I’ll begin by pointing out that Andrew Sullivan and I have little in common with regard to political orientation or life choices. In fact, I’d wager that he and I disagree fundamentally on a high percentage of current political and cultural issues. Thus, what follows is by no means an endorsement of all that he has written or believes.
However, the above can’t change the fact that he has written what I consider to be a profound meditation on our current societal state. I hope you can find time to read the whole thing.
It’s not clear if Mr. Sullivan is writing as a Christian (one biographic source says that he is a practicing Catholic) or as someone who has come to appreciate the civilizing influence that Christianity has provided to Western Civilization. But when he writes that (emphasis added):
Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.
he has delivered great wisdom.
By “tamed Christianity” Mr. Sullivan does not appear to be referring to a faith emptied of actual belief in Christ, but rather to the fact that Christianity “tames” us in ways that allow a humane civilization to emerge. Here is how he explains this idea in the paragraph immediately following that previously quoted (emphasis added).
So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed? I think what happens is illiberal politics. The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.
Now, Mr. Sullivan appears to leave open the possibility that these new cults, were they “experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought,” might someday provide the civilizational ballast historically exerted by Christianity. If so, here he and I would part company. For, I believe that Christianity has had this humane impact because God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — has willed it from eternity.
Mr. Sullivan goes on to describe (and decry) the political cults (both of the Left and Right) that dominate current politics in the United States. In the end he asks the question that has been central to much of my work. What I have attempted to explain is far more clearly and compellingly stated by this man with whom I appear to have so little in common.
It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown. Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar, that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power. It was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project, thus renewing it. It was on these foundations that liberalism was built, and it is by these foundations it has endured. The question we face in contemporary times is whether a political system built upon such a religion can endure when belief in that religion has become a shadow of its future self.
Perhaps the way forward for the Church is to be that beacon of Christian faith, hope and love that shines the brightest when all else has fallen into terrible darkness. However, regardless of if we find ourselves in the Mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox or Nondenominational branches we must seriously consider if our Christian testimony has been so corrupted by the poison of secular cults that it has been fundamentally compromised. My thought is that something akin to a new Reformation will be required for the Church to rise to this challenge. But, not my will be done, rather His.