The great contest is over the culture, the guiding ideas and habits of mind and heart that inform the way we understand the world and our place in it. Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of “Christ without culture”—meaning Christianity in indifference to culture—are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.
Christianity does indeed have its own culture, its own intellectual tradition, its own liturgy and songs, its own moral teachings and distinctive ways of life, both personal and communal. The Church must carefully cultivate that culture and, in times of severe persecution, cultivate it, if need be, in the catacombs. We are, after all, in Babylonian exile from our true home in the New Jerusalem. But in America today, there is ample opportunity to follow the admonition of the prophet Jeremiah to seek the peace and well-being of the earthly city. Christians who, embracing the model of “Christ against culture,” invite us to take refuge in the catacombs of their own imagining are not helpful in that task.
A rich ecclesial culture, a distinctively Christian way of being in the world, sometimes finds itself positioned against the world as the world is defined by those who are hostile to the influence of the Church. This should never surprise. The Church is a contrast society, exemplifying what St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 calls a more excellent way. Even when the Church is against the world, she is against the world for the world. As John Paul the Great put it, “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.”
The more excellent way proposed is a message, but above all a person, the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Second Vatican Council says that Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man but the revelation of man to himself. Those words of Gaudium et Spes were insistently repeated in the pontificate of John Paul and have a prominent place in the teaching of Benedict XVI.
The Christian proposal of a more excellent way is not just one option among others, although it must be freely chosen. Some years ago, in conversation with a prominent Anglican bishop in Britain, I asked how he would define the mission of the Church of England. After a pause for thought, he said, “I suppose I would say that the mission, so to speak, is to maintain the religious option for those who might be interested.” Needless to say, those who control the commanding heights of British culture do not feel threatened by that understanding of the Christian mission.
While religion flourishes here in America, it is largely of the Christ-without-culture variety. What in recent decades have been the distinctively Christian contributions that deserve to command the attention of the cultural gatekeepers of America? In literature and the arts, in music and entertainment, in political philosophy and the humanities, such contributions are few and far between. Distinctively Christian cultural products typically cater to the Christian market. They are not proposals of a more excellent way for American culture. Recently a Hollywood movie studio announced that it was inaugurating a new series of films aimed at “the faith market.” Does this indicate a growing Christian influence in our public culture? Perhaps so, but it is much more obviously a commonsensical capitalist decision to take advantage of the niche market that is the Christian subculture.
The Christ-without-culture model induces contentment with being a subculture. But Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience, that religion is a matter of consumption rather than obligation. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it. It is a public way of life obliged to the truth.
Many Christians, possibly most Christians, have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning. These dichotomies are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture and are closely associated with what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism.
In what is called our high culture, this understanding of religion as private and intensely subjective was influentially depicted a hundred years ago in William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience . Early on in that work, James defines religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In this understanding, church, community, doctrine, tradition, morality—all of these are secondary and, as often as not, hindrances to genuine religion. Genuine religion is subjective experience, and subjective experience in solitude.
Recall the influential 1992 book by literary critic Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation . The post-Christian nation, says Bloom, emerged a long time ago and is exemplified in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared: “It is by yourself without ambassador that God speaks to you . . . . It is God in you that responds to God without.” Bloom, rather loosely, calls the American religion “gnosticism,” the belief that each individual possesses a divine spark and salvation consists in the liberation of that divine spark from the body and from the particularities of its constraints in history and cultural space.
Bloom writes: “Unlike most countries, we have no overt national religion; but a partly concealed one has been developing among us for two centuries now. It is almost purely experiential, and despite its insistences [to the contrary], it is scarcely Christian in any traditional way. A religion of the self burgeons, under many names, and seeks to know its own inwardness, in isolation. What the American self has found, since about 1800, is its own freedom—from the world, from time, from other selves.”
Of course, Harold Bloom overstates his case. It is not sufficient, however, to point out that there are innumerable ministries in the several Christian communities that insist on the objectivity of truth, the authority of Scripture and its Spirit-guided interpretation, the ecclesial means of grace, and the reality of moral good and evil. But in preferring such religion, Bloom might respond, one is still exercising a private preference. One’s preferred religion may be conservative or liberal, orthodox or squishy, but the point is that it is my religion, certified and secured by the fact that it is mine. By the privilege of privacy, it cannot be publicly questioned, and it is forbidden to publicly question the preferred beliefs of others.
The American religion so described is not the whole of religion in America. But it is the spiritual atmosphere that permits and indeed invites entrepreneurial success in catering to the tastes of a Christian subculture and calling it, falsely, the evangelization of culture.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things .