During a recent “Stewardship Council” meeting at my parish I brought up the point that religion in our modern age has largely become subjected to the terms of consumerism. One can see this above all else in the rise of the “Spiritual But Not Religious”-the devotees of A Course in Miracles and Eat Pray Love, who regard “organized religion” as an instrument of oppression and a morning among the trees as a far more effective way to get closer to God than anything we find in church (personally I think the “walk in the woods” spirituality, with apologies to Bill Bryson, has more in common with The Lorax than it does with the Holy Spirit). The bottom line is that in our modern age we want spirituality on our terms, preferably with some practical benefits (be it stress management techniques or a cheap fix for the refrigerator), “take up your cross” simply does not sell.
At the same time, however, there is something more at work here than the late 20th and early 21st Century consumerism that has become the principality of our age. If I can borrow a metaphor from Pope Paul VI, the smoke of Satan had already Christendom well before the industrial revolution had made modern consumerism possible. Long before “SBNR” had become a thing, long before the Internet would spread gems like “Why are millennials leaving the church?” and “Why I hate religion but love Jesus”, long before Barnes & Noble’s shelves groaned under the weight of wishful thinking and long before vacuous generic spiritual clichés had entered the public consciousness (I could go on but you get the idea) Christianity had already been upset from within. Or rather, more accurately, Protestant Christianity had been weakened from within. The culprit? In a word? America.
More than a few Catholics and Orthodox would argue that Protestantism already contained the seeds of its own destruction, and in a sense I agree with yes. Yet classical Christianity has been well preserved in many Protestant churches (think of the fabulous work of Thomas Oden and Timothy Keller), there is nothing inherently heretical about the evangelicalism as such, and as the Pope Emeritus once put it, the Reformers made some genuine theological breakthroughs when it came to the Cross. I have no problem granting a Protestantism that is faithful to Nicene Christianity (even if only implicitly) a seat at the table. Moreover, I think there is much in Protestantism that can and should be re-appropriated and re-integrated within Catholicism (such as a renewed emphasis on Scripture, personal conversion and the like). Again, I’m not alone there.
Yet something has gone awry in the United States. It was here that both magisterial and free Protestant churches splintered into a bewildering number of denominations, non-denominational churches, parachurch movements, and eventually (as Ross Douthat demonstrated in his Bad Religion) into full-blown heresies. The creed was out, charisma was in. Protestant in America begat both “post-Protestantism” (beginning with the Unitarianism Jefferson predicted would eventually dominate the nation) and eventually a whole slew of new movements that we frequently label as cults-the Adventists, the Christian Scientists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and above all the Mormons (along with other groups that rejected large swaths of Classical Christianity-the Christadelphians, the Oneness Pentecostals, etc). Though in time virtually all of these developments/corruptions would be exported abroad, they were virtually all “born and bred” America-homegrown Christianity(ies) as it were.
Father Stephen Freeman has brilliantly described how this happened:
The Second Great Awakening was largely a para-church movement. It did not take place within denominational structures – if anything it created more denominations. It was the single most entrepreneurial moment in all of Christian history: anybody could have his own denomination!
A Christianity that is largely without doctrine and sacrament is a Christianity of slogan and extravaganza. A “Churchless” Christianity is simply, a heresy. It is a strange reading of the New Testament with conclusions as novel as they are effective. It is also destructive of the long term health of the Christian faith. Many who grow tired of its slogans and extravaganza do not turn elsewhere – they turn nowhere. The fastest growing religious group in America is the unchurched.
David Bentley Hart, in his essay Religion and America writes
If the vestigial Christianity of the old world presents one with the pathetic spectacle of shape without energy, the quite robust Christianity of the new world often presents one with the disturbing spectacle of energy without shape. It is not particularly original to observe that, in the dissolution of Christendom, Europe retained the body while America inherited the spirit, but one sometimes wonders whether for “spirit” it would not be better to say “poltergeist.”
The special genius of American religion (if that is what it is) is an inchoate, irrepressibly fissiparous force, a peregrine spirit of beginnings and endings (always re-founding the church and preparing for Armageddon), without any middle in which to come to rest.
Though the churches of the magisterial reformation, the Church of England, and Catholicism found America fertile soil (as every, religion does), the atmosphere in which they flourished was one permeated by a religious consciousness little bound to tradition, creed, hierarchy, or historical memory, but certain of its spiritual liberty and special election.
One should read this entire essay to appreciate it, but I simply must quote Hart’s crowning moment-his indictment of contemporary “born again” Christianity as having become-of all things-Gnostic:
One could scarcely conceive of a more “gnostic” concept of redemption: liberation through private illumination, a spiritual security won only in the deepest soundings of the soul, a moment of awakening that lifts the soul above the darkness of this world into a realm of spiritual liberty beyond even the reach of the moral law, and an immediate intimacy with the divine whose medium is one of purest subjectivity.
In short, the American spirit-individualist, entrepreneurial-which was spawned at least in part from Protestantism ultimately turned on its parent and classical, orthodox, Nicene Christianity died the death of a thousand developments (corruptions). I have to add the “in part” qualifier because it isn’t clear (at least to me) exactly what the relationship was between Classical Protestantism and the Enlightenment in the birth of our nation. The question of the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers remains a perennial debate (it seems neither Deism, nor orthodox Christianity appears entirely correct, Jefferson famously declared he was “a sect unto myself”, a label I shamelessly borrowed for my previous blog). Indeed, early American Christianity itself contained competing impulses that historian Garry Wills has called “head and “heart” (I don’t recommend Wills as a reliable source on Catholicism but his thoughts on this subject are helpful).
Another contemporary scholar who has written well on this subject is Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religious Studies at Boston University. Prothero’s book American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Iconoffers a fascinating walkthrough of the many incarnations (!) that Jesus has assumed in the United States. In addition to retelling the splintering (which is to say “meltdown”) of Protestantism, in which he illustrates well the patterns under which American Christianity evolved, Prothero also reviews how Jesus has consistently been retroactively adopted into the context of Eastern religions (whether as an avatar in Hinduism or as a bodhisattva in Buddhism). After castigating Rahner for his “anonymous Christianity” Prothero goes on to say “Yet Trigunatita was no less presumptuous in seeing all seekers as anonymous Hindus.” Prothero has commented elsewhere on what he sees as the “Hinduization” of America, which was the subject of another recent book American Vedas (though as Alister McGrath noted modern America seems little interested in the ascetic dimensions of Indian religion).
It appears that there are virtually no limits as to where religion in America has gone or may yet go. Newman once remarked that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant, and this brief review of admittedly very recent history has aptly illustrated to me why this is the case (all the more so when looks further back in history). To some degree, it also makes me indifferent to a lot of the “Christian disputes” that interest the media today-the controversies of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, for instance, or Rachel Held Evans vs. John Piper. I find these debates by and large are really debates within evangelical Protestantism, that simply don’t interest me very much as a Catholic. Christianity covers so much more than the last two centuries of American Protestantism and its mutant pseudo-Christian progeny.
A final thought-it does not surprise me in the least that old heresies have reappeared in America, albeit under new names. There really aren’t any new ideas. As a preacher far wiser than I once explained, there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps this, more than anything else, is the conclusion of the American religious experiment.