The Truth Will Make You Free

The New Evangelization in a Secular Age, A Study in Development

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Robert F. Leavitt
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , November
     2018.
     310 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780814646687.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yuen Yung Sherry Chan is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Date of Review: 
April 7, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert F. Leavitt is the France-Merrick University Professor of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University.

Comments

Robert F. Leavitt, PSS

Kimberly Davis of Reading Religion invited my response to the American Academy of Religion online review of my book by Yuen Yung Sherry Chan, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin (AAR Review, April 7, 2020 ).

The Truth Will Make You Free: The New Evangelization for a Secular Age  -- An Essay in Development applies sociological perspectives to the question of religious faith in our secular age. It threads sociological perspectives through a philosophical, biblical and theological argument. I didn’t research and write the book, as Ms. Chan imagines, to help religion “stay afloat.” About that, I have little doubt. Nor does Charles Taylor.

Ms. Chan admits to finding the sociological perspectives of the book timely and much needed but does not say how. After all, sociology from Auguste Comte and Max Weber to Talcott Parsons, Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, has ventured various interpretations of the conflict between traditional belief and the secular moral order. She correctly points out that the argument I make relies heavily on Charles Taylor’s magisterial study, A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007) and correctly notes a few of Taylor’s ideas. Particularly enlightening for Ms. Chan were the book’s two historical chapters treating the history of Catholicism since 1800 – something even Catholics do not know.

I was surprised not to find a social scientist like Ms. Chan remarking on the figures whose ideas I borrow for my theological argument – viz. Francis Fukuyama, Robert Heilbroner, Samuel Huntington, Peter Berger, Daniel Bell, James Davison Hunter, Pierre Manent, Hans Joas, among others. If she is familiar with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, why omit mention of his programmatic claim to work out a “master reform narrative of secularization” to supplant the prevailing “substitution narrative” responsible for the dismissive approach some in the social sciences take to religion.

Respectfully, Ms. Chan does not venture an opinion about the intramural Catholic theological issues discussed in the book. Nowhere do I use the phrase she seems to attribute to me about “supernatural higher beings.” She is perplexed that I did not treat the moral controversies dividing seculars today from believers (and, I must add, believers from one another) – presumably on issues of sexuality, abortion and the end of life – though no issues are mentioned. Ms. Chan claims I skipped over the scandal of clergy sexual abuse, when in fact I did not (See Index, 312). I hold that the scandals of religious violence and sexual abuse constitute grounds for a legitimate skepticism – not only for seculars but for believers themselves – about religious witness and authority. A collapsing social trust in secular and religious institutions today is one feature of our modernity.

The Truth Will Make You Free is a social philosophical study which foregrounds the moral conflicts in modern society by laying out the worldviews behind them. This is the approach Charles Taylor takes in his writings to religion, secularism, conscience, and the modern social imaginary. It is a magnanimous, ecumenical and constructive reading of our secular age.

Several misquotes in the review should be noted. I didn’t write “pragmatic secularism” (83) but rather “pragmatic atheism,” and the phrase “religion did not finish religion” is clearly a typo and should read “secularism did not finish religion.”  

 

Robert F. Leavitt, PSS

France-Merrick University Professor

St. Mary’s Seminary & University

Baltimore, MD

 

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