Note: Due to an editing error, this article has been modified since originally posted.
Gnosticism” may not be the right word for it, but it is what Harold Bloom in The American Religion calls a religion of the self. It is a seductive way of accommodating differences by declaring a truce in contentions over truth. The “Christ without culture” model—meaning Christianity indifferent to culture—would seem to produce a circumstance in which religion is impervious to culture and culture is impervious to religion. But, in fact, it results in religion’s acquiescing in the culture’s demand that religion confine itself to the sphere of privacy.
In his classic study at the beginning of the last century, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James describes religion as that which a man does with his solitude. What one does with one’s solitude may take many different forms, from mystical experience, to thinking positively in ways that maximize your potential, to ten-step meditation techniques resulting in a greater measure of inner peace. In more contemporary language, religion—or, if you prefer, spirituality—is whatever works for you.
The religion of solitude can be practiced in a five-thousand-seat auditorium of a megachurch. In their comfortable seats, each is a member of the audience, with membership consisting chiefly in showing up. An audience is very different from a congregation, never mind the communio with God through Christ for which we were created, and for which, if we rightly read our restless hearts, we long.
If, as I suggested last week, we are heading into a greatly intensified public clash of state power and religious freedom, something not entirely unlike the Kulturkampf attempted by Bismarck in the nineteenth century, Christian leadership is ill prepared for the battles ahead. Some express the hope that, given President-elect Obama’s repeated commitment to healing national divisions, he will not push for extreme measures such as the Freedom of Choice Act, thus igniting, in a way not seen since Roe v. Wade, the most explosive moral questions in our public life. I would like to think such hopes are justified, but his early choice of Thomas Daschle—a radically pro-abortion politician and, to the Church’s shame, a Catholic—as secretary of health and human services, the department dealing most closely with abortion and related life issues, is not encouraging.
Obama’s public remarks on the freedom of religion and constitutional law demonstrate little awareness of the significance of the first freedom of the First Amendment in America’s law and lived experience. Moreover, after more than three decades of the most passionate public debate of these matters, Obama declared during the election that the moral and legal status of the unborn child are questions “above my pay grade.”
The truly ominous possibility, indeed likelihood, is that Obama does not see his extreme positions on abortion as being extreme at all. They are the entrenched orthodoxies of the parties that got him to where he is. Those in opposition are viewed as a recalcitrant minority guilty of perpetuating divisiveness, and the time has come to break their back once and for all. I hope I am wrong, but this strikes me as the more plausible understanding of the Freedom of Choice Act and other measures aimed at “bringing us together again.”
The response of Christian leaders to the imminent aggressions will require determined legal talent, especially in First Amendment law, a sharpening of public arguments, reaching out to those who do not understand what is at stake, and careful strategizing by pro-life activists and politicians. In the first place and in the long term, however, the need is for the courage to recover a biblical and historical understanding of what it means to say “Let the Church be the Church.” The Church is not an association of individuals sharing the experience of religion as what they do with the solitude. The Church is not in the consumption business, peddling the products that satisfy one’s self-defined spiritual needs. The Church is a unique society among the societies of the world; a community of obligation standing in solidarity with the truth who is Christ.
That is how the Church understood herself in the apostolic period, as witness St. Paul’s opening hymn in the letter to the Ephesians, his depiction of cosmic transformation in Romans 8, and his anticipation in Philippians 2 of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. That is how the Church understood herself in the patristic era when Justin Martyr proposed Christianity not as a more satisfying religion among other religions but as “the true philosophy.” It was the understanding of Saint Augustine, who proposed in City of God that the story of the gospel is nothing less than the story of the world. Were Christianity what a man does with his solitude, there would be no martyrs. In every vibrant period of the Church’s life, it has been understood that her message and mission are based on public events, are advanced by public argument, and invite public response.
“The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes” said John Paul the Great. For the past three hundred years, that public proposal has been inhibited and stifled by Christians who acquiesced in the Enlightenment demand that religion, if it is to survive at all, confine itself to the closet of subjectivity. In America, that acquiescence was embraced as a virtue. The freedom of religion was largely purchased at the price of agreeing to the public irrelevance of religion. Religious empires were constructed and flourish today by catering to private salvation and the spiritualities of solitude.
Today the Enlightenment settlement that imposed a public truce with respect to the truths that matter most, divorcing fact from value, knowledge from meaning, and faith from reason, needs to be challenged, and challenged boldly. Whatever one may think of papal authority, on the world-historical stage that challenge is being pressed most boldly, even audaciously, by the bishop of Rome. That was the real significance of Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg University on September 12, 2006. The media excitement focused on a few words about Islam. And he did say that the use of violence to impose religion is to act against reason, and to act against reason is to act against the nature of God, for God has revealed himself as logos—the word and the reason by which all came to be and in which all coheres.
But the gist of Benedict’s argument at Regensburg and in many other forums is directed to Christian intellectuals who, in the name of “de-Hellenizing” Christianity, pit biblical faith against the great synthesis of faith and reason achieved over the centuries of the Christian intellectual tradition. He is challenging also non-Christian intellectuals to free themselves from the truncated and stifling definition of rationality imposed by certain construals of the Enlightenment. It is not reasonable, he argues with great intellectual sophistication, to hold that atheism or agnosticism is the default position of rationality. Nor, he insists, can the undoubted achievements of modernity be sustained without reference to transcendent truth.
Since we cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that God is, the rational position is not to live as though God does not exist but to live as though God does exist. Here Benedict is urging a form of Pascal’s wager. The seventeenth-century genius Blaise Pascal proposed that it is more rational, in view of the benefits to be gained, to believe that God exists than to believe he does not exist. If the believer turns out to be wrong, he has lost what he had hoped for; if the nonbeliever turns out to be wrong, he has lost, quite simply and catastrophically, everything, including life eternal. In short, what is at stake is the infinite or the finite, and there is no commensurability between infinity and finitude. C.S. Lewis rephrased Pascal’s wager this way: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
In these and many other ways, the case is advanced that Christianity is a public proposal within the realm of authentically public discourse, and requiring decisions of immeasurable consequences, both personal and cultural. In different times and in different places, the Church has understood its relationship to culture in different ways. There is Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. That useful typology proposed by H. Richard Niebuhr can be expanded and modified. The one model that is not possible, except by deluding ourselves and betraying the Church’s proposal to the world, is Christ without culture.
Babylon cannot be transformed into the New Jerusalem. The latter is God’s achievement in God’s good time. To attempt to achieve it on our own is a delusion. Acting on the delusion leads to fevered fanaticism; the certainty of failure leads to bitter despair. But a Church that knows itself, and publicly asserts itself, as a distinct society in its place of exile seeks the peace of the city of man and in that seeking is, in this time short of the End Time, the prolepsis of the City of God.
The Church is not merely a voluntary association of the spiritually like-minded catering to the indulgence of private sensibilities in one of Babylon’s many enclaves of choice. The Church is the Body of Christ through time proposing to the world the new creation inaugurated in his cross and resurrection and promised return. Whether against, above, in paradox, or transforming, she is always critically engaged—never surrendering to the cultural captivity that is the delusion of “Christ without culture.”
Yes, the imminent Kulturkampf, if that is what is in the offing, will require legal talent, political strategizing, relentless persuasion, and all the other means compatible with our constitutional order. Most of all, however, it requires the courage born of faith that the Church really is the Body of Christ through time, a distinct and public community bearing public witness to public truths about the right ordering of life both public and personal. In Catholic history, the cry through the centuries is for libertas ecclesiae—the freedom of the Church to be the Church. For Catholics and others, that freedom now faces a time of severe testing. In the defense of that freedom there have been through the centuries martyrs beyond numbering. We do not know what will happen in the months and years ahead, except that now it may be our turn.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things .
A Personal Note
I am grateful for the many concerned inquiries and assurances of prayer. The last several weeks have been a medical rough spot. A suspected cancerous growth in the groin has now been declared completely benign. Another growth in the spinal area is under active investigation and, we fervently hope, will yield a similar conclusion. I thank you for your continuing solidarity in prayer.