Ross Douthat writes about “the Christian penumbra” — that is, life in the murky space where many, many Americans dwell: between unbelief in Christianity and committed belief in Christianity. Douthat characterizes the Christian penumbra as life lived by people who have the memory of Christian ideas, without the intent or capability of fully realizing them in one’s personal life, or in social life. Excerpt:

In the Christian penumbra, certain religious expectations could endure (a bias toward early marriage, for instance) without support networks for people struggling to live up to them. Or specific moral ideas could still have purchase without being embedded in a plausible life script. (For instance, residual pro-life sentiment could increase out-of-wedlock births.) Or religious impulses could survive in dark forms rather than positive ones — leaving structures of hypocrisy intact and ratifying social hierarchies, without inculcating virtue, charity or responsibility.

And it isn’t hard to see places in American life where these patterns could be at work. Among those working-class whites whose identification with Christianity is mostly a form of identity politics, for instance. Or among second-generation Hispanic immigrants who have drifted from their ancestral Catholicism. Or in African-American communities where the church is respected as an institution without attracting many young men on Sunday morning.

Seeing some of the problems in our culture through this lens might be useful for the religious and secular alike. For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.

For believers, meanwhile, the Christian penumbra’s pathologies could just be seen as a kind of theological vindication — proof, perhaps, of the New Testament admonition that it’s much worse to be lukewarm than hot or cold.

This column (read the whole thing) brought to mind more than a few conversations I’ve had on the road these past 10 days, visiting Christian universities. At each stop, I talked to professors — some of them theologians, but all of them believing Christians — who all agreed that perhaps the biggest problem they’re seeing among their students is illiteracy in the basics of the Christian faith. Broadly speaking, the students don’t know their Bible, don’t know the foundational stories of the Christian faith, don’t know much of anything. And these are young adults whose parents send them to Christian colleges!

Let me state this strongly: not once did I hear a professor speak disdainfully of students today. Rather, I heard a deep concern for these kids, and fear for their futures. If there was condemnation, it was for the families and the religious communities that formed these young people so inadequately. An Evangelical theologian with whom I spoke at the Pepperdine conference (he doesn’t teach at Pepperdine, but rather drove in for the event) said, “They were taught arts and crafts in their churches. Now their religion is what Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Yes, I’ve heard of it.

In 1991, I had decided to seek instruction in the Catholic faith, but dropped out of the RCIA program after three months of the theological equivalent of arts and crafts. I wasn’t sure I was to become a Catholic, but it was clear that if I stuck with that program, I would emerge no more knowledgeable about what being Catholic meant than if I had never darkened its doors. A friend pointed me to Father Dermot Moloney, an old-school Irish priest at a downtown church. The first time I met with Father, he said, in his chewy brogue, “By the time I get t’roo with ye, ye might not want to be a Catlick, but ye’ll know what a Catlick is.”

This was golden. It was what I needed to hear. What had brought me to the threshold of the Catholic Church was in large part the royal mess I had made of my life by choosing to live directed by my own passions. To speak in Dantean terms, I wanted to learn the way out of the dark wood; I did not want the church to tell me to relax, to not be so hard on myself, that the dark wood was actually Paradise. In the Purgatorio, Canto XIX, Dante has a vision in which a Siren, representing Death, appears to him, asking him to embrace her and settle down, abandoning his quest for holiness, and knowing comfort. The pilgrim looks upon the hideous witch, and sees her transformed by his desire:

I stared at her. And as the sun revives

a body numbed by the night’s cold, just so

my eyes upon her worked to free her tongue

 

and straighten out all her deformities,

gradually suffusing her wan face

with just the color Love would have desired.

At the last moment, a “saintly lady” appears at his side, and orders Virgil — who stands for Reason — to unmask the Siren as a witch who would have led Dante to his spiritual death. What Dante risked in this moment was substituting his own desire for the truths of Faith and Reason. This, we understand, was how Dante wandered from the straight path through life in the first place; his recovery depends on learning to submit his judgment to God’s truth, and to rein his will to God’s authority.

As a Roman Catholic in a Roman Catholic world, Dante knew where the truth was to be found. To be crystal-clear, he was under no illusion that the Church was free of sin. In fact, he meets popes in Hell and in Purgatory, and once he gets to Paradise, the fieriest sermons he will hear come from saints condemning corruption in the earthly Church. But Dante, the poet, was confident that Truth existed, and that it could be known, however partially in mortal life, by living in right relationship to God, who is the source of all Truth.

The great problem we Christians today have — all Christians, not just Catholic — is that we doubt that there is any source of truth outside of ourselves, and/or that we are capable of knowing it. My fear — and it is that: a fear — is that so many of us older believers are making it difficult to impossible for our children to believe, simply by failing to teach them the basics of the faith, and to demonstrate by our lives that these things we believe are true.

It is the case that not everyone in ages past knew much theology, or even cared to know. But I believe it was the case back then that the faith was nearer to hand than it is today, for those who cared to embrace it. This no doubt led to Christianity as little more than middle-class respectability; this, in fact, is what Kierkegaard railed against in 19th-century Copenhagen: the reduction of the radicalism of the Christian faith to bourgeois ideology. Maybe the times we’re in now require those who profess Christianity, in all its forms, to embrace its core radicalism more consciously. Yes, this must be true: Christians have to push back against the world as hard as the world pushes against them. The lukewarm and their descendants will be seduced by the siren song of individualism, shoved over the cliff and washed down the river by the irresistible current. What a terrible judgment to inflict upon one’s children. I’ll be crude here, but the seriousness of the situation demands straight talk: you are a Christian, but half-assed about it, you had better face the likelihood that your children and your grandchildren will be strangers to the faith.

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