James Carroll

Our secular crisis of faith

By James Carroll
May 17, 2010

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RELIGION IS in crisis, or so its critics say. The negative litany is familiar. Core traditions of Islam justify terrorist murder. Roman Catholicism is a locus of sex abuse. Mainstream Protestant churches self-destruct in gender-identity wars. Evangelical Christians remain stuck in Darwin’s amber. The Mideast flashpoint draws heat from fanatic belief that state boundaries are drawn by God. Faith traditions seem thrown on the defensive just when theology as an intellectual discipline has lost its vitality.

Such problems are usually cataloged in contrast to a nonreligious (“secular’’) culture that is doing fine. Structures of meaning are in place. Treasures of the past are handed on. Literature thrives. Educational institutions reliably illuminate minds. The public good is served by government. Democracy is on the rise. Families are intact. Hope is a universal virtue. And wouldn’t it be loverly to think so.

One reason religion comes in for such a trouncing is that religious impulses are readily identified, and easily debunked — even by those who share them. A prophetic tradition — most obviously represented by, but not limited to, the Bible that gave prophets both their good name and their bad standing — forms a core of all the great religions. Self-criticism, confession, repentance, and the purpose of amendment are standard spiritual values. Trashing religion, in fact, begins with religion (see, for example, Pope Benedict XVI’s stirring acknowledgement last week of “sin within the church itself’’). But the problems humans face go far deeper than what goes on in churches, temples, and mosques — never more so than today. A focus on religious failures can let the broader culture off the hook.

We are living through the simultaneous breakdowns of the two great secular myths that have defined Western civilization for 200 years — the socialist ideal of equality, and the organizing ethos of nationalism. These pillars of the modern idea are, respectively, broken and shaken. Take the ideal of equality. During the age of revolutions, from America and France in the 18th century to Russia and China in the 20th, a new vision affirmed the dignity and rights of every individual. Even through the displacements of industrialization, urbanization, and global migration; even allowing for the crimes of Stalin and Mao, the result was a tremendous economic leveling that moved most of the human population up from subsistence, with unprecedented numbers of workers and peasants becoming owners, and with a dramatic narrowing of class differences.

That revolution has been reversed, both globally, with vast numbers falling back into abject destitution, and within developed countries, where a new elitism is imposing brutal inequalities. The once-noble ideology of socialism is dead. The word itself is a political curse.

In the secular age, as religion was marginalized, its role as a source of meaning, purpose, and transcendence was largely taken over by the myth of nationalism. The nation-state became a main source of identity, prompting sufficient devotion in citizens to die or to kill. Where religious wars were always primitive and immoral, national wars were patriotic and just. Today, the tie between citizens and the state is tattered, even in America, which, in its democratic liberalism, was nationalism’s greatest success. The hollowing out of US institutions, from a Congress in the grip of political paralysis, to an extravagantly funded Pentagon that cannot defeat enemies whose bombs are made with fertilizer, to an economic regulatory system that has no influence, much less control, over financial predators — all of this suggests a breakdown not just of government, but of the national idea. Meanwhile, patriotism has become an exercise in hatred.

Wherever one looks, there are collapsed structures of meaning. Biology is obliterating ancient definitions of sexuality, reproduction, and mortality. Computer technology is transforming the very way humans think. Moral categories crumble. So why shouldn’t religions be in crisis? And if some people use devotion as a means of escape, who can blame them? But in truth, the old divide between secular and sacred has itself lost significance. The human race is at sea, cut loose from all moorings. Yet this condition can mark the end of hubris. Indeed, this condition — Genesis calls it “darkness upon the face of the deep’’ — is the one in which real religion had its start.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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