Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Nation of Heretics?


Dear Parish Faithful,

“Man is homo religiosus, by “nature” religious:  As much as he needs food to eat and air to breathe, he needs a faith for living … But – and this is the challenging word of Jewish-Christian faith – so long as he pursues this quest in self-sufficiency, relying on his own virtue, wisdom, or piety, it will not be God that he finds, but an idol – the self, or some aspect of the self, writ large, projected, objectified, and worshiped.”  - Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew

“The confusion avenges itself and becomes its own punishment.  The forgetting of the true God is already itself the breaking loose of his wrath against those who forget Him.”  - Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

Those two quotations above serve as introductory passages to a new book that will certainly generate a good deal of debate and even “soul-searching” among Christians, at least.  The new book is entitled Bad Religion – How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  The author is Ross Douthat, described as an op-ed columnist for the New York Times; former senior editor of The Atlantic; and film critic for National Review. Mr. Douthat is also a believing Roman Catholic of a traditionalist bent, and a politically conservative thinker.  I have periodically shared some of his more religiously-oriented op-ed articles with the parish.  I began his new book as a summer reading project, and find his take on the history of the last half-century or so of Christianity in America  quite fascinating; his often dreary analysis of the American religious scene more than moderately  eye-opening; and his basic thesis a rather unflinching challenge to any myopic conceit as to just how “Christian” we now are as a nation.  That basic thesis is approached in the book’s Prologue, entitled, significantly, “A Nation of Heretics.”  A representative paragraph begins to make the point:

   “The United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well.  But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses.  These faiths speak from many pulpits – conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual” – and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant.  But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.”  (p. 4)

Douthat follows this with a pithy paragraph that begins to explore some of the tensions, polarizations and bewildering “choices” of American Christianity that will be one of his major areas of analysis as the book progresses:

   “In this America, the ancient Christian teaching that the Scriptures are simultaneously divinely inspired and open to multiple interpretations has become an either/or choice instead.  You’re either a rigid fundamentalist who believes that dinosaurs just missed hitching a ride on Noah’s Ark, or a self-consciously progressive believer for whom the Bible is a kind of refrigerator magnet poetry, awaiting rearrangement by more enlightened minds.  As a result, the Jesus of the New Testament, whose paradoxical mix of qualities and commandments presents a challenge to every ideology and faction, has been replaced in the hearts and minds of many Americans with a more congenial figure – a “choose your own Jesus” who better fits their own preconceptions about what a savior should and shouldn’t be."  (p. 4-5)

A bit more scathingly, we hear the following critique of what can at times be a near-fatal mixture of Christianity and the modern American ethos:

   “Likewise, in this America the traditional Christian attempt to balance the belief that God desires human happiness with the reality of human suffering has been transformed into the simpler teaching that God wants everyone to get rich – that your house or car or high-paying job was intended for you from before the foundation of the world, and that the test of true faith is the rewards that it reaps for believers here on earth.  This result is a country where religion actively encourages the sort of recklessness that produces our current economic meltdown, rather than serving as a brake on materialism and a rebuke to avarice.  (p. 5)
   “This cannot but deeply influence our understanding of that fluid and mysterious entity we call the 'self':

   “In this America, too, the Christian teaching that every human soul is unique and precious has been stressed, by the prophets of self-fulfillment and gurus of self-love, at the expense of the equally important teaching that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin.  Absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins.  The result is a society where pride becomes 'healthy self-esteem', vanity becomes 'self-improvement', adultery becomes 'following your heart', greed and gluttony become 'living the American dream'.”  (p. 5)

And then we come to the book’s thesis stated succinctly and bluntly:

   “This is the real story of religion in America.  For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is:  not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.”  (p. 6)

Just for the record  – I agree!

For those who come from the historical Christian faiths rooted in the Scriptures, the ancient liturgies and the writings of the Fathers, America has always bred its share of heretics, from early Deism to the transcendentalism of Emerson; from Mormonism to Christian Science and Scientology.  Douthat recognizes and acknowledges all of that by writing, “Pushing Christianity to one extreme of another is what Americans have always done.  We’ve been making idols of our country, our pocketbooks, and our sacred selves for hundreds of years.”  But he persists in his over-all thesis with an early conclusion:  “What’s changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response”  (p. 8, emphasis added).

From there, we come to Part I:  Christianity in Crisis.  The four chapters of this first part outline this crisis:  “The Lost World;” “The Locust Years;” “Accommodation;” and “Resistance.”  Here is where Douthat gives a basic overview of how Christianity has collapsed from an early post-war renaissance, inspired by four major figures of the era – Reinhold Niebhur, Billy Graham, Cardinal Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King Jr. – to its present malaise of lacking any orthodox foundation and being polarized in a stalemate between “conservatives” and “liberals.”  But at its best, Douthat believes and argues that there existed at least a basic “consensus,” a basic orthodoxy that Christians for the most part agreed upon and practiced.  A couple of paragraphs outlining this consensus is something that we as Orthodox Christians would gladly embrace:

   “What defines this consensus, above all – what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta – is a commitment to mystery and paradox.  Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.

   “Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil.  They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew.  They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament God of love and mercy.  They claim that this God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin.  They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead.  And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God’s Kingdom for all the extremes of human life – fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.”  (p. 10)

That is what we, as members of the Orthodox Church, have to offer to American society and to the world.  Sadly, there is no mention or reference to Orthodox Christianity in what is proving to be a fairly comprehensive overview of Christianity in America.  That is a defect, small and demographically unimpressive that we may be to this day.  Be that as it may, this is proving to be a very provocative and challenging book (I just completed Part I).  I hope to offer a sketch of Part II once I get into or through it.  The Conclusion promises to be positive, as it is entitled “The Recovery of Christianity.” But I would imagine that that will be a daunting task after a convincing argument that we are a “nation of heretics.”  Yet, we remember the words of Christ:  With God, all things are possible!

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