Chicago Studies Fall/Winter 2023

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Breaking through the Buffered Self: Beginning with the True By Most Rev. Robert Barron, S.T.D. Introduction Anyone who has been following my work over the years knows that I have been preoccupied with the question of the unaffiliated, that is to say, the army of those people, especially the young, who have absented themselves from the practice of the faith and from church attendance. There is simply no way to avoid the conclusion that the Christian churches, at least in the West, are facing a practically unprecedented crisis of disaffiliation. In the early 1970s, roughly 3 percent of our country would have claimed the status of “none” when asked about religious affiliation. Today, the number has reached an astonishing 26 percent, and among the young, the numbers are worse still, reaching 40 percent of those under thirty. One need not be an expert in statistics to discern that this does not bode well for the future of the Church. When asked why they have disaffiliated, the “nones” give a variety of reasons, chief among them that they have simply lost confidence in the teachings of Christianity. Since I have explored this and many other causes of disaffiliation before, I will not focus on the sociology of the issue. Rather, what I would like to do in these presentations is to take a deeper dive, examining the culture that has given rise to the loss of religious commitment and then proposing some ways forward, some insights and practices whereby the religious sensibility can be reawakened. Permit me to say something at the outset. Though we religious leaders and educators might be tempted at this time to wring our hands and give in to despair, we should, on the contrary, seize this moment. As I hope to make clear in these lectures, the secularist ideology is soul-killing, and the human heart quite naturally rebels against it. We should not be begging the avatars of secularism for a place around the table on their terms; we should be reclaiming our incomparably rich spiritual tradition in order to feed the hunger of the unaffiliated. This is not the time to retreat, but rather, to go out, as Paul Tillich said, mit klingendem Spiel (with fife and drum), confident in what we bring. 1 I will develop these reflections as follows. First, I will look at the cultural matrix that has made the army of the disaffiliated possible, namely, what Charles Taylor calls the culture of the “buffered self,” the ego cut off from any living contact with the transcendent. Then, using the three great transcendentals—the good, the true, and the beautiful—as my framework, I will propose ways to break through the buffered self and to open the restless heart to a consideration of God and the things of God. Though I will develop these thoughts in a disciplined, academic way, I want to make clear from the outset that my purpose is not purely speculative. Instead, I am proposing a strategy for the creative engagement of the “nones” and a program useful for the purposes of what the last several Popes have called “the new evangelization.” The Buffered Self In his magisterial The Secular Age, the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor constructs a complex narrative designed to explain the intriguing fact that, in 1500, practically everyone in the West believed in God, whereas today, again in the West, God’s nonexistence is taken as a very lively option by a considerable number of people. To make this claim a bit more


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