God in hiding

Frank Bosman

More | Reflective articles

God in hiding

Frank Bosman

More | Reflective articles

Monasticism and religious analphabetism

In 2017, the Statistics Netherlands (Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau) announced their newest findings on religious adherence in the Netherlands. The title of their press release: ‘More than half of Dutch people not religious’. In 2017, according to the bureau, it was for the first time in recorded history that a minority (of 49%) of Dutch citizens did not identify themselves with any religious group or institution. In 2012, still 54% self-identified as ‘religious’. Dutch newspapers were eager to report this pivotal message, while commentators debated the dawning end of the ‘age of religion’ in the Western world. And while in the wake of the political party of Thierry Baudet, Forum for Democracy (forum voor Democratie), the debate on ‘cultural Christianity’ has emerged in Dutch society, it is usually interpreted as a vocabulary to mask nationalistic policies, and anti-Islam sentiments. And while some, mostly conservative and traditionalist Roman Catholics and Protestants are not unmoved by Baudet’s flirt, the majority is critical on what they deem as ‘hijacking’ of their faith for political gain.

The decline of religion

Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes, the position of (institutionalized) religion in the Netherlands is not very bright, to say the least. Sociological phenomena like de-pillarisation (Van Zanden), secularization (Halman, Platvoet), de-institutionalization (Bonney and Trim), and individualization have driven religious institutes to the margins of society and to the brink of disappearance. Church buildings are closed and demolished or re-purposed, new clergymen and women are scarce, social influence is marginalized, the collective image smudged with accusations of sexual harassment in pastoral relationships, the public imagery reduced to exoticism and incidents caused by devotees on the margins of the religious denominations. And the supposed massive mobility from the strict institutionalized domain to the more individualized, spiritual sphere has been documented, but seems to have hit its peak some years ago.

Simultaneously, and no doubt causally connected, is the decline in religious knowledge of the Dutch population: the rapid decline of collective and individual knowledge concerning the cultural, historical, political, and juridical heritage of Christianity in our modern-day society. Commentators have criticized this phenomenon, warning not only for its educational, intellectual and ideological impact, but also for a variety of practical issues concerning cultural esteem, political capacities, and complicated multi-religious interactions by, among others, care takers and civil servants. Those who do not have sufficient knowledge of the religious realm – being a believer themselves or not, that is irrelevant – are deprived of the understanding of a significant part of the human word, experience, and existence.

Many people have associated the decline in (institutionalized) religion with the decline in the collective and individual belief in the metaphysical domain per se, but there are some complicating elements to take into account. The first reservation towards the idea that secularization ‘is happening’, is that the notion has become increasingly more normative in its undertones at the expense of its – formal – descriptive use. Secularization, as many politicians, opinion leaders, journalists, and academics belief and express, is not something that is just happening, but a good thing that is happening. Secularization, the insight that no transcendental realm of existence could possibly exist, because the dominant and reductionist empiric paradigm prevents such a strain of thought, is a more advanced state of mind in contrast to ‘darker’ times and places where people ‘still belief’. This is, however, not a fact, but an opinion.

The second reservation towards the supposed self-explanatory nature of secularism, is the fact that the ‘secular experiment’ seems to be more or less confined to the Western world, that is Western Europa and North America. The rest of the world ‘still believes’, seemingly without caring too much about it supposed braking effect on the advancement of developing societies. The major world religions grow bigger every year, even when the numbers are corrected with the steady growth of humankind as a whole. 95% of humanity’s growth is realized in developing countries, where 85% of the population are self-identified believers. The idea of the supremacy of secularism is, therefore, a rather Eurocentric or even neo-colonialist approach to the religious phenomenon.

The third reservation concerns the persistent presence of religion in the Dutch (and European and North-American) public domain, predominantly in its Islamic form, in cultural objects, like novels, films, and video games, and in the seemingly undying human need for life to mean something (called ‘zingeving’ in Dutch, literally meaning ‘to give sense to something’). Since our collective cultural history is a melting pot of Hellenistic-Roman, Nordic, and – predominantly – Christian elements, it is no surprise that the stories we tell each other, individually (through films, novels, and games) and/or collectively (through, among others, newspapers, national commemoration days, and talk shows) are deeply indebted to the Great Christian Narrartive. Books like Rowling’s Harry Potter series, games like Metro Last Light, and series like The Messiah satisfy our need for ‘zingeving’ that is so inherent to our species.

Religious analphabetism

‘Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it,’ said the Italian philosopher George Santayana. I would like to paraphrase that, when one forgets their religious history, one is doomed to be puzzled by one’s present, and deprived from one’s future. If our society is deaf and blind on the subject of (institutionalized) religion and spirituality, we are collectively robbed from understanding not only our common past and its ramifications for our present society, we also fail to grasp the sociological, philosophical and theological meaning and significance of the ‘religious substance’ (as Jurgen Moltmann described it) or ‘implicit theology’ (Paul Tillich) of our present day lives, as well as what religion and spirituality mean for the larger part of the global world, including for those who have come recently to our parts of the world, especially the Islamic and Christian refugees (migrant churches, predominantly of Evangelical or Pentecostal denominations), that have relocated themselves (or have been relocated) to our countries.

Traditionally, the ‘alphabetization’ of the younger generations has been applied by those who preceded them, the older generations, especially in the contexts of home and family, educational organisations, and ecclesiastical organisations like parishes, and religious orders and congregations. The first two religion educational contexts have been increasingly compromised, and even the third one has lost much of its former influence and intellectual strength, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Since the new generations of parents have been subjected to the process of religious analphabetism themselves, partly because their parents have suffered the same fate before them, they are no longer capable of educating their own offspring to understand the religious realm of society. And even more, they typically lack the sense of need or urgency to do so in the first place.

Secondly, the educational institutions, like primary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities, have been placed under continuous scrutiny from those who deem secularism as much an ideology as a reality (as discussed above), deeming the topic of religion increasingly ‘alien’ to what they perceive as ‘neutral education’. While the term itself is problematic, since one could easily argue that every kind of education is intrinsically imbued with the transmission of ethical and moral values and standards, and because education is also inherently aimed at the advancement of the character of the ones receiving it, the notion has been frequently used to abolish all reference to and all transmission of religious information per se. This resulted, especially in the Netherlands, into an implosion of religion education in general.

As an important side note, it is paramount that I make a clear distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘religious education’. The second one is to be equalled with the ‘old-school’ catechism classes in either educational or parish contexts, and in primarily involved with the spiritual and intellectual initiation of (young) people into a specific faith or denomination. The first one, the one I am referring to throughout this essay, is not to be equalled with initiation, but with the training of the competencies needed to identity, analyse and value religious theories and practices.

The third traditional category of religious alphabetization, through ecclesiastical organizations, has also been under immense stress. The institutionalized religious organizations have decreased under the influence of the aforementioned secularisation, while increasingly being unable to attain and keep the attention of the younger generations for any considerable period of time, if any. This applies both to the parishes and dioceses at the one hand, and the religious orders and congregations at the other hand, since both groups have been rapidly losing community members and have been unable, some exceptions aside, to replenish this loss, including the loss of financial strength and the decrease in societal influence and relevance.

Monastic tradition

The Dutch Conference of Religious in the Netherlands (Konferentie Nederlandse Religieuzen) has tried, for several years, to accommodate a coordinated phasing out of the physical presence of the majority of Dutch orders and congregations, or their residences in the Netherlands (if they are part of an international monastic body). While this seems a paradoxical policy for a conference dedicated to the ‘mutual coordination’ of monastic endeavours in the Netherlands, but at the same time the secular and still secularizing social status quo demands a thoughtful and careful planned process of ending specific monastic residences and organizations in a way that pays homage to their honourable history and legacy, while ensuring the proper care for the monastic elderly and for the repurposing of their physical properties. While the Conference claims that ‘some communities are witnessing an influx of new members’ and that ‘in several places new forms of religious life have been established’, these new initiatives, thought spiritually fruitful and encouraging, will – in all probability – not be able to stop the decline of monasticism in the Netherlands on the whole.

None never the less, I want to argue, the monastic spaces and presence in the Netherland, or other secularized Western countries, could be the preferred, or perhaps only ones left in the near foreseeable future. The monastic ecclesiastical bodies, may they be of a contemplative or an active kind, have always been a double counter-forces in the Christian history. The religious orders, from Benedictines and Augustinians, from Franciscans to Jesuits, and from Norbertines to Dominicans, the priories, abbeys and convents have always formed a sociological, political, ideological, and financial independent domain, independent from and not unusually critical towards both secular and ecclesiastical powers, leading to fiery debates with popes, emperors, bishops, kings, cardinals, and princes, sometimes resulting in physical harm towards individual monks and sisters, and/or the confiscating or destruction of their properties.

Also, in the current secular and ecclesiastical political climates, the religious orders and congregations can still utilize this tradition of double independence. Through their combined spiritual heritage, history and practices, abbeys and convents have a proven strong attractive value towards (young) people, who seek for inspiration, catharsis, and a practical spirituality. And more than their colleagues of the ‘secular’ clergy, the Dutch monks and sisters have attained a favourable sentiment towards them from broader society, although the scandal surrounding the sexual abuse in pastoral relationships does indeed, still, cast a shadow on their public imago, to say the least. Never the less, religious orders are considered ‘mysterious’, ‘mystic’, ‘’spiritual’ and ‘authentic’, positive characteristics that the secular clergy and organizations lack.

In this regard, the Dutch convents, abbeys, and priories, can begin to self-identify as a very important bastion against religious analphabetism in the Netherlands and abroad. In my opinion, monasticism – or rather all the different kind of monastic tradition, the Christian tradition knows – has six characteristics that make the religious orders and congregations a self-explanatory locus for the continuous training of new generations to understand the (and their) existential dimension of the human individual and collective existence. In more or less random order, these six characteristics are the following.

In the first place, many religious orders and congregations have the ideal location to educate the new generations into the religious realm – again not in the sense of evangelisation, although that can have its own place, but in the sense of a process of religious sensibilization. Traditionally, convents, abbeys and priories are located either within the parameters of larger cities, or are located in rustic and often semi-secluded places. The secluded place, often in rural areas, surrounded by forests or meadows, is one of the most important reason, young people come to these places in the first place: it’s inherent tranquillity that contrasts so sharply with the perceived ‘noisiness’ of postmodern society.

The second monastic characteristic, is their educational, or more precisely, the mystagogical tradition. While certainly numerous orders and congregations have been responsible for the (higher) education of uncountable young people in and outside the Netherlands, sometimes even being the core of their mission statement, monasticism has also maintained the notion of and sensibility for a different kind of education, in which the ‘student’ is not only initiated into the realm of cognitive knowledge, but also in the experience of the divine-human interaction that is at the heart of the Christian tradition. While this seems paradoxical at first sight, since I have been arguing that the religious alphabetization should be foremost that of cultivation of the knowledge of and sensibility for the religious dimension and not on individual spiritual evolvement per se – although the later is not necessarily a bad thing, the mystagogical approach inherent to monasticism, appeals to more than the rational part of the human being. Monasticism can provide a ‘bodily’ form of religious education, that transcends the simple learning of exclusively rational knowledge.

On the third place, as I have argued before, the religious orders and congregations have a more pleasant and positive public image than many of their secular pendants.

Fourthly, monasticism provides a context in which extreme focus goes hand-in-hand with an apparent abundancy of time. The paradox of the, especially but certainly not exclusively, contemplative nature of the religious orders and congregations provides a strict and orderly division of the day into sets for sleep, study, work, and liturgy, while at the other side this rhythm gives am self-evident ‘place’ for relating experience and knowledge about the religious dimension of human existence.

This self-evidence quality is strengthened by the fifth characteristic of religious orders and congregations being apt to counter religious analphabetism: their communal and exemplary live. Even though there are religious orders whose monastic live is not, or not so much, focused on a community life per se, and even though I do not want to suggest that every monk or sister is necessarily immediately ready for canonization per se, the brothers and sisters of the various religious institutions present a way of spending one’s life that is both ancient and very modern at the same time, whether this example is given in a public sphere or in the context of a convent. The self-evident communal aspect of monastic live – to understand one another as given to one another with all one’s individual qualities and faults – has become a counter-example in the postmodern world in which short-term satisfaction is thought to be better than long-term relationships. Teaching by example is the keyword in this aspect. Of course, this exemplary way of conveying religious understanding is not reserved to only the monastic domain, but – as I explained, because of the counter-cultural quality – they are very adept to do so.

The sixth and last monastic characteristic is the experience of the world as sacramentum mundi, as a collection of loci theologici of God’s continuous self-revelation. May it be with the Jesuit notion of ‘searching God in all things’, the Franciscan idea of the world as singing praise to its creator, the Dominican slogan of laudare, benedicere et praedicare (‘praying, blessing and preaching’), monastic traditions, especially but not exclusively in their active forms, have always heralded the idea that God is to be found everywhere in the world He has created. This idea of cultural theology has been fuelled by theological notions as the spolia Aegyptiorum (Clemens of Alexandira, Irenaeus of Lyon, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo), the logoi spermatikoi (Justin the Martyr), the praeparatio Evangelica (Ambrose of Milan), the aforementioned ‘implicit theology’ of Motlmann and Tillich, and the idea of the ‘signs of the time’ from the text of the Second Vatican Council.

Monastic hotspots

Armed with these characteristics and theological legacy, the religious orders and congregations in the Netherlands, and other Western countries, are exceptionally well positioned to counter the religious analphabetism. Their convents and monasteries are self-evidently gathering places, or ‘hubs’, for younger and older people who seek spiritual enlightenment, emotional balance or a religious experience. Some of those modern pilgrims stay a short period of time and may become recurring visitors, others remain longer within or nearby a religious community, connecting their lives in one way or the other with these communities.

Artists and social activists are naturally drawn towards monastic places for their history of spiritual and social endeavours. Christians from all kinds of denominations gather together in convents and abbeys to celebrate their common faith in Jesus of Nazareth in a church political environment in which much more is possible then elsewhere. Brothers and sisters are still operating in place where the marginalized of today’s society are stowed away from public view: the poor, the homeless, the refugees, the cynical, and the lost. And they do so solely because they can help them in their mystery, but in the stern belief that the marginalized have a special meaning and message in and for themselves (the so-called ‘preferential option’).[1] Leading by example, the monastics of the Netherlands can open a new ‘space’ in which religious conversation, and the sharing of knowledge and experience is common-place. It is a spiritual ‘safe-place’, where seekers and searchers, sceptics and believers can co-exist in a common search for a better world. It is a space to which people are instinctively drawn towards, because of the teleological, centripetal forces at work. Convents and monasteries can become ‘monastic hotspots’ where a new kind of society can be experimented upon, a society where ‘hard’ forces are overcome by softer powers.

In order to become these hotspots of religious re-alphabetization of our societies, the religious orders and congregations have to do two paradoxical things at once: they have to pull strength and resilience from their own spiritual traditions and theological heritages at the one hand, but refrain from the pit-fall every ecclesiastical organization runs the risk of, that is, to postulate its own continuous and individual existence at the scope of all their endeavours. Orders and congregations are not founded upon the idea that they represent or even embody the continuous securement of the Christian salvational narrative. They are vehicles to help realizing such, but they are subordinate to this. The exist to serve Christ, not the other way around.

I want, at the end of this short essay, encourage the Dutch Conference of Religious in the Netherlands and all orders and congregations to co-operate with one another to find a common ground in the ‘monastic substance’ of the Christian tradition, that is not focused on the individual survival of particular convents or abbeys, but on the continuous mission of the religious re-alphabetization of the Netherlands and on the continuous recognition of the deus incognitus of our Western civilization, that is, the on-going self-revelation of God through all the peoples, mediums, objects and artefacts that this civilization produces. Not to be uncritical of society and the forces that move it around, but more readily to experience God’s presence in all things, than anything else.

Take back your power, take back your strength, unite without losing your inherent plurality, stay loyal and critical at the same time to both secular and ecclesiastical powers, always chose the side of the downtrodden, and be a safe haven for all that seek shelter, spirituality, and enlightenment. Be as Christ: always the same, always different at the same time.

End notes / Literature list

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  2. Hans Schmeets, Wie is religieus, en wie niet?, CBS, oktober 2018, https://www.cbs.nl/-/media/_pdf/2018/43/2018st22%20religie.pdf [visited 8-2-20]
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  11. R. Shaull, ‘Forword’, in: P. Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed, translated by M. Bergman Ramos, New York: Herder and Herder (1970), p. 9-18.
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  14. English mission statement of the Dutch Conference of Religious in the Netherlands, available on their website at: http://www.knr.nl/documenten/MSe.doc [visited 11-02-20].
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  18. F. Bosman, Gaming and the divine. A new systematic theology of video games, London: Routledge 2009), p. 15-36.
  19. R.M. Curnow, The preferential option fort he poor, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press (2012).

About the author

Frank Bosman

Frank Bosman is a cultural theologian, researcher at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology. Frank Bosman is often asked in Dutch media as a kind of “Catholic specialist” on the full scope of religion in modern society in general and of Catholicism in particular. In his article he addresses the topic “God in hiding – monasticism and religious analphabetism”.