But I wonder: How many of the more aggressively secular ever find themselves lapsing into God-talk — musing, for example, about how everything happens for a reason? Or how a painful event or act of suffering was “meant to be”?
These quite common statements of divine providentialism need not be rooted in any historic religious tradition. But they are undeniably forms of religious thinking.
Damon says that you should look beyond their superficial protests that they don’t really believe in God.
Yet their providential words and thoughts betray them, revealing that deep down they feel they need metaphysics in order to make sense of their moral convictions and experiences. And that is a sign, I would argue, that religion (or potential religion) maintains a more powerful grip on their souls than the results of the Pew poll would lead one to expect. It may also be an indication that the political philosopher Leo Strauss was right when he observed that “the moral man as such is the potential believer.”
As long as these providential intimations persist, so too will the possibility of a religious rebirth or revival — even among those who have actively abandoned the established churches, or who have set out on their lives supposedly thinking “nothing in particular” about God.
Well, it’s certainly true that something is better than nothing, and any real rebirth of faith has to start somewhere. But I am very skeptical about this Christian-ish Christianity. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the early church, and one thing that’s crystal clear is that it mattered — it mattered a lot — who the church said Jesus was, and so forth. Historical continuity, which includes fidelity to authoritative doctrine, was a core part of the ethos of the early church. These questions mattered to them. They didn’t settle them in neat, clean ways most of the time, and it is surely the case that they often failed in their charity to each other as they were disputing these questions. But everybody back then knew the stakes.
Today, Christianity is far too often nothing more than a feeling ungrounded in anything outside the self. You can’t simply believe whatever you want to believe about Jesus, and call it Christian. I mean, you can do that, and people do it all the time, but it’s a fraud, and it won’t last. People who do this are those who don’t actually seek God, in my view, but seek the therapeutic feeling of having God. They are people like I was back in the day: wanting the psychological comfort of having the Cosmic Butler far up in the sky guaranteeing the good order of everything, without having to do or believe anything I found difficult or uncongenial. That kind of faith isn’t real, because you end up worshiping yourself.
So, if these vaguely spiritual folks come back to a more disciplined practice of the faith, what form of faith will it be? Will it be enough to root them and their children in place? I don’t think many people these days think about that. I mean, we don’t think about the content of the faith, of the meaning of the doctrines we teach. Creeds become unnecessary, because faith is nothing more than what we feel about Jesus. Mind you, a faith that is only cerebral is also dead, and I’m not advocating for that. What I’m saying is that even if the spiritual-but-not-religious, or the marginally Christian, return to a more robust practice, how can we be sure that it’s bona fide Christianity if it is not mapped by a clear set of coordinates? You can’t wander off into a pasture somewhere in West Texas and declare that you are really in the Black Forest, because it feels like the Black Forest to you.