The way orthodoxy synthesizes the New Testament’s complexities has forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post–sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well. A choose-your-own Jesus mentality, by contrast, encourages spiritual seekers to screen out discomfiting parts of the New Testament and focus only on whichever Christ they find most congenial.
Her story captures the grittiness of spiritual exertion—the psychological agony involved in shutting off one’s internal monologue, the cruel physicality of extended prayer and meditation, the boredom that so many rituals can inspire, the necessity of fighting your way through all these obstacles. Then it captures, humorously but also movingly, what so many mystics have found waiting on the other side: the sense of an overwhelming divine love, like a “lion roaring from within my chest”
For a faith rooted in mystical experience alone, this is probably an inevitable problem. The sense of harmony, unity, and communion that so many mystics experience can provoke a somewhat blasé attitude toward sin and wickedness, and a dismissive attitude toward ordinary moral duties.
If pushed too far, Julian of Norwich’s mystic’s creed that “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well” can become a blithe assumption that every choice and happening is divinely inspired. If God is beyond personality, perhaps He is beyond morality as well—and thus why should his beloved followers worry overmuch about petty questions like whom they happen to be sleeping with, or how best to dispose of their income? After all, all will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well….
The result isn’t megalomania but a milder sort of solipsism, with numinous experience as a kind of spiritual comfort food rather than a spur to moral transformation—there when you need it, and not a bother when you don’t.
According to Smith and Denton, the “de facto creed” of America’s youth has five main premises. 1. “A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” 2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” 4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
The theology’s supposed “moralism,” meanwhile, is astonishingly weak. The God of MTD “is not demanding,” the authors note. “He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.” Therapeutic religion doesn’t call its adherents to prayer or repentance, to works of charity, or even the observance of a Sabbath. Instead, being a moral person “means being the kind of person that other people will like,” which is to say pleasant, respectful, well-behaved, and nondisruptive.64 Niceness is the highest ethical standard, popularity the most important goal, and high self-esteem the surest sign of sanctity.
July 12, 2012
More Excerpts from Douthat
Provocative quotes from Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: