A couple of years back, a remarkable book was published by Ross Douthat. I recommend it as required reading for anyone who wants to grasp what has happened to faith in the second half of the 20th Century up until now. It is Bad Religion – How we became a nation of heretics. It seems good to review some of his findings, since these heresies seem only to grow in the consumerist West, where we take attitudes that are fine for commercial markets and misapply them to the faith. We end up with a “designer” religion, designed to please the customer rather than proclaim the truth of our founder and Head, Jesus Christ.
In the book, Douthat documented how the churches (both the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations) rose dramatically in the years following World War II, but then quite suddenly saw their numbers collapse as they were overwhelmed with successive waves of heresies, which he describes with great precision.
Douthat uses the word “heresy” quite correctly to describe a version of the Christian faith that holds an incomplete version of the full truth, one that chooses certain tenets and discards many others that both balance and complete the picture. Of course there are often tensions in holding all the truths.
For example, how do we reconcile God’s sovereignty and power with our freedom and capacity to say “No”? Or how do we resolve God’s mercy and love with the existence of Hell? The orthodox approach is to hold both and leave the tensions largely unresolved, or at least to seek a balance that respects both. The heretical approach is to chose one and discard or minimize the other in order to be free of the tension.
Heresy has become quite the “art” of modern Americans who are often “genius” in crafting endless varieties of do-it-yourself faith: one from column A, two from column B. For most Americans, the Church is largely irrelevant, and tends to be considered an annoyance, what with all her rules and traditions. Hence while most Americans identify themselves as believing in God, the actual content of that belief varies significantly and often diverges widely from orthodox Christianity not to mention orthodox Catholicism.
God as He reveals himself in Scripture is quite easily tossed aside by moderns, and a tamed, more “fitting” god is crafted—one who affirms more than demands, one who consoles and almost never warns.
We used to call this idolatry (crafting your own god and worshipping it). But most moderns prefer softer terms such as “finding the god within,” and discovering the “god of my understanding.” Truth is cast overboard or doubted altogether and a self-referential (solipsistic) thinking emerges that is self-authorized. Along with this private magisterium comes a self-congratulatory “tolerance” that is extolled as the highest virtue. If there is any reference at all to the revelation that is Scripture or to the dogmas of the faith, most moderns interpret them in a highly selective (i.e., heretical) manner, and subject what does remain to interpretations that are often so twisted as to be almost impossible to follow.
What makes heresy so dangerous is that it most often contains some truthful elements. As such, many believers can easily be duped by the “partial Gospel.” Plausible teachers, using smooth words, seem to be confirming some truth of Christian faith. But they stop short of the full Gospel. For example, the purveyors of the “Prosperity Gospel” extol the power of prayer and the truth that God does want to bless us. But they largely discard the cross and the call of Christ to endure hardships and even poverty for the Kingdom. Gone is any notion that we have been called out of this world and are thus hated by the world, or the idea that we cannot serve both God and money. They also conveniently set aside the very consistent warnings about wealth issued by the Lord Jesus.
But it all sounds so good and so right: pray, trust God, blessings in abundance! Doesn’t God want me to be happy? Yes, and thus heresy has its appeal in pointing to some truths, but it ignores others meant to balance, distinguish, and contextualize.
Consider another huge trend in the modern age that has sorely affected faith: the rise of the therapeutic culture. Douthat spends a good amount of time describing and critiquing it. Quoting Philip Rieff he begins,
“Religious man was born to be saved [but] “psychological man is born to be pleased.” [Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006, 19].
God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problem that arises, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves.” … [He] is not demanding, He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.
Therapeutic religion is immensely tolerant: since the only true God is the one you find within, there’s no reason to impose your faith on someone else. But a tolerant society is not necessarily a just one. Men may smile at their neighbors without loving them and decline to judge their fellow citizens’ beliefs out of a broader indifference to their fate. [Tolerance can] easily turn out to be an ego that never learns sympathy, compassion, or real wisdom.
Therapeutic to its very core, it emphasizes feelings over duties, it’s impatient with institutional structures of any sort. [Kindle Edition Loc:4676-95]
Has it worked? Apart from the troubling heretical notions at work (again, heresy understood in terms of its classical definition, as an incomplete and unbalanced grasp of the true faith), has the therapeutic religion worked even in its basic goal to “make us feel better about ourselves”? Douthat observes,
We’re freer than we used to be [since everyone can think and be what they want and construct their own little world largely freed from critique by a “tolerant” culture], but [we’re] also more isolated, lonelier, and more depressed … Therapeutic theology raises expectations, and it raises self-regard. It isn’t surprising that people taught to be constantly enamored of their own godlike qualities [since they are trained to discover the “god-within] would have difficulty forging relationships with ordinary human beings. Two Supreme Selves do not necessarily a happy marriage make.
Americans are less happy in their marriages than they were thirty years ago; women’s self-reported happiness has dipped downward overall. Our social circles have constricted: declining rates of churchgoing have been accompanied by declining rates of just about every sort of social “joining,” and Americans seem to have fewer and fewer friends whom they genuinely trust. Our familial networks have shrunk as well. More children are raised by a single parent; fewer people marry or have children to begin with; and more and more old people live and die alone.
Our society boasts 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, 30,000 life coaches—and hundreds of thousands of nonclinical social workers and substance abuse counselors as well. Most of these professionals spend their days helping people cope with everyday life problems … not true mental illness. This means that under our very noses a revolution has occurred in the personal dimension of life, such that millions of Americans must now pay professionals to listen to their everyday life problems … gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends. [Kindle version Loc:4819-38, inter al].
So no, it hasn’t worked. But its purveyors just keep coming out with the latest tome by the latest guru. To be fair, as Douthat notes, there are many causes of the social ills described above. But the therapeutic culture and its “spiritual (not religious!)” expressions do raise expectations for a great cure. Orthodox Catholicism on the other hand traditionally spoke of this world as a vale of tears and an exile to be endured before true and lasting happiness dawned. Contentment could be found here, and true faith is essential to that. But lasting happiness was found only in the Lord, and fully, only in Heaven. For now we should gather as a Church and console one another with the consolations we have received, and continue to retell the story of total victory promised us in the Lord, after the Good Friday of this life gives way to the Eternal Easter of Heaven.
But another reason the inward and highly personalized faith of the therapeutic culture does not work is that it rejects the communion for which we were ultimately made.
St. Augustine summarized our most fundamental problem as being “curvatus in se.” That is, on account of Original Sin, the human person will tend to be turned in on himself. This of course is exactly what a lot of modern versions of heretical religion peddle: a highly personalized, inwardly focused search for “God.” And it is a search that is apart from the community of the Church and the extended community of Sacred tradition. Chesterton called tradition the “democracy of the dead,” since it gave them a voice and a seat at the table. Through Tradition and doctrine we have communion, not only with each other, but also with the ancient Christians.
But modern heresy turns inward to a very lonely and rather dark place. It rejects the need for a Church or for any doctrines at all. Alone and turned inward, we cannot be fulfilled. It is no accident that the therapeutic “faith” emanating from a therapeutic culture is not fulfilling.
The real truth is that we were made for others and for God. Communion with God, and with each other in God, is THE goal of life. Christ founded a Church, and summoned us to a relationship with the Blessed Trinity. But it is the Trinity as revealed, not as reworked by us.
The “god-within” of modern heresy, is more often a mere emanation of our very self, a solipsism (from the Latin solus (alone) and ipse (self)). And “tolerance,” the way it is spoken of today (it is not true tolerance, more on that HERE), does not join us together in harmony as advertised, it separates us into our own little worlds where “what’s true for me doesn’t have to be true for you.” Increasingly, we live in the little world of our own mind and are pulling up roots from any shared reality. God, if he is understood at all by these modern heresies, is a very local deity, who exists only in the mind of one person and is subject to later redefinition. He (or she? or it?) is a small and very contingent deity that has little role other than, as Douthot keenly observes, to be our butler.
One of the great challenges for us today, then, is to re-propose the need for the Church that Christ founded. He did not write a book and send us off to study it. He founded a community—a Church—and told us we would find Him there, where two or three are gathered in His name, where His actual words are read and heard, where His true body and blood are offered and received. Many are scandalized that He should be found among sinners, gossips, hypocrites, and the like (and saints too!). But that is where He is found. Indeed, one image for the Church is Christ, crucified between two thieves (one repented!). Yes that is where He is found: in the Church. And only within the Church and her careful, thoughtful doctrines and the accumulated wisdom of centuries is the journey to find God within us safe enough to consider. For yes, He does dwell within us too. But don’t make the journey there alone—no, never alone.