Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unplugging Secularism: An Evangelical Appreciation of Fr. Val Peter’s "Seven Secular Challenges Facing 21st-Century Catholics"

Perhaps I’m not the most likely person to review a book written by a Roman Catholic priest, a book whose very title emphasizes the author’s audience to be American Catholics. After all, I am an evangelical, the director for nearly 30 years of an evangelical organization and the teaching pastor of Faith Bible Church, a small evangelical congregation in south Omaha, Nebraska. What on earth could Fr. Val Peter’s Seven Challenges Facing 21st-Century Catholics say that would be of interest, let alone personal benefit, to me?

The answer is...plenty! Indeed, I found the book one of the clearest and most helpful books on practical theology I’ve read in some time. Well-researched, well-written and full of the wise insights that Fr. Val Peter is known for, Seven Secular Challenges Facing 21st-Century Catholics is a valuable resource for any Christian who desires to effectively stand against the onslaughts of postmodern culture. Catholics, of course, will find it a gem of particular relevance. But, any Christian who appreciates a bold, perceptive analysis of modern secularism will find it an important read. And yes, Fr. Peter doesn't just curse the darkness; he provides practical, hopeful ways to counteract secularism’s influence upon you, your family and your church congregation.

The value of the book did not come as a surprise. As a esteemed professor at Creighton University, an author and speaker and, of course, the Executive Director of Boys Town, Fr. Val Peter’s inspirational impact has been substantial and well known. But more to the point, I have had the honor of knowing Fr. Peter as a friend and fellow pro-life advocate for many years. I’ve read his stuff, heard him speak and seen him in action. So when I picked up Seven Secular Challenges on a visit to the Boys Town gift shop, I bought it with a confident assumption that it would prove more than worthwhile.

I was right.

Seven Secular Challenges has ambitious goals; beginning with the investigation of seven distinct themes of modern secularism: lack of respect for authority, "uncritical openness," cynicism, truncated ideology, "learned helplessness," anti-intellectualism, and an enveloping atmosphere of political correctness. The largest part of the book concerns the loss of authority in the West and how the influences of Sigmund Freud, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and, on a more popular level, figures like Benjamin Spock and Robert Schuller have weakened the traditional, biblically-centered authority heretofore granted to parents, statesmen and clergy. These writers derided external authorities as outdated obstacles to self-realization, self-fulfillment and even social progress.

Fathers, for instance, were told they needed to be less authoritative and directive; they needed to be more like buddies to their children. Statesmen were instructed to create an increasingly enveloping government, a nanny-state in which citizens were promised more entitlements -- but at the price of less freedom and personal responsibility.

Even clergy succumbed to the new ethos. As Fr. Peter explains, "Since church leaders do not live in a vacuum-sealed container, environmental reinforcement is as strong in their lives as elsewhere. They live in a society that bombards them with continual exhortations to quit preaching sin and just make people feel good by being pastoral."

But these ideas haven’t worked. Society is worse off because of secularist influences, not better.

The answer to this socially-destructive erosion of authority is to re-orient oneself to the fixed truths of divine revelation and to again embrace the God Who is not only the font of all wisdom but of all love and grace. Living life according to the "design specs" given by a masterful, merciful Designer yields true fulfillment. And so thoughtful submission to authentic authority (leaders who are careful to serve under the Lordship of Jesus Christ) is the path of genuine liberation.

But Fr. Peter is strong on insisting that those leaders prove themselves in order to merit (not merely demand) the trust of others. "The remedy for misguided trust in authority figures is to insist on purification, reform and renewal. This starts with developing a set of realistic criteria for trusting those who are in power. Start by replacing unconditional trust in religious leaders with merited trust. This constitutes a monumental change in our expectations. Jesus told us that ‘you know them by their fruits’ (Matt 7:20). A person does not consult a doctor without asking others about the doctor’s reputation. If we do this with physicians why not do the same with our religious leaders?"

What is called for then is what Fr. Peter calls selective openness – a humility that is willing to receive the guidance of authorities but which yet exercises discrimination and moral judgment. When these are properly balanced, one’s freedom is actually enhanced.

Among the many things I appreciated in Seven Secular Challenges was the thoroughness of Fr. Peter’s evaluations. He has sound, biblically-documented arguments that even evangelicals will find insightful and instructive. And he is refreshingly direct in his exhortations. He doesn’t pull his punches. Nor does he aim them at straw men. And Fr. Peter knows the immense stakes involved in this philosophic contest. He understands, for instance, the terrible breadth of the culture of death about which John Paul II and other prophets warned us. It’s abortion and euthanasia. It’s embryonic stem cell experimentation and genetic engineering. But it’s also divorce, adultery, aberrant sexuality, the abuse and neglect of children, the desensitization of conscience and, particularly due to mass media, the disengagement of the person from real life.

But, as I mentioned, beyond Fr. Peter's penetrating analysis (and critique) of the origins, salient features, and general impact of these seven faces of secularism, he goes further by carefully explaining ways in which individuals and families can overcome them in the power, wisdom and joy of the Holy Spirit. The book thus provides not merely a sobering experience but ultimately a most uplifting one -- somewhat like a tough but effectively motivating half-time talk.

We’ve been taking it on the chin from a very aggressive secularism for quite a while now. So, isn’t it past time to start fighting back -- wisely, winsomely and with a new spirit of dedication? Fr. Val Peter’s Seven Secular Challenges to Facing 21st-Century Catholics presents an inspirational game plan to accomplish those very purposes.

Seven Secular Challenges to Facing 21st Century Catholics (185 pages, $17.95) is published by Paulist Press, 2009.