So Ross Douthat has a new book which speaks of heresy. I am glad he uses this term—heresy—and he is quite sophisticated in his understanding of the issue. Both Hegel and Kierkegaard spoke of the important role of heresy in the development of the Christian doctrine, and Douthat too seems to see orthodoxy and heresy in some sort of dialectical relationship. After all, in his Confessions heresy plays an important role within which St. Augustine finds his own true spiritual formation.
Douthat is presenting something important when he describes heresy as that which attempts to make the strange mystery of Christian revelation as that which is wholly rational in a way that makes sense for one’s own life. He glibly, but in my mind correctly, uses this definition to define Jefferson’s “Bible” as heretical. Even if we were all to be Unitarians according to the wishes of this great founder of the USA, it has surely not turned out to be the case. Nowadays Unitarians and Trinitarians of various stripes argue for the truth with various polytheists, atheists and agnostics. Yet insofar as each and all want a completely systematic order understood as rational in a way that avoids any tension in thought, conviction and feeling, then it is heretical. Insofar as one is free to make it up without reference to anything other than oneself then it is doubly heretical.
Douthat alludes to the current breakdown of the institutions of civil society that give a sense of being in a community–from the family to small business to the trade union to the local church–even if he doesn’t delve on such sociological matters like Charles Murray and Robert Putnam. But nowadays one could wonder of the serious spontaneity and greater importance of civil society anyway. So the unencumbered self severed from any society larger than itself is not the whole problem.
For Douthat, it is a problem of belief. And belief in God.
Tocqueville, the aristocrat from Catholic France understood the thin nature of the American’s—Jefferson’s—political theology as it stood by itself. No matter how nobly it stood for the independence of intellectual judgment beyond hope and fear, it attempted to provide an epicurean serenity that was in recusal to its own garden. It remained thin. Here was a philosopher’s impersonal Unitarian god that not only made its few adherents existentially uncomfortable despite themselves, but which provided no basis for a society that could maintain itself over generations. So even if that society was Cartesian in its hips, it needed something more than the cogito.
So to extrapolate from Douthat’s argument, Jefferson was a Christian but heretical Christian, but in such an assertion there is a the rub. What is Christianity? It seems all up for grabs in the USA—DIY spirituality.
Isn’t this a result of the truth that Lutheran Christianity spoke of when it said that man stands naked before God, or even G-d?
With sola scriptura, sola fides, the priesthood of all believers in the USA—radicalized by our Puritan and Pilgrim fathers in terms of the new Christian commonwealth realized in the American wilderness as a model of true charity—Douthat seems to be complaining four centuries too late, even as he recognizes the doctrinal truth of the terms of Reformed Christianity.
These are the kinds of questions (the tensions between Protestant theology and modern liberal democracy) that Nathaniel Hawthorne presented in lucid form. Let me recommend John Alvis’s book on Hawthorne’s writings in favorable comparison to Douthat’s history of the declension of 20th century popular theology from Reinhold Niebuhr to Joel Osteen as a result of American democracy.
Douthat says something to the effect that orthodoxy without heresy has a dangerous tendency toward doctrinal sterility and ecclesiastical self-aggrandizement (and all that that entails for a local culture and how one lives within it as a structure of sensibility), but he also mentions the corollary that heresy without orthodoxy is even worse. Nowadays, as a people we find ourselves ourselves in the latter situation, and as a consequence we find ourselves off the rails with all sorts of Shirley MacLaine-like experiences of other lives (Douthat doesn’t mention this curious episode of religious longing and symbolization).
So I guess the problem is Douthat’s description of Mainline Protestantism and the Catholic Moment of Reinhold Neibuhr’s, John Courtney Murray’s, Billy Graham’s, and Martin Luther King’s 1950s. He’s right about its actual existence, and he is right to defend it, but I think it was an anomaly in this country. It was fragile, and required a whole host of circumstances to make it possible. This anomalous circumstance didn’t exist before and won’t emerge anytime soon. Given this fact, confusion might be the best default public position, especially for orthodox believers.
So, get used to it, DIY spirituality will always be in tension with more orthodox expressions of Christianity, and the latter will always feel embattled in our democratic culture. This is not a call for a Christian retreat from the world of real practical action and concern for the common good, it is only a frank recognition of the limits of reason and the purposes of revelation as it shows forth in a modern, liberal, and democratic society like our own.
Douthat’s book is exemplary of a serious grappling with these postmodern theological conundrums. It’s worth the read.