In the Times of London today, Andrew Sullivan has an interesting essay on “the broader crises facing established religion in the West”: the serious dumbing down of Protestant and Catholic religion and its failure to absorb the implications of Modernism.
The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious Christians are over. There is no Thomas Merton in our day; no Reinhold Niebuhr, Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the arguments spawned by the new atheist wave, the Christian respondents have been underwhelming. As one evangelical noted in The Christian Science Monitor last week, “being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence”.
The quality of the Catholic priesthood has also drifted downward: the next generation of priests is more orthodox, but also more insular and less engaged with the wider world. There are a few exceptions: the 29-year-old orthodox Catholic Ross Douthat has just won a treasured opinion column slot in The New York Times. But he is sadly an exception that proves a more general rule. American Christianity may be stronger in some pockets, but it is dumber too. In the end, in the free market-place of ideas and beliefs, that will count.
And the broken wheel squeeks loudest. Today’s Christianity is vocal and politically active, and its music and casual (and even ironic) social style mimics the coolness of the larger pop culture, but this masks an overriding fact: Christianity has been unable to assimilate Modernism. From the scientific theory of evolution to the ramifications (theological and existential) of Auschwitz, to the very real implications of contemporary biblical scholarship and archeology on the way we should read the Bible, much of what is called “Christianity” has simply been rendered absurd by the way it has responded (either with ignorance, flat-out denial, or obtuseness).
Christianity is like a large ocean liner that looks sound, and has enthusiastic people singing on deck and inviting others aboard, but there is a huge hole in its stern. That hole is its intellectual failure in the face of truly momentous historical facts (evolution, Auschwitz, contemporary biblical archeology, and the global spread of the science, evidence, and theory based university system, to name but four).
Sullivan is a Catholic, and wants to see Christianity recover. Here’s how he puts it:
What one yearns for is a resuscitation of a via media in American religious life – the role that the established Protestant churches once played. Or at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world. It seems to me that American Christianity, despite so many resources, has ignored its intellectual responsibility.
Although I’m an agnostic, I must say AMEN to Sullivan’s astute and smoke-clearing analysis. Of course, atheists and agnostics have been making these critiques (often in the face of vilification) for quite a while. But it’s nice to see someone who professes Christian faith admit the obvious: Intellectually, the contemporary Christian emperor has been going about feigning to wear clothes, but he has actually been rather naked.