(Disclaimer: Elvis Costello likely would not support this post, but this song has a handy title. It’s a gem from 1978.)
One hears these days, more and more, pronouncements along these lines:
Religion is ok and everything, you know, it’s good for when you have problems and that sort of thing. But not when it permeates the rest of your life.
What drives this tepid endorsement? Can one be too Christian for his own good? It is actually a rather odd statement, because it seems religion is particularly not good at solving problems, if that is construed as giving you what you want. This attitude, which amounts to lip service, would seem to be a cocktail mixed from several prevalent spirits: an underlying theme that religion causes evil, a fear of being a “fundamentalist”, the acceptance of moral relativism, and the idea that religion curtails the individual’s freedom and pursuit of happiness. Starting in reverse order…
Does Christianity Prevent Happiness?
It is really a tragic irony that the idea religion restricts the pursuit of happiness has gained such a foothold. Christianity, believe it or not, claims to be the one way to achieve true happiness. This does not mean that non-Christians cannot have enjoyment, success, or pleasure; it’s quite obviously true that they can. But what it does mean is that ultimate happiness, true joy, fulfillment, peace and full-bodied love is attained through the arduous process of giving up on yourself and accepting grace each day. Thus the paradox Christ brings to us: if we are to gain true fulfillment, we must give up our self-centered will.
Another way to state the point: the revealed moral precepts (the Decalogue and Christ’s teachings) and the natural moral law we recognize via reason form a coherent roadmap, so to speak, to our happiness. They are, as I’ve heard stated before, our built in “instruction manual”. Living according to these norms, even when they require great effort of will to prevail against what we desire, is the path to happiness. In one sense, these moral realities do restrict us, but only from what is not good. The whole point of freedom, the ability to choose and follow your desires, is to choose for the good. The question really becomes, what is good for us.
Another issue that may arise in considering this subject is specifically what happiness is. Is it the feeling of satisfaction, of sensual or affective fulfillment? Or is it something more than that, an objective state of being? Something deeper, whole, involving not just the subjective state of the objective one as well? Since modern thinking has generally divided along the rationalist and empiricist fault lines, we tend to have reduced phenomenon in one way or another: either we are pure mind or pure body, but not a unity. In the case of happiness, we often implicitly hold that it is an emotional state, and therefore purely subjective. If that’s the case, how can we possibly judge one thing or another as being unbefitting or not really good? If the good is defined by what I feel, then no one can possibly tell me what is good or not. But this is demonstrably not so. One brief example: a heroin addict feels good when he’s high, but is it actually good for him to use the drug?
Surely, the recondite truth is that far from curtailing the development and flowering of the person, Christianity enables this to occur in light of what is truly good and beautiful.
Moral Relativism Is “Good”?
Moving along to the next idea: the acceptance of moral relativism. This idea boils down to right and wrong not being based on any objective criteria but customs and unmoored traditions. “To each his own” or “whatever floats your boat” are its calling cards; in any question that pertains to our well-being, the answer is only found in our taste and temperament. This evidently does not cohere with something (say, Christianity) that insists upon the recognition of objective truth and goodness. But it does cohere very nicely with our taste for tolerance, in which we spend copious amounts of energy trying to alleviate any division. The excesses of this temperament are apparent: in the righteous zeal to break down unjust artificial barriers, we break down the natural ones; the old “baby thrown out with the bath water” bit.
The problems with moral relativism are well documented, and come in two varieties: it’s not true and it’s harmful in practice. To understand why it’s not true requires us to recognize that there is a human essence, a human nature, which is universally participated in by all human beings. This nature entails various capacities, tropisms, potencies, desires, and needs that must be met for man to not only survive but to flourish. If this is true, then what is good has a natural standard, it is imprinted into the very thing that man is. This has the further consequence that there are barriers to good living and conduct, which can be transgressed, and thus be harmful. Moral relativism seeks to ignores this, often with a misplaced courtesy.
There is no doubt that many things are contingent to a situation or culture; the claim in a universal human nature entailing an objective standard of good is not a simpleton’s position. It does not claim perfect perspicuity in every ethical problem, but simply that the principles to be applied can be known and are valid because of their object: the human person. If we can admit the tautology that all human beings are human beings, and that being a human being comes with certain inherent rights, we are on our way to inferring the truth that human flourishing resides on an objective scale.
When one accepts the precepts of relativism, he does not display himself to be more enlightened or free or what have you. He, in turn, enshrines in his thinking an oversight or perhaps an unwillingness to respond to the basics and the obvious.
Thirdly, the fear of being a “fundamentalist”: perhaps better said as aversion to “fundamentalism”. Most do not want to be some kind of “extremist”, like those burning a Quran we see on CNN. Fundamentalism per se describes a 20th century American phenomenon that insists on the Bible alone plus an unnatural literal reading of the Holy Scriptures. In honest yet excessive zeal to preserve the Gospel against the tide of modernity and its tendencies to dissolve a meaningful Christianity, fundamentalists transgressed the dictates of reason; rejecting the bountiful yields of science, traditional Biblical hermeneutics, and the relationship between philosophy and theology. This obduracy has threatened to refashion Christianity in America as being guileless and at war with the scientific method.
Often any insistence on the importance of religion and of Christianity is quickly resolved into the category of “fundamentalists”, extremists, “those people”; in the least, deviations from this category are suspected to be fronts. In complete ignorance of the differences between traditional Christianity and actual fundamentalism, one is apt to conflate fidelity with excess, obedience with imposition. As a practical pagan, this reduction proved for me a comforting tale that allowed viewing Christianity as out of step and indefensible.
In the end, fundamentalism is not a full expression of the faith: to be a Christian does not mean burying one’s head in the sand to avoid the biological theory of evolution, modern cosmology, or social sciences etc. As has been noted at length by physicist Stephen Barr and many others, the Church has fostered, facilitated, empowered, and promoted rational and scientific inquiry. As Christianity is the religion of truth, it has nothing to fear from seeking greater understanding of the world. To be sure, the interpretation of scientific findings can be at odds with the Faith, but invariably these turn out to be philosophical impositions on them (e.g. natural selection somehow obviates creation).
Force for Evil?
Finally we arrive at the suggestion that Christianity, contrary to its self-profession, is actually a force for evil and not good. This for some reason, in spite of overwhelming evidence, has become ever more persistent since the days of the Enlightenment. One doth protest: “the crusades!”, or “submission of women!”, or “Galileo!” the “Vatican’s avarice!” etc. On it goes, overwhelmingly in lieu of understanding and a proper historical hermeneutic.
Setting those aside for the moment, the multitudinous contributions of Christianity are often lost in the haze of emotional outburst: the rigorous moral standards that orient persons to their good and that of others, the fundamental emphasis on the dignity of every human person, the fundamental equality between men and women (a brazen assertion in 30 A.D. indeed), the development of the university systems and robust emphasis on human reason, the institution of community outreach to help the poor and destitute e.g. St. Francis or Mother Theresa, the inspiring of and cultivation of the arts, not to mention the preservation and passing along the revelation of Christ that ensures each generation will know how to reach their ultimate and highest possible good i.e. the Beatific vision.
A grocery list is no way to convince anyone, but it should be sufficient to show that the claim in question is patently false. Selective evidence only works in a sound bite or social media, not in the cold light of objective reason. No doubt some will find this list tendentious, but this is not the place to undertake systematic examinations.
Ultimately the suggestion of the Church being evil stems from the elemental mistake of confusing what the Church is. No one, with any authority, has ever stated that the Church is pristine, and preserved from sinning. The whole point of the Church is to incorporate sinners and purify them over a lifetime of accepting grace over concupiscence; it’s not magic, it’s an elevated act of the will. Christians sin, this should not shock anyone; yet it does. The question that is relevant is do they sin because of the Church’s teachings and presence, or in spite of it? The answer is clearly the latter, and anyone reviewing the question in an effort to find not a thrill but the truth will see it.
In the end, why we shy away from immersion into discipleship is a turgid question. The necessity of defeating vacuous assumptions and quelling refractory impulses is only half the issue; as they say, one must become personally engaged with the reality of God and with Christ to overcome the inertia. I suppose only when that occurs does one’s “lip service” transform into something more.