Watch closely, because I’m about to do something I haven’t done in a very long time: agree entirely with a David Brooks column. In doing so, I’m handicapped a bit because I haven’t read the book he is using as his point of departure (Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age). But Brooks’ insights on the relationship between faith and modernity strike me not only as accurate, but important.
We are not moving to a spiritually dead wasteland as, say, the fundamentalists imagine. Most people, he observes, are incapable of being indifferent to the transcendent realm. “The yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is painted as,” Taylor writes.
People are now able to pursue fullness in an amazing diversity of different ways. But Taylor observes a general pattern. They tend not to want to live in a world closed off from the transcendent, reliant exclusively on the material world. We are not, Taylor suggests, sliding toward pure materialism.
We are, instead, moving toward what he calls a galloping spiritual pluralism. People in search of fullness are able to harvest the intellectual, cultural and spiritual gains of the past 500 years. Poetry and music can alert people to the realms beyond the ordinary.
Orthodox believers now live with a different tension: how to combine the masterpieces of humanism with the central mysteries of their own faiths. This pluralism can produce fragmentations and shallow options, and Taylor can eviscerate them, but, over all, this secular age beats the conformity and stultification of the age of fundamentalism, and it allows for magnificent spiritual achievement.
I’m vastly oversimplifying a rich, complex book, but what I most appreciate is his vision of a “secular” future that is both open and also contains at least pockets of spiritual rigor, and that is propelled by religious motivation, a strong and enduring piece of our nature.
It is kind of sad that this sort of argument seems provocative. Until well into the twentieth century, it was a commonplace of American Protestantism (and of non-Orthodox Judiaism, and of the more progressive strains of American Catholicism) that the Enlightenment had opened up new and deeper paths to spiritual life, and that the liberty of and from religion characteristic of this country replaced a shallow faith based on coercion, heredity, and accidents of birth with a conscious and sturdy faith by choice. In a brilliant 2005 piece for the New Republic, Alan Wolfe commented acidly on the hostility of contemporary conservative evangelical Christians to the Jeffersonian tradition of church-state separation and to liberalism generally:
America’s free air and free soil worked to the benefit of all American religions, but its truly special blessings flowed to conservative Protestantism. Protestantism’s greatest source of strength has been its capacity to re-invent itself. As older modes of worship lost their power to attract, new modes rushed in to fill the gap. In the nineteenth century, the urban revival hall and the rural camp meeting drew crowds away from the staid chapels of the more upper-class faiths. In the twenty-first century, the megachurch brings in those more exposed to Oprah than to Amos, as organ music and hymns give way to contemporary Christian rock, and the diet book is studied more carefully than the Bible, and Sunday attire is replaced by aisle-rolling and spirit possession. Listen to the sermons in the sprawling, dynamic, and theologically incoherent world of conservative Protestantism, and you may hear liberalism denounced from the pulpit; but these jeremiads are philosophically and historically blind, since they are oblivious to the fact that without liberalism, there would not exist the vibrant voluntary sector, the responsiveness to popular taste, or even the freedom to attack the Democratic Party that serve as the homily’s backdrop.
It’s richly ironic that what we know as the “Christian Right” seems determined to restore a dead conformity to both church and state, razing and salting the very ground that gave it life. Without liberty, without doubt, without science and reason and all their fruits (the things that Dr. Paul Broun, Jr., the would-be U.S. Senator from Georgia calls “lies from the pit of Hell”), religion probably would be dying out in America much as it seems to be in many other modern societies. Religious pluralism (and again, that by necessity includes atheism, agnosticism, and every other belief system or non-system) is one piece of “American Exceptionalism” that’s hard to deny and yet is often rejected by the very people who define America as a nation standing alone.
I hope some of the people who read David Brooks for the routine moral support he offers to conservatism and the Republican Party will read his latest column and experience a great awakening: modern pluralism is a treasure to be maintained, not a heresy to be exterminated.