Saturday, May 4, 2013

Faith in a secular society: A retreat reflection

It was Sunday, around 2PM when we were waiting for the bus which would take us to Driebergen-Zest (those going to Nijmegen) and Utrecht Centraal (those going to Enschede, Amsterdam,  and Groningen) at the Het Zonnehuis bus stop in Doorn, Utrecht. Most of the participants rushed to that nearest bus stop to catch the 2:08 schedule.

We just came from a national retreat with a theme, Faith in a secular society, organized by the International Student Chaplaincy with Fr. Avin Kunnekkadan, SVD, Rev. Edith Plantier, and Fr. Wiel Eggen, SMA. The 2-day/night (19-21 April) retreat in the villa-like Het Brandpunt in Doorn, Utrecht gathered 19 participants from 14 countries (Brazil, China, Fiji, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Rwanda, Singapore, and South Africa).

At the bus stop, there was a feeling that there were more stories left unshared. After two days of being together in the retreat, the level of trust and openness heightened and expanded among participants. The cold breeze that was sweeping our voices to reverberate in the area was doused by our joint laughters and smiles. From time to time, we looked at the direction where the bus was expected to show up. No one showed impatience and panic when no bus emerged from sight after 2:08PM. Everyone knew that in no time, a bus would show up. Everyone kept that faith.

When the bus finally arrived, many of us had no OV-Chipkaart and paid cash to the driver. Having an OV-Chipkaart, I decided to board in the bus the last. From outside, I saw that the bus driver patiently accepted cash and dispensed tickets. For about 10 minutes or so, I noticed that the cars behind the bus were slowly piling in line. There were about 15 cars waiting for the bus to move. Until I got in the bus and took my seat, I did not hear any blowing of horns from the cars nor expressions of irritation from the car drivers. In the countries where most of us came from, it was remarkable, but here in the Netherlands, it was ordinary.

How does this extra-ordinary become ordinary in the Netherlands?

While in the bus, I recalled the talks in the retreat. The first one, Secularization and internalization, by Dr. Otto Kroesen who provided the historical and systematic perspective of understanding the ordinariness of notable behaviors by the Dutch in the eyes of foreigners. According to him, the process towards secularization is Christian-inspired. He traced the origin of the distinction between secular and spiritual from the church. For example, the creation and existence of states emerged with the help of the church that bestowed authority to kings. However, the violence of small warlords at that time posed problems with the church’s work on conversion and was condemned as “secular” and temporary.

Dr. Kroesen also cited an observation of his Kenyan friend based on church attendance between  a religious society (e.g. Kenya) and secular one (e.g. Netherlands). His friend had observed that there is a higher level of social trust and cooperativeness in the Netherlands than in Kenya. He argued that this was because of internalization of human virtues which are Christian-inspired. In his elaboration and rationalization of the process of internalization, he often presented three dimensions. For example, quoting Marcel Gauchet, first was the gods are behind us (e.g. ancestors); then, the gods are above us (e.g. empires, sun, stars); and lastly, the gods are among and within us (e.g. secular, in human virtues). Another three dimensional explanation is with time; first is the time of the Father (One God), then of the Son (One World), and of the Holy Spirit (One Humanity) in which we live now. In the third dimension, God is becoming invisible, but the Spirit lives and moves in and through us. In this time, the role of the Church has changed. Not anymore of continuous sowing of the seeds of faith such as talking about God, but the time for harvesting such as living in the Spirit in which love is increasing and prioritized. There may be no outward representations of God in a secular society, but His/Her presence is expressed in people’s actions and behaviors towards others. After his talk, there was a plenary sharing of several participants’ striking observations and experiences in the Netherlands.

If the secularity of the Dutch society is Christian-inspired, does this secularity have Biblical roots?

In the second talk on the Biblical roots of secular concern, Fr. Wiel Eggen offered two possibilities of discussing the theme – Faith in a secular society; 1) how to be a believer in a secular society, and 2) how to have faith in a secular faith. He contended that this world and age as a reality is negatively viewed as contradictory to Christ’s life.  The contradiction is like darkness versus light (God’s kingdom) which has a connotation of not belonging to this world. Although the world, as we believe, was created by God, we experience its imperfections which need redemption. If we have faith in Jesus Christ who does not live anymore in this world, but who lives in us. He continued the contradiction by saying that we should live in this world, as if not. Our salvation is connected to the suffering of this world. Fr. Wiel urged us to make something of our lives by living according to what gives us mission and meaning in life, because we only live once (taken from YOLO which means you only live once).

After Fr. Wiel’s talk, several participants narrated their stories of the good and less good things they experienced in the Netherlands. For his part, Fr. Avin narrated his anecdote of the lost wallet. Others highlighted the high level of trust, openness, tolerance, and acceptance of Dutch society including marijuana use, same-sex marriage, and prostitution which are still largely illegal and unacceptable in most societies.

To provide us with real life stories of Christians living in a secular society, the third talk featured Rev. Rob van Essen and Mr. Norbert Abachi. Rev. van Essen, a Dutch pastor, told us that his first conversion was to Christ and the second to the world in which a community where virtues are practiced thrives. Mr. Abachi, a Kenyan with a strong religious background who has lived in the Netherlands for 13 years, intimated his dilemma. He somewhat fears of losing in time the bases of his religious practices and the separation of worship and good deeds. But he is reassured of the sense of community and structure that the Church is providing him. After their sharing, there was a short discussion on the role of the media in the society.

We noticed that the bus was approaching the Driebergen-Zeist bus stop and train station. Four of us got off the bus and waved goodbye to the others whose destination was Utrecht Centraal. There was no train schedule from Driebergen-Zest to Arnhem because of some repairs. We did not feel panicky or anything. We simply asked someone about how to get to Arnhem, and he pointed to a bus apparently commissioned by the NS-train. When we boarded the bus, most of the seats were occupied. Each of us took the available ones in various rows. When my body settled in the seat and relaxed, my eyes struggled to keep up with my mind still active reminiscing the last day of the retreat. 

On the last day which fell on Sunday, Fr. Avin officiated a liturgy. The readings, homily, and sharings were centered on the theme. After the liturgy, the groups presented their sketches depicting their experiences in the Netherlands and their Christian-inspired responses to various situations that often challenge their religious traditions and beliefs. The closing was somehow unceremonious, but it served the purpose of continuing the personal reflection on the theme, Faith in a secular society.

Back to the bus, I woke up when we were nearing Arnhem bus stop and train station. When we were walking towards Arnhem train station, Noriko asked me about my wallet. I calmly checked my wallet at my jean’s back pocket. Inside the train going to Nijmegen, we took the group seats facing each other. When the train moved, I observed that no one showed surprise why we were moving in another direction. Unlike the first day when we were on the way to the retreat, there was a tinge of panic because the train was moving towards the same direction towards Nijmegen where we came from. This time, there was none. For the rest of the train ride back home, we let things be, knowing that we were on the right track.

After the retreat, we have less questions about the secular Dutch society than ever before. We’ve grown faith in this secular society as we strive to keep our own.

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