OUR POST-CHRISTIAN WORLD
A friend of mine said recently that Christianity is incredible. He didn’t mean incredibly wonderful; he meant not believable. I had just said that, once American voters knew something of Mormonism, Mitt Romney would find his election chances dimming, since what voter with two feet on the ground could possibly believe in mysterious golden tablets buried in upstate New York, giving (in “reformed Egyptian,” a language unknown to anyone but the engineers of this hoax) a fanciful history of the Americas, featuring native Americans as the Lost Tribes of Israel? The Book of Mormon, supposedly a translation of these disappeared tablets, reads as a lame parody of King James English.
Despite our laudable American tolerance for religious difference (a tolerance born at last out of our long Western history of bloody religious intolerance), there is a large difference between allowing people to believe whatever they wish and failing to note that some beliefs stem from ignorance, madness, or credulous need — and that people who profess such beliefs should not be trusted to steer our ship of state.
My friend, however, a smart, secular man with a considerable scientific background, dismissed orthodox Christian belief as cavalierly as I had dismissed Mormonism. I didn’t ask him for particulars, but we can all imagine what these would be, starting with the Resurrection of Jesus.
Europe, the grandparental continent of most of us, has already left the Christian fold. Between five and eight percent of Frenchmen and Englishmen attend church with any regularity. The rest only contribute taxes toward the upkeep of their ancestral churches, which might as well be ancient pagan ruins for all the attention the majority populations give them. Soon enough, the U.S.A. will — almost certainly — follow the Europeans down the same path to religious indifference.
Besides post-Christian secularism, the West will more and more be forced to confront the growing power of Islam, already the world’s second largest religion, which takes its strength from cultures that are anything but secular and its mushrooming numbers from familial customs that exclude anything that might smack of rational “family planning.” How long will it be before Islam becomes the world’s largest religion?
OUR FRAGMENTED RANKS
We have ceased burning one another at the stake. But in many ways, we have scarcely moved on from the theological hatreds of the sixteenth century. With only a few notable exceptions (the formerly separate churches now united as the United Church of Christ; the recent ecumenical accommodation between Episcopalians and Lutherans), there have been few serious, sustained attempts to unite the various Christian denominations. Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to Sunday as the most racially segregated day of the week in the United States. It also remains the most theologically segregated.
And yet: exceedingly few people in the pews could converse coherently on the ways in which their chosen denomination differs from the others. How many Lutherans could explain justification by faith? How many Presbyterians could defend double predestination? How many Roman Catholics would admit to believing wholeheartedly in transubstantiation or papal infallibility? How many Orthodox Christians could enlighten an outsider on the subject of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father in the Greek doctrine of the Trinity? How many would even sit attentively for an explanation without nodding off?
Could this suggest that the churches have been kept apart from one another by their professional clergy, rather than by their people? In New York City, we have the Cardinal Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, several archbishops, bishops, and archpriests of the various Orthodox denominations, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese, the Bishop of the Lutheran Diocese, the Bishop of the New York United Methodist Church’s Annual Conference, and any number of leaders, moderators, superintendents, and other authority figures, denominated severally. Genuine reunion would leave but one of these standing, no? All the others would have to return to a lesser status.
OUR MEALY-MOUTHED SELVES
Luther was the first to use the expression: Mehl im Maule behalten, to carry meal in the mouth, to be mincing or equivocal in one’s speech. Somewhere, C. S. Lewis writes that the most difficult aspect of being a Christian is other Christians. Christians do seem to be taking up the modern quest for Personal Fulfillment, often to the exclusion of all else. Which leaves little time left over for tougher Christian quests, such as, oh, the Emptying of Self – which sorta stands in direct opposition to Personal Fulfillment, doesn’t it? Being Nice is just not the same thing as acting in this world as a Christian. I particularly cringe at the tendency of some churchgoers to “play church,” as if what we’re doing is making everything sweet and simpatico for ourselves, as if we’re the Christian equivalent of a self-congratulatory yoga class. Do we need to remind ourselves that Selflessness, rather than its opposite, is what we should be striving for?
A WAY FORWARD?
God may speak to us anywhere — in church or on the street, in joy or in sorrow. Of course, we all know the words inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, standing these many years in New York harbor. These were written in 1883 by a poet in her early thirties, Emma Lazarus, as a tribute to the open-armed generosity of what was then the extraordinary American welcome to immigrants:
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Lazarus knew whereof she spoke: her own Jewish family had found shelter in New York during the colonial period after emigrating from Portugal. And she was not a Christian, but rather a sort of proto-Zionist.
And yet . . . her words inspired a good friend of hers, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to found an order of nuns who would take care of those tired and poor who were dying of cancer and had no money to pay for their care. Cancer was then thought to be catching, so the sisters were brave beyond words. And they are still there, caring for the dying and refusing any recompense. At least three currently contentious subjects — immigration reform, health care reform, and nuns acting innovatively with scant clerical approbation — are central to this story, and may leave us with the feeling that nothing ever changes.
But what an inspiring story: a Jewish woman, who puts her finger on the central meaning of Christ’s teaching (which is, after all, nothing other than an interpretation of Judaism), a woman, who would die of cancer while still in her thirties, leaving behind her the great words of continuous inspiration at the base of the Statue of Liberty; another young woman who sets off to make those words flesh in another arena altogether.
God may speak to us anywhere — in the words of friends or of strangers, in the words of fellow believers or of the followers of other paths, in sickness or in health, in our lives and in our deaths.
So take courage.
New York City, July 4th, 2012
Thomas Cahill is the author of the Hinges of History series (which begins with How the Irish Saved Civilization) and, most recently, of A Saint on Death Row.