Friday, April 27, 2012

Bad Religion

The late Tony Judt (1948-2010) was in many ways an archetypical European intellectual, with all the baggage - positive and negative - that goes with that. All the more interesting, therefore, was his observation - in his final book (composed with Timothy Syder), Thinking the Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2012) - that "the best people to ask about what's really going on are usually not the intellectuals but the journalists" (p. 298). So perhaps it is no surprise that what I think is one of the better books recently written on the state of American religion is not by a theologian or religion scholar but by a journalist - New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012). No disinterested observer himself, Douthat serves up a rigorous analysis of the contemporary American Christian landscape and offers advice to both believers and their institutions.

Before he gets to analyze our contemporary "heresies," however, the first half of Douthat's book summarizes how we got to where we are today. It's a familiar story - familiar certainly to those of us old enough to have lived through it or historically aware enough to appreciate how our past was different from our present. It's the familiar story of a "Lost World" of confident, evangelizing, post-war American Christianity and its largely self-inflicted decline. Douthat's "The Lost World" examines four successful strains of post-war American Christian experience - Mainline Protestantism (personified by Reinhold Niebuhr), Evangelical Christianity (represented by Billy Graham), Roman Catholicism (exemplified by Fulton Sheen), and African-American Christianity (de-marginalized by Martin Luther King, Jr.). From there, the familiar trajectory is traced, as most major American Church groups suddenly stopped growing and entered a period of unprecedented decline (as they frantically aspired to remain relevant by accommodating to the culture they were meant to convert). Thus, even while popular interest in the things that religion had traditonally been about continued, religious institutions seemed to abandon their role - with predictable consequences for both religion and society. Douthat lauds the Evangelical-Roman Catholic rapprochement which resulted as a creative reaction to these devleopments, but also highlights the pitfalls: "all the ecumenical cooperation in the world wasn't a substitute for vigor on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide." Whereas "both the Protestant Mainline and the Catholic Church were strong cultures in 1950s America - capable of making their presence felt in the commanding heights of American life," today's "mainline has drifted to the sidelines of American life, Catholicism's cultural capital has been reduced by decades of civil war, and Evangelicalism still has the air of an embattled subculture rather than the confidence of an ascendent force."

In the second part, Douthat discusses four "heresies" that have come to dominate contemporary American culture and America's still ostensibly Christian religion: "heresies" he calls "Lost in the Gospels" (a fashion for finding a "real" Jesus prior to and apart from the historical Church), "Pray and Grow Rich" (an uncritical reconciliation of Christianity with prosperity), "the God Within" (a pyschologized, self-absorbed religiosity, what Philip Rieff famously warned against in his 1966 classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic), and finally "The City on the Hill" (our contemporary - on both sides - uncritical reduction of religion to political ideology). What all these "heresies" have in common - the goal of all heresies, according to Douthat - is "to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus," in contrast to Christian orthodoxy's "fidelity to the whole of Jesus."

Douthat identifies "four potential touchstones for a recovery of Christianity, each of which has both possibilities and limitations. The four are "the postmodern opportunity" (the possibility of confronting globalized rootlessness, widespread skepticism, and religious relativism as the Church has successfully confronted such forces in its past), "the Benedict option" (a limited withdrawal from engagement with the world on the model of St. Benedict's monastic response to the Roman Empire's collapse), "the New Chrsitendom" (the growth of Third World Christianity and its impact on the American Church through immigration and missionary activity), and, finally, "an age of diminished expectations" (a crisis-induced reassessment "that's willing to reckon with the ways that bad theology and bad religion have helped bring us to our present pass").

Douthat concludes with an exhortation to the kind of individual and communal faith that can animate what he calls "a Christian renaissance." The first is a faith that is "political without being partisan," which frees Christians to embrace different political positions, while being open to the Gospel's challenge to every ideology. He recalls how not that long ago "America's leading Evangelical politician was the antiwar environmentalist Republican Mark Hatfield, and one of its leading Catholic officeholders was the pro-life Democrat Sargent Shriver. Secondly, "a renewed Christianity should be ecumenical but also confessional" and offers Timothy Keller (The Reason for God, 2008) as a model. Thirdly, "a renewed Christianity should be moralistic but also holisitic." By this he means not downplaying Christianity's moral demands in the area of sexuality but also not acting as if there were only one, rather than seven, deadly sins - and not exclusively emphasizing "minority" cases (e.g., homosexuality) while neglecting, for example, "the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate."

Finally, Douthat insists, "a renewed Christianity should be oriented toward sanctity and beauty." He concludes: "Only sanctity can justify Christianity's existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world. ... To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived - not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself."

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