witness to the fact that their proclamation was always misunderstood and was an object of derision, scandal, or indifference. In other words, instead of judging the situation in relation to the Bible, that is, in relation to an expose at the point of origin of man’s reaction to the biblical message, we are judging it in relation to a past which, in the United States, is a recent past. Only fifty years ago the Christian religion was accepted as standard. Now that has changed and so man must have changed. Since it is obvious that society has been completely transformed, the change in man must be the result of that social change. For that reason, man has become rationa\lscientific, pragmatic/technician, profane/autonomous.
The question is never asked whether the spread and automatic acceptance of Christianity may not have been due to a gross misunderstanding. Whenever that question is broached, it is always in order to say that Christianity had become religious, that it was a great betrayal, that there is a contradistinction between religion and Christianity, and that, if Christianity is now rejected, this is because man has become areligious. Thus in biblical times people strenuously rejected Christianity (until it became part of the religious system) because they were religious, and now it is rejected because man has become areligious.
The same is true in connection with man come of age. We lose our way in a magnificent inconsistency: modern man rejects God the Father, the God-hypothesis, the consolations of religion. He is taking his destiny in hand. He has become adult. When someone says that to me, I assume he is talking facts, because his statements purport to be based on observation (the rejection of religion). Yet, when I produce facts which cast doubt on this adulthood, I’m told that I misunderstand, that we are talking about a model, a project, something that man should or ought to be. He should be adult, and that is the direction in which we should go. But if I’m at the project stage, how can I claim to be drawing conclusions from an observation-for example, that the preaching of the gospel should be modified because man has become adult? I could give numerous examples of this confusion.
Thus it is a basic, an entirely elementary, analysis which is missing from these studies, from Bonhoeffer to Altizer. If we really want to know whether there has been a transformation of man in these areas, whether, as is frequently said, man has nothing commensurate with what went before, whether he has finally come of age, whereas up to now he has bowed before the harsh tutelage of the gods and the fates, we need at least to try to understand what it’s about. That implies, first of all, the garnering of as many facts as possible. We cannot rest content with a single order of facts, as is the case with all the studies bearing solely on dechristianization. I can well understand that the collapse of Christianity is of great concern to Christians, but we absolutely cannot infer from this fact a transformation of man in his entirety. Still less can we pin the specific fact on general causes: technological-society man, man the technician, is dechristianized. We need to operate on a broader scale. We need to bring into view a more comprehensive set of facts, without, to be sure, pretending to be able to garner all the facts relating to religion. But, to begin with, one should try to know what it is that one is talking about.
Therefore, I would like to specify the method to be followed here. It is not possible to give a definition a priori of the sacred, of myth, of religion. There are as many definitions as there are authors. For a work on myth which I was impelled to do a few years ago I had colIected, between 1960 and 1966, fourteen mutually irreconcilable definitions. The situation has not improved since. It seems to me that it is necessary to begin with a consideration of the indubitable phenomena of the sacred, indubitable because qualified as sacred by those who lived in that world; with the consideration of myths which are indubitable myths and of religions which are obviously religions. It is important net to take borderline cases, in which the phenomena are uncertain and the subjects are matters of controversy.
However, even when a certain set of assured facts is at hand, it is practically impossible to give an exhaustive definition which takes all the facts into account. Thus, for religion, one is tempted to give a definition based on the four major religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. Others would prefer to give a definition based on the “primitive” religions, in which they would be assured of a grasp of the religious phenomenon from the standpoint of its hypothetical origin. But all definitions are exclusive, in the sense that they isolate, as far as possible, the object under consideration by rejecting everything else. New phenomena do not enter into the definition. It seems to me that in extremely fluid areas such as this we have to try a different path, not that of an analysis of established characteristics for the purpose of arriving at a definition, but that of forms and functions.
Any religion, of whatever kind, fulfills a certain function. It is not irrelevent with respect to man. Likewise the sacred and myth have had a function in human society and on behalf of man. They have been useful. Otherwise man would not have clung to them. Therefore the important thing is to discern what that function was. (Ludwig Feuerbach, for example, began correctly by attributing to religion the function, among others, of assuaging the anguish of man, who cannot bear to be alone on the earth.) It will then be possible to assert that whatever fulfills the same function belongs to the same category of phenomena.
If, after examining everything which those primarily involved agree to call religion or myth, I discover a function (complex) on behalf of man and society; if, then, I discover phenomena not expressly called religion or myth but fulfilling exactly the same function, I would be entitled to say that, while the vocabulary has changed, the substantial reality is identical, and I find that I am really in the presence of a religion or of a myth.
This will be confirmed by a study of forms. There, too, we know that certain forms are inherent in religion, and that there is a certain structure in the sacred. If the phenomena whose function has led me to classify them as religion or as sacred have, in addition, the same forms and structures, I am fully confirmed, even though the fact under consideration is not at first sight a myth or sacred.
However, merely because I start with functions, it must not be concluded that I am applying a functional sociology. There again, it is exclusivism and dogmatism which have rendered functionalism impossible, and the same is happening to structuralism today. Yet the basic idea was excellent. The only way to avoid abstractions is precisely to keep functions and structures in mind. So that is the path we shall follow for an examination of the sacred, of myth, and of religion in our day.