Cover story -- Reinventing church
Issue Date: July 20, 2007

-- NASA/ESA/M.J. Jee and H. Ford
Johns Hopkins University

A Hubble Space Telescope composite image shows a ghostly ring of dark matter in the galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17. Dark matter is believed to make up the underlying structure of the cosmos.
Chaos and promise

Dominican theologian examines how the church can find its place in a postmodern world

According to Fr. Albert Nolan, a Dominican theologian from South Africa, if Christianity -- Catholicism in particular -- is to appeal to future generations, it must reformulate its doctrines and dogmas so they are meaningful to a postmodern mind. Nolan is the author of Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom.

How can we leave aside religious interpretations and images that no longer speak to the imagination of people who have seen Planet Earth from space, have witnessed the reality of cloning, have experienced instantaneous worldwide communication as routine.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was an effort to bring the church into the modern world, says Nolan, but it may actually have been too little, too late. As the church was attempting to make itself meaningful to a modern mind shaped by the forces of the Enlightenment, the world itself was entering a new era characterized by the unraveling of the Enlightenment and the advent of what is now referred to as postmodernism.

“More and more people, and especially young people, have given up all the certainties of the past: religious certainties, scientific certainties, cultural certainties, political certainties and historical certainties,” writes Nolan in Jesus Today. Nolan says that we live in an age of great skepticism about any ideology or authority, an age where more and more Catholics are alienated from the church and find little meaning in the rituals and language of a religion they experience as unrelated to their lives.

Today’s Catholic grandparents are often perplexed when their children and grandchildren participate in nontraditional spirituality centers or choose secular gatherings over sacramental practices. Many Catholics dismiss church teachings that are inconsistent with their own experience of relationships and sexuality, or ignore proclamations affecting the beginning and end of life. Religious vocations within the United States have declined by more than 50 percent and vocations to the priesthood by more than 30 percent since 1965, and Mass attendance in the United States has dropped off by 30 percent since the peak years of 1957 and 1958.

Some attribute these trends to inconsistent implementation of Vatican II initiatives. Others point to Vatican II itself as the cause. And still others blame the clergy sexual abuse crisis as a major contributing factor. Nolan suggests that we must consider societal forces other than these more popular justifications if we are to understand how we arrived at the current situation.

Tom Fox, former editor and publisher of NCR, interviewed Nolan in May for NCR’s Web site. In his remarks, presented here in an edited version, Nolan considers how to resolve a cultural and religious reality that both sits on the edge of chaos and promises a hopeful future where faith, spirituality and religious conviction play a role.

-- Rita Larivee

To access the full text of the interview with Albert Nolan, see the Web box at the end of the article.

The hunger for meaning, peace and freedom

NCR: Would you define postmodernism as you understand it and explain why it has led, for example, to the splitting off of spirituality from religion?

Albert Nolan: The usual understanding of postmodernism is that it’s the age after modernity. Modernity stands for the emphasis on reason as the measure of all things, the possibility of sorting out all our problems by means of science, religion and technology. Modernity promised humankind a great future where everything was going to improve. There were differences of opinion about whether the improvements would come by means of capitalism or communism. Nevertheless, everyone saw progress as inevitable.

What we gradually began to realize was that these reasonable humans were acting unreasonably. We had the Nazis, the Second World War, great civilizations that suddenly became violent. Even the great nations of today fail as well.

All the things promised with progress are not working. The great ideologies are all shown today to be faulty. The grand narratives, as they are called, are all falling apart. People are disillusioned. Postmodernism is part of that disappointment.

Sometimes it’s called deconstruction, because it takes apart all the grand ideas, all the principles and certainties of science, of religion, of economic progress. All these things are being recognized as having failed us.

There’s not necessarily one truth; you can have your own truths and listen to someone else’s. You have to find what interests you.

That’s a very broad idea of what postmodernism is about.

One result is that the church’s authoritarianism, for example, doesn’t wash with young people today: “You’ve got to believe or else.” For them, the doctrines and dogmas of the church are formulated in ways of thinking about life and the world that belong to the past. The teachings are fine. That’s not the problem. The problem is in the way they are formulated.

The young find it difficult to accept those doctrines and dogmas as they are presented in churches. The Second Vatican Council began to try to reformulate them, but this process hasn’t gotten far, by and large. Theologians have been working at it, but the church hasn’t caught up.

One of the most significant developments of our time is the separation of spirituality from religion. You hear young people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Once people have that genuine hunger for spirituality, they discover that hunger for meaning, for inner peace and freedom is not being satisfied by the church.

I point out in my new book that Jesus’ spirituality, for example, was both social and individual. He looked at the needs of society and also the needs of individuals and did not separate the two. When you do this, you have a holistic spirituality that addresses young people’s needs. It’s not far away and long ago; it’s about right now.

What the young do get from the church is a feeling of being terribly guilty and condemned if they don’t live up to the teachings. They are not taught how to pray. They’re not taught how to live with one another. Consequently they look in other places for this. But Jesus did just that; he taught how to pray, how to live well together.

I speak in my new book about an “appropriate” spirituality for a postmodern age. By that I mean one that speaks to the concerns, issues and insecurities of people today. It doesn’t speak to the past and how people lived in the past.

This “appropriate” spirituality is developing mostly outside the church, which doesn’t mean outside any Christian or religious influence, but not specifically developing within the church the way Thomas Merton, for example, would have developed had he lived longer.

On the Web
Tom Fox's conversation with Fr. Albert Nolan is available as six 20-minute podcasts on A transcript of the conversation is also available in the 'Special Documents' section of

National Catholic Reporter, July 20, 2007

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