New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spoke at the University of Mary last night on the themes of his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. We had an incredible turnout — something shy of 300, I’d wager. Had to bring in chairs. Mr. Douthat himself I found to be an incredibly easygoing, humble, gracious, and generous man; after his formal talk he stayed about another 45 minutes to answer questions one on one and in small groups. The talk was videotaped; once we have it processed and up on Mary’s YouTube channel, I’ll embed it here and other places for your viewing pleasure.
For now, one observation Mr. Douthat made that I think is helpful and interesting: We’re not really in a post-Christian society but rather are a nation of heretics. Although atheism seems to be on the rise, in terms of raw numbers the percentage increase of self-identified atheists in recent years is slight. What we do, it seems, is reinterpret Jesus to suit our desires rather than casting him overboard outright. For instance: Mr. Douthat mentioned Deepak Chopra, who, instead of presenting himself and his work as non-Christian wisdom from the east, writes two books on Jesus (of course, including deities in the pantheon is also very eastern, and it used to be Roman).
This seems right to me: Christ is the ghost that haunts us all, and in the West it’s very hard to escape him. Walker Percy’s remark about “the Christ-haunted South,” is true, I think, of more than the South. America and Europe are different in many ways, especially regarding their current attitudes to public religiosity, but when I studied at Frankfurt (2004-2005) I found a lot of Germans may not spend a lot of time in church but they retained a fundamental belief of some sort in Jesus. You can take Fritz out of the Church, but you can’t really take Jesus out of Fritz, I found. Walker Percy’s remark about “the Christ-haunted South,” is true, I think, of more than the South.
The question, then, which my wife posed to me later, was how do you evangelize heretics? How do you put American religion and its churches back on the rails? More on that later, once I come up with more substantive answers beyond “Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.” Mr. Douthat’s book, as he admitted several times last night, has a rather pessimistic tone, but in the ultimate chapter he reminds his readers of Chesterton’s famous chapter in The Everlasting Man, “The Five Deaths of the Faith“:
At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.
We will have to think about how to confront the heresies confronting American religion at this time. But we’ll have to do so while trusting in the God who raises the dead.