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A recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life tells us that 20 percent of Americans now check “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. A strikingly unified and compact group, they populate the irreligious left. Many are fed up with religion’s longstanding influence on American society, making them likely to attack the public role of religious institutions and further polarize politics. Not good. But religious folks have shown themselves resilient. We’re up for what looks to be a new phase in the culture war.

In a 1957 government survey, only 3 percent of respondents checked the “none” box. Now they’re a fifth of all Americans. From one in thirty-three to one in five, and the number is very likely to grow. Nearly one-third of adults under thirty are Nones. Although some may embrace religious practice when they marry and have children, the data suggest that religious identity tends to remain constant or decline slightly as we move through life. In any event, it’s become more socially acceptable to be a None. In some places (like Manhattan), it’s the norm. Unbelief has come out of the closet.

And it’s making a difference in culture and politics. The unchurched exhibit a remarkably united front when it comes to controversial moral issues. The Pew study reports that 72 percent of the Nones support legalized abortion, as compared to 53 percent of the general population. Seventy-three percent support same-sex marriage, as compared to 48 percent of the public at large. The researchers for Pew didn’t ask about doctor-assisted suicide, embryo-destructive research, and reproductive technology, but I’d be very surprised if the answers didn’t follow the same pattern.

As the English sociologist David Martin has observed, a belief in God tends to correlate strongly with belief in the objectivity of moral values. The opposite is true as well, which makes the Nones sympathetic to moral revolutionaries who argue that our changing times call for changed moral norms. Most may balk at Peter Singer’s call for moral toleration of infanticide. Killing babies seems too extreme. But they are usually opposed to “imposing value judgments” on others, except of course for the value judgment that we’re not supposed to impose value judgments, which turns out to be a highly consequential commitment that requires bulldozing a great deal of traditional morality. Hence Pope Benedict’s term “the dictatorship of relativism.”

Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s recent book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, brings out the political dimension of the increase in Nones in a particularly vivid way. Their extensive survey sought to discern the relations between religious intensity (indicated by whether and how often respondents said grace over meals) and political partisanship. Fifty-one percent of those who say grace call themselves Republicans, with 40 percent identifying as Democrats, and 10 percent as independents.

No surprise there. What’s striking, however, are the much more intense partisan loyalties of those who never say grace. Seventy percent identify as Democrats, and only 22 percent as Republicans. The Pew survey confirms this partisan outlook, which became more marked during the last decade. In 2000, 61 percent of Nones voted for Al Gore. In 2004, 67 percent went for John Kerry. 2008 saw 75 percent casting their ballot for Barack Obama.

This statistically overwhelming commitment to Democratic candidates makes the Nones the political equivalent of white Evangelical Protestants, who in 2008 went for John McCain at the same very high rate. Moreover, as the Pew survey results suggest, like the religious right, the irreligious left is highly motivated by moral and cultural issues rather than the classic New Deal priorities of modern liberalism. Like most Americans, the Nones tilt (slightly) in the direction of smaller government. Their partisanship comes largely from the fact that they’re “values voters,” secular values voters, whose primary commitment is perhaps best understood as the freedom to define the meaning of life for oneself.

Twenty-four percent of registered voters who are Democrats or lean Democrat are Nones, making them one of the largest identifiable constituencies in the party. They exercised their muscle at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, and were quick to express their frustration when stymied. They hooted and jeered when the party leadership forced through amendments to restore “God” to the party platform. It was a largely frivolous moment, one taken seriously by few, because most recognize that, pious gestures notwithstanding, the Democratic party is now the reliably secular party.

The Democratic party is very likely to become more and more dependent on Nones for votes, and thus more and more beholden to their claims to represent the new secular Moral Majority. We’ve already seen the Democratic party become a fully owned subsidiary of Planned Parenthood, and this in spite of the decline in support for our abortion regime in the general public. The same is happening with gay rights and the push to redefine marriage. (On this issue, polling data trend their way.) The biotechnology revolution will surely raise new issues, and in all likelihood the new secular Moral Majority will push for the freedom to remake reproduction, parenthood, and family, as well as our views about death and dying, all with an aura of progressive urgency that tolerates little dissent.

The Pew survey reports that Nones have an antagonistic attitude toward religious institutions. They tend to think that churches are too focused on rules—that pesky commitment to the objectivity of moral values. They also think that the churches are too involved in politics—the bad habit of imposing value judgments on others. They would like to see religion (for all practical purposes, this means Christianity) exercise less influence over society.

They can’t unilaterally repeal the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty, but they can nibble on the edges, and even take some big bites. The Obama administration nibbled when the bureaucrats at Health and Human Services issued the contraceptive mandate for health insurance, and in doing so adopted a narrow definition of what constitutes a religious institution protected under the First Amendment. Important litigation now underway asks the courts to require a broader definition.

The same administration tried to take a larger bite when its Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court that there is no ministerial exemption, which means no broad freedom for churches to hire and fire their leaders in accord with their own governing principles. The Supreme Court ruled otherwise, denying them that tidbit.

The pressure on religious liberty will certainly continue. In my discussion of gay rights in “The Selma Analogy” (May 2012), I outlined how churches and religious people who resist the sexual revolution can be subjected to sustained pressure. Civil rights laws were designed to be a large sledgehammer that could hit racist institutions very hard. If traditional views of sexual morality are labeled “irrational prejudices,” then the way is open to use that sledgehammer in new ways. The rise of the Nones as a major constituency in the Democratic party makes it more likely that the Selma Analogy will be pressed forward.

Many will counsel conciliation and compromise on this and other issues. That’s been the mainline Protestant strategy, which doesn’t have a very good track record. There’s no need to go this way. It’s true that as the Nones become more numerous and powerful, our culture will become more secular, and in many ways more hostile to faith. But that’s not the whole story. The increase in Nones has not been matched by a decrease among those of us with firm religious convictions and steady practice.

Decades of survey results report that around 40 percent of Americans say they attend church more or less weekly. Some sociologists speculate that this cohort, what I call the “committed core,” has been pretty constant for more than one hundred years. Sociologists know that people over-report their religious observance. Fieldwork suggests that 25 percent of the population goes to church weekly. However one parses the data, the fact remains: For a very long time, the committed core has been stable and substantial. It looks to remain so.

Moreover, the committed core has never been a majority. The rest of America has tended to have a lukewarm and less regular engagement with Christianity. Even in the 1950s (and, for that matter, in the 1900s), a fairly substantial number of Americans were either unbelievers or unchurched. True, the sensibilities of a mostly Protestant Christianity shaped them, and for the most part they thought of themselves as Methodists or Baptists or Presbyterians, or just “Christians,” but they were functionally secular in many ways. America may be “a nation with the soul of a church,” as G. K. Chesterton once said, but it’s never been a nation that consistently went to church.

The future is going to be hard on our egos. We’re used to Americans genuflecting when they didn’t mean it. The growing cohort of Nones is sure to put an end to the old comfortable and reassuringly central place that religion once enjoyed. This will mean a substantial decline of the influence of religion over our national culture. The results won’t be good. The Nones are likely to be good at tearing down, but bad at building up. But that shouldn’t be interpreted as a decline in religion.

The committed core that goes to church week in and week out looks to endure, and perhaps flourish. We’re battle-tested. We’ve endured in spite of the cultural convulsions of the last fifty years—and often in spite of the compromises, confusions, and outright failures in our own churches. This puts us in a good position to face the coming changes and challenges, perhaps more so than naïve secularists who imagine that they will inherit the earth.

The Legacy of Hans Urs von Balthasar

He was a giant. At the end of his long and productive life, the Swiss theologian was chosen by John Paul II to become a cardinal, and Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) preached his funeral homily. Henri de Lubac wrote, “His theological works, so diverse and yet so one, dominate our century.” It’s an influence that continues to be felt. Balthasar is a must-read figure for theology students. Along with Pope Benedict’s own writing, his work now shapes the outlook of the majority of priests and bishops. In the long struggle for the soul of Catholicism after Vatican II, a good case can be made that Balthasar won.

Which makes Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Eerdmans) all the more provocative and important. In this very readable and accessible new volume, Karen Kilby, a professor of systematic theology at the University of Nottingham, acknowledges Balthasar’s remarkable intellectual breadth, as well as his influence over and devotion to the Catholic Church. But she concludes: “If there is much to learn from Balthasar, the one thing in my view one ought not to learn from him is how to be a theologian.” As I said, provocative.

Balthasar has been criticized recently. Some worry that he is overly dependent on modern German philosophy. Others regard him as playing fast and loose with the authoritative tradition of Catholic dogma. Kilby’s criticism is broader, more allusive—and more powerful.

When it comes to the Catholic tradition, she finds herself wondering whether Balthasar isn’t someone “who stands above and effortlessly assembles, putting each thing in its place until the whole is completed.” It’s true that Balthasar was an extraordinarily brilliant and learned man, but one finds in his work “a sense of mastery” and “effortless authority and superiority” that is “unsettling.” She worries that Balthasar’s theology exhibits an “unfettered quality,” one that “goes too far, which knows and asserts too much, which argues too little, which has a persistent tendency to exceed all bounds—a theology, indeed, that does not seem to hold itself accountable to Scripture, tradition, or its readers, but somehow soars above them all.”

The soaring quality of Balthasar’s theology is part of its appeal. The excitement of reading him flows from the ways in which he rapidly summarizes huge swaths of the Christian tradition, as well as ancient philosophy, Eastern religions, and modern philosophy, bringing them into compelling relation to Christian truths. With Balthasar as a guide, I’ve often felt as though I’m witnessing a perhaps partial but nonetheless real fulfillment of St. Paul’s exhortation that we bring all thoughts into the captivity of obedience to Christ.

Nonetheless, as I read Kilby I found myself wondering whether Balthasar’s work is always what St. Paul envisioned. In the middle volumes of his systematic theology (Theo-Drama), Balthasar divides the history of theology into two modes. One involves what he calls a “lyric” mode of theology, which means reflection that turns on spiritual experiences, and the other “epic,” an approach focused on the truth claims of doctrine. He promises to transcend this polarity by attending to “the dramatic dimension of revelation,” and in so doing show how the lyric and epic modes “can discover their unity.”

There’s something right and very important about Balthasar’s claim about the dramatic dimension. Our spiritual lives and the doctrines of the Church both arise out of our encounter with the story of Christ—especially the drama of his passion, death, and resurrection. But there’s also something oddly Olympian in the claim of synthesis, and readers of Balthasar can be tempted to imagine that a particular theological élan—the “dramatic” style—somehow transcends and oversees the testimony of the saints (lyric) and the teachings of the Church (epic).

Balthasar’s theology really soars when he turns to the doctrine of the Trinity. I remember getting the fifth and final volume of the Theo-Drama in the mail some years ago. I read it immediately and with great excitement, for Balthasar reads the drama of salvation into the inner life of God in extraordinary ways that enliven the spiritual imagination. However, as Kilby points out, this requires a great deal of speculation about the attitudes, motives, and even feelings of the Trinitarian Persons. “In begetting the Son,” Balthasar writes in a passage of characteristic vividness, “the Father, as it were, addresses a request to him, and the Son in turn wishes nothing other than to employ his entire filial freedom in fulfilling the Father’s will.” This gives rise to an “eternal amazement” in the Godhead, for the Son “from the outset surpasses the Father’s wildest expectations.”

This sort of boldness is characteristic. Balthasar regularly stretches the boundaries of traditional theology, often for the sake of communicating and sparking spiritual insight. In another context, Balthasar suggests that Jesus’ final words to Mary (“Woman, this is your son”) should be read as rejecting her maternity—for the sake of allowing her to share in his abandonment and forsakenness on the cross. It’s an example of his theological style: What the tradition has long thought isn’t so much mistaken as not enough. The stakes need to be raised, the drama heightened, and this often means venturing audacious formulations that soar above the traditional ones.

Kilby helps me see why I’ve found this speculative enterprise so thrilling. Although Balthasar is often quoted as calling for a theology done on our knees, when one reads him the atmosphere “is not in fact so much reminiscent of one who prays as it is of one who directs the prayer of another,” which is perhaps not altogether surprising in view of the fact that Balthasar was an effective and regular director of retreats. The upshot is an expansive body of learned, inspiring, and spiritually rich publications. That’s largely how I’ve read him, and with much benefit for my own life of prayer.

This is not without dangers, however. As Kilby astutely observes, “We find in Balthasar the conflation of two distinct kinds of authority—the authority of the spiritual guide and the authority of the scholar.” The spiritual director rightfully pushes boundaries for the sake of spiritual growth. The theological scholar has a different vocation. He needs to speak judiciously and accurately so that we can be sure that our spiritual lives are properly grounded. In this work, the academic theologian’s authority does not come from his creativity, or even from the richness of his interior life. It comes from theological tradition, especially the magisterial teachings put forward and preserved by the Church.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was by any reckoning a unique figure in twentieth-century Catholicism. For good and for ill, he was a free agent. He left the Jesuits and struck out on his own, forming a community in Basel and founding his own publishing house. He had no academic appointment, no graduate students, and no religious superiors other than the spiritual authority he accorded to Adrienne von Speyr.

Combined with his remarkable intellectual gifts and interior loyalty to the Church, this freedom bore much good fruit. I’ve mentioned his tremendous ambitions on behalf of the final and fulfilling truth of Christ. He gave two generations of Catholics the confidence that, if read with the eyes of faith, the full sweep of Western culture is part of our Christian patrimony. This wonderful confidence is much needed today.

Tremendously learned, his books are also deeply scriptural. I still recall the excitement of reading his book on the passion of Christ, Mysterium Paschale, feeling the long, urgent paragraphs as avalanches of biblical imagery, allusion, and citation. In that book he does not so much stand above Scripture, as Kilby worries, as swim within its vastness. In fact, there are many places where Balthasar announces synthesis but performs something else: a mobile, imaginative, multifaceted, and theologically literate retelling of the biblical story. Again, it’s a theological style much needed today.

Moreover, Balthasar repeatedly insisted that theological wisdom is nurtured in prayer and purified in spiritual discipline. On the centenary of his birth, Benedict XVI summed up his achievement: “In a word, von Balthasar deeply understood that theology can only develop in prayer that accepts God’s presence and entrusts itself to him in obedience.” Is there any truth more needed in our age of soulless expertise? Yes, we need accuracy, but we also need the living spirit of discipleship.

All that said, as I wrote some years ago, Balthasar exemplifies an exploratory, virtuoso style of theology. It’s a style characteristic of the heroic generation that prepared the way for the lasting achievements of Vatican II, but it’s unstable, and hard to reproduce. Balthasar and his peers were unique, creative figures who resist summary and resist integration into the earlier theological traditions of the Church. The result is a feeling of discontinuity in theology, and this often in spite of explicit efforts to the contrary.

Balthasar was and remains indispensable, no question. But I find myself agreeing with Kilby’s assessment. He has much to teach us, but his unique and often idiosyncratic voice is unlikely to provide a reproducible, reliable style for Catholic theology.

The Virtue of Loyalty

On the evening of October 8, University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain delivered the twenty-fifth annual Erasmus Lecture, on “The Nature and Meaning of Loyalty.” I’ve long admired her work. Fiercely independent, she’s been a feminist willing to criticize feminism, a cosmopolitan woman who affirms the humanizing role of a sincere patriotism, and a contemporary academic willing to talk about God. It was an honor to introduce her to a standing-room-only audience.

Two moments in the lecture were particularly arresting. At one point, Elshtain reflected on the work of Jane Addams, a great figure in the Progressive era who had a special concern for women as both citizens and mothers. Addams recognized that women often must endure very concrete conflicts of loyalty. Like all citizens, women have something to contribute to society at large, and they rightly feel the pull of public involvement. Yet the family makes a fundamental claim.

This wasn’t a tension Addams imagined easily resolved. The real needs and demands of the wider world make impossible a thoroughgoing retreat into the inner world of the family, and a proper concern for our families prevents us from investing ourselves entirely in public or professional achievements. Elshtain commended Addams for her realism—and for her conviction that we should never assent to an ideology that demands that we forsake our loyalty to the little platoon of the family.

This doesn’t answer many of the hard questions we currently face when it comes to marriage, family, motherhood, and the full participation of women in professional and public life, but sometimes the first step in the right direction is figuring out which paths, often alluring and full of false promise, lead in the wrong direction.

The second arresting moment came at the end, when Elshtain turned to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, the small Protestant village in France that hid Jews during World War II. I know the story well, but in the context of her lecture I saw its meaning in a fuller way. We often hear about the dangers of parochialism. People are narrowly loyal to their families, clans, nations, and religions, we’re told, and we need to overcome this parochialism in order to embrace a wider loyalty to humanity. But is the narrowness of our loves really at odds with a universal concern for others?

The tightly knit village of Le Chambon was undoubtedly a community of inwardly focused loyalties, one that would hardly seem welcoming to strangers, much less to Jews whose presence posed mortal danger. Yet what seems is not always so. As it turned out, the bonds of family, village, and faith that defined Le Chambon were precisely what provided the indispensable basis for their courageous actions. Loyalty’s disposition of devotion can prepare our hearts for higher loyalties, wider loves.

Many thanks to Jean Bethke Elshtain for her probing reflections. We plan to publish the lecture soon.

From the Editor’s Desk

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