The Truth Will Make You Free
The New Evangelization in a Secular Age, A Study in Development
- ISBN: 9780814646687
- Published By: Liturgical Press
- Published: November 2018
Americans are fleeing organized religions. Research and polls have repeatedly confirmed that, for the Christian church, it is not other religions that are their fiercest competitors for fellowship, but the seemingly unstoppable force of secularism.
Father Robert Leavitt’s The Truth will Make you Free: The New Evangelization for a Secular Age is written, first and foremost, with his fellow clergymen in mind—it is, after all, a book of proposed solutions for Christian churches to stay afloat in the age of non-belief. However, as a student of secularism and religion, I find the book a timely and much-needed addition on secularism not only for the churches that are facing the problem of empty pews, but also for those who are interested in the centuries-long battle between religion and secularism and are wondering about the future of the former.
Leavitt opens by recounting the contribution of prolific sociologists in the introduction. In chapter 1, the author gives a synopsis of the book and attempts to outline the nature of the problem: what is secularism, and when has it become a problem for religion? Leavitt believes that religion did not finish religion: it pluralizes and metastasizes it in multiple ways (26). Chapter 2 describes the challenges that are faced by Catholic pastors in the secular age: empty pews, financial shortfalls, harsh competition for meaning, religious illiteracy, moral and religious pluralism, and finally, secularization.
In chapter 3, Leavitt further problematizes the term “secularism.” He points out that it is not ideological secularism, but “pragmatic secularism” (83), or a sense of indifference to supernatural higher beings, that pulls millennials and others out of the church. The author traces the rise of secularism to two things: 1) the de-legitimation of religious violence in international law of war, which leaves the society with “minimal confessional buttressing” (86); and 2) the rise of “Providential Deism,” or “the natural religion of enlightenment” (87), which renders religion a vague, non-substantial existence.
In chapters 4 and 5, Leavitt outlines what leads up to the historical Vatican II, and how the Catholic Church came to be what it looks like today, pointing out that amidst the sexual harassment crises and other structural problems, the church took a long time to come to terms with the onset of modernity, or a world where Christendom is no more.
Much of the second part of the book is based on philosopher Charles Taylor’s work A Secular Age (2007, Harvard University Press). Leavitt’s interpretation of secularism is heavily influenced by Taylor, who believes that the separation of the society from religion, or the decreasing relevance of the latter, has, indeed, opened up a new niche for religion. As belief in God has become one of the many options in a society, instead of the only, taken-for-granted one, religion must become a form of expression much like its many competitors in this “age of mobilization.” In the final chapter, Leavitt looks at the “new evangelization.”
As a sociologist of religion, I benefit from Leavitt’s understanding of the church’s perspective and position in the secular age. He traced the contemporary history in two impressive chapters, accounting the intellectual and spiritual debates surrounding the post-Christendom era, and how the Catholic Church came to accept science and reason as an inevitable element in any theological argument.
At the same time, as an outsider looking in, I am surprised that Leavitt did not directly address the moral predicaments that are presently faced by the Catholic church, including but not limited to the clergy sexual assault scandals. The decision of Leavitt to not focus at all on moral issues in the secular age (296) is curious. After all, competition per se is not the only reason why churches are experiencing shrinking congregations. Religion has also been criticized for its inability to respond to the moral issues in a post-modern, secular world.
Yuen Yung Sherry Chan is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.Yuen Yung Sherry ChanDate Of Review:April 7, 2020