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Religion, “presentism”, and the problem of the future

Science and technology cannot match the grandeur of the adventure of evangelization and discipleship.

A man prays inside St. Martin Church near Nantes, France, Oct. 5, 2021. (CNS photo/Stephane Mahe, Reuters)

“All religions,” writes Pope Benedict XVI in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, “try in one way or another to lift the veil of the future. They seem important precisely because they impart knowledge about what is to come, and to show man the path he has to take to avoid coming to grief.”

Has religion lost its potency in the modern world because mankind thinks that science and technology have made the future the present? More than twenty percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation; they have been dubbed “the Nones,” and not all of them are atheists. Many claim to believe in a higher power. They are uninterested, however, in a formal religion shaping and regulating their beliefs.

Multiple causes have sparked the rise of the Nones, but religion’s lost monopoly on lifting the veil to the future is surely one. Science and technology promise all the answers to any future problem—even if they do not know what that problem is yet or even if they cannot solve it currently. Countless people—believers included—have placed their faith in this promise. With it, religion’s import has diminished, for as people worry less about the existential unknowns of the future, they increase their focus on the immediate present.

Hence, “presentism” has contributed mightily to the secularity enveloping America and the nations of the developed world. “Every living culture must possess some spiritual dynamic, which provides the energy necessary for that sustained social effort which is civilization,” argued Christopher Dawson in Progress and Religion. When the present is the exclusive focus, it is no surprise that the individual exalts his place in the cosmos—life becomes “all about me.” In the last few generations, “expressive individualism” has become the spiritual dynamic of American culture and jurisprudence, and abortion is the sacrament of this self-centered spirituality.

Christian religions, of course, have much to offer the present moment and those consumed with it. Countless works of charity, education, and justice seek to alleviate human suffering from current pains. But these works are the necessary consequence of Christianity, not the reason for its existence. Religions exist to put us into communion with God and provide the framework for sustaining this communion. The crucial challenge for Christianity today is liberating so many from the prison of expressive individualism, inside of which there is no room for God nor vision of eternal life. There is only the individual wrapped in the suffocating and insufferable bubble of the present.

Rational arguments pointing out how faith in science is identical in nature to faith in God are important, but they are not likely to shake many free of the individualist, presentist worldview that they have unwittingly absorbed. These arguments should follow and support an appeal to the heart, to which science and technology are incapable of speaking. Neither can expressive individualism speak to the heart—the proof lies in the disturbing number of Americans today consumed by depression, rancor, and addiction. Grief will inevitably strike, and the heart will ache. Religion, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, is the best medicine for a broken heart.

How does religion, especially Catholicism, appeal to the heart? By being true to itself, which is to bring men and women to God through ritual, tradition, teaching, law, and sacrament. By involving all five human senses and the whole intellect in the worship of God, which is religion’s ultimate expression. By exhorting believers to deeper devotion and prayer, which St. Thomas Aquinas calls the interior acts of religion. By demonstrating how we ought to relate to God, and warning us to avoid vice, idolatry, and sacrilege.

Catholicism, through all these practices, raises men and women out of the present and into the eternal realm of God with the goal of divinizing them. Thus transformed, Catholics can then contribute to bringing their friends, coworkers, family, and neighbors to this same life-changing source. That is, they help lead others out of themselves and into the community of believers who seek eternal life.

Too often Catholics in recent decades have thought that the best way to actualize Vatican II’s call to evangelize the world is to become one with the world. Attempts to morph the Mass into a form of popular entertainment comprise the most egregious manifestations of this approach. Consider, for example, how often “Here I Am Lord” is sung in churches, compared to “O God Beyond All Praising,” or “One Bread, One Body” compared to “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All.” The former set of hymns direct our focus to this world, whereas the latter orient us to God.

Evangelization calls us to metanoia, to conversion, to turn away from the world and seek the things that are above. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). To follow Jesus is to leave behind the world, individual desires, and present concerns for the sake of God, His kingdom, and the world to come. This is the adventure of discipleship, a call that reaches the heart because it is invigorating and hope-filled. Science and technology cannot match the grandeur of this adventure.

Some may object that many today will continue to ignore religion or remain indifferent to it, and beautiful rituals are not enough to lure them from their smart phones. To this we can respond with our Lord: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). Human beings are religious animals. They will encounter tragedy, pain, or death and seek authentic comfort. Whenever that moment comes, for individuals or for the nation (recall how crowded churches were suddenly on September 12, 2001), religion has to be ready with the best it has to offer to save men and women from the vortex of presentism.

Yes, religion has a place in the future. For, as Joseph Ratzinger writes in The Spirit of the Liturgy, in the Church’s liturgy, which is the pinnacle of religion, “past, present, and future interpenetrate and touch upon eternity…. [The liturgy] is the turning point in the process of redemption. The Shepherd takes the lost sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home.”

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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 30 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.


  1. “Some may object that many today will continue to ignore religion or remain indifferent to it, and beautiful rituals are not enough to lure them from their smart phones.”

    Lol. We aren’t irreligious because we’re hypnotized by smartphones. It’s because faith is all you have to offer. It’s because having an invisible friend is indistinguishable from having no friend at all. Just FYI.

    • Why not speak and laugh for yourself? Who is the ‘we’ of your cohort? Without their voice, their invisibility makes their existence doubtful.

      The Catholic’s God-friend speaks through and is found in all creation. He particularly is experienced in the sacraments of the RCC, in beautiful, true and good liturgy, in the striving for virtue and beatitude, in scripture and in holy friendship. Just FYI.

      Scripture and other historical writings attest to the reality and the revelation of Jesus Christ as the living, historically incarnate son of God. Denying historical reality leaves a person with nothing more than the present. The present of today will soon disappear (never to become the past) in order to experience tomorrow’s present. An eternity of such a never-ending present elicits a vision of never-ending boredom and nihilism. Yawn. FYI.

      • “The Catholic’s God-friend speaks through and is found in all creation”

        You’re just treating nature as a “creation” as being self-evident fact, as being axiomatic, but it’s clearly not, because not even religious people (believers) can agree which undetectable god made all the stuff. This clusterfuzz makes perfect sense; it is exactly what you would expect when different groups of people are arguing about something undetectable (because it can’t be detected). Nobody’s case looks particularly strong vs any other, and in fact they all look weak individually and collectively for this reason as well as many other reasons.

        I’ve experienced many of the sacraments. The only thing I experienced was the worldly interaction with a priest or bread/wine. There was no magical “poof” feeling inside of me anywhere, or feeling of connectedness to “God” in any way whatsoever. My own experience directly contradicts your claim “He is experienced in the sacraments of the RCC”. Nothing was going on. I already checked!

        But let’s suspend skepticism for a second and say you’re right and that God wants to be indirect and roundabout for some nonsensical reason. Still, what would be the point of playing peekabo against a superintelligence/superpower? You would lose every time if it wanted to remain hidden. The game is silly.

        Your best offer is the exact thing I already said it was… faith. It doesn’t meet the bar.

    • God bless you Andrew. Ask Jesus to come into your heart and make Himself known to you and see what happens. And let us know please.

    • Hello Andrew,

      You challenge us to examine our faith which is reasonable, and valuable. By the same token, God challenges the non believer to consider His advise and admonitions. There were people in Jesus’s day who did not believe, even though He spelled out the consequences for the skeptic. Tell me, if you will, how do you read the following verses?

      1 Corinthians 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

      2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

      Romans 8:5-8 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

      2 Thessalonians 2:11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false,

      God bless you,


  2. About our contraction into self-sufficient “presentism,” we might be reminded of what Chesterton had to say about insanity:

    “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory . . . his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large . . . the most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction” (Orthodoxy).

  3. Although not made explicitly and not the main thrust of this article, it can be detected that the author in a line somehow takes up the illogical and misleading reasoning commonly held by and popular among most Vatican II resisters and rejectionists by making the false connection between the Vatican II liturgical reforms and the decline of religious practice and affiliation. This false thinking implies that the former caused the latter. It is utterly not the case. While rightly presenting secularity or what he calls “presentism” together with science and technology the as the main causes of the surge of “nones,” the author somehow could not resist – perhaps by force of bad habit – linking Vatican II as as also a cause. This illicit conclusion regarding the Vatican II link is debunked by the reality of growing reception of Vatican II liturgical reforms in most and other parts of the world especially in Africa and Asia even as the numbers of Catholic faithful are exploding.

    • Deacon Dom: I do not typically reply to comments, but I will here, as your assumption that in the penumbras of this essay there is criticism of Vatican II is simply false, and to insinuate that I am among “Vatican II resisters and rejectionists” is flatly wrong and gravely unfair. To interpret an example of abuses in the liturgy as a condemnation of the Council or its liturgical reforms is far too large of a leap in logic. Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis have all criticized abuses in the liturgy and called for Masses to be celebrated faithfully according to the rubrics. They are not “resisting or rejecting” the Council in saying so. Neither am I.

    • If what you’re saying is true, then what explains the mass exodus of people from the church after V2, people who left and nevercame back?

  4. Scientific ‘presentism’ is a valid argument, although what stands out, “beautiful rituals are not enough to lure them from their smart phones”. Persons [it seems the majority] are living [constantly with smartphone at home, at work, walking the streets, in vehicles talking or texting] in a world of high tech communication with other distant, impersonal persons and visions the creation of other persons. Virtual reality. Locked in. Difficult to reach.
    True, Nones, and I sense it’s much higher than 20% have a vague idea of a ‘higher power’, more like a Rosicrucian cosmic consciousness enlightenment. “Religion has to be ready with the best it has to offer”. Yes. For initial effectiveness, a strong dose of direct, convinced, challenge in the mode of the Apostle.

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