Last week over at salon.com, Jeffrey Tayler wrote another of those predictable polemics against religion. All the usual clichés were present, from the idea that religion motivates weirdness and evil to the strange inability to present the Christian faith in terms which any thoughtful believer (or informed atheist, for that matter) might recognize.
One paragraph in particular stood out:
Why childish? A majority of adults in one of the most developed countries on Earth believe, in all seriousness, that an invisible, inaudible, undetectable “father” exercises parental supervision over them, protecting them from evil (except when he doesn’t), and, for the mere price of surrendering their faculty of reason and behaving in ways spelled out in various magic books, will ensure their postmortem survival. Wishful thinking characterizes childhood, yes, but, where the religious are concerned, not only. That is childish.
Now, he may well be correct. But what is described here has little to do with the historic faith of the Christian Church. It is not the God of the Book of Job or the Gospel of John. Nor is it the Christianity of the Catholic Creeds or the Protestant confessions. It is not the faith of Augustine in his Confessions, or Aquinas in his Summa, or Calvin in his Institutes, or Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress, or Pascal in his Pensées.
Yet it was not Tayler’s impressive confidence in his ignorance of Christian theology that fascinated me. It was his contrast of religion as childishness with secular liberalism as adult. Such is not original to him, of course, but Tayler justifies his own version of this traditional thesis by arguing that childishness has at its core wishful thinking. This, he claims, is a central part of religion.
That wishful thinking is childish is a reasonable point but there are other things which also qualify one as such. For example, there is Philip Rieff's notion of the coming barbarism, which he defined as the ruthless and intentional forgetting of the authority of the past. This barbarism is childish, a kind of cultural Oedipus Complex. To this we might also add such things as a preoccupation with trivia, a need for constant entertainment and an ethic built upon personal pleasure and convenience. These are hallmarks of childishness, too.
I am therefore somewhat less confident that our world really is becoming more adult in its approach to life than, say, that which Christianity fostered in the Middle Ages and beyond. It glories in Reality TV and the Kardashians. It weeps inconsolably for Cecil the Lion but sheds no tears for the victims of Planned Parenthood. It is obsessed with entertainment and sex and celebrity gossip. Its moral guides are otherwise vacuous individuals who can sell a few records or look good on the silver screen.
Are these really signs of maturity? I hate to sound as though I have surrendered my faculty of reason, as Tayler would say, but Palestrina, Bach’s sacred oratorios, and the poems of John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins strike me as somewhat more adult than America’s Got Talent, Taylor Swift’s latest lyrics, or the wit and wisdom of Jon Stewart. And one need only think of the media's reaction to Bruce Jenner and to the rise of transhumanism to see that religion has no monopoly on wishful thinking. In fact, the only way in which this emerging culture is obviously more adult than its predecessors is in the Hugh Hefner sense of the word. Far from representing maturity, one might characterize modern Western culture as a sustained campaign designed to annihilate the difference between adulthood and childishness, to the detriment of both.
Take, for example, the fact that many now apparently favor Monty Python and Frank Sinatra over traditional religious texts when it comes to funeral rites. A comparison of quotations from three such liturgies is instructive:
First, Monty Python: ‘Always look on the bright side of death just before you take your terminal breath.’
Then, the Chairman of the Board: ‘For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has not. To say the things he truly feels, And not the words of one who kneels.'
And now one inspired by a ‘magic book': ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.’
Which of these are the more wishful in their thinking, I wonder? Which articulates a more realistic view of life and death? And who is more adult—Eric Idle, Ol' Blue Eyes, or Thomas Cranmer?
In fact, Tayler’s fundamental mistake is thinking that the choice facing us today is between the childishness of traditional Christianity and the adult attitudes of secularism. Perhaps the choice is rather that between the historic, traditional—and thus childlike—faith of Christianity (as a famous religious man once said, Unless you become like little children….) and the childish faith of the coming barbarism. Of course, Tayler has the right to prefer the latter. But he should not flatter himself that in doing so he has made the more adult choice.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.