Posted by: gmscan | December 21, 2012

Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion,” Part Two

I want to get this out before moving on to other things. I apologize that it has taken this long, but I was distracted with the elections and a bunch of other things. But I hope you have a wonderful and holy Christmas. Here is a link that will put a smile of your face. It is a flash orchestra playing Ode to Joy.

Greg

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Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion” Part Two

When we left Ross Douthat last time, American Christianity was in decline after the rare unity of purpose that culminated in the Civil Rights Act, and other Great Society initiatives.

This triumph was followed by the Vietnam War and the Sexual Liberation movement, both of which shattered the short-lived unity both within and between denominations. Douthat lists five proximate causes for the crash of Christianity –

1. Political Polarization, especially over Vietnam, which fractured the Christian community into warring camps, each side identified closely with one political party or the other. This segmentation carried over into many other political issues, such as immigration, the nuclear freeze, and so on. Douthat writes –

“(These divisions) had mostly negative consequences for Christianity’s spiritual witness. Religious leaders took too many positions on too many issues, indulged in Manichean rhetoric that overheated public policy debates, and generally behaved like would-be legislators or party activists instead of men of God.”

2. The Sexual Revolution, which made two millennia of Christian moral teaching seem quaint. Christians who tried to defend traditional morality were cast as prudish bigots.

3. Globalization. The recent move against colonialism and the new independence of former colonies was sobering for the West, resulting in a profound sense of “colonial guilt.” Plus, new communications and transportation brought the rest of the world to America’s doorstep and fed an anti-bourgeois sentiment among American intellectuals.

4. Ever-growing wealth. Douthat writes, “… there is no escaping the Gospel’s critique of greed and acquisition, and an emphasis on renunciation and asceticism has always been part of both the theology and the practice of Christian orthodoxy.” This modesty was just plain inconvenient for people who were so enjoying their abundance. Plus, as a practical matter, it was harder to attract young people to religious vocations of self-sacrifice and poverty.

5. Class. Douthat is thinking here less of economic class and more of a class of intellectual elitism that saw religious faith as simply beneath them.

There were two big reactions to all of this. The liberal churches tried accommodation, while the conservative churches tried resistance.

Accommodation

Douthat spends a lot of time on this, but I don’t want to. It is all too bubble-headed for my taste. I’ll just quote a couple of passages from the book to give you the flavor.

He quotes from a 1984 article in the New York Review of Books by Thomas Sheehan –

“… the dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology, by Catholics themselves, is by now a fait accompli…. In Roman Catholic seminaries, for example, it is now common teaching that Jesus of Nazareth did not assert any of the divine or messianic claims the Gospels attribute to him and he died without believing he was Christ or the Son of God….”

Similar changes were going on in the “mainline” Protestant churches, which –

“…were providing a perfect test case for (the) theories of how religion ought to be preserved…. Women were being ordained, politics was given pride of place, sexual strictures were being downplayed, and traditional theology was being dismissed…. Protestants were selling exactly what the accommodationists claimed the public desperately wanted from religion, and nobody was buying it.”

The problem was that, by becoming just another faction in the social and political struggles of the time, liberal Christianity lost its unique qualities of transcendence, mystery and eternal truth –

“…. genuine mysticism ultimately depends on genuine belief, and it often seemed that all these efforts were just so much “play”… with little connection to actual conviction….  The more the accommodationists emptied Christianity of anything that might offend the sensibilities of a changing country, the more they lost any sense that what they were engaged in really mattered….”

As a result, even many of the reformers of the church left Christianity entirely, and the liberal churches continued to decline precipitously.

Resistance

While the accomodationists were losing membership, the traditionalists were growing. Most notable was the growing unity between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, prompted largely by the abortion issue.  This change of heart perhaps was best personified by Michael Novak, who Douthat describes as “the most progressive of progressive Catholics in the 1960s…. (who) by the Reagan era had become one the Church’s leading neoconservatives.” But this changing perspective was shared by the Pope himself, who as Joseph Ratzinger had been a pre-Vatican II reformer but, before being elevated to John Paul II, had already begun to reassert traditional Catholic dogma.

Similar recovery of traditional orthodoxy was taking place in Protestant circles with a widespread rejection of fundamental literalism in favor of returning to the understanding of theologians like Augustine and Calvin. Douthat writes that “By the 1990’s one could make a strong case that Evangelism had displaced the Mainline as the most important force in American Protestantism.”

Of course the American elite did not understand these developments. Douthat writes –

“By 1991, when the Washington Post earned itself eternal right-wing opprobrium by describing the Christian Coalition’s activists as “poor, uneducated, and easily led,” Evangelicals were actually better off and better educated than the American average.”

Interestingly, the political unity between Catholics and Evangelicals led to a cross fertilization of theology and worship as well. Protestants appreciated the intellectual and social witness aspect of Catholic tradition, and Catholics adopted some of the Evangelicals’ energy, emphasis on personal salvation, and commitment to missions and tithing.

But, as with all human institutions, there were problems as well. The sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic priesthood undermined much of the new fervor. And being too closely tied to the Bush presidency limited the appeal of Evangelicals —

“The urge to rally around “their” president robbed many conservative Christians of the capacity for prophetic witness and left them captive to a team player mentality that was fatal to religious credibility.”

The Evangelical-Catholic alliance had benefited from a backlash against the excesses of America’s cultural revolution, but its association with partisan causes inspired a backlash of its own.

Increasing numbers of people declined to identify with any church, even while they continued to have faith in some kind of deity and an afterlife. Despite atheistic attempt to claim the newly “unchurched,” –

“There was no materialist ideology capable of supplying the kind of holistic  account of human life that the great “isms” of the nineteenth and twentieth century had attempted to provide. Marxism and fascism had been ground into fertilizer by the wheels of history, and Freudianism was increasingly regarded as a superstition – or, at best, a kind of literary conceit – rather than a science. Darwinism supplied explanations but not meaning….”

Enter the new heresies Douthat spends the rest of the book on.

Gospel Revisionism

But first he takes a major detour into Gospel revisionism. This chapter alone is well worth the price of the book. It looks at many of the revisionist efforts including Thomas Jefferson’s desire to eliminate everything mystical about Jesus, to the Jesus Seminars, the Gnostic Gospels, the recent Dan Brown conspiracy theories, and so on. In a mere 30  pages he takes all of this and thoroughly debunks it. Here are a couple of examples, each on a different topic  –

“Understandably, few of the thinkers in the quest for a “real Jesus” want to admit that their journey backward through the Christian past dead-ends somewhere in the early second century, generations shy of Nazereth and Cavalry. But this refusal has led the whole project inexorably downward – from scholarship into speculation, and from history into conspiracy theory.”

“To say that these kinds of briefs are unpersuasive is to understate the case. They speak the language of the conspiratorial pamphlet, the paranoid chain e-mail – of the paperback thriller.”

“However superficially appealing, the idea that a religious tradition could be saved from crisis because a group of intellectuals radically reinterpreted its sacred texts is the kind of conceit that only, well, an intellectual could possibly believe.”

Three Heresies

Arising from all this are what Douthat identifies as three heresies:

  • The Prosperity Gospel, as personified by Joel Osteen.
  • The spiritual mysticism of Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love).
  • Christian nationalism, as personified by Glenn Beck.

To Douthat’s credit, he treats each movement fairly, describing the appeal and the intellectual grounding of each. In fact, this is where Douthat’s Christian witness shines through. He does not mock these developments, but understands the impulses behind them and treats the proponents with love. He regrets that Christian orthodoxy has not spoken to their spiritual needs, at least not yet.

I don’t want to go into great detail on his descriptions, but very briefly –

  • He acknowledges the essential prosperity message that “the things in this life are gifts from the creator,” but says it ignores the more demanding parts of the Gospel. He says it rushes to Easter without lingering at the foot of the cross. He says, “at its best, the prosperity Gospel can be well-meaning, openhanded, and personally empowering….” But it skips over ideas such as there is strength in weakness and defeat, or that we serve God best by serving others before ourselves.
  • Spiritual mysticism, what he calls “The God Within,” he says is probably the most widespread of any religion in America today, propounded by Oprah Winfrey, for one. It maintains that all religions have a glimpse of the truth, so you can pick and choose whatever suits you because ultimately God is everywhere, including inside you. The results of this thinking range from an ultimate narcissism of “God is inside me so I am God,” to what sociologists say is the most common form of belief among teenagers today – God wants people to be nice and will help you when you need it, the central goal is to be happy and feel good about yourself. Douthat is not unsympathetic to all this, noting that mysticism and a personal relationship with God has been an essential part of Christianity ever since the beginning.  But he also argues that a “feel good” religion fails to come to grips with evil, and that loving ourselves doesn’t necessarily lead to loving others. Ultimately, being your own God is a hollow, lonely existence.
  • Christian nationalism has a very long pedigree in America, according to Douthat, starting with John Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” to Lincoln’s finding divine justice in the Civil War, to Calvin Coolidge warning that in an age of prosperity “the things of the spirit must come first,” to Dwight Eisenhower call to “foster progress in human achievement” while rejecting blind utopianism. But in all these cases, the American experiment is not triumphant, but humble. In Winthrop’s warning, “if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw our present help from us….” Douthat agrees that God enters human history and that America is similar to Christianity in that it welcomes people from every race and tribe, provided they leave behind their old pagan or ethnic loyalties in favor of a new brotherhood.

But this common understanding has often morphed into two forms of heresy. One is messianic, believing that America has a God-given duty to right the wrongs of the world and create something resembling a New Jerusalem on earth. Woodrow Wilson (the most pious of all presidents) is the best example, but others have had their turns. The other form is apocalyptic, seeing America as a new Babylon that has betrayed the God of our founding.

The former can do great good, but even greater damage by getting us into wars and social experiments that don’t turn out well. The latter may be unpleasant but rarely has the power to actually do anything.  Douthat maintains that traditionally the messianic vision has been held by Democrats/liberals and the apocalyptic by Republican/conservatives, but that has changed recently as many liberals have adopted their own doomsday anxieties such as global warming, and many conservatives have been messianic in their quest to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far, so good, but then Douthat descends into political commentary about current issues and here his analysis is formed more by his own political views than by the objectivity of the rest of the book. He seems frustrated, for instance, that he can’t find many people who support both his pro-life and anti-waterboarding perspectives. So he, too, seems as warped by politics as much of the church is. Now it is time to wrap this up and discuss what happens next.

There is little doubt that the Christian church in America has become distracted by politics. It is why I left the PCUSA – it has become 90% leftist politics and only 10% about the Kingdom of God. I don’t need the church for political activism, I need it for helping me understand salvation.

Douthat recognizes this, but his remedies seem awfully thin. First, he reminds us that Christianity has been down in the dumps and on the verge of perishing many times before. He expects there will be another renewal in the near future. He lays out five possibilities of where the church goes now:

  • Postmodern opportunity. He seems to be saying here that the church should get more hip and more in touch with modern sensibilities, without sacrificing orthodox theology, but I can’t really say what any of that means.
  • The Benedict option, which seems to mean withdrawing from the world to restore fundamental teachings
  • Next Christendom, which is a recognition that Christianity is no longer a Western religion but is at its most vibrant in Asia and Africa.
  • Holistic moralism. Here he has some interesting things to say, especially about Christian attitudes toward homosexuality. He argues that we have become far too focused on that while overlooking the six other deadly sins. Plus we demand a standard of sexual behavior from homosexuals that we no longer demand from heterosexuals (such as chastity outside of marriage.) This is an important point, one that Dorothy Sayers also made in her writings.
  • Finally, a focus on sanctity and beauty. He bemoans that there are very few active Christians in the world of arts

As I say, this seems like a very weak ending for an otherwise powerful book. I think he is missing something much simpler and something that is already happening. That is that the institutional church should focus on spreading the Word of God and ministering to believers. Individual Christians can be as involved in politics (or any other secular activity) as they want to be, or as God calls them to be. They can form into non-church organizations to advance their causes. But the church itself should be like a filling station to support them spiritually as they go about their worldly work. That way you get the best of both worlds – a church that is holy and vibrant and a population of Christians who bear witness in all their activities.

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Responses

  1. Greg,

    Love your Flash Orchestra link, and agree wholeheartedly with you conclusion.

    It seems Douthat’s book is an examination of the Church from the outside. Like someone standing outside a great Cathedral and describing in great detail its architecture, and the changes time has brought to its facade, but never actually going inside and receiving its purpose.

    You have, I believe.

    I think your understanding of the purpose of the Church, while seemingly straight forward and simple, is dead on accurate and biblical. In this your critique of the PCUSA is correct. In my mind, it’s like it got so carried away with the birds nesting on its branches that it forgot it was a tree. And if you want a good tree, one that produces fruit and attracts all manner of birds on its branches, and shade to passer buys, you have to focus on feeding its roots.

    • Well, thank you very much, Jodie. That means a great deal to me. I pray you have a warm and wonderful Christmas, and I look forward to continuing our dialogue next year.
      Greg


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