Published in Substack on 10/15/22 at billschmitt.substack.com
Religion is making a lot of news. Some pundits say its conventional forms are a remedy for the chaos in society today. Some say religiosity has morphed into a secular theology particularly common in the “woke” culture.
Do-it-yourself theologians are crowning their political allies as righteous and condemning their opponents as evil. “They know not what they do,” as Luke’s Gospel puts it, because they are members of generations which were largely un-catechized. They don’t know their alt-religion is a religion at all. To the degree it is, it misleads them and society at large.
Huge percentages of the population are now growing up, or simply growing older, without positive experiences of God and religion in their lives. This is tragic because, as St. Augustine said, the human impulse toward religion is deeply ingrained: Our hearts were created for God, and they are restless until they find Him.
The search for Him, or a substitute, proceeds on various levels. Some folks assiduously dig for meaning and true happiness in their lives, naturally gravitating toward time-tested, “conventional” answers from philosophy and theology. But in recent decades, much of the practice of religion has been poorly taught or modeled by churches, ministers, families, and cultures. It has been too easily replaced by a therapeutic, intellectually lazy and hazy, self-centered and post-truth understanding of life.
American society has allowed the DIY religious impulse to grow among people all along the political and cultural spectrum, but progressive or “woke” folks seem recently to have embraced it with fervor. Influential sectors of society have helped them build structures and practices embodying their theology.
Like most people, they desire faith-like features that give them a sense of right and wrong, a sense that they are on the right side. They so far have missed developing a relationship of endless discovery with the loving God, so they have experienced religion as static, even irrelevant.
Many of those disenchanted with religious practice still demand a measure of stability, but their houses built on sand rely upon contrived, narcissistic foundations: My truth is what matters. I know what I need to know. I am right, good, and in control. My self-confirmation is more practical, intelligent, and rewarding, the disenchanted say, than the established religions I have perceived among old-timers and various “deplorables”!
Indeed, these aspirants to pragmatic religiosity say, we can enjoy the same benefits we accuse those backward believers of inventing. The deplorables send out signals of old-fashioned virtues and values. They exercise a judgmentalism born of moral superiority. But we know better!
Yes, the pragmatists have adopted similar traits, displaying a sense of infallibility while canceling advocates of traditional principles, trying to paralyze them with shame, guilt, and fear. Alt-religionists, who have not done their homework of prayer, suffering, and learning, have become what might be called “secular clericalists” at the top of a hierarchy resembling the Tower of Babel.
The do-it-yourselfers know they need to lead their lives “on the right side of history.” But, they ask, why invest time, talent, and treasure to appreciate real history? That stuff is being rewritten (or ignored)! Instead, history is a magical force that sweeps elite humans into a new and improved future.
Today’s oversimplified religious impulses empower the DIY crusaders to establish dogmas, rituals, and communities of solidarity. They grant privileges to adherents and impose punishments on opponents. But they don’t realize a crusade must be based on solidarity and communion, not anything-goes autonomy.
Of course, our circumstances should never become violent or take the form of religion vs. religion. Creeds of progressive values (or other values from elsewhere on the political spectrum) have become popular nowadays because they offer bonding and encouragement to a world where economic, political, health-based, and spirit-based forces have left many souls needy. We must be genuinely sympathetic toward those trapped by addictions, poverty, physical and mental health crises, and disconnection and despair.
Loving responses to such people include compassion, self-sacrifice, encounters of affirmation, and maximum patience with their complaints and demands.
But the needy now clustered under the “woke” hierarchy have gained such a critical mass—enabled by politicians, activists, the greedy, the power-hungry—that many well-intentioned people have become enablers, quietly allowing the secular shepherds and sheep of DIY religion to make broadly harmful changes in social mores and rational discourse. Theologian Scott Hahn has called this a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” response among Catholics.
Why must we resist the DIY toolkit for self-centered religion? The box has no room for forgiveness, empathy, or merciful love; the misled manufacturers assume individuals can block out sin, shame, and sorrow on their own.
Nor does the kit include a God with whom we can be in a helping, healing relationship through good times and bad. Alt-religion designers see this role played by governments, corporations, technologies, social-justice policies, and groups we call our allies. These components cannot heal by making people immune from guilt, shame, and fear; they only make the scourges worse.
Sooner or later, the inadequacy of this DIY toolkit becomes obvious. Remember, many of the “woke” already have given up on religion once, failing to appreciate the real thing. They might be prone to give up on an alt-religion, too, if it does not meet the high standards of their cost-benefit calculus. They may become alt-heretics, returning to the humbling mysteries of more “conventional” faith, if the magical force of history does not propel them to demigod status..
Meanwhile, followers of Christ can provide a valuable, authentic alternative. We must model strong relationships with the Lord and with each other, in families, parishes, and communities. These still draw stability from our humble pursuits of truth and love, our patience with reality’s ups and downs, and our reaching out for supernatural hope. Fortunately, these resources remain available to all through the Catholic Church.
We can respond to the DIY impulse not merely with the aforementioned compassion, but also with a “tough love” that reveals the truths and principles we stand up for. This confidence will give the lie to the alt-theologians who wrongly condemned old-timers’ “pretenses” of faith. Charitably, without combativeness, we can help the disenchanted to see that the common good benefits when the Holy Spirit acts and reality wins.
They will see that their toolkit succeeded only in assembling what is called an ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail. These newly hopeful “heretics” will abandon their post-truth doctrines. They will stop merely imitating religion when even secularized people around them are acknowledging (along with old-timers, going back to America’s founders) that a healthy society needs God.
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