To be frank, Diana Butler Bass’s book Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (NY: HarperOne, 2012) made my skin crawl. I see in it a hybrid of the worst of evangelical pietism and politically correct liberalism (“progressivism”). Not that it is unique in that. I have cringed at the same trend among seminarians and clergy for many years now. Her larger goal is to chronicle the steep decline of institutional “Churchianity,” whether evangelical, liberal Protestant, or Roman Catholic, and to herald a tectonic shift toward a people’s Christianity that is better described (and often self-described) as spiritual rather than religious. She offers oodles of sociological data, but it immediately becomes clear her aim is more prescriptive than descriptive. Her description is correct, I think, but, unlike Professor Bass, I do not see in these trends a Hegelian-like movement of the Absolute Spirit. The mere fact that it is happening doesn’t mean it is the ineluctable will of God, which fanatics and ideologues think they know.
Christianity for the Tender-Minded
Professor Bass’s program seems to me to mirror the foolish policies of the current administration: it owes a great and massive theological debt and has long since run out of any intellectual capital with which to pay it. She affirms the increasing unwillingness of Christians young and old to swallow the catechism they have long been spoon-fed. So far, I’m with her. She then appeals to the great Wilfred Cantwell Smith (The Meaning and End of Religion, 1964).and others to suggest that belief was never really the point anyway. I even agree with that: as Tillich said, “ultimate concern” would seem to be the core of the thing. But then again no one ever valued pat, glib belief without a depth of commitment behind it. Isn’t it more of a distinction between “necessary” and “sufficient conditions”? I mean, you can have worthless faith that is merely skin-deep, and you can have heart-felt faith that makes a difference. What remains to be seen, however, is whether you can have the concern without the belief. Remember Hebrews 11:6b: “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” It is not some kind of a qualification without which you are not entitled to seek God, like claiming a man has to be circumcised to be saved (Acts 15:1). It is a simple matter of a logical premise: why would you seek what you don’t believe exists?
Well, Professor Bass urges us to replace the what with the how, content with style or technique. The old German Pietists (Spener, Tersteegen, Count Zinzindorf) knew that hollow orthodoxy was useless and that true belief had to be grounded in the “heart-warming” experience of faith. But Dr. Bass cannot mean only this, since she is prescribing the “how” as the remedy for doubt, implying that the cognitive assent to theological propositions is just not where it’s at. Yet all her gushy talk of seeking and finding Jesus in a soup kitchen or a prayer session or a quilting bee obviously implies some sort of “Jesus is God” Christology, doesn’t it? Unless she is just using the name “Jesus” as a catch-all term for the divine presence that she (thinks she) feels. In that case, she has, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, reduced theology to “connotation words.”
Similarly, Bass appeals to scriptural texts as some kind of norm again and again. Does not this how presuppose a very definite what? And the belief in a coming Kingdom of God that will spread justice and peace over all the earth—that doesn’t presuppose a definite belief that something’s going to happen? If not, then what on earth is the point? The urgency that Christians try to behave like Jesus—does this not simply take for granted that the gospel portrait of Jesus represents the real Jesus? And that Jesus is for some (theological) reason the norm? Otherwise, why not Frodo? Or is there much of a difference in Bass’s self-described “romantic” Christianity?
Certainly her use of scripture, stories of Abraham as well as Jesus, is as ahistorical and as touchy-feely as Rich Warren’s. She psychologizes and historicizes the biblical characters and makes them into pop-psychological object lessons. The depiction of Jesus as a first-century Leo Buscaglia overseeing the self-realization of his disciples (cf., Peter’s Caesarea Philippi confession, according to Bass: “You are the One for whom my heart has waited!”) is comical. Bass’s Christianity is not only “romantic,” i.e., artsy and emotion-colored; it is the stuff of women’s talk shows. Bass represents only the latest stage of the subjective sentimentalizing of religion described by Ann Douglas in The Feminization of American Culture (1978).
In all this, Bass means to cater to Christians who can no longer suppress their doubts. But plainly what she proceeds to do is simply to take God, Jesus, the whole thing, for granted. Her implicit message is not: “Here, friend, let me remove your burden of having to believe the unbelievable.” That was the approach, e.g., of John A.T. Robinson. Honest to God, 1963). It is rather “Let’s just forget about critical thinking, and then your doubts will not bother you.” This is to make a methodology, even a fetish, of intellectual flimsiness.
I say she owes a great theological debt because her approach is parasitic upon a version of belief, namely evangelical Christianity, that she is rejecting. It certainly appears that the atonement upon the cross has as little role in her thinking as it does in Process Theology or New Thought. Yet she wants people to “encounter Jesus” as if he were the same old imaginary friend that is so central to traditional fundamentalism. You supposedly don’t have to believe in the resurrection, but she wants you to experience the power of the resurrection as she did in a chat with an ecumenical council of local bank tellers one morning. Schaeffer was right: all she has left is connotation words.
The Relevance of an Implausible Ideal
But maybe that’s not quite all. Bass is very confident that Christians must pursue the agenda of Political Correctness, especially the code-slogan of “social justice” which amounts, finally, despite the cosmetic denials, to Socialism: forced income redistribution and a shut-down of Capitalism. These strategies, the policy of the current administration, are wrecking the economy. Political liberalism is already a sheer-faith position, forged in the mind-game laboratories of academia where paper ideology is king. Like-minded politicians legislate these ideologies, demanding that the stubborn facts of economic reality shall obey them. They “call things that are not as though they were” and expect creation ex nihilo. It is like an old science fiction parody by L. Sprague de Camp in which Congress got together to rescind the Law of Gravity, and everything began to float off into space! The joke, of course, is that one cannot regulate the “laws” of nature, try as one might. But this is what Socialist ideologues seek to do. And when their economies, for instance, of Eastern Europe, are ruined by this strategy, they have their rationalizations at the ready—just like Harold Camping and the Jehovah’s Witnesses when their predictions of the Second Coming fall through—again and again. Jim Wallis used to say that the criterion for Christian action was not success but obedience. One might paraphrase that maxim this way: what counts is not results but rationalizations.
Liberalism is, I say, already a religious faith, though secular liberals do not seem to realize it. Bass’s type of “progressive Christianity” makes the religious character of it explicit, though insofar as they are eroding the theology that might justify it, her social justice Christians are becoming just as arbitrary. But they have not yet made the connection that if one cannot count on a miracle-working deity to pull a miraculous harvest out of a hat in the Millennium, there is no pay-off. But maybe they are planning for that, judging from their pious talk of “living simply.” They are blithely embracing a strategy that must grind the economy to a halt, since makers of consumer goods would be left idle and poor. But this is okay with Bass and her fellows, since they (like all liberals) are deep down ascetics anyway and want everyone else to join the fun.
Let me pause to mention Bass’s “romantic” approach to realizing the kingdom through token efforts, conscience-salving efforts I should say, to “make a difference” re world hunger by shopping at Whole Foods, etc. Here we are witnessing magical thinking akin to that of the Melanesian Cargo Cults, whose confused adherents knew that Westerners were doing something right, judging from their manifest prosperity and military power, so they marched and drilled in the public square with broom-handle rifles and chattered into orange-crate radios, hoping these childish mimicries would cause the European god Jesus to bring them a boatload of Western goods. The gestures of the PC righteous are just as futile. I remember seeing those STOP APARTHEID NOW bumper stickers and thinking, “I’ll be sure to take care of that the very next chance I get.” I recall seeing a sign posted on a Society of Friends meeting hall that read PEACE SITE. My thought: “That’s a relief—no first strike from the Quakers!”
The Velvet-Covered Brick of Liberalism
But the strategies of Bass’s progressive Christians do not stop at that. They are plainly disciples of the current administration and its prevaricating messiah. They identify Democratic victories at the polls with the Fourth (or Fourth and a Half) Great Awakening and the indefatigable march of its Kingdom of God agenda. Are they naïve or just duplicitous in decrying Religious Right theocracy schemes, while advocating for their own zero-tolerance Leftist theocracy? From Harvey Cox to Jim Wallis to Diana Bass, they are surer than mortals have a right to be that they know what God is up to in the world, and thus they feel no qualms about legislating that. Would that they would heed the wisdom of the Apostle Paul: “Now we see in a glass darkly.” Or even the wisdom of Paul Simon: “God only knows. God makes his plans. The information’s not available to the mortal man.”
Not to open Pandora’s Box yet farther, but I just cannot fathom how self-proclaimed Christians of any stripe can have the slightest sympathy with the pro-abortion ideology when their own Lord and Savior narrowly escaped King Herod’s abortion clinic. But Bass blithely lumps Operation Rescue activists in with the Tea Party, whom, in accord with the Obama media line, she caricatures as “nativists.” The glib identification of the liberal agenda with the onward-marching will of God is just staggering. Here the smug arrogance of secular progressivism is reinforced by the pious zealotry of evangelical triumphalism. The worst of both worlds.
At one juncture in Christianity after Religion, author Bass shrugs off the anticipated reader suspicion that she is just stuck in nostalgia for her radical-chic evangelical college days. Forgive me if I think that is precisely what has happened. She has resolved to keep her Sunday School piety, come hell or high water, even as she saws off the epistemological limb it is hanging from. She imbibed sophomoric “social justice” slogans, mixing them with the seeming sophistication of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, hence her “romanticism.” It is a stance that disdains reality for a comfortable, self-congratulatory fantasy world of Prius-drivers and Obama voters. She and her fans are mired in the “Young Evangelicalism” set forth by my old pal Richard Quebedeaux in his 1974 manifesto. Those were heady days. I was thrilled to embrace the dream. But it is long since time to put away childish things.
The future’s so bright I have to wear shades — or is it just dark?
What would maturity mean? It would mean a “great awakening” from the pleasant dreams of both evangelicalism and progressivism. It would amount to the “great noon” of Nietzsche, when religious crutches are cast away with the vigor of someone who thinks he has been healed by Ernest Angley or Peter Popov.
Dr. Bass is right on target when she highlights the onrushing of religious and inter-religious pluralism in America. As classmates, roommates, office mates, team mates, and marriage mates drop the old religious barriers that traditionally divided them (and personal acquaintance is an irresistible battering ram to those tottering walls), I believe that Americans will of necessity cease to make their inherited religions their primary (or even secondary) identifiers. Since, as Rousseau said, “It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned,” people will allow their religious identities to recede into the background, right next to their ethnicities. It will be something to appreciate, even to cherish, but no longer the main thing, just as the Law of Moses, which is the very Word of God in the Old Testament, has become merely “the customs of the Jews” in the Book of Acts.
Pluralism next begets secularism, as it already has in our pluralistic republic, where the “sacred canopy” (Peter Berger) of our laws is not the Bible or the Koran, but rather a purely pragmatic social compact that keeps us off each others’ toes. And then there is modernity with its scientific worldview. Technology with the access to once-forbidden heresies that it provides has already eroded traditional religiosities in various parts of the world. It was such influences from the secular West that spawned Islamo-Fascism as one of Anthony Wallace’s Revitalization Movements. Usually such reactions are doomed at the outset, since, if the horse hadn’t already escaped the barn, the frantic rancher wouldn’t be wishing he had locked it and resolving to keep it locked from now on. Until recently I expected that Islamo-Fascism would pass like a destructive hurricane and be gone, clearing the way for world peace to arrive through the eventual adoption of democratic Capitalism and the free market. When people have abundance, a condition made possible for the first time in human history by the very same Capitalism now deemed Politically Incorrect, there will be no need for war.
But now I see that bright prospect endangered. It appears that America is haplessly following “progressive” Europe into the financially suicidal path of the socialistic welfare state. It is like the character in Stephen King’s horror story “Survivor Type” who survived as long as he could amputate and consume his own flesh. Progressives are following the wrong biblical precedent, that of the primitive church in Jerusalem, which pooled and redistributed its members’ resources, bringing collective bankruptcy in its wake and causing them to hit Paul’s churches up for hand-outs.
The moral decadence of our society is manifested in our abortion mills and the increasing toleration of infanticide as well as the judicial system’s indifference to child rape and murder. But moral decadence can take the form of inflated morality as much as a deflation of it, as witness the courts’ compassionate preference for the murderer over his victim. Liberalism erases distinctions between the predator and his prey when it opposes the execution of the former, as his life is imagined to have equal value with that of the latter. Consider the tragic moral confusion in Bass’s anecdote about the Amish community who embraced the murdering dog who killed their own children. Nietzsche could have asked for no truer example of the slave morality of sniveling Christianity. Once we declare universal forgiveness we lower the standard of responsibility for ourselves and others. If I don’t hold you responsible, you won’t hold me responsible. “We’re all sinners, after all.”
Environmentalists consider humans the enemy of “the planet” and unapologetically advocate policies that will make us pesky humans suffer. Add to that the ludicrous attempt to dress animals up in the suits and cravats of “rights” when they certainly accord none to each other in the nature of the case. (We must be humane to animals, but it is an obligation of our own character, not of their imagined rights.) Think of the myopic madness of pacifism which only facilitates the victory of an aggressor. Morality has gotten way out of hand here, becoming dangerously counterproductive.
All this denotes a rot that is hollowing out our resolve to survive. We face a virulent foe in worldwide Islamo-Fascism, and we are too cowardly even to admit the threat exists. We call it “Islamophobia” when anyone dares decry the dangers of Islamo-Fascism. We are too lazy and faithless to prevent Jihadist states from gaining nuclear weapons. We have made ourselves weak and spineless, hoping that international problems will just go away, that our enemies will be as slow to act as we are. If there is a second Shoah, a nuclear one this time, well, that will be too bad. We will put on our required mourning clothes and say, “Never again! And this time we’re not kidding!”
There is a chance that the Islamist hurricane will destroy Western Civilization because we will have proven ourselves unworthy of surviving it. To use Garrett Hardin’s once-controversial analogy, the one person in the lifeboat whose tender conscience bids him jump overboard to make room for another will only have succeeded in ensuring that there is no longer any conscience in the lifeboat. If medieval barbarism against women, homosexuals, and freethinkers should one day prevail, the effete and naïve “romantics” and “progressives” will have abetted the process. But that will be all right with them. It will give them a chance to play the martyr, an essential role in the aesthetic of victimhood.