I recently finished Ross Douthat‘s excellent book, Bad Religion, which sets out the thesis that the problem with religion in America is not that it is too Christian or not Christian enough, but rather that religion has been degraded into a bunch of pseudo-christianities which are made to serve our egos and political preferences (whether they be right or left). He gives a history which sketches out how American culture morphed from one where Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain could be a national best-seller to, well, Eat, Pray, Love.
Near the end of the book, Douthat suggests four possible sources for a renewal of orthodox Christianity’s cultural importance, two of which I want to look at a bit:
The first is what he calls the “postmodern opportunity”. While it is usually bemoaned by traditionalists that the intelligentsia these days has gone head over heels into a sort of epistemic nihilism, their deconstruction of the Enlightenment and modernity as ideology could be used as an opportunity to present Christianity as both the ultimate subversion and one true foundation:
In scholarly circles, this hope [the postmodern opportunity] is often associated with the theology known as “radical orthodoxy.” which seeks to use the architecture of post-modern theory – of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida and their various epigones – to make the case for Christianity afresh. Like Paul preaching to the sophisticates of Athens, these theologians present Jesus Christ’s selfless love as the answer to postmodernism’s obsession with power, and God as the bedrock that remains when wevery merely human foundation has been deconstructed. (Douthat, Ross. Bad Religion. New York: Free Press, 2012. Pg. 279)
Using cultural and intellectual analogues as a means of explaining Christian doctrine to the pagans is certainly an evangelical tool that goes all the way back to the New Testament (remember, especially, the opening of John). Douthat goes on to note that this is not without its dangers: one has to be careful not to shift from the usage of various social and intellectual trends to adapting dogma to fit it.
I’m reminded a bit of Emmanuel Levinas, an Orthodox Jew who used the language of phenomenology to give a vision of ethics which resists politicization and historicism in favor of a timeless and ultimately religious understanding of our relationships with each other. Now, since Levinas’ philosophical books (as opposed to his essays on Judaism and the Talmud) aren’t interested in setting out and explicating and particular dogmas of revealed religion, it has been easy for secular readers to take his ethical views on the “Other” and ignore how it relates to religion, but he remains an odd figure of religious traditionalism in a tradition which is largely populated by atheists.
Being an ex-undergraduate who has had a decent amount of exposure to continental philosophy, and who was first moved to view Christianity sympathetically by reading Kierkegaard, I’ve absorbed enough of the pomo atmosphere to find the idea of explicating the sacramental view of life in this manner a bit appealing. While the Summa Theologica still remains the definitive attempt to use the tools of philosophy to understand Christian doctrine, the dryness and highly technical nature of Scholasticism can be off-putting to those who are already primed to view it all as a bunch of post hoc rationalizations.
Anyway, the second source is the “Benedict option” (as in St. Benedict, not Pope Benedict XVI). This method is to allow Christianity to shrink down to the core of faithful who are very serious about living their faith, holding onto dogma and preserving their liturgy, and allowing their witness to be an inspiration for others to take an interest in their way of life:
There are various models for such a mustard seed strategy. The community of Latin Mass Catholics, which has recently been given encouragement and support from Rome, has long sought to sustain a purer church within the Church – one that’s more liturgically rich and doctrinally rigorous than the American norm, and less compromised by Catholicism’s current disarray. The “neo-Anabaptist” movement in Protestantism, associated with figures like the Duke Divinity School theologian Stanley Hauerwas, envisions Christianity as a kind of parallel culture – pacifist, apolitical, and ascetic – within the decadent American imperium. (ibid. Pgs. 280-281)
It’s pretty similar to the solution that Alasdair MacIntyre suggests at the end of After Virtue. And as someone who has been dipping his toe into the trad Catholic pool, this also has a big appeal for me, though Douthat again brings up a couple of serious problems that can come up: first, there is the danger of things developing into the sort of paranoid bunker mentality found amongst the fundamentalists, and secondly, it seems to turn a cold shoulder to all those Christians who have fallen into complacency; sacrificing them to the secular mainstream when they should be healed and reinvigorated. As Douthat hearteningly reminds us, “the undercatechized Catholic and the Oprafied Protestant are still only a good confession or an altar call away from a more authentic Christian life.” (ibid. Pg. 282)
While I tend to have a pessimistic mood about the present state of things, it’s worthwhile to have a reminder that, as MacIntyre put it somewhere, pessimism is a luxury we may not be able to afford.
In any event, read the man’s book.