All culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief . . . no cultured person should remain indifferent to erosion of apprehension of the transcendent.
—Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age
The herdsman who comes to Pentheus from Mount Cithaeron, in The Bacchae, tells how the Theban women possessed by Dionysus take up serpents without being bitten and fire without being burned. It is not unlikely, given how common such phenomena are in “enthusiast” and “ecstatic” religion, that here and elsewhere Euripides grants us some glimpse of the actual Dionysiac orgy, even long after its migration into Greece from Thrace, when the cult had been assumed into the soberer mysteries of the Olympians.
And other features of the rite, reported in various sources, follow the familiar enthusiast pattern. At the height of their devotions, the maenads were seized by violent raptures, to which they surrendered entirely; absorbed in the formless beauty of the god, and tormented by fitful intimations of his presence, they worshipped him with cries of longing and delight, desperate invocations, wild dithyrambs, delirious dance, inebriation, and the throbbing din of corybantic music; abandoning all sense of themselves, they suffered visions and uttered prophecies, fell ravished and writhing to the earth, or sank into insensibility. In short, it was all very—in a word—American.
It is fairly obvious that there is some direct, indissoluble bond between faith and the will to a future, or between the desire for a future and the imagination of eternity.
At least, that is what I have been disposed to think ever since an epiphany visited itself upon me nearly twenty years ago, as I stood amid the pestilential squalor of an English railway station, awaiting my train, and deliberating on whether I should risk the ordeal of a British Rail sandwich.
Generally one might prefer grander settings for one’s moments of illumination—Wordsworth’s lakes, Amiel’s azure peaks—but it was, in this instance, the very dreariness of my surroundings that occasioned my awakening. The station’s oblong pillars were blackly begrimed; shreds of posters in garish hues hung limply from the walls; in shallow depressions of the concrete floor opaque pools of oleaginous water glistened with a sinister opalescence; an astringent chemical odor of antiseptics vying with various organic purulences suffused the damp air; a scattering of gaunt torsos farther along the platform bore eloquent witness to the malaise of Britain’s post-war gene pool; and nothing was out of the ordinary. But, all at once, two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously, and their wholly fortuitous conjunction amounted to a revelation. One was something like “Boredom is the death of civilization”; and the other something like “America has never been this modern.”
Not that this place was conspicuously worse than—or even as wretched as—countless stops along the way in the United States, but anyone who has lived in Britain for some time should understand how such a place might, in a moment of calm clarity, seem like the gray glacial heart of a gray and glaciated universe. Somehow this place was adequate to its age—to that pervasive social atmosphere of resignation at which modern Britain is all but unsurpassed; it was disenchantment made palpable, the material manifestation of a national soul unstirred by extravagant expectations or exorbitant hopes. Admittedly, contemporary England’s epic drabness makes everything seem worse; in the Mediterranean sun, culture’s decay can be intoxicatingly charming (and Catholic decadence is so much richer than Protestant decadence).
But really, anywhere throughout the autumnal world of old and dying Christendom, there are instants (however fleeting) when one cannot help but feel (however imprecisely) that something vital has perished, a cultural confidence or a spiritual aspiration, and it is obviously something inseparable from the faith that shaped and animated European civilization for nearly two millennia. Hence the almost prophetic “fittingness” of that rail station: once religious imagination and yearning have departed from a culture, the lowest, grimmest, most tedious level of material existence becomes not just one of reality's unpleasant aspects, but in some sense the limit that marks out the “truth” of things.
This is an inexcusably impressionistic way of thinking, I know, but it seems to me at least to suggest a larger cause for the remarkable willful infertility of the native European peoples: not simply general affluence, high taxes, sybaritism, working women, or historical exhaustion, but a vast metaphysical boredom. This is not to say that the American birthrate overall is particularly robust, hovering as it is just at or below “replacement level,” but it has not sunk to the European continental average of only 1.4 children per woman (so reports the UN), let alone to that of such extreme individual cases as Spain (1.07), Germany (1.3), or Italy (1.2). Britain, at almost 1.7 children per woman, is positively philoprogenitive by European standards. And the most important reason for the greater—though not spectacular—fecundity of the United States appears to be the relatively high rate of birth among its most religious families (the godless being also usually the most likely to be childless).
It is fairly obvious that there is some direct, indissoluble bond between faith and the will to a future, or between the desire for a future and the imagination of eternity. And I think this is why post-Christian Europe seems to lack not only the moral and imaginative resources for sustaining its civilization, but even any good reason for continuing to reproduce. There are of course those few idealists who harbor some kind of unnatural attachment to that misbegotten abomination, the European Union—that grand project for forging an identity for post-Christian civilization out of the meager provisions of heroic humanism or liberal utopianism or ethical sincerity—but, apart from a bureaucratic superstate, providently and tenderly totalitarian, one cannot say what there is to expect from that quarter: certainly nothing on the order of some great cultural renewal that might inspire a new zeal for having children.
Unless one grants credence to the small but fashionable set that has of late been predicting a reviviscence of Christianity in Europe (in gay defiance of all tangible evidence), it seems certain that Europe will continue to sink into its demographic twilight and increasingly to look like the land of the “last men” that Nietzsche prophesied would follow the “death of God”: a realm of sanctimony, petty sensualisms, pettier rationalisms, and a vaguely euthanasiac addiction to comfort. For, stated simply, against the withering boredom that descends upon a culture no longer invaded by visions of eternal order, no civilization can endure.
As I say, however, this absolute degree of modernity has never quite reached America’s shores. Obviously, in any number of ways, America is late modernity’s avant-garde; in popular culture, especially, so prolific are we in forms of brutal vapidity and intellectual poverty that less enterprising savages can only marvel in impotent envy. Nevertheless, here alone among Western nations the total victory of the modern is not indubitable; there are whole regions of the country—geographical and social—where the sea of faith’s melancholy, long, withdrawing roar is scarcely audible. There is in America something that, while not “Christendom,” is not simply “post-Christian” either; it is (for want of a better term) a “new antiquity.” In many ways, one might go so far as to say, the great difference between Europeans and Americans is that the former are moderns and the latter ancients (if sometimes of a still rather barbarous sort); and the reasons for this are religious.
Though really it would be truer to say that, as Americans, we know the extremes of both antiquity and modernity; what we have never yet possessed is the middle term—a native civilization, with religion as a staid and stable institution uniformly supporting the integrity of the greater culture—that might have allowed for a transition from the one to the other. Thus it is the tension between the two that makes America exceptional, and that lends a certain credibility both to those who contemn her for being so menacingly religious and to those who despise her for being so aggressively godless. In part because the United States broke from the old world at a fateful moment in history, in part because its immense geography preserves the restive peculiarities of various regions and social classes relatively inviolate and so allows even the most exotic expressions of religious devotion to survive and flourish, it has never lost the impress of much of the seventeenth-century Protestantism—evangelistic, ecclesially deracinated, congregationalist, separatist—that provided it with its initial spiritual impulse. Hence Christendom could never die from within for us, as it has for the rest of the West; we fled from it long ago into an apocalyptic future and so never quite suffered Europe’s total descent into the penury of the present.
Instead, the United States, to the consternation of bien pensants here and abroad, is saturated in religion as no other developed nation is. Not only do 40 percent of its citizens claim to attend worship weekly, and 60 percent at least monthly (though those numbers have been disputed), but apparently—staggeringly—fewer than 5 percent are willing to call themselves atheists or even agnostics. And an extraordinary number of the devout (at least in certain classes) are not merely pious, but God-haunted, apocalyptic, chiliastic, vulgarly religiose, and always living in the end times.
Moreover, for most of us (even if we refuse to admit it), America itself is a kind of evangelical faith, a transcendent truth beyond the reach of historical contingency. Even our native secularism tends towards the fanatical. We remain believers. To some, of course, this American religiousness is simply an exasperatingly persistent residue of something obsolete, an alloy of which modernity has not yet entirely purged itself, and perhaps history will prove them right. But it is likely that such persons do not quite grasp the scale, potency, or creativity of the “ancient” aspect of America and have little sense of its deepest wellsprings. Which brings me back to the maenads of Dionysus.
In his account of Appalachian snake handling, Salvation on Sand Mountain (1995), Dennis Covington tells of worshippers taking up serpents without being bitten and fire without being burned; of a woman, seized by raptures, emitting ecstatic cries of pain and pleasure, which Covington himself involuntarily accompanies with a tambourine; of the “anointed” losing themselves in what could only be called an erotic torment; of wild clamors of glossolalia, fervent invocation, and the throbbing din of Pentecostalist music; of the faithful suffering visions and uttering prophecies; even of his own experience of handling a snake, and of his sense of world and self, in that moment, disappearing into an abyss of light. Nor is it unusual in many “Holiness” congregations for worshippers to fall to the ground writhing and “rolling” or—“slain in the Spirit”—to lapse into insensibility.
Not that such forms of devotion are unknown in other parts of the developed world, but only here have they been so profuse, spontaneous, and genuinely indigenous. One might, for instance, adduce the 1801 week-long revival at Cane Ridge, whose orgiastic rites were celebrated by as many as twenty-five thousand worshippers, or the 1906 "new outpouring" of the scriptural “gifts” or “charisms” of the Holy Spirit—prophecy, speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, the casting out of demons, and so forth—upon the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, which gave birth to the “Pentecostalist” or “charismatic” spirituality that has spread throughout the global South more rapidly than any other form of Christianity in the modern world. Examples are abundant.
And this is why I say Americans are “ancients:” not simply because, throughout the breadth of their continental empire, as in the world of late antiquity, there exists a vague civic piety ramifying into a vast diversity of religious expressions, even of the most mysterious and disturbing kind; but because here there are those to whom the god—or rather God or his angel—still appears. That sort of religion is immune to disillusion, as it has never coalesced into an “illusion”; it moves at the level of vision. In a country where such things are possible, and even somewhat ordinary, the future cannot be predicted with any certitude.
One must at least say of the old Christendom that, if indeed it has died, it has nonetheless left behind plentiful and glorious evidence of its vanished majesty: its millennial growths of etherealized granite and filigreed marble, its exquisitely wrought silver, its vaults of gold: in all the arts miracles of immensity and delicacy. And the very desuetude of these remnants imbues them with a special charm. Just as the exuviae of cicadas acquire their milky translucence and poignant fragility only in being evacuated of anything living, so the misty, haunting glamour of the churches of France might be invisible but for the desolation in their pews. Similarly, countless traces of the old social accommodations—laws, institutions, customs, traditions of education, public calendars, moral prejudices, in short all those complex “mediating structures” by which the old religion united, permeated, shaped, and preserved a Christian civilization—linger on, ruined, barren, but very lovely.
There is nothing in the least majestic, poignant, or “exuvial” about American religion, and not only because it possessed very little by way of mediating structures to begin with. If the vestigial Christianity of the old world presents one with the pathetic spectacle of shape without energy, the quite robust Christianity of the new world often presents one with the disturbing spectacle of energy without shape. It is not particularly original to observe that, in the dissolution of Christendom, Europe retained the body while America inherited the spirit, but one sometimes wonders whether for “spirit” it would not be better to say “poltergeist.” It is true that the majority of observant Christians and Jews in the United States are fairly conventional in their practices and observances, and the “mainstream” denominations are nothing if not reserved. But, at its most unrestrained and disembodied, the American religious imagination drifts with astonishing ease towards the fantastical and mantic, the messianic and hermetic. We are occasionally given shocking reminders of this—when a communitarian separatist sect in Guyana or a cult of comet-gazing castrati commits mass suicide, or when an encampment of deviant Adventists is incinerated by an inept Attorney General—but these are merely acute manifestations of a chronic condition. The special genius of American religion (if that is what it is) is an inchoate, irrepressibly fissiparous force, a peregrine spirit of beginnings and endings (always re-founding the church and preparing for Armageddon), without any middle in which to come to rest.
In part, this is explicable simply in light of colonial history. The founding myth of the English settlements, after all, was in large part that of an evangelical adventure (as can be confirmed from the first Charter of Virginia, or the Mayflower Compact, or the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut), marked indelibly by covenantal Puritanism. Even the Anglican establishments in the Deep South, Virginia, and Maryland (a criminal imposition, in this last case, upon an aboriginal Catholicism) were deeply influenced by Puritan piety, as were perhaps even the Presbyterian churches. Quakerism, principally in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, infused a mystical noncomformism into the colonies, while later immigrations of German Anabaptists—Mennonites, the Amish, Hutterites—imported a “free church” discipline of somewhat more rigorist variety, and perhaps something of radical Anabaptism’s apocalyptic utopianism (it would be difficult, at any rate, to be unimpressed by the similarities between the tragic history of the 1535 “Kingdom of Münster” and that of the compound at Waco). In time even small Pietist communities added their distinctive colorations. And so on.
Though the churches of the magisterial reformation, the Church of England, and Catholicism found America fertile soil (as every religion does), the atmosphere in which they flourished was one permeated by a religious consciousness little bound to tradition, creed, hierarchy, or historical memory, but certain of its spiritual liberty and special election.
Which is why one could argue that American religion found its first genuinely native expression during the great age of revivalism. The two Great Awakenings, early and late in the eighteenth century, the spread of evangelical Christianity throughout the southern states, the sporadic but powerful western revivals—all of these contributed to the larger synthesis by which contemporary American religion was fashioned. And from the revivalist impulse followed not only the broad main currents of American evangelical Protestantism, but also innumerable more heterodox and inventive forms of Christianity: millenarian sects like the Adventists or Jehovah's Witnesses, spiritual or enthusiast movements like Pentecostalism, perhaps even (in a way) “transcendentalist” schools like the quasi-Swedenborgian Christian Scientists. Nor, indeed, are the differences in sensibility as great as one might imagine between all of mainstream evangelicalism and its more outlandish offshoots (one need only consider the huge success of the ghastly Left Behind novels to realize that an appetite for luridly absurd chiliastic fantasies is by no means confined to marginal sects).
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Certainly it is only in regard to this revivalist milieu that one might legitimately speak of “the American religion,” as Harold Bloom did in his 1992 book of that title. Bloom, it should be noted, was scarcely the first to call it a “gnostic” religion, nor is his treatment of the matter exemplary in analytic precision, but he must be given credit for having grasped how deeply constitutive of America’s normal religious temper the gnostic impulse is. If the pathos of ancient Gnosticism lay in a sense of cosmic alienation—in an intuition of the self’s exile in a strange world, called in its loneliness to an identity and a salvation experienced only within the self’s inmost core, and that by the agencies of a special spiritual election and knowledge that elevate the self above the ignorance of the derelict—then it is a pathos readily discernible in any number of distinctively American religious movements and moments. One finds it at its most speculatively refined and eloquent in Emerson and in the transcendentalism to which he gave voice; at its most risible and grotesque in Scientology and similar “schools.” As Bloom notes, nothing more perfectly fits the classic pattern of gnostic religion—fabulous mythologies, jealously guarded cryptadia, a collapse of the distinction between the divine and the human—than Mormonism. But it requires somewhat greater perspicacity to recognize this same pathos at work under more conventional guises.
Most of us, for instance, rarely have cause to reflect that some of the variants of America’s indigenous evangelical Christianity, especially of the “fundamentalist” sort, would have to be reckoned—if judged in the full light of Christian history—positively bizarre. Yet many of its dominant and most reputable churches have—quite naturally and without any apparent attempt at novelty—evolved a Christianity so peculiar as to be practically without precedent: an entire theological and spiritual world, internally consistent, deeply satisfying to many, and nearly impossible to ground in the scriptural texts its inhabitants incessantly invoke. And Bloom deserves some (reluctant) praise for having seen this and having seen why it should be: the American myth of salvation, at its purest, is a myth of genuinely personal redemption, the escape of the soul from everything that might confine and repress it—sin, the world, and the devil, but also authority, tradition, and community—into an eternal, immediate, and indefectible relation with God, and it is to this myth, much more than the teachings of the New Testament, that some forms of American evangelical Christianity, especially fundamentalism, adhere.
This is obvious if one merely considers the central (and some might say only) spiritual event of fundamentalist faith and practice, that of being “born again.” In the third chapter of John's Gospel, where this phrase is originally found, its context is mystagogical and clearly refers to baptism, but so far removed has it become from its original significance in many evangelical circles that it is now taken to mean a purely private conversion experience, occurring in that one unrepeatable authentic instant in which one accepts Jesus as one’s “personal” lord and savior. Some fundamentalists even profess a doctrine of “perpetual security,” which says that this conversion experience, if genuine (and therefrom hangs, for some, an agonizing uncertainty), is irreversible; like the initiation ceremonies of the ancient mystery cults, it is a magic threshold, across which—once it has been passed—one can never again retreat, no matter how wicked one may become. One could scarcely conceive of a more “gnostic” concept of redemption: liberation through private illumination, a spiritual security won only in the deepest soundings of the soul, a moment of awakening that lifts the soul above the darkness of this world into a realm of spiritual liberty beyond even the reach of the moral law, and an immediate intimacy with the divine whose medium is one of purest subjectivity.
This, at any rate, is one very plausible way of approaching the matter of religion in America: to consider it primarily in its most distinctive of autochthonous forms, as a new gnostic adventure allied to a new eschatological mythology, which has transformed the original Puritan impulse of the upper English colonies into something like a genuinely new version of Christianity, a Christianity whose moderate expressions are, in the long historical view, amiably aberrant, but whose extreme expressions are frequently apocalyptic, enthusiast, and even—again—Dionysiac. One could argue, though, that it is an approach that, while not exactly unjust, is a mite perverse. After all, the exceptional nature of American piety consists not only in the opulence and prodigality of its innovations and deviations, but also in the extraordinary tenacity (as compared, at least, to the situation in other developed nations) with which the more established and traditional communities hold on to their own, generation after generation, and in some cases attract new converts: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, not to mention the various kinds of synagogical Judaism.
And surely one should note that—however widespread and dynamic the (by no means uniform) phenomenon of evangelical Christianity may be—the Roman Catholic Church constitutes the single largest denomination in the United States and is growing at an impressive pace (in large part, obviously, because of Hispanic immigration). If fifty years hence, as demographic trends adumbrate, there are approximately 400 million Americans, fully a quarter may be Hispanic. Of these, one must immediately note, as many as a third may be evangelicals, but it seems clear that Catholicism will continue to increase not only in absolute numbers, but also relative to other Christian denominations. And, despite Harold Bloom’s quaint asseveration that “most” American Catholics are gnostics (rather than, as is true, “very many”), this might perhaps mean that the more extreme species of revivalist individualism may actually relinquish some slight measure of its dominance of the American religious consciousness.
And, then again, perhaps not. The institutional reality of American Christianity has always been too diverse for simple characterizations, but at present this much is certain: the churches most likely to prosper greatly are those that make an appeal to—and an attempt to adopt the style of—an emotive individualism. Whether this means seeking to provide a sort of chaplaincy for small communities of earnest, socially conscientious liberals (as do many mainstream Protestant parishes and many Catholic parishes that might as well be mainstream Protestant), or promoting a more traditional—if largely undemanding—popular moralism, or promising more extreme forms of spiritual experience, or supplying a sort of light spiritual therapy, what is ultimately important is that institutional authority and creedal tradition not interpose themselves between the believer and his God. And as a general, moderate, and respectable Christian piety has gradually lost its hold on the center of American society, this spiritual individualism has become more pronounced.
Nothing is more suggestive of the immense institutional transformations that may lie ahead for American Christianity than the growth of the so-called “mega-churches,” enormous urban “parishes” built more or less on the model of suburban shopping malls, accommodating sometimes more than 20,000 congregants, and often featuring such amenities as bookstores, weight rooms, food courts, playing fields, coffee houses, even hostelries and credit unions. Worship in such churches often takes the form of mass entertainments—popular music, video spectaculars, sermons of a distinctly theatrical nature—and constitutes only one among a host of available services. Obviously, the scale of such enterprises is possible only because the spiritual life to which they give refuge is essentially private: each worshipper alone amid a crowd of other worshippers, finding Christ in the emotional release that only so generously shared a solitude permits. When Christ is on’s personal savior, sacramental mediation is unnecessary and pastoral authority nugatory; convenience, however, and social support remain vital.
Nothing is more suggestive of the immense institutional transformations that may lie ahead for American Christianity than the growth of the so-called “mega-churches.”
I do not mean to ridicule these churches, incidentally: I am not competent to say whether they represent merely a final disintegration of American Christianity into an absurd variety of consumerism, or whether they might be taken as—within the constraints of contemporary culture—a kind of new medievalism, an attempt to gather small cities into the precincts of the church and to retreat into them from a world increasingly inimical to spiritual longing. For me they do, however, occasion three reflections: first, that no other developed nation could produce such churches, because no other developed nation suffers from so unrelenting a hunger for God; second, that the social medium, the “middle,” that I have claimed American religion has always largely lacked is perhaps more profoundly absent now than it has ever been, so much so that many Christians find themselves forced to create alternative societies to shelter their faith; and, third, that evangelical individualism may in fact be becoming even more thoroughly the standard form of American Christianity.
Prognostication is of course always perilous, especially when one is considering a matter as thronged with imponderables as America’s religious future. My tendency, though, is to assume that for some years to come America will continue to be abnormally devout for an industrialized society; in fact I suspect (for reasons that will presently become clear) that it might even become a great deal more devout. But there is also that “other America” that could scarcely be more energetically post-Christian, and it requires only a generation or two for a society to go from being generally pious to being all but ubiquitously infidel; in the age of mass communication and inescapable “information,” when an idea or habit of thought or fashionable depravity does not have to crawl from pen to pen or printing press to printing press, these cultural metabolisms occur far more quickly than they used to do. The ease with which an ever more flamboyant and temerarious sexual antinomianism has migrated through the general culture is instructive, at the very least, of how pliant even the most redoubtable of moral prejudices can prove before the blandishments of modern ideas when those ideas are conveyed, principally, by television.
There is no reason to be confident that the rising and succeeding generations of Catholics and evangelicals, Hispanic or “Anglo,” will not progressively yield to the attractions (whatever they are) of secularist modernity. Some estimates of the decline in church attendance over just the past dozen years put it as high as 20 percent (though neither the accuracy nor the meaning of that number is certain). And the young of college age profess markedly less faith than their elders, say some surveys (though this, if true, may be little more than callow defiance of parents or the affectation of intellectual and moral autonomy). The American habit of faith will probably run many of the new unbelievers to earth, of course, but the great age of disenchantment may yet dawn here as it has in other technologically and economically advanced societies.
What, however, I suspect will be the case is that—however playfully or balefully heathen the circumambient culture may continue to become—religion in America will remain at least as vigorous as it is now for at least a few decades. The two most influential and vital forms of Christianity, almost certainly, will be evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (between which even now, however irreconcilable their ecclesiological principles, one can observe certain areas of intellectual and cultural rapprochement taking shape). Pentecostalism, moreover, is growing everywhere in the Christian world, and it is reasonable to suppose that more “charismatic” forms of both Catholicism and Protestantism will increasingly flourish here as well.
Around these two massive realities, smaller Protestant denominations of a markedly conservative complexion may remain relatively stable, I would imagine, so long as they remain conservative. Eastern Orthodoxy—along with the other ancient Eastern Churches, the most intransigently immune of Christian communities to the lure of change—has enjoyed something of a golden age of conversions over the past three decades, especially from Protestant denominations. Though it has long been seen as a predominantly “ethnic preserve” for Greeks, Russians, Serbs, Arabs, etc., Orthodoxy will probably continue to grow from outside its “natural” constituency, and may in a few generations come to be dominated in this country by communicants with no ethnic ties to the tradition.
Faiths other than Christianity will in all likelihood, even as their total numbers increase, decline in their percentage of the population (with the possible exception of Mormonism). The cultural and even religious influence of Judaism on America society will persist, one assumes, but in this regard it will be practically unique. Certainly nothing like the constant and volatile growth of Islam in Europe is likely here in the near term; despite occasional claims to the contrary, there are probably fewer than two million American Muslims; the majority of American Arabs are Christian, and our immigrants come principally from cultures where Islam is a small presence at best.
Where, among Christian congregations, it seems obvious to me that there will be no conspicuous growth, and indeed a great deal of diminution, is among the more liberal of the mainstream Protestant denominations. As much attention as is given in the press to the “lively” debates underway in many of the Protestant churches over such things as sexual morality, or to the New Hampshire Episcopal church’s elevation of the adulterous and actively homosexual Gene Robinson to its episcopacy, these remain matters of concern to communities so minuscule by comparison to the larger religious realities of American culture, and so clearly destined for further fragmentation and tabescence, that it is inconceivable that they could be very relevant to the future shape of American religion.
Things like the Gene Robinson affair may, of course, be genuinely instructive regarding certain shifts in the larger society, especially in certain regions of the country. But, when one considers the most liberal forms of mainstream American Protestantism, it is not even obvious that one is any longer dealing with religion at all, except in a formal sense. Certainly they exhibit very few recognizable features of a living faith (such as a reluctance to make up their beliefs as they go along), and it is difficult to see many of their “bolder” gestures of accommodation as amounting to anything more than judicious preparations for a final obsolescence. The future of American religion in the main, whatever it is, lies almost certainly elsewhere.
In saying this, I am not, I hasten to add, attempting to be either cavalier or contemptuous. My judgments are prompted simply by two immense sets of statistical fact: those concerning birthrates and those concerning immigration. As for the former, I merely observe that theologically and morally conservative believers tend to have more children. Conservative American Christians reproduce at a far greater rate than their liberal brethren and at an enormously higher rate than secularized America; the extraordinary growth of traditionalist Christian communities in recent decades is something that has been accomplished not only by indefatigable evangelization, but by the ancient and infallible methods of lawful conjugation and due fruition.
More importantly, though, the form that American religion will take in coming years is increasingly dictated by the demographic influx from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In his indispensable book The Next Christendom (2002), Philip Jenkins remarks that the effect of mass immigration from the global South and Pacific East to the United States in recent years has been, in fact, to make America a more Christian nation. And the Christianity that is being imported from these parts of the world is, to a great extent, very conservative in its most basic moral precepts and metaphysical presuppositions. And, throughout the developing world, the Christianity that is growing most exuberantly (with, as Jenkins demonstrates, a rapidity that beggars the imagination) is in many cases marked by the New Testament charisms: prophecy, exorcisms, glossolalia, visions, miraculous healings. These are not things, one must make clear, confined only to small, sectarian communities. A Ugandan Catholic priest of my acquaintance has claimed to me—with obviously some hyperbole—that all African Christianity is charismatic to one degree or another. And the effect of Pentecostalism’s success on the worship of Catholic congregations in places like the Philippines and Brazil is well documented.
All of which tends to make rather hilarious a figure like John Spong, the quondam Episcopal bishop of Newark. It was Spong who, in 1998, produced an hysterical screed of a book, pompously entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die, that—in arguing for a “new Christianity,” unburdened by such cumbrous appurtenances as, for instance, God—succeeded only in making audible the protracted death rattle of a moribund church. It was Spong also who, that same year, appalled that African bishops at the Lambeth Conference had defeated movements towards an official Anglican approbation of homosexuality, delivered himself of a fiercely petulant diatribe almost touching in its unreflective racism; these Africans, he declared (all of whom were far better scholars and linguists than he, as it happens), had only recently slouched their way out of animism, and so were susceptible to “religious extremism" and “very superstitious" forms of Christianity.
Now, admittedly, Spong is a notorious simpleton, whose special combination of emotional instability and intellectual fatuity leaves him in a condition rather like chronic delirium tremens; so it is not surprising that, on being somewhat unceremoniously roused from the parochial midden on which he had been contentedly reclining, his reaction should be puerile and vicious; but his perplexity and rage were genuine and understandable. Many within the languishing denominations of the affluent North, until they are similarly shaken from the slumber of their ignorance, are simply unprepared for the truth that, in the century ahead, Christianity will not only expand mightily, but will also increasingly be dominated by believers whose understanding of engagement with the non-Christian or post-Christian world is likely to be one not of accommodation, compromise, or even necessarily coexistence, but of spiritual warfare. This is, in many ways, an “ancient” Christianity. As immigration from the developing world continues, it will almost certainly find itself most at home in “ancient” America. (But this suggests that my earlier approach to my topic was better after all.)
The irony that attaches to these reflections is that many of the forms of Christianity entering America from the developing world are in a sense merely coming home. The Christian movements that have had the most prodigious success in Asia and the global South are arguably those that were born here and then sent abroad: revivalist evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, even the charismatic movement within Catholicism and certain of the mainstream Protestant churches. Indeed, when one considers the influence American Christianity has had on the evolution of Christianity in the wider world, and considers also the effect of America’s popular culture on the evolution of secular culture everywhere, one might almost conclude that America’s great central and defining tension—between, as I have said, extreme forms of antiquity and modernity—has somehow reached out to draw the world into itself.
And it is a tension that—for want of that precious medium, civilization—looks likely to increase, for our extremes are becoming very extreme indeed: a modernity drained of any of the bright refinements and moral ambitions of Enlightenment reason or humanist idealism, reduced to a “high” culture of insipid ethical authoritarianism and a low culture consisting in dreary hedonism (without a hint of healthy Rabelaisian festivity), ever more explicit and repetitive celebrations of violence, sartorial and sexual slovenliness, atrocious music, and an idyllic emancipation from the fetters of literacy or (in fact) articulacy; and an antiquity of real and dynamic power, but largely uncontrolled by any mediating forces of order, stability, unity, or calm. To the dispassionate observer, there might be something exhilarating in the spectacle: the grand titanic struggle—within the very heart of their homeland—between a secular culture of militant vanity and incorruptible coarseness and a Christian culture of often purely experientialist ardor.
More prosaically speaking, though, a genuine civil religious struggle may well mark the coming decades, and how it will play out is hard to say. For the demographic reasons to which I have already adverted, as much as the social history of the United States, America is the one place in the Western world where one could conceivably see the inexorable advance of late modernity somewhat falter, or even the cultural power of the Christian global South establish something of a Northern redoubt. Ultimately, however, our strident secularity may triumph, and with it all the pathologies of cultural exhaustion. Perhaps not only will the courts, and educational establishment, and ACLU, and all the other leal servants of a constitutional principle that does not actually exist, succeed in purging the last traces of Christian belief from our licit social grammar, but we may all finally, by forces of persuasion impossible to foresee, be conducted out of the darkness of our immemorial superstitions, nationalisms, moral prejudices, and retrograde loyalties into the radiant and pure universe of the International Criminal Court, reproductive choice, and the Turner Prize. Or some kind of uncomfortable but equable balance might continue to be struck between our extremes, under the sheltering pavilion of material satisfaction and narcissist individualism. But I prefer to think otherwise, and not only because “spiritual warfare" is more interesting to write about than bland social concord.
The Christian movements that have had the most prodigious success in Asia and the global South are arguably those that were born here and then sent abroad.
A culture—a civilization—is only as great as the religious ideas that animate it; the magnitude of a people’s cultural achievements is determined by the height of its spiritual aspirations. One need only turn one’s gaze back to the frozen mires and fetid marshes of modern Europe, where once the greatest of human civilizations resided, to grasp how devastating and omnivorous a power metaphysical boredom is. The eye of faith presumes to see something miraculous within the ordinariness of the moment, mysterious hints of an intelligible order calling out for translation into artifacts, institutions, ideas, and great deeds, but boredom’s disenchantment renders the imagination inert and desire torpid.
This claim is of course completely at variance with the Enlightenment mythology of modern secularism: that faith confined mankind within an incurious intellectual infancy, from which it has only lately been liberated to pursue the adult adventure of self-perfection; that the lineaments of all reality are clear and precise, and available to disinterested rationality and its powers of representation; that moral truth is not only something upon which all reasonable persons can agree, but also something that, in being grasped, is immediately compelling; that human nature, when measured only by itself, will of course advance towards higher expressions of life rather than retreat into the insipid self-indulgence of the last men or into mere brutish lawlessness; that reason can order society best only when all supernaturalism has been banished from its deliberations; and so on (and, in Wellington's words, if you believe that, you will believe anything).
Even if, however, one does not share my view that this entire mythology is an immense banality, and that modernity as a whole has resulted not in man’s emergence into maturity, but in a degrading descent into a second childhood, still one must acknowledge that all the colossal creativity of modern culture taken together is manifestly unable to rise above a certain level of aesthetic or spiritual accomplishment (despite the greatness of certain individual achievements). And even if one has so little acquaintance with religious phenomena as to imagine that there are no moments of revelation, and that behind the surface of things there move no massive shapes that the religious consciousness dimly descries and imperfectly limns, and that in short religion is nothing but a gigantic feat of willful imagination, one must still grant that it is an engagement of, precisely, will and imagination, from which springs a magnificent profusion of cultural forms.
Europe may now be its own mausoleum, but once, under the golden canopy of an infinite aspiration—the God-man—the noblest of human worlds took shape: Hagia Sophia, Chartres, Rouen, and il Duomo; Giotto and Michelangelo; Palestrina and Bach; Dante and Shakespeare; Ronsard and Herbert; institutions that endured, economies that prospered, laws that worked justice, hypocrisies but also a cultural conscience that never forgot to hate them; and the elevation of charity above all other virtues.
As an unapologetic Christian reactionary, suffering from a romantic devotion to the vanished Christian order, and to all the marvels that flowed from its glorious synthesis of Judaic and Hellenic genius, I confess I often detest American religion (no doubt superciliously) as something formless, vulgar, saccharine, idolatrous, or—to intrude theology—heretical; I continue to delude myself that Europe’s spiritual patrimony need not have been squandered had it been more duly cherished and reverently guarded. At the same time, as something of an American chauvinist, I cannot help but see in our often absurd and sometimes barbarous spiritual and social ferment something infinitely preferable to the defatigation of vision, wisdom, and moral fortitude that is the evident condition of the post-Christian West. There may not be much hope that anything worth dignifying with the term “civilization” will ever emerge from American culture—but, then again, where religious life persists there are always possibilities.
And, if nothing else, there is such a thing as moral civilization, and that, I often think, is nowhere more advanced than among the sort of persons whose beliefs will always be a scandal to the John Spongs of the world. American religion is poor in palpable splendors, true, but it is often difficult not to be amazed at, say, the virtues that southern evangelical culture is able to instill and preserve amid the wreck of modern civility and conscience: the graciousness of true hospitality; the spontaneous generosity that prompts evangelicals (even those of small substance) to donate so great a portion of their wealth to charitable relief for the developing world; the haunting consciousness of sin, righteousness, and redemption that often even the most brutal of men cannot escape and that can ennoble their lives with the dignity of repentance; a moral imagination capable of a belief in real “rebirth” (not merely “reform”) and the power frequently to bring it to pass. A culture capable of such things—and of the surrender of faith necessary to sustain them—is something rare and delightful, which cannot be recovered once it is lost.
If indeed American religion was born out of the exhaustion of one set of mediating cultural and institutional structures and has yet to find any to take their place; and if American secularism was born out of the decadence of European civilization and has so far succeeded only at producing a new kind of savagery; and if the two are destined to continue to struggle for the soul of the nation, it is obvious where the sympathies of anyone anxious about the survival or even recrudescence of Western civilization should lie. I am not always entirely convinced that irreligious cultural conservatives have an unquestioned right to lament the general decline around them, as in ungenerous moments I tend to see them as its tacit accomplices, whose devotion to the past I suspect of having more the character of nostalgia than commitment; but I should think such persons would not be indifferent to religion.
For, if we succumb to post-Christian modernity, and the limits of its vision, what then? Most of us will surrender to a passive decay of will and aspiration, perhaps, find fewer reasons to resist as government insinuates itself into the little liberties of the family, continue to seek out hitherto unsuspected insensitivities to denounce and prejudices to extirpate, allow morality to give way to sentimentality; the impetuous among us will attempt to enjoy Balzac, or take up herb gardening, or discover “issues”; a few dilettantish amoralists will ascertain that everything is permitted and dabble in bestiality or cannibalism; the rest of us will mostly watch television; crime rates will rise more steeply and birth rates fall more precipitously; being the “last men,” we shall think ourselves at the end of history; an occasional sense of the pointlessness of it all will induce in us a certain morose feeling of impotence (but what can one do?); and, in short, we shall become Europeans (but without the vestiges of the old civilization ranged about us to soothe our despondency).
Surely we can hope for a nobler fate. Better the world of Appalachian snake handlers, mass revivals, Hispanic Pentecostals, charismatic Catholics, and millenarian evangelicals (even the gnostics among them); better a disembodied, violent, and even Dionysiac hunger for God than a dispirited and eviscerate capitulation before material reality; and much better a general atmosphere of earnest, if sometimes unsophisticated, faith.
My “epiphany” of twenty years ago, on the rail platform in England, was undoubtedly lacking in a certain balance, but the intuition that lay behind it was correct: that material circumstances (unless they are absolutely crushing) possess only such gravity or levity as one’s interpretation of them; and how one interprets them is determined not merely by one’s personal psychology, but by the cultural element in which they subsist. The almost luxuriant squalor of that railway station, had I found myself confronted by it in some corner of America, might have seemed a bleak disfigurement of the greater world in which I lived; it might even have struck me as depressingly emblematic of the profound hideousness of late industrial society and its inevitable utilitarian minimalism, but I do not believe it would have seemed to me the dark mystical epitome of a nation’s soul.
Allowing for all the peculiarities of personal temperament, and for the special pathos that homesickness can induce, my reaction to my miserable surroundings was a real—if inevitably subjective—awakening to a larger cultural and spiritual truth. Either the material order is the whole of being, wherein all transcendence is an illusion, or it is the phenomenal surface—mysterious, beautiful, terrible, harsh, and haunting—of a world of living spirits. That the former view is philosophically incoherent is something of which I am convinced; even if one cannot share that conviction, however, one should still be able to recognize that it is only the latter view that has ever had the power—over centuries and in every realm of human accomplishment—to summon desire beyond the boring limits marked by mortality, to endow the will with constancy and purpose, and to shape imagination towards ends that should not be possible within the narrow economies of the flesh.
In any event, whatever one makes of American religion—its genially odd individualism, or its often ponderous stolidity, or its lunatic extremism, or its prodigies of kitsch, or its sometimes unseemly servility to a national mythology, or simply its unostentatious pertinacity—it is as well to realize that it is far more in harmony with the general condition of humanity throughout history than are the preposterous superstitions of secular reason or the vile ephemeralities of post-Christian popular culture. It is something alive and striving, which has the power to shelter innumerable natural virtues under its promises of supernatural grace. Most importantly, its strength and vitality portend something that might just survive the self-consuming culture of disenchantment; for, while it is possible that modernity may not have very much of a future, antiquity may very well prove deathless.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 7, on page 5
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