The Unseriousness Of Contemporary Religion
From the Journals Of Father Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest, this combination of two subsequent entries from February 1975:
I had lunch with two Anglican clergymen in the city. Conversations about the ordination of women. Suddenly, while we were talking, I thought, how not serious religion had become since it ceased being the essential form of life. Religion seems to be constantly reinventing itself, in order not to disappear completely, not to be discarded.
People have stopped believing not in God or gods, but in death, in eternal death, in its inevitability — hence, they stopped believing in salvation. The seriousness of religion was first of all in the serious choice that a person considered obvious, between death and salvation. People say that the disappearance of fear is good, although the essential experience of life is facing death. The saints did not become saints because of fear, but because they knew the fear of God. The contemporary understanding of religion as self-fulfillment is rather cheap. The devil is eliminated, then hell, then sin — and nothing is left except consumer goods. But there is much more fear, even religious fear in the world than ever before — but it is not at all the fear of God.
This is why the Divine Comedy would be impossible today. Without the Inferno, and the vivid reality of sin and death, and the conviction that one has the responsibility to choose, none of the rest of it makes sense.
Today I read in the New York Times an article about changes occurring in Russia. No more dissidents, no young people to carry on the opposition. Sakharov is quite alone. People want televisions, cars, ice cream, comfort. The tragic high note taken by Solzhenitsyn is lost in this decay. S. issues a call to “live without lies,” but his opponents reply, “Does he not understand that people always and everywhere lived — and will live — by and with lies?” It is impossible to oppose society’s lowest impersonal ways. The United States wants and needs to trade with Russia — and this is stronger than any potential protest. Russia wants a better material life and that’s the strongest incentive. Religion is absolutely helpless, not because of the weakness and the fall of religion, butbecause religion has ceased to be the essential term of reference, the basis of a vision of the world, an evaluation of all these “wants.” [Emphasis mine — RD] I felt it quiet acutely today while attending a report of our church’s committee on investment, including a discussion about what is better, more profitable, secure — some bonds or some stocks. Nobody felt the comical and demonic aspect of a discussion attended by bishops and priests who listened with genuine reverence and admiration to the financial experts: a banker and a broker. I saw for about an hour a true religious awe, which was completely absent when simple church affairs were discussed — in an atmosphere of petty mistrust, intrigue, and verification of every cent spent by the administration. The banker and the broker were listened to with hearty enjoyment, and questions were asked in the way that one used to ask elders, wise men and masters. They talked with the simplicity and the humility of people who know their business, their indispensable place in society. This is the way that religion does not express itself any more, because religion does not have such an indispensable place any more. What does it mean? It means that religion has accepted secular logic and does not see in that acceptance either its fall or even a “problem.” For how could religion survive otherwise?
A recent illustration of Fr. Schmemann’s point. Religion is powerless before the gods of this age, except in a refusal to bend the knee. And the religions that do bend their knees will lose their souls. Watch.
UPDATE: A little more on this. When Schmemann says religion has accepted “secular logic,” what does he mean? Well, thinking of Charles Taylor (who wrote A Secular Age long after the late Fr. Schmemann wrote these diary entries), I suppose he means accepting that secularism doesn’t mean the lack of religion, but rather that the religious worldview does not dominate and undergird life. Religion is seen not as a description of how the world is, but as an expression of how some people within a culture see the world. The condition of being secular is to be aware that religion is a choice. This is something that even religious people living in secularism cannot help but be aware of; in this sense, everyone living today is secular, even if they are religious. That being the case, to accept “secular logic” as a religious person means that one sees religion as an aspect of life, not as the center of life. It means church is what one does on Sunday. It means faith is a pleasant and perhaps helpful add-on to one’s life, but certainly not the point of one’s life. There is no awe present within the contemporary religious consciousness; it is entirely therapeutic. It is not the Cross, but rather Your Best Life Now. No wonder nobody takes religion seriously.
As you may recall, I am embarking on a book about reading the Divine Comedy as a way to find one’s own way back to the “straight path.” Frankly, it’s about reading Dante’s great poem as a self-help book — a reading that, I hasten to add, the poet endorses. He once wrote to a patron that the point of the Commedia is to deliver the reader from misery to blessedness. The thing that will be the hardest for me to convey to the modern reader is Dante’s since that the choice he (and all of us) must make in life will have eternal consequences. If you don’t believe your eternal fate hangs on the choices you make in this life, it’s harder to experience the Commedia as Dante wrote it.