Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 106 (October 2000): 81-104.
The idea that religion is the heart of culture and culture is the form of religion has been proposed in various ways by Christian thinkers over the years, and there is, I believe, a great deal to it. The danger, of course, is that it can lead to a smooth synthesis of religion and culture that typically ends up making religion superfluous. This was the case with the cultural Protestantism in Germany against which Karl Barth so magnificently posited his theological “Nein!” And it is, mutatis mutandis, the case with mainline/oldline Protestantism in this country today. It is a phenomenon that has been with us for a long time, as I was reminded upon having occasion to go back to George Henry Lewes’ The Life of Goethe, a book first published in 1855 that has gone through many editions.
Lewes, who was the common–law husband of novelist George Eliot for many years, is justly criticized for being too preoccupied with the young Goethe of Werther and the Sturm und Drang period, but his biography reveals, however inadvertently, a cultural optimism that could safely accommodate such melodramatics. The world was finally a good and solid place. As a child, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s doubts about conventional religion were raised when, during a terrible thunderstorm, he and his sister were dragged into a dark passage “where the whole household, distracted with fear, tried to conciliate the angry Deity by frightful groans and prayers.” Lewes writes: “Many children are thus made skeptics; but in a deeply reflective mind such thoughts never long abide, at least not under the influences of modern culture, which teaches that Evil is essentially a narrow finite thing, thrown into obscurity on any comprehensive view of the Universe; and that the amount of evil massed together from every quarter must be held as small compared with the broad beneficence of Nature.” Such complacence may be harder to maintain a century and a half later, but it is hardly rare today, even among those who are thought to have deeply reflective minds.
The month of Goethe’s birth, August 1749, Lewes writes, “was a momentous month to Germany, if only because it gave birth to the man whose influence on his nation has been greater than that of any man since Luther. . . . It was the middle of the eighteenth century: a period when the movement which had culminated in Luther was passing from religion to politics, and freedom of thought was translating itself into liberty of action. From theology the movement had communicated itself to philosophy, morals, and politics. The agitation was still mainly in the higher classes, but it was gradually descending to the lower. A period of deep unrest: big with events which would expand the conceptions of all men, and bewilder some of the wisest.” Lewes’ view of history in 1855 is at one with the standard account still to be found in many textbooks. “And was not the struggle of the whole eighteenth century a struggle for the recognition of individual worth, of Rights against Privileges, of Liberty against Tradition? Such also was the struggle of the sixteenth century. The Reformation was to Religion what the [French] Revolution was to Politics: a stand against the tyranny of Tradition—a battle for the rights of individual liberty of thought and action, against the absolute prescriptions of privileged classes.”
In this understanding, Luther’s legendary “quest for a gracious God” is turned on its head. It is possible to unite even Luther and Spinoza in the cause of individual liberation. Of Spinoza, Goethe wrote that he “seemed to unveil a clear, broad view over the material and moral world. But what especially riveted me to him was the boundless disinterestedness which shone forth in every sentence. That wonderful sentiment, ‘He who truly loves God must not require God to love him in return’ . . . filled my mind.” Goethe was, says Lewes, boundlessly indifferent to this sect or that but nothing “could rob him of his love for the Holy Scriptures and for the Founder of Christianity. He therefore wrought out for his own private use a Christianity of his own.” How very modern; or, as moderns are given to saying today, how very postmodern.
“The old faith,” writes Lewes, “which for so long had made European life an organic unity, and which in its tottering weakness had received a mortal blow from Luther, was no longer universal, living, active, dominant; its place of universal directing power was vacant; a new faith had not arisen.” But a new faith was waiting to be born. Of the Weimar of his own day, Lewes writes: “The theologic fire has long burnt itself out in Thuringia. In Weimar, where Luther preached, another preacher came, whom we know as Goethe. In the old church there is one portrait of Luther, painted by his friend Lucas Kranach, greatly prized, as well it may be; but for this one portrait of Luther, there are a hundred of Goethe. It is not Luther, but Goethe, they think of here; poetry, not theology, is the glory of Weimar. And, corresponding with this, we find the dominant characteristic of the place to be no magnificent church, no picturesque ancient buildings, no visible image of the earlier ages, but the sweet serenity of a lovely park.” Lewes goes on to describe in detail Weimar’s park, designed by Goethe, as the metaphor of modernity’s achievement of sweet serenity.
References to Weimar today conjure very different images, images of anything but sweet serenity. The telling of the history of progress from Luther’s rebellion to Goethe’s well–designed park appears ludicrous today and rests, not incidentally, upon a caricature of Luther. The cultural nihilism associated with a later Weimar prepared the way for unspeakable horror. As John Paul II memorably said at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem: “How could man have such utter contempt for man? Because he had reached the point of contempt for God. Only a godless ideology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people.”
At the beginning of the twenty–first century, the “tottering weakness” of the “old faith” (which Luther intended to serve, in his way) has become, to the surprise of many, the only confident, coherent, comprehensive, and compelling proposal for the future of the human project. Yet there are many others—in the academy, the arts, and not least in our churches—who, lost in the park’s ingenious labyrinth, continue the tradition of telling themselves the same old story of their liberation from the tyranny of tradition.
Dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary church music is now very widespread, which may or may not mean that some remedy is at hand. There are many tellings of the story of “what went wrong,” and the other day I stumbled upon this telling by music critic Michael Howard. It is from his notes on the sleeve of an old 1974 Decca LP of Dvorak’s Mass in D Major. (For younger readers, LP means long–playing record.)
Anton Dvorak died in Prague on May 1, 1904 at the age of sixty–three. It had only been one year previously that Pope Pius X had issued his famous motu proprio which was to have such a devastating and impoverishing effect, albeit unintentionally, upon the music of the Roman Church. Pius X rightly wished to rid the Church of the rancid musical excesses with which it had become besotted in the latter part of the nineteenth century. But unfortunately, then as now, reforming zeal overexcited all too many ill–informed Princes of the Church, prelates, parish priests, and lay committees with monetary and other axes to grind—choral traditions were terminated, choirs disbanded; and all this not in honest terms of economy, or boredom, or time–saving but (in the guise of a spurious lip service to the Holy Father) on the grounds that glorious music, gloriously sung in a glorious building, was in some way a corruption of the true worship of Almighty God. Thus it came about that not only was the meretricious expelled from universal usage, but with it went virtually all the great music of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Hummel, Liszt and Bruckner, and of course Dvorak for good measure. These meddling pietists had not the wit to see that they were transparently flouting the true intentions of the 1903 encyclical, let alone that their witlessness prevented them from discriminating between some of the admittedly more shallow early Salzburg masses by Mozart and the penitent on his knees which we both hear and experience in the same composer’s Munich Kyrie.
The result, of course, was that religious music together with all other religious art found itself wearing the appalling clothing of mediocrity. T. S. Eliot, a propos Religion and Literature, said “For the great majority of people who love poetry, ‘religious poetry’ is a variety of minor poetry: the religious poet is not a poet who is treating the whole subject of poetry in a religious spirit, but . . . is leaving out what men consider their major passions, and thereby confessing his ignorance of them.” By the time, in 1948, Stravinsky offered his Latin Mass to the Church, Rome would have none of it. Even the music of Palestrina has suffered something of an eclipse, and it is interesting to note that earlier in the century because of public disregard for Elgar, Jaeger was able to write to Dorabella that nevertheless were there to be “a dull new oratorio by Mascagni or Perosi, the papers would have had columns of gossip and gush about those two frauds.” Now Perosi was appointed Musical Director of the Sistine Chapel in 1898, when he was barely twenty–six years old, and he was a principal adviser to Pope Pius X on the dicta of the 1903 encyclical. By 1905 he was constituted “Perpetual Master of the Pontifical Chapel”—and in spite of a mental breakdown in 1922, he returned to office within twelve months and remained there for many years to come.
It is painful to continue in too great detail on the history of music in church in the twentieth century. As always, church music spurned has taken its revenge and confounded the Church with the concert hall, the theatre, the opera house, and the gramophone record. Pitiful it is that we may study it, we may cherish it, and we may listen to it, but all too rarely may we use it in its proper context. Anyone who has been to High Mass in one of the fantastic churches in Prague will appreciate the depth of this tragedy.
Surely Michael Howard is right about the “appalling clothing of mediocrity.” It is not just the neglect of Mozart, Haydn, and Dvorak, or even Gregorian chant. And few of our local places of worship can or should try to match the “fantastic churches” of Prague. Among Protestants and Catholics, the last several decades have witnessed a wholesale debauch of musical sensibilities and the squandering of magnificent traditions. A price I pay for hanging out so much with evangelical Protestants and speaking at pro–life events is that I am exposed to the most barbarous of musical kitsch in both Catholic and Protestant camps. Why do such good people indulge such bad music? At a recent pro–life rally in the midwest there was no less than ten minutes of a group of young people with high decibel electronic guitars screaming over and over again, “I love you Jeeesus!” That was it. And the mainly middle–aged crowd went wild. A rock concert without talent or imagination.
It is not simply a matter of doing what is popular. In the traditions that have been squandered, there is much that is popular, in the best sense of that term. I was recently given a CD, Sing Lustily and With Good Courage, which includes “gallery hymns” of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band (CD–SDL–383). Here are magnificent renderings of “Who would true valour see” (John Bunyan), “Lo, He comes with clouds descending” (Charles Wesley), “The God of Abraham praise” (Thomas Olivers), and a dozen others that stir and form the souls of the gathered faithful glorifying God. The debased noises of unbridled subjectivism that are typical of what today is called entertainment worship are spiritual poison. We’re not talking mere aesthetics here. There is nothing mere about the beautiful. The three transcendentals—the good, the true, and the beautiful—are inextricably entangled. The degradation of one degrades the others.
“I love you Jeeesus!” Or at another meeting, an orgy of self–praise, “We Are Here and We are Ali–i–i–i–ve!” Well, good for you. Such junk is an embarrassment to Christianity. One wonders what a sensible outsider stumbling into such a gathering might think. He would likely beat a hasty exit, and I wouldn’t blame him. I would have, too, except I was scheduled to speak after the noise subsided. I saw in Christianity Today where one such group of sentimental bedlam was described as having “a joy that is contagious.” Contagious as in smallpox. The joy is painfully forced. “Look how joyful we are!” If this is joy, give me melancholy. Don’t tell me these people are sincere. The praise of God has nothing to do with being drenched by the agitated effusions of their sincerity. Sincerity is no excuse for tackiness. The world would be more beautiful and the Church more inviting were half the music directors in Christendom fired tomorrow. At least half. Christianity has over the centuries produced a musical heritage without parallel in human history. It is a great pity, for which some are criminally responsible, that most Christians are unaware of it. The circumstance described by Michael Howard in 1974 has dramatically deteriorated since then, and there is no end in sight.
There now, I feel better having got that off my chest. And please don’t tell me that this comment is too negative, that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. It is not I who extinguished the candles of our musical legacy. Anyway, as I have had occasion to say before, sometimes it’s helpful to curse the darkness. It keeps us from getting used to it.
Of the making of lists there is no end. I am guilty, for instance, of having participated from time to time in the compiling of lists of the greatest books, or the most influential thinkers, or the most crucial turning points in history. For journals of opinion and academic groups, it’s a little like playing Scrabble. The formerly Lutheran and now Orthodox church historian Jaroslav Pelikan tells me that he’s always irritated by these “beauty contests” to elect the most important books—but not as irritated as he is when his books are not included. It should be noted that the selection in our books symposium of March 2000, marking the tenth anniversary of First Things, did not purport to be a list of the best of anything. Contributors were invited to discuss any book they wished, and for whatever reason; whether because it was the best or the worst or simply because it caught their fancy.
The subject of lists comes to mind because the University of Chicago has recently reprinted in a handsome paperback Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. Were I to succumb to an invitation to nominate the most important books ever written on the American experiment, there is no doubt that I would include this classic, which first appeared in 1959. The centerpiece of the book is the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858, but it is more than a historical study. Jaffa believes—correctly, in my judgment—that in those debates were joined the great questions of the American founding, and the later working out of that founding. His vindication of Lincoln is the more persuasive because he does his utmost to be fair to Douglas and his argument for “popular sovereignty.” Douglas contended that the question of slavery in the new territories should be left to popular vote and was no business of the federal government. Lincoln insisted that the Founders, while they compromised the question in order to form the Union, intended that slavery should be on “a course to ultimate extinction.”
To leave slavery to popular sentiment, he said, would result in the extension of slavery, and imperil the freedom of all. His fear was made the more urgent and immediate by the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which declared that the Constitution “expressly affirmed” a right to hold slaves as property. Jaffa convincingly depicts Lincoln not only as an astute politician and statesman but also as a moral philosopher of no little achievement. Crisis of the House Divided has a sharp polemical edge, for at the time there were numerous revisionist historians—including both Southern apologists and Northern liberals—who were taking the side of Douglas and casting Lincoln as either a knave or fool who was prepared to risk war in order to advance his own political ambitions. In the course of his telling of the story, Jaffa offers striking observations on what was at stake. For instance, on how Lincoln and his legacy contributed to a development of doctrine from the Declaration of Independence, Jaffa has this to say:
Lincoln’s morality then extends the full length of Jefferson’s, but it also goes further. Jefferson’s horizon, with its grounding in Locke, saw all commands to respect the rights of others as fundamentally hypothetical imperatives: if you do not wish to be a slave, then refrain from being a master. Lincoln agreed, but he also said in substance: he who wills freedom for himself must simultaneously will freedom for others. Lincoln’s imperative was not only hypothetical; it was categorical as well. Because all men by nature have an equal right to justice, all men have an equal duty to do justice, wholly irrespective of calculations as to self–interest. Or, to put it a little differently, our own happiness, our own welfare, cannot be conceived apart from our well–doing, or just action, and this well–doing is not merely the adding to our own security but the benefiting of others. Civil society for Lincoln, as for Aristotle and Burke, is a partnership “in every virtue and in all perfection.” And, while our duties to friends and fellow citizens take precedence over duties to those who are not friends or fellow citizens, the possibility of justice, and of injustice, exists in every relationship with every other human being. Indeed, if it was not possible to do justice to non–fellow citizens, the possibility of justice and friendship with fellow citizens would not exist. For civil society is the realization of a potentiality which must exist whenever man encounters his fellow, or it is not a potentiality anywhere. And that potentiality, for Lincoln, found its supreme expression in the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
These questions are of much more than historical interest. Today, among both Protestant and Catholic writers, there are those who claim that the American founding was thoroughly secularist, and even atheistic, in its presuppositions, and is therefore incompatible with Christian truth—whether that truth be described as “Bible law” (Protestant) or St. Augustine’s City of God (Catholic). I believe Jaffa, too, tends to exaggerate the role of Jefferson in the founding, and therefore the degree to which the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke dominated the ideas that informed the Revolution, as well as the writing and ratification of the Constitution. Be that as it may, Jaffa is surely correct in describing the development that Lincoln forced to explicit expression:
And we cannot help noticing that the Lockean interpretation of unalienable rights, which we have sketched, ultimately views such rights as reducible to passions. For the right to life and liberty is held to be indefeasible in Locke just because the passion for life, and for the necessary means thereto, is held to be indefeasible. But when Lincoln said, as he repeatedly did say in the debates, that Douglas’ “Don’t care” policy with respect to slavery was an absurdity, because it tolerated the notion that there was such a thing as a right to do wrong, he superimposed upon the Lockean doctrine of the unalienable right to liberty a very different conception of right. The Lockean idea of a right to liberty meant that no one can consistently appeal to my sense of right to give up my liberty, but it does not mean that a man who enslaves another violates the enslaver’s sense of what is right. Lincoln confounds the meaning of a right, meaning an indefeasible desire or passion, with what is right, meaning an objective state or condition in which justice is done.
It is perhaps obvious to note that the issues joined in the Lincoln–Douglas debates have the most direct relevance to the contemporary clash over abortion, just as the words and logic of Dred Scott strikingly parallel the words and logic of Roe v. Wade and its judicial progeny. As Lincoln said of slavery, so it must today be said of abortion, that the only morally coherent course is the course toward its ultimate extinction. As he declared that judicial efforts to outlaw that course were null and void, so today we must make clear that we are neither obliged nor intimidated by courts that arrogantly substitute their judgment for that of the elected representatives of the people and make a mockery of the indefeasible right to life, without which our constitutional order is built on sand. We have today many political leaders who are committed to the goal of “every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life.” But we have very few who are willing or able to make the case for the essential connection between “right” and “what is right” as Lincoln did in his debates with Douglas. For understanding the nature of the moral and political conflict in which we are engaged, there are few better places to start than with a careful reading of Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided.
There are Christians who are convinced that they believe and preach an “old time gospel” that is unchanged from the time of the New Testament, and there is merit in that if one understands the gospel to be Jesus Christ who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). But in fact the old time gospel—which is a new time phrase invented by American revivalism—was given form by the ponderings, disputes, and decisions of Church fathers, councils, theologians, reformers, and popes over the centuries. There is a striking similarity between religious fundamentalists who deny the development of doctrine and theorists of secularization who claim that any accommodation by religion to its surrounding culture is a deviation from its earlier “orthodoxy.” Both are fundamentalists; both subscribe to an idea of religion frozen in time. Orthodoxy, however, is a living tradition in both conversation and conflict with its surrounding worlds. In a fine formulation usually attributed to church historian Jaroslav Pelikan—although he says he got it from he knows not where—such tradition is the living faith of the dead, as distinct from traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living. Orthodoxy is a work in progress under the sign of eschatological promise.
The prophets of secularization, however, have still other objections to what I have been describing in this space as the incorrigible nature of Christian America. It is said, for instance, that the quality of religious commitment is radically changed in a secular and pluralistic society. Faith and commitment, according to this view, were more secure and certain when people lived under a “sacred canopy” in societies where religion was a matter of ascription rather than choice. It used to be that your religion was, so to speak, part of the core curriculum of your life; now everything, including religion, is an elective. Where religion is ascribed, it comes as a package of more or less arbitrary factors assigned by virtue of one’s birth or family; in a world of choice everything is up for grabs. Upon closer examination, however, it may be that the replacement of ascription by choice works more to the advantage of religion than of secularization.
Sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina writes: “For moderns—perhaps especially modern Americans—the ultimate criterion of identity and lifestyle validity is individual choice. It is by choosing a product, a mate, a lifestyle, or an identity that one makes it one’s very own, personal, special, and meaningful—not ‘merely’ something one inherits or assumes.” By choice, it is thought, I make something truly my own. The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in scathing terms about the modern cult of “sincerity and authenticity.” In a similar vein, Alasdair MacIntyre critiques “modern emotivism,” by which he means a disposition that reduces morality to a matter of individual “values.” Values, in turn, are created by whatever I happen to choose to value, with the result that the only truth that is discussible is what is “true for me” or “true for you.” Christian Smith, who wants to make the case that the modern ascendancy of choice strengthens religion, offers the piquant proposal that, in the absence of a sacred canopy, believers get along quite well with their “sacred umbrellas.” That is a suggestive image, but it tends to reinforce the idea of religion as something individualistic, private, and subcultural. The arbitrariness of a traditional religion of ascription is replaced by what appears to be the equal arbitrariness of individual choice.
In the biblical tradition, one might argue, it is not a matter of choosing but of being chosen. Clearly, God takes the initiative in choosing Abraham and his descendants, and keeps on choosing them even when they do not choose to be chosen. So also Jesus tells the disciples, “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). Yet the choice, so to speak, between choosing and being chosen is not so stark as it might seem. While the initiative lies with God, faith responds by choosing to be chosen. Such a response is not MacIntyre’s emotivism; it is not simply an assertion of individual preference. It is the acknowledgment of a decision having been made that is not under my control.
Thus the relationship between the traditional role of ascription and the modern role of choice is seen to be considerably more subtle than some have suggested. The believer is not just putting up his little sacred umbrella but is acknowledging his part in a world that is indeed under a sacred canopy of divine purpose. While the commitment to that purpose is intensely personal, it is not individualistic but communal. To choose to be chosen is to accept one’s part in the community of the chosen; for Jews, that means the children of Israel, and for Christians the Church. The common and deserved polemic against individualism must not be permitted to obscure biblical religion’s insistence upon the importance of the individual, understood as the dignity of the human person. Modernity’s stress upon choice can be debased in a way that turns everything, including religion, into a consumer product that “meets my needs.” It can also, however, accentuate my responsibility for choosing to be chosen, for deciding which community claims my allegiance. The subtlety of the relationship between ascription and choice is caught in the aphorism of Goethe: “What you have as heritage, / Take now as task; / For thus you will make it your own.”
Rather than pitting ascription against choice, my ascription is my choice. The German word for gift, Gabe, is closely related to the word for task, Aufgabe. Whether choice is understood as individualistic preference or as communal allegiance, the modern accent on choice would seem to work more in favor of religion than of secularization. Certainly the forms of Christianity available to contemporary Americans appeal to both individualistic and communal sensibilities, along lines that are commonly, if somewhat too simply, demarcated as Protestant or Catholic. Whether one chooses to be part of an association of people holding up their sacred umbrellas (Protestant) or part of an ecclesial community that presents itself as the sacred canopy encompassing all of reality (Catholic), the act of choice is not antithetical to, but is an essential component of, religious adherence.
The vitality of religion in America invites the questioning of many conventions in the way people have thought about modernity and secularization. Two terms that have played a large part in these discussions over the years are Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Briefly stated, Gemeinschaft is the solidarity of traditional community, religious and otherwise, where people “belong” at the deepest level of their being, where the answers to the big questions are a given transmitted from generation to generation, and where personal identity is bestowed. Gesellschaft, on the other hand, is the modern circumstance in which human relations are rational, instrumental, and directed to specific ends. It is the world of bureaucracy, rules, and impersonal interactions aimed at maximizing individual advantage. In this view, Gemeinschaft is religion–friendly, while Gesellschaft is the companion and agent of a world disenchanted and desacralized.
We should be skeptical, however, about whether things have changed as much as some theorists suggest, or whether they have changed in the ways they suggest. Recall again Adam’s remark to Eve on the way out of the garden, “My dear, we live in an age of transition.” Of course life is change and many things are different, but are the basic bonds of family, friendship, common origins, and kinship that much weaker today? Surely the society of Gesellschaft is much more complex, and there are layers upon layers of structures that were not there before, but one may suggest that they are erected upon a substratum of fundamental relationships that we associate with Gemeinschaft. For instance, the intensified threat of depersonalized and disenchanted structures may actually drive people to religion rather than away from it. Precisely as the surrounding world becomes more disenchanted and deprived of sacred meaning, the felt need increases to form communities that make sense of individual and corporate life.
A limited analogy (all analogies are limited) may be drawn with marriage. Is marriage stronger or weaker today than it was, say, a hundred years ago? One answer is given by citing the divorce rates. When more than a third of first marriages end in divorce, it would seem obvious that marriage is weaker today. At the same time, the argument can be made that marriage is stronger today in the sense that people expect more of it. Because they have unreasonably high expectations of marriage, they are disappointed and end up divorcing. But they end up divorcing only to marry again, and usually more successfully. The dynamic here is both paradoxical and perverse; because people invest so much in marriage, they demand so much from it; indeed they demand more than many marriages can deliver. A few people go on from marriage to marriage in search of their ideal of marriage. Many more decide to “play it safe” by being married without the formality of marriage—what used to be called, and is still sometimes called, common–law marriage. Yet others come to recognize that marriage is an institution and not an emotion; that the commitment to the relationship cannot be calculatingly contingent upon the satisfactions derived from it. At that point, as innumerable married couples testify, the satisfactions greatly increase.
As I say, the analogy is limited, but nonetheless instructive. From what we might call the “megaperspective” of modern rationalized explanation, the world is disenchanted and desacralized. In response to such a world, human beings flee to institutions of marriage and the family that are, in the phrase of the late Christopher Lasch, “a haven in a heartless world.” So also does the attraction of communities of religious meaning increase. We can view these, too, as sheltered enclaves or as little sacred umbrellas with which we desperately ward off the threat of “the real world.” But, once again, when the religion in question is Christianity something very different may be happening. Christianity provides an alternative definition of what constitutes “the real world.” It is, in the mind of many of its adherents, a much more reasonable and convincing definition of reality than those provided by secularism’s reductive rationality, materialism, or embrace of absurdity. But is it not also for many Christians a haven in a heartless world, a sheltered enclave, or a sacred umbrella held in the trembling hands of those seeking protection from what they suspect really is the real world? Yes, certainly. But the point is that the modern circumstance may be more conducive to religion than to secularism, whether that religion is “escapist” or is a boldly asserted redefinition of the real world.
We frequently hear it said that ours is a pluralistic society, and therefore inhospitable to religious commitment. In fact, in textbooks from grade school through graduate school, the two terms are often combined: “We live in an increasingly pluralistic and secular society.” The implication, often made explicit, is that society must be secular because it is pluralistic. Sometimes the point is that the social fact of pluralism requires giving up differences that make too much of a difference, especially religious differences. If they are not given up, they must be confined to the private sphere where they have no social consequence. This is one understanding of pluralism: the ignoring or denying of the differences that make the deepest difference. Another understanding of pluralism is that of a lively interaction of differences in tension, sometimes in conflict, and always in the hope of mutual enrichment.
That second understanding of pluralism has in recent decades achieved a certain cachet in liberal thought and practice. The once mayor of New York David Dinkins spoke of “the gorgeous mosaic” that has presumably replaced the earlier image of the American melting pot. Vice President Al Gore’s gaffe has been much remarked, when he translated e pluribus unum as “out of the one, many.” The acknowledgment of difference, indeed the celebration of difference, is most importantly evident in race relations, where the earlier ideal of black and white integration is replaced by the “identity politics” of African–Americanism. The celebration of pluralism in the general media and in policies aimed at “inclusiveness” typically extends to race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, but not to religion. Yet the reality of pluralism—the fact of people living in different worlds of moral and spiritual meaning—is also conducive to the strengthening of religious identities.
Such pluralism is most intensively experienced in cities. Just as earlier theories assumed that there is a connection between pluralism and secularization, so it was commonly claimed that urbanization undermines religious adherence and is therefore a major force in secularization. But precisely the opposite argument can also be made. New York City, for example, is a world of many worlds. It is a veritable hothouse of alternative lifestyles, subcultures, belief systems, and structures of communal cohesion. The stereotypical story line is the person coming from a small town to the big city in search of liberation from the confining mores and conformity of his past. In the great metropolis, it is said, we are free to be ourselves. Alternatively, it is said that in the city we enter into the freedom of a kind of universal existence that is unconstricted by the particularities from which we escaped.
At the same time, however, the experienced reality of the city is not that of a universalism but of a flourishing of parochialisms—from the mandatory liberalism of the Upper West Side, to the gay subculture of the West Village, to the ethnic familialism of Bensonhurst, to the wondrous potpourri of immigrant Elmhurst in Queens. In short, a world of many worlds, including worlds of religious belief, practice, and communal cohesion. The escape from the small town to the city is not from parochialism to cosmopolitanism but from the parochialism that oppresses to the parochialism that fits. “Parochial,” one notes, is related to “parish,” and the attraction of urban life is that you get to choose your parish.
How is it, then, that America can, at the same time, be so modern and so religious? That is the question we have been considering. We have looked briefly at some of the theories of the last century that assumed a necessary connection between modernity and secularization, and have discovered that the connection can work in exactly the opposite direction from that assumed by secularization theorists. Yes, some may object, but what about all those people who are not religious? Whether in the suburb or small town or urban center, one need not go far to find a large number of people who seem to all appearances not to be religious at all. Moreover, they describe themselves as nonreligious. Isn’t this evidence of secularization? Maybe, and maybe not.
We have already referred to the work of sociologist Christian Smith. In a recent national survey whose findings are consistent with much other survey research, he discovered that 9 percent of Americans describe themselves as “nonreligious,” meaning that they were raised to be but are not now religious. Upon closer examination, however, Smith discovered that 80 percent of these people did not mean that they had rejected religious beliefs, or even all religious practices. Certainly they had not suffered a “collapse of religious plausibility structures” (early Peter Berger) and, as a consequence, adopted naturalistic or secular worldviews. Rather, what they mean by saying that they are nonreligious is that they do not go to church, and in many cases have developed negative attitudes toward churches and clergy.
Yet 60 percent emphatically say that they believe in God and pray to Him often, and that the God to whom they pray is the same God in whom they were taught to believe in childhood. Less than 20 percent of that nonreligious 9 percent say they do not believe in God at all. Some of the “nonreligious” expressed gratitude to the researchers for bringing the matter to their attention, and resolved to put their religious life in order. Smith writes: “The vast majority of our religious ‘defectors,’ in other words, had not forsaken their religious worldviews and belief commitments and become secularized unbelievers. These [respondents] who identified themselves as ‘not religious’ are not literally not–religious. They simply had stopped participating in the worship services of organized religion, which is quite a different matter.”
Smith’s conclusion deserves to be read in full. The survey research, he says, suggests three things:
First, very few “nonreligious” Americans are truly nonreligious—most in fact insist they are religious, but simply in a rather individualistic, disaffiliated way. Second, the primary basis of most people’s distance from organized religion typically has little to do with cognitive belief implausibility, per se; rather, distance from religion appears to be generated more by relational disruptions and the absence of strong relational ties to religion. Third, modernity itself does not appear to be the driving force at work undermining strong religious faith and practice; the primary reasons why religious defectors in contemporary America do not participate in organized religion are probably not very different from the kinds of reasons that would have estranged people from organized religion throughout human history (emphasis added).
Smith’s last point brings us back to Andrew Greeley’s thought experiment in Unsecular Man. It may be that the on–the–ground social reality is that our time warrants the appellation “the age of faith” as much as, say, the thirteenth century. The later Peter Berger published A Distant Glory with the subtitle, “the quest for faith in an age of credulity.” The suggested distinction is between authentic faith and unreflective credulity, which is a distinction that all of us would want to maintain, while recognizing that our faith and what we view as our neighbor’s credulity are equally religious. The fact is that relatively few people are trained philosophers or social theorists. They do not fit the intellectual’s model of the modern who operates by “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Were they sociologists of religion, they might be keenly aware of the “cognitive dissonance” between their religious beliefs and their secular pursuits, but they are not.
This is not to say that the mental framework of their religious beliefs is unproblematic. Rather, they adhere to religion because it provides identity, fellowship, meaning, order, and a promise of purpose. A philosopher friend tells me, “I am a Christian because Christianity makes more sense of more facts than any other way of construing reality that I know of.” Since they are not philosophers, most people would not put it quite that way, but that would seem to be the gist of the matter. People experience problems, dissonances, puzzles, and confusions in what they believe, but these do not undermine what they believe. More often than not, it seems, such problems prompt them to explore more carefully, and adhere more closely to, their faith.
If religion is conceived as a product to be marketed, America historically has been, is now, and will likely be even more so in the future a bull market. The sociologists of religion who operate by the model of the competitive market have very impressively made their case against older theories of secularization. Religion as a consumer product is not necessarily an edifying phenomenon, nor is it an adequate way of understanding “Christian America Confused” and “Christian America Conflicted.” The modern, pluralistic, market–driven society is conducive to the flourishing of religion as a subculture—or, better, as a maddening array of subcultures. But the phrase “Christian America” suggests not a subculture but a culture. It is not uncommon today to read that we should abandon the notion that there is an American culture. America, it is said, is now a nation of subcultures. We all live now not in a culture but in a subculture, or in several subcultures. To the extent that is true, the amalgam of subcultures that we call American is in fact the culture of Christian America—incorrigible, confused, and conflicted.
Ultramontanist: Priest who wears clerical garb even when not en route to his arraignment.
Prophet: One who exposes the misbehavior of conservatives.
Scandalmonger: One who exposes the misbehavior of liberals.
Rosary: Beaded chain of unknown origin used to bind the hands of deceased clergymen in coffins.
Liturgical Participation: Process by which the faithful forfeit the prerogative to object to ritual innovations instituted by persons with master’s degrees.
Active Participation: Silent endurance.
Sin of Sodom: Inhospitality, as in Lot’s wife entertaining his guests with pretzel nuggets and celery sticks filled with generic cream cheese and saving the salted almonds and brie en croute for herself, thus bringing divine annihilation upon her fellow townsfolk.
Detraction: The sin of telling the truth about the lies told by a bishop.
Principle of Subsidiarity: The doctrine that decisions affecting the common good should be made at the lowest level of presumptive authority and enforced by the highest level of ecclesiastical discipline congruent to effecting the displacement of Catholic social doctrine with that of Whoopi Goldberg.
Five Glorious Mysteries: Dialogue, dynamic equivalence, recycling, diversity, and inclusive language.
Our Jesuit friend has never been accused of being one of those humorless conservatives.
Sources (While We’re At It): Statistics on black and white Americans, Barna Research Group press release, February 1, 2000. On God filling decayed teeth with gold, Christian Century, January 26, 2000. Krishan Kumar on English national identity, InSight: The Newsletter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Spring 2000. On Bible billboards, Nicotine Theological Journal, January 2000. Elise L. Moore on the divine imperative for affirmative action and quota systems, Christian Science Journal, February 2000. Henry A. Giroux’s The Mouse That Roared reviewed by Kenneth Anderson, Times Literary Supplement, February 4, 2000. “Deeper into the Brain” by Charles Murray, published by the American Enterprise Institute, February 2000. On “cyber–sex compulsives,” press release of the Family Research Council, March 2, 2000. “That Was Then” and “This Is Now,” The YW Window: Newsletter of the YMCA of Greater Harrisburg, January 2000. Archbishop John Quinn’s The Reform of the Papacy reviewed by Russell Shaw, Crisis, March 2000. In Love With Night by Ronald Steel reviewed by Ralph McInerny, Crisis, March 2000. John Judis’ The Paradox of American Democracy reviewed by Chester E. Finn, Commentary, March 2000. Terry Golway quoting Tommy Makem on Irish identity, New York Observer, March 20, 2000. On The Journey of Desire by John Eldredge, Publishers Weekly, March 6, 2000. Political cartoon on “principled campaign,” Commonweal, March 10, 2000. Evelyn Waugh on modern politics, quoted by Jerry Z. Muller, Public Interest, Spring 2000. Dale Turner on the “right to die,” Seattle Times, March 4, 2000. On Marian Wright Edelman, National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000. John Horgan’s The Undiscovered Mind reviewed by John F. Haught, Commonweal, March 24, 2000. The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version by C. S. Lewis (Fortress, 1963). Blinded by Might by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson reviewed by James Hitchcock, Touchstone, November/December 1999. Interview with Kenneth Starr, World, November 13, 1999. Joel Belz on sexual issues, racism, and economic oppression, World, January 22, 2000. Cardinal Hoyos on vocations, Catholic New York, April 6, 2000. On religious sects, press release from the Keston Institute, April 7, 2000. Miroslav Volf on mainline views toward separatist Christians, Christian Century, April 5, 2000. New York Times article on 1970 abortion law, April 9, 2000. Scott Bader–Saye’s Church and Israel After Christendom reviewed by George Lindbeck, Theology Today, April 2000. Peter Steinfels on theologians opposed to making homosexuality normative, New York Times, April 29, 2000. Simon Blackburn review of The Threefold Cord by Hilary Putnam, New Republic, April 17 and 24, 2000. On the continuing sense of identity among Protestant denominations, Religion Watch, April 2000. Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy reviewed by Robert Kagan, New Republic, April 10, 2000. On Republican desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, New York Times, June 29, 2000. Edward T. Oakes on the silencing of James Burtchaell, Commonweal, June 3, 2000. Garry Wills on John Paul II, New York Review of Books, May 25, 2000; Rabbi Eric Yoffie quoted on Catholic–Jewish reconciliation, Forward, March 24, 2000. Roger Scruton on animals and people, Salisbury Review, Spring 2000. Al Gore on living Constitution, NAE Washington Insight, May 2000. Norman Podhoretz on the religious right, National Review, April 3, 2000. On St. Joseph Catholic School and Caesar’s Riverboat Casino, Louisville Courier–Journal, April 8, 2000.