How We Became
A Nation Of Heretics
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In recent years, in our academic world, we have heard about the Post-Modern Age. While our understanding of this mindset is still a bit hazy, the evidence is clear that many things have changed. Traditional moral values have been relativized and many of our cultural absolutes have vanished. The old standards have been questioned. How has all of this played out in our mainline Christian churches?
In Bad Religion, Ross Douthat chronicles the advance of the Post-Modern Age in the heartland of Christian America. Mr. Douthat, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, is a devout Catholic. His main thesis is that the central drive of our age is not toward an absolute nihilism, nor toward an outright atheism, but toward a new religion, a pseudo-Christianity that "inflates our egos, indulges our follies and encourages our worst impulses." In other words, a bad religion.
For those of us who are old enough to remember, our author offers an interesting historical run-through from the halcyon days of the 1950s to our present muddle. In the post-war days of the ′50s, traditional Christianity really mattered. There might have been tensions between denominations, but there was also dialogue and consensus on many essentials; e.g., on the inspiration of the Bible, original sin, the Incarnation; a final judgment. The seminaries, both Catholic and Protestant, were full. In Catholic America, there were 60,000 priests and 180,000 nuns or sisters. The call of Communism was rejected by all mainline churches. Parochial schools flourished. Reinhold Niebuhr was holding forth in Union Theological; Billy Graham was able to fill Yankee Stadium; even Hollywood was friendly. Bing Crosby became Father Chuck O’Malley. In Selma, black preachers and white ministers were shoulder-to-shoulder for a noble cause. Msgr. Fulton Sheen had a large TV audience and a syndicated column in many newspapers. "Individually and intellectually, American Christianity at mid-century offered believers a secure position from which to engage with society at large." Then came what Mr. Douthat calls "The Locust Years." The credal essentials were challenged.
In the 1970s, the train went off the track. In some cases, religion was rejected in outright terms, in favor of atheism or a stubborn agnosticism. But, for the most part, religion was not abandoned. It was transformed in radical ways. The name of Jesus was not forgotten, but his very identity was changed. Our pseudo-historians went back to the early centuries and found Gnostic texts that refashioned both the person and the message of the Lord. And all of this was announced in books which sold in the millions.
Scholars began the search for "the real Jesus." Elaine Pagels specializes in the newly discovered Nag Hammadi Codex and Jesus became a Gnostic savant. John Dominic Crossen, a former priest, denied the reality of the Resurrection, and Jesus became a simple Jewish peasant. Karen Armstrong, a former British nun, became a renowned historian of world religions and insists that all religions are the same before an unknown God. She wants a theology that is liberal, scientific and less dogmatic. In The American Religion (1993), Harold Bloom, a self-proclaimed Gnostic, insisted that "the Self is already of God." We soon came to a creed that is "spiritual but not religious" – "the God within." Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle were given a platform via Oprah Winfrey’s media empire. Our author claims that Oprah Winfrey is "arguably the greatest popularizer of the God within theology." And then there was Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code, which sold in the millions. Jesus was the ancestor of French kings.
Meanwhile, in mainline traditional Protestantism, the numbers were falling. The pews often were empty and seminary enrollment fell, as did missionary work abroad. The Roman Catholic crisis was no less striking. Mass attendance plummeted from 70 percent to 50 percent in just 10 years. The seminaries were almost empty. Traditional devotions began to disappear among the young. The reform of the Second Vatican Council was debated.
In all of this, Mr. Douthat warns, we must be mindful of many tensions in concerns other than theological. To put our story in a larger framework, we might list the sexual revolution, abortion, radical women’s liberation, the economy, homosexual marriage, divorce and the newly discovered appeal of the Asian traditions; e.g., yoga, Buddhism. In many of these areas, there would be a call for more permissive and less dogmatic attitudes. And our theological traditions would be seen as obstacles to scientific progress and to the new permissiveness.
Mr. Douthat now asks: How should our mainline churches respond to the challenge? In very general terms, there are two options: accommodation and resistance. He then warns us of the dangers of a rapid accommodation, which can easily slide into a secular mess. He speaks of Harvey Cox (The Secular City) and the Episcopal bishop, James Pike, who ended by denying both the Trinity and the Nicene Creed. Bishop John Spong ended by denying that God is personal. On the Catholic side, the quicker that religious orders secularized, the sooner vocations diminished and some members disbanded. Among women religious, the more traditional orders had five times as many novices as did the more accommodating and "progressive" orders which focused on social action.
In the end, Mr. Douthat will recommend a cautious use of resistance. Mainline churches must work together, but never deny their separate traditions. Above all else, we can see our present situation in terms of opportunity. We can point out to the modern skeptic the emptiness and the hopelessness of his dark and depressing vision. Our author recalls the thought of G.K. Chesterton, who spoke of five major crises in Church history. "Each time," said G.K.C., "it seemed that the Church had gone to the dogs... but, each time, it was the dog that died." For the Christian faithful today, there should be periods of withdrawal, consolidation and purification. We must "live apart," but avoid the paranoia and the aloofness of a rigid fundamentalism. We can think of the "Benedictine option," named for the saint of late antiquity who withdrew from a declining world, but, in the end, made Europe Christian. The apologist must point to joy and soften legalism. But, he or she must remind the world that orthodoxy demands discipline. And a very permissive society will dig its own grave.
is a good read on two counts. First, it is highly relevant. Sociologists tell us that, in our time, Christian orthodoxy has met its supreme antagonist in Post-Modern thought. In the second place, the author puts our problems in their historical context. While his proposed solutions may not be very clear, we now have a map, telling where we are and how we got here in the first place. It has been a fascinating story and Mr. Douthat is a good storyteller. The tangled items of modern history come together. Mr. Douthat captures the spirit of our troubled Post-Modern Age.
Father Ronan Callahan is a Passionist priest who taught for over two decades at Catholic universities in the Philippines, and does so currently at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell. A highly respected scholar of encyclopedic interests, his doctorate was acquired at Rome’s Angelicum (The University of St. Thomas). The
Transcript is privileged to occasionally publish his book reviews.