A few months ago, Ross Douthat delivered the Erasmus lecture at the headquarters of First Things magazine. In his lecture he claimed that religious conservatives need new and better arguments. Boy, was he right. This Huffington Post article by aspiring theologian cum pundit Shea Watts illustrates the desperateness of the cause. (Bold print is my emphasis):
The [Republican] debates have been both eye-opening and terrifying. On the surface, they have shown that many, many people are furious with the state of the GOP establishment. But they have also shown that there is a constituency of hateful people in America that are starting to speak up in multitudes — against Obama, Mexicans, Muslims, women, and black people. Yesterday, Trump had a group of black students thrown out of his rally, not for protest or disruption, just for “silently standing” there.
[JG: And who is this hateful constituency?]
The scariest reality of all of this is: the Republican nominees are self-professing Christians and are supported by self-professing Christians.
. . . .
When American Christianity became about discriminating against minorities, hurting instead of helping the poor, oppressing women’s rights, keeping out immigrants and strangers instead of welcoming them, hate-spewing towards other religions, all the while accumulating wealth and power, it is time to let go.
Mr. Watts offers a now too familiar twist to the New Atheist mantra that “religion poisons everything”: “Christianity poisons everything,” he says, because it has become a religion of hate and discrimination. I cannot even begin to communicate my amazement at his characterization of Christians. Now I don’t deny that there is a great deal of hate and anger among Christians, Republicans, followers of Trump, etc. But while I certainly concede this fact, I do not agree that this should be blamed on Christianity.
Human nature is to blame for our sins, not Christianity. For we need only observe that the sins that Mr. Watts ascribes to Christians are in fact universal. Hatred of Muslims should be blamed on Christianity? The fellow who shot and killed the Muslim graduate students in North Carolina was a devout atheist. Republicans are racists? The Republican field of presidential candidates was far more racially diverse than the Democratic. The Catholic Church oppresses women? The most Catholic country in the world, the Philippines, has the second-best record of promoting women into senior management:
I seem to remember something Jesus said about the one who has no sin being the first to cast his stone. If Mr. Watts is worried about the state of Christianity, he might consider what an excellent reform we could make of our faith simply by putting this single teaching of Christ into practice. It is an invitation from Christ to a humility based on truth—a Dorian Gray truth: we should dispense with pretenses to holiness and face this undeniable fact: that the sins we see so clearly in others are, in truth, the very same sins that we ourselves commit. And if we cannot see this important and consequential truth, it only bears witness to another teaching of Christ: that we are spiritually blinded by the beams in our own eyes.
Once we manage to grasp the universal nature of hate and sin, we can move on to more profitable enquiries. We should first observe that some people have managed better than others to transcend their selfish, hateful nature. And we should be curious as to their formula for success. I think if we do this, we will manage to achieve what Douthat had in mind in his Erasmus lecture: new and better arguments for Christianity and conservatism.
For many people find the justification of their faith in the power that Christianity has to transform lives for the better. And today neuroscience bolsters these subjective claims with plenty of objective evidence, as I show in my book and elsewhere on my website.
And a Christian would be right to ask those who are not religious what formula they use for the very necessary business of self-improvement. What notions of human progress inform the quest of secular people to achieve their goals for personal transformation? These are important questions. In fact they are the most important—the great transcendental questions: how do we transcend our failings and shortcomings and rise to higher ground? In the words of Matthew Kelly, the hugely successful Catholic apologist, how do we become the best version of ourselves?
This great transcendental question is of prime importance to anyone who cares about human flourishing: excellence, goodness, and happiness. And it is a fundamental question for the survival of our nation. For it is now becoming clear that a growing number of Americans have utterly failed in the noble and necessary quest for progress and self-improvement. Neuroscience provides plenty of evidence that there is no substitute for religion and spirituality in this quest. For the research suggests that human mental health and function depend on religious and spiritual practice, as I show in my book.
Thus it is no surprise that, today, mental illness in America is the highest it has ever been at the same time that religious affiliation is at the very lowest. And the fruit of this epidemic of mental degeneration has been uniformly malignant, spawning a massive increase of violence, chaos, and social breakdown all across our country and throughout our essential institutions. There is plenty of evidence that if Christianity dies, as Mr. Watts hopes, it will be the death of our nation. This is my own heart-felt belief. And I think that the recent uprisings in Chicago illustrate my point perfectly: Contrary to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s wishful thinking, the advance of secularism has not brought out “the better angels of our nature,” but has unleashed the demons instead. The thesis of Pinker’s new book is contradicted a thousand times a day on the evening news, while my book’s contrary thesis garners only more evidence, namely, that, as Christianity disappears, civilization disappears right along with it.
Mr. Watts has correctly observed a very important conjunction in modern life: hatred, violence and social degeneration coincide with the loss of religious faith. But if the thesis of my book is correct, he has put the cart before the horse. For it is not so much on account of the hatefulness of Christians that so many have abandoned the Church, but rather, because so many have abandoned the Church, the loss of grace they have suffered has hardened their apostate hearts and made of them a hateful, violent, and unjust people.
The faith and practice of Christians has been waning for decades, and as Christianity has disappeared, so has the humanity of our race. This is easily the most important message of the Gospel—a message now supported by neuroscience: that the very best and most noble qualities of the human person are essentially spiritual. Thus human progress is an essentially spiritual enterprise and is therefore dependent on the willingness of man to conform his will to the Laws of God. These words of a forgotten Transcendentalist have much to teach us about the essence of Christian spirituality:
I begin with observing, what all indeed will understand, that the likeness to God, of which I propose to speak, belongs to man’s higher or spiritual nature. It has its foundation in the original and essential capacities of the mind. In proportion as these are unfolded by right and vigorous exertion, it is extended and brightened. In proportion as these lie dormant, it is obscured. In proportion as they are perverted and overpowered by the appetites and passions, it is blotted out. In truth, moral evil, if unresisted and habitual, may so blight and lay waste these capacities, that the image of God in man may seem to be wholly destroyed . . . (Channing, 1950, p. 22).
If we want things to improve, it will be necessary for us to remember how much we have forgotten. And what we have forgotten is this—that man’s greatest possession is his soul. Let us take better care of it. JG
Channing, W. E. (1950). Likeness to God. In P. Miller, The Transcendentalists—An Anthology (pp. 21–25). Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America: Harvard University Press.