Today's Western world is not easy to understand – with its immense achievements and apparently insoluble problems. This talk explores the suggestion (G. Lafont) that our problems had their origin at the end of the first millennium. The Christian outlook of the first millennium was shaped by the genius of St Augustine. In the tradition of Plato, this outlook saw all truth coming "from above", through a divine illumination that gave access to the order of eternal truths – an approach very congenial to a period (the Dark Ages) in which the Church virtually "ran the world", because it was the only agency capable of preserving the traditions of civilized life. But, in the High Middle Ages, as the Western tradition regained its vitality, the Platonic tradition was called into question – it was recognized that many vital truths are not given "from above" but are found by intelligent inquiry; created reality has its own intelligibility and relative autonomy; the Church should not be "running the world". This dawning recognition initiated a new era in the development of Western civilization. Though it was almost impossible for those involved to recognize the fact, the Church faced a momentous decision. It could accept that the secular order has a valid autonomy (something clearly affirmed by Vatican II), or it could reject this claim. In fact it chose rejection – with serious consequences for our Western tradition and for the Church itself. The Church began to live more and more estranged from the "modern" world coming into being; and our Western tradition set out upon its hazardous new path deprived of wisdom resources that had been so much identified with the Christian tradition.
A "modern" culture emerged that was in strong reaction against medievalism. It would make a new interpretation of its world; it would employ what we have come to call the "scientific" method of inquiry - experiment wedded to mathematical analysis (Descartes, Locke, Capitalism). The achievements of this approach (science, technology, democratic government) were enormous. As a consequence, until the 20th century few moderns were disturbed by the fact that the prevailing mathematical approach could give no answers to the most important issues we face as human beings (the dignity and value of the person, the meaning and purpose of life, love etc.). The horrors of the 20th century brought a terrible disillusionment, giving rise to two very different reactions. On the one hand, the "post-modern" outlook is sceptical of any attempt to give a comprehensive interpretation of human existence – seeing all such attempts as "ideological" (the expression of the interests of a particular social group). In the other hand, some people identify with the questionable "certainties" of a "new conservatism", and promote the slogans of different varieties of "fundamentalism" (religious, political, nationalistic etc.)
Clearly, these developments in our Western tradition are very challenging to the project of evangelization. On the other hand, our Catholic faith tradition has the resources humanity hungers for. We must communicate the wisdom the world sorely needs, not by abstract teaching (necessary as it is in itself) but by witness (a message that resonates with personal commitment and authenticity). It is discipleship (a lived relationship with the Saviour) that will give authenticity to our witness. In a culture that distrusts abstract pronouncements, the lived faith of a revitalized liturgy must be an important bearer of the great message we have to communicate.