Rod Dreher has a point, of course, that it’s appalling the degree to which the journalistic class is ignorant of religion – and, beyond being merely ignorant, many people can’t quite wrap their heads around the very idea of a religious mentality.
But by the same token, I think it behooves religious people to recall how deeply weird religious beliefs are – not just so they can communicate effectively with non-believers, but for their own sakes.
Here’s how a friend – a moderately observant friend, mind you, who keeps a kosher home – once described deciding to keep kosher to me:
It’s as if you got a phone call from your husband or wife, saying “Hon, I want you to go home right now and throw out all your dishes. Don’t ask why; there’s no time to explain. But if you love me, you’ll just do it.”
Of course, commentators within the Jewish tradition have come up with numerous apologetics for the laws of kashrut, some more plausible than others – but there’s this irreducible core of “if you love me, you’ll just do it” that can’t be escaped.
You can psychologize that impulse as well, of course – talk about the need for comfort, or for structure, or for a fatherly presence in one’s life. And that’s how, in my experience, many non-religious individuals understand a devotion to Judaism – or to the objectively odd practices of any religion. But if you treat the psychological explanation as sufficient, then you’ve drained the religious impulse of its emotional authenticity. It’s as if you explained your love for your wife in terms of evolutionary psychology; an explanation not only avoids addressing your love for her, a specific individual, it suggests that you don’t, in fact, love her, a specific individual.
But Christianity takes the weirdness to a whole ‘nother level.
Dreher snarks about journalists being ignorant of the miracle of transubstantiation, but think for a moment about that miracle, and what is being asked of believers in affirming its truth. The wine and bread are not merely taken “in remembrance” of Jesus; they are supposed to literally turn into the blood and body of the man who was also God, and you are supposed to affirm that this has happened against all the evidence of one’s senses that nothing has happened at all. Isn’t the most sane response to the fact that Christians have slaughtered each other over whether or not wine was really blood and bread was really flesh some version of Brobdingnagian incredulity?
But, more to the point, how is a believer supposed to approach this event? It’s supposed to be a miracle – a breach in the fabric of reality. Is it possible to treat a miracle as a commonplace? I should think that at the point you start to say, “yes, of course the wafer, once consecrated, is the flesh of God – everybody knows that” you have ceased to regard that transformation as miraculous; you have assimilated an absurdity that should require an extraordinary leap of faith into your mundane consciousness. That strikes me as far more insidiously sacrilegious than doubting the veracity of the miracle.
Personally, I share Dreher’s annoyance with people so closed-minded and judgmental they cannot seem to fathom the idea of a sincerely religious person. But I’m also creeped out by people who have, as they say, drunk the Kool-aid, who affirm absurdities as a matter of “faith” and have willfully abandoned any consciousness of the absurdity of what they are affirming. My comfort zone, I guess, ranges between the two poles Dreher talks about in the recent Malick film, poles of doubt and wonder, which share in common an openness to what one’s experience actually is, not what it is supposed to be.