I have to say that I found Rod Dreher’s recent musings on the disillusionment with and abandonment of Catholicism by his friend, Tommy Tucker, not only perceptive but also deeply moving and even prescient reading.
Indeed, it served as a backdrop in an e-mail exchange I hard earlier this morning with a relative, relating to her what a thoroughly anti-institutional Christian apostate I’ve become, certainly within the last few years.
Disillusionment with Evangelicalism
My spiritual metamorphosis was somewhat different from that of Tucker’s. I grew up in the Southern Baptist faith, and from a very early age, I tried desperately to articulate why this faith simply didn’t click with me. It finally occurred to me at some point that I shared one thing in common with the late German sociologist Max Weber: In terms of religion, I simply am not musical. I don’t relate to religion as most people do and likely never will.
That turned out to be one of the great psychological epiphanies of my life, and cleared space for an enormous amount of personal growth and creativity.
Like many other adults in the 21st century, that realization his inspired me to eke out my own philosophy, though borrowing significantly from Christianity. I strive, however inconsistently, to live my life as compassionately as possible but also in freedom – or, at least, what I define freedom – free of the institutional fetters of any church authority, free to call sacred moral and ethical cows into question.
Granted, I’ve never suffered the loss of someone exceedingly close to me or been faced with a terminal illness. And I concede that those two prospects alone conceivably would be enough draw me back into some form of conventional faith. But following a lifetime of struggle with spiritual issues, I consider myself significantly happy and reasonably well-integrated. And, needless to say, I don’t think that I am alone, even in the Deep South. Lots of people who have undergone severe spiritual crises have also managed to work their way through them and have even succeeded in building a coherent post-Christian vision.
An Enduring Affinity for the Christian Faith
Yet, I still feel a special affinity for Christianity. I still maintain a residual, cultural affiliation with Protestant Christianity through membership in the United Methodist Church, a denomination to which I gravitated in college. But that’s only because I share a common culture and a modicum of religious affinity with many individual United Methodists.
I also remain a conservative who believes that functioning, healthy societies require an ethos that is grounded in deep thinking about how we should relate to each other as well as how we fit into the larger natural world. And for this ethos to serve people adequately, it must be widely supported virtually every member of the community.
The Decline of Mainline Protestantism
Christianity has historically supplied the foundation of this ethos. But I agree with Dreher and other traditionalists that United Methodism and other forms of mainline Protestantism essentially amount to ghosts and are increasingly ill-equipped to contributed to any sort of significant moral dialogue. They are in steep decline and will exert little cultural influence among rising generations of young people in the future. While Evangelical Christianity likely will exert a significantly larger share of influence, it will never summon the intellectual and cultural clout that has historically defined Catholicism and, until a few decades ago, mainline Protestantism.
This brings me to Catholicism. As my father, a closeted agnostic, once astutely and aptly observed, Catholicism IS the principal scaffolding that has supported the civilization of the West. One develops a deep appreciation for this reading the works of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Catholicism possesses unique traits and strengths that other Christian faiths lack and have lacked from the very beginning of the Reformation. And it is worth pointing out that northern Germany experienced an acute decline in public and private piety following the advent of Luther and Protestantism.
Over the course of 1500 years of institutional evolution within the scaffolding of the old Roman Empire, Catholicism has developed a kind of gestalt that no other form of Christianity has come close to approximating. And that is why I, despite my secularism and apostasy, always read with a sense of sadness and even despair about the precipitous decline of Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity.
The Catholic Gestalt
Even so, I’m not sure that what has been broken can ever be fixed. This Catholic gestalt functioned for almost two millennia because other cultural forces at work in Western society not only comported with it but also sustained it. Indeed, a largely beneficial cultural symbiosis prevailed in the West because of how all these cultural forces hung together. But the die was cast roughly half a millennium ago with the advent of the New Learning and the printing press: the cultural and technological forces that have emerged in the West have steadily hastened the erosion of this symbiosis – this gestalt.
In the face of all these challenges, Catholicism, compared with other Christian traditions has been equipped with one rather formidable asset. Its gestalt has been comprised of all manner of things – doctrine, liturgy, martyrs, shrines, and saints, to name a few – but the church’s highly elaborate and developed hierarchy, backed up by the doctrine of Apostolic Ascension, has functioned as the principle adhesive.
The Catholic sex scandals with the last decade have done much to erode the moral credibility of this hierarchy and, consequently, the Catholic faith in general. But erosion has been setting in for centuries, and as simplistic as this observation may strike some people, I believe that rising levels of scientific and cultural complexity, which have necessitated increasingly higher levels of mass education, have been the driving factor of this erosion. They comprise the Pandora’s Box of the spiritual decline of the West. The better educated people become, the more inclined they are to question entrenched authority, irrespective of its nature.
To be sure, the fear of everlasting torment worked against these trends for a considerable time among many Catholics and conservative Protestants, but even the most basic doctrines of the church are now challenged by some 200 years worth of textual criticism, virtually all of which are now readily accessible on the Internet through search engines and a few clicks of a mouse.
Somehow this takes me back to a comment I ran across years ago by the nontheiest political philosopher and Anglican priest Don Cupitt, who once recalled his own materially deprived childhood in WWII England as well as the rapid societal change that followed in the wake of the Allied victory, particularly in terms of how this change afforded greater access to higher education.
“We’ve all grown up!” Cupitt observed.
In some respects, our species has grown up, and the greater access to higher education throughout the Western world has played a significant role in this maturation.
The Hispanization of the American Catholic Church
Under the circumstances, it is small wonder why the fortunes of American Catholicism are so tightly bound with future of Hispanics, particularly Hispanic immigration. Immigrants are in a very different place than the middle-class American Catholics that many aspire to be like some day. They currently lack the levels of higher education to which the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of previous waves of Irish, German and Italian immigrants have taken virtually for granted in recent generations. Small wonder why Hispanics will comprise the bulwark of Catholic orthodoxy for some time to come. But, in time, they will ascend the economic and educational ladder, much as their Irish, German and Italian antecedents have, and over time, Catholicism inevitably will faced with the same maladies as declining mainline Protestant faiths.
Education, particularly higher education, is the great solvent that challenges all forms of authority, particularly religious authority.
As the Sovietologist Archie Brown has related, Soviet and Eastern European communism succumbed 30 years ago to a myriad of factors, but one of the principal ones was the rising levels of education that Soviet and Eastern European political elites instituted among their citizens to foster economic growth.
Perhaps Dreher is right in arguing that after a long Dark Age humanity will grope its way back to orthodox Christianity. As I see it, if advances in science and technology are sustained throughout this dark epoch, humanity may ultimately emerge centuries from now with an ethos that borrows heavily from Christianity but that deviates significantly from it.
Whatever the case, I am one Protestant apostate who bemoans the loss of the Christian scaffolding of the West. particularly as it is expressed within the Catholic faith. A society this extended and complicated requires a deep well of morality and ethics.
Catholic Christianity once comprised this deep well.