While I’ve not read The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, I just came across a review of it in the New Yorker by book critic James Wood. As a Christian, it is fascinating to see the various ways in which Western intellectuals have coped with the recent (i.e., last 150 or so years) erosion of religious belief. The main camps seem to be (1) atheists who rage against the horrors of “irrationality” (this includes the New Atheists, or as Terry Eagleton has dubbed them, “Ditchkins“), and (2) optimistic secularists who believe that the gradual dissipation of religion is a marker of progress and that mankind may one day be united in a scientific rationalism (basically, the Utopia of the Star Trek universe).
I won’t critique any of these big ideas here, but instead will only respond to a thought-provoking half-paragraph in Woods’s review:
[Philosopher Philip] Kitcher suggests that religionists and secularists actually agree about how to create meaning in a life. Many believers think of their submission to God not as compelled, he points out, but instead as “issuing from the choice of the person who submits.” Life develops meaning because someone identifies with God’s purpose. This identification must spring from an act of evaluation, a decision that there is value in serving a deity whose purpose is deemed good. Believers, then, make an autonomous choice “to abdicate autonomy in order to serve what the autonomous assessment has already recognized as good.” Both atheists and believers are involved in making independent evaluations of what constitutes life-meaning. They draw different conclusions about what that meaning is, but they go about finding it in similar ways.
The fact that an avowed agnostic could say that many followers of religion choose a religion because they identify its teachings with a pre-conceived notion of Truth or Goodness should be a wake-up call to Christianity. This is precisely the wrong approach. In fact, it downright anti-biblical. Take, for example, the story of Jonah: called to preach to the people of Nineveh, he fled, was swallowed by a large fish, vomited up, and finally obeyed. God pulled the prophet, against his own will, from the depths of his fear. St. Paul, too, was dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of Heaven (a story recounted in three places in Acts, and alluded to twice in 1 Corinthians). This is not to say that the Bible never endorses questioning God (see the entire book of Job, or Abraham’s plea that God spare the innocent people of Sodom) – only that in the face of such seeming absurdity one must have faith.
Classic Christianity is completely opposed to the concept of self-realization. We cannot determine our own morality, no matter how illogical the ways of God seem. The clay cannot question the potter. The attempt to create morality for oneself bring against it the full critique of moral relativism (e.g., you cannot object to Nazi “morality” because it, too, is self-created). The attempt to objectively determine Truth or the Good is a relic of Aristotelianism and doomed from the start: rationality can never be purely objective, and therefore a code intended to be universal (such as, say, Kant’s) will be disputed.
But the question is: why is this self-sacrifice not what you think of when you think of Christianity? Why does it seem that, whatever morality Christians hold, it is not God’s but their own?
Though it’s nothing new, Christianity has in a major way been co-opted by the status quo, the powers that be. Moreover, these powers that be are not affiliated with one political party or another. It is more sinister still: at work is a post-Enlightenment ideology which values a (false) self-fulfillment by unlimited consumption. In other words: our system wants you to buy shit, so it tells you that happiness is having the right shit. Then it says, “Seek happiness.”
This results in the lukewarm tolerance and non-committal symbolism of leftist and mainline denominations as well as the self-righteousness and scriptural misinterpretation of conservative Christians. In both cases, the Christian first locates morality within him or herself and then projects that onto God. Whether we want to prevent the corrosion of family/American values (which are somehow equated with godly values) or embrace a progressive, “respectful” worldview (which so easily slides into relativism), it is still we who want. In so doing, the Christian seeks not the Kingdom of God but the Kingdom of Mammon. The Invisible Hand has snatched our prayers. In the face of such a Christianity that has become its own negation, it is no wonder that many shall turn to secularism.