Recovering Christianity

 

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

By Ross Douthat

Free Press, 2012, (337 pages).

 

This is an impressive book, especially coming, as it does, from a journalist born only thirty-three years ago. Ross Douthat, presently a columnist for the New York Times, was baptized as an Episcopalian and after having associated himself with pentecostalism for a brief period, eventually became a Roman Catholic at age seventeen. From that he went on to graduate from Harvard and had even become a senior (??) editor at The Atlantic before he left that publication in 2009. He continues to be seen, by his critics at least, as something of a conservative, both in his religious views and political orientation. This being said for the record, now let us turn to his book.

        It is something of a shame that this book has been given the title that it has, especially inasmuch as its conclusion, “The Recovery of Christianity”, ends on a much more upbeat note. Having dealt with publishers myself, I realize the authors do not always end up having their books titled as they may think they should. In this era of books slamming religion, I suspect that the editors at the Free Press may be felt that a book about “bad religion” and featuring the pejorative term “heretic” would attract more readers than one suggesting how religion might be improved.

        Nevertheless, this book does spend a lot of time tracing the history of American religion during the past century or so, particularity its doctrinal, social, and political aberrations and the consequences these have for society as well as for the churches themselves. The reference points are basically two: the first follows the lead of England’s most famous Catholic apologist, G. K. Chesterton, that orthodoxy must be understood as that delicate balance — or one might call it that coincidence of opposites (e.g., God as both one and three, Christ as both divine and human, humanity as both fallen and redeemed) — that characterize the traditional Christian belief system. The second is a time-reference: what Douthat considers to have been the high point or heyday of American Christianity in the 1950s and carried on into the early 1960s. This was when new churches could not be built fast enough to accommodate all the churchgoers, Christian schools and seminaries were bursting at the seams, and people like theologian Rinehold Niebuhr, lecturer Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, preacher Billy Graham, and a social reformer like Martin Luther King Jr. all commanded the attention — if not always the agreement — of vast portions of the American public, even from outside their own churches.

        So what went wrong?  In Douthat’s estimation, five things in particular happened that marked the beginning of the decline that we now see.  First was the debilitating effect of the Vietnam war and its aftermath which shattered the mood American optimism that followed the winning of the Second World War.  In this same period of disillusionment also came the assassinations of King and both the Kennedys, followed by still more war and Watergate.

        Next on Douthat’s list has been the sexual revolution and especially the advent of “the pill” which, at least to Douthat’s thinking, has effectively severed sexuality from reproduction and all the consequences and responsibilities it entails. In its wake has come soaring divorce rates, an intensification of the “me-first” mentality, and the general abandonment of Christian ethical standards.

        Third is globalization, not so much in the economic order, what rather in the cultural realm, which in the author’s mind amounts to a relativizing of values where one culture, as well as its religious traditions, is seen as being as good as any other, at least within its own context.  Add to this, as Douthat goes out of his way to do, the accommodations to the modern world that liberal scholars and the clergy trained by them were all too ready to make, accommodations that questioned the veracity of the Scriptures or anything else that once gave Christianity the confidence that it possessed the ultimate truth. The result has been not so much loss of all belief, but as G. K. Chesterton once predicted, a readiness to believe anything.

        The fourth plague on Douthat’s list is materialism, not so much in the scientific or even philosophic sense, but in the cultural sense that has placed economic prosperity at the summit of the human value scale.  The Christian ideals of economic and social justice, with an emphasis on provision for a decent life for all  human beings has been largely replaced by dog-eat-dog mentality when it comes to America’s economic life.

        All this in turn has gradually led to the political polarization of America, not just between Democrats and Republicans, but even within the political parties themselves.  And not only that, to some extent this polarization also spread within the churches, or at least the churches which have otherwise attempted to remain faithful the Catholic ideal of being inclusive of all persons, regardless of their ethnicity, social background, or economic status.  The result of this has been that even the churches have lost a good deal of their political clout.

        No doubt many will find the above summary of causes far too simplistic and in fairness I must emphasize that the above summary is only taken from one chapter of Douthat’s book, one (titled “The Locust Years”) which serves as an introduction to a much more detailed development of most of these arguments. Nevertheless, detailed criticisms can be made, I think, even at this point.

        One of these, by Michael Sean Winters, was recently published by The New Republic. In addition to an number of inaccuracies — such as Douthat’s statement that Pope Pius XII’s encyclical had condemned American theologian John Courtney Murray whose championing of religious freedom was later vindicated by Vatican II (which it was) — Winter accuses Douthat of having capitulated to papal biographer George Weigel’s portrayal the late John Paul II as something of an apostle of free enterprise and to Catholic sociologist Michael Novak’s attempted shotgun marriage of Catholic social teaching to “the spirit of democratic capitalism.”  Accordingly, The New Republic gave Douthat a chance to respond, which he has. However, I would add that without detailing Winter’s other charges, that in this book, Douthat was only commending Novack’s effort effort to find a middle ground or accommodation between Catholic social teachings and the free market, and that Douthat nevertheless did not hesitate to quote the latest papal opinion on the subject, that of Benedict XVI, who in 2006 said — and here I’m quoting the pope within a quote from Douthat’s book — “ ‘democratic socialism was and is close[r] to Catholic social doctrine’ than the Anglo-Saxon capitalist alternative.” (p.199).  Be that as it may, I would suggest that the real disparity is not so much over the goals to be achieved as over the best means to achieve them. 

        Douthat’s sixth chapter on “Pray and Grow Rich” is as devastating a critique of the crassness of much of contemporary American religion and it accommodation to contemporary materialism as one might ever wish for. Likewise, his chapter (seven) on “the God Within” is an entertaining spoof on New Age spirituality, while his eighth chapter (“The City on the Hill”) is a very trenchant and balanced critique of American civil religion and the belief in American exceptionalism.

        Speaking for myself, I would say that if, as a theologian, I have any reservations about the accuracy of this book, it would only be in a few minor details, for example, in Chapter Two on “The Locust Years” — those same years that Douthat sees all those problems starting. Here I find Douthat’s treatment of the thought of the Jesuit paleontologist and evolutionary thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin a bit wanting. Douthat admits that “de Chardin” (sic) had a considerable influence on the Second Vatican Council, especially in its final major document on “The Church in the Modern World”. In the few pages that he gives to that subject, Douthat (in addition to getting Teilhard’s last name wrong) seems to have the usual everyday-in-every-way-things-are-getting-better-and-better misinterpretation of Teilhard’s thought.  But again, I consider that, as flaws go, rather minor.  

        Much more telling I think, is Douthat’s failure to address or even mention the problem of orthodoxy as it affects the Church internally and remains a major cause of the divisions within Christianity. This the problem of finding a balance between the monarchial vs. collegial understanding of the Church — raised and still largely unresolved by the Council’s most important document, its “Constitution on the Church” and which will have to be the first problem to be taken up again at any future ecumenical council.

        I would add that Douthat also got it wrong when he suggests that the liturgical reform implemented by the council looked back to the Middle Ages for their inspiration.  Quite the contrary, it determinedly set aside medieval ceremonial accretions to try to return to the simplicity of ancient Christian worship.

        However, my most serious criticism of the book is of Douthat’s concept of “heresy” vs. “orthodoxy”.  While I agree with the observation that most heresies are the result not of ill-will but of a misguided attempt to simplify or eliminate the paradoxes of Christian belief, that is, to resolve the central mysteries of the Christian faith with strictly rationalistic alternatives, I nevertheless have reservations about insisting that rigid adherence to the traditional creeds of Christianity is the solution.  After having spent the better part of three years just writing a small book on the subject and getting an imprimatur for its publication (Breaking Open the Creeds: What Can They Mean for Christian Today? Paulist Press, 2010), I think I can say that as useful and maybe even as necessary as they have been for Christianity in the past, they are proving increasingly an obstacle to the understanding, acceptance, and practice of Christianity today.

        I say this because the creeds as we have them are not just simply a list of beliefs, but are to some extent theological statements.  This is most evident in the Nicene Creed which expanded upon the more primitive baptismal profession of faith (generally known today as the “Apostles’ Creed”).   Where the earlier creed was content to proclaim Jesus Christ to be God’s “only Son”, the later creed specifies him as “God from true God, Light from true Light, consubstantial (homoousios in Greek) with the Father” and so on.  Here is where theology — which, according to St. Augustine, is “faith seeking understanding” ends up depending on philosophy for its conceptual framework and the vocabulary that expresses it.  So far so good – at least if one is a philosopher or historian of philosophy.  If not, then one is left wondering what “substantia” or “ousia” can possibly mean in this context.  And here even the philosophers, especially philosophers of science, are left wondering.   This is because every philosophy assumes or is even built upon, whether explicitly or implicitly, upon a cosmology or world-view.  Thus creedal statements expressed in the language of a first century worldview — with Jesus “descending” into hell (Apostles’ Creed) and then “ascending” into heaven (Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) can only be written off as misleading at worst and figurative at best.  And as for the “homoousios” or “consubstantial” statement, even it had to be counterbalanced by still another “homoousios” statement by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 to make sure that Christians still believed that Jesus was truly a human being as well as divine — a statement that for some reason or other has never been added to balance the Nicene formula. All the while, beginning with Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin, we have gone through at least three or four cosmological or other scientific revolutions.   

        So much for trying to preserve orthodoxy and avoid heresy by adherence creedal statements alone. All this suggests that the final chapter or conclusion of Douthat’s book is maybe closer to finding a formula for the renewal for Christianity in movements called “radical orthodoxy” and “the emergent church”. 

        The first is a movement among some contemporary theologians appealing to the deconstructionist philosophy of the post-modern period to go back again to God as the bedrock of belief and start reconstructing Christianity all over again.  The second exists on a more popular level, and, as Douthat describes it, “tries to answer the deracination of contemporary life with a faith that meets seekers where they are in conversation rather than in Sunday preaching, in house churches and small groups rather than in archdioceses and megachurches, in prayer and in storytelling rather than explicit apologetics.” Then he goes on to write: “In different ways, both of these movements are attempting to rebuild Christianity from the ground up — bypassing failing institutions, avoiding culture-war flashpoints, and casting faith as a lifeline for an exhausted civilization rather than just a return to the glories of the past.” (p. 279).

        But here I think we run into a bit of a disconnect in Douthat’s logic. While he may have berated the modern scripture scholars (the so-called “Jesus questers”) for destroying the Christ built up by centuries of faith (see chapter five on “Lost in the Gospels”) he seems to be at the same time forgetful or unaware of the serious biblical scholars who have been trying to rebuild it.  In this regard it is noteworthy that Douthat totally ignores such scholars as the likes of the Catholic Joseph P. Meier (four dense volumes so-far on Jesus as A Marginal Jew) and the Anglican N. T. Wright, whose own views, which take into account those of Albert Schweitzer — in his time considered a radical in his own right — have not barred him from being made a bishop in the Church of England. 

        Nevertheless, on page 287, Douthat returns to C. S. Lewis’s description of “mere Christianity” as a “hallway” whose doors open up into other rooms (the established churches) and then quotes Lewis’s description of the hall is a being “place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.” But what if all those other rooms are in disarray, dysfunctional, or so cluttered with useless trash that they are no long a place fit to live in? This, it seems to me, is the situation facing many contemporary believer, or would-be believers and which institutional Christianity in almost any form you can think of, is failing to address.

        This also suggests to me that we, and perhaps Douthat as well, have the meaning of “orthodoxy” wrong to begin with. After all, doxa first of all means praise or worship, and only secondarily became understood to mean doctrine or belief.  Obviously, in the ancient world, if you worshiped a false god or gods, your doxa was not ortho, and thus misguided or wrong and you were committing the sin of idolatry.  Perhaps then the real problem is that even if we haven’t committed idolatry we have been engaged in not a little “ecclesiolatry” or worship of the institution.   If so, then it seems to me that if we are to follow Douthat’s final advice, and to “Seek first the kingdom of God…” that is convert and to seek to become saints, then to return to all our inherited and time-encrusted traditions may sound nice or like a good idea but is altogether secondary.

        And for Catholics in particular, Douthat’s advice may be especially confusing.  At Vatican II we thought that at least in regard to the Liturgy or worship carried on in the Church we had already done that by returning to our origins. We were also taught that the whole Church, not just the hierarchy or the clergy, is “the People of God”, and that our mission together was to reach out and to be open to all persons of good will with the good news of their redemption. From that point on we were urged to move boldly into the future. Now what we seem to be getting instead is a rerun of the past and a return to all that baggage that came before that.

       

 

A final thought by way of a “postscript”.  Early on while reading this book, particularly one reviewing history, especially the history of ones own lifetime, I was struck by the thought that, despite how much we may think of ourselves as independent and rational thinkers, how easily we fall into or are even dominated by the thought patterns of any particular era.  It is as if we are all caught up in the ambience of a particular zeitgeist, whether it be liberal, conservative, revolutionary, reactionary, or whatever.  If so, then I suppose we have to ask the question as to what extent this also affects the writer, especially when he is too young to have himself lived through all these periods.  But on the other hand, I suppose I have to ask myself the same question of myself, the reviewer, when I realize that I am now old enough to have lived through most of them!

 

                                                                                        RWK  7/3/12