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Understanding America

A colleague once told me that he heard Cardinal Francis George lament that Catholics in Chicago were treating Mass like going for fast food: quickly in, quickly out. Not only did they show up late for the Mass, but they left right after receiving the Eucharist. After hearing this comment, I wondered if those Catholics were designated on surveys as practicing Catholics. In their haste to get to other things, it seemed like practicing was not a priority. Now, imagine growing up this way. Such an upbringing would not communicate the importance of the faith. Other concerns would preoccupy you with what Paul Tillich calls “ultimate concern” at the basis of your life. This was the case even for your parents who at least made it to Mass, and perhaps even your devout grandparents had a worldview that was if its logic was drawn out, rather different than one rooted in the Catholic faith.

When I taught a class entitled “Christian States of Life”, at the beginning of the semester I used to have my students write down their top twenty events in world history. The list gave me an insight into their worldview, which I have to admit was thoroughly secular. Even if I found a “religious” event listed, it was often accompanied by a drawn wink, as if the student knew I’d like to see that. To say the least, the list was not very objective.

My inspiration for having the students write a list was from Will Herberg’s famous book Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology in which he debunked the popular idea that Americans were “turning to religion” in the early 1950s when ideas remained thoroughly secular. He tells the funny story of how Ignazio Silone, an Italian Socialist, when asked what is the most important event in history unhesitatingly replied, “The twenty-fifth of December in year zero.” Herberg contrasts this reply with the general reply of religious Americans:

“But when nearly thirty outstanding Americans were asked not long ago to rate the hundred most significant events in history, first place was given to Columbus’ discovery of America, while Christ, His birth or crucifixion, came fourteenth, tied with the discovery of X rays and the Wright brothers’ first plane flight.”

The report that Herberg mentions here is from Time, May 24, 1954.

Herberg’s thesis in the book is that religion and secularism in America stem from the same source: puritanism. His point is that religion (this includes Protestants, Catholics, and Jews) and secularism in America are of distinctive kinds, unlike their expressions in others cultures. American Catholic theologian David L. Schindler, building off of Herberg’s insights, thinks that underlying these expressions is a distinctive understanding of man and reality. He contends that “America’s historically dominant understanding of man embeds a voluntaristic idea of freedom, an instrumentalist idea of human reason, and a positivistic idea of religion.”

That’s a mouthful. And while it might take a few courses in philosophy to better understand his meaning, I think Schindler gets at the heart of the issue that will help us better understand the rise of the unaffiliated. He writes,

The problem we face today in America is not only, or not primarily, that of recovering a religion that was once taken largely for granted, a religion that would seem to be the opposite of secularism. Rather, what we need is to reconsider the nature or logic—the ontological meaning—of America’s historical religiosity itself. We need to ponder the profound and paradoxical way in which this religion, on its own proper self-understanding, contains the ontological seeds of the very secularism that it has always, in its explicit intentionality and with utmost sincerity, resisted. (Schindler, DL. “America’s Technological Ontology and the Gift of the Given: Benedict XVI on the Cultural Significance of the Quaerere Deum”, Communio Vol. 38.2, pg. 245).

Sometimes the underlying metaphysics and anthropology undergirding a culture take a long time to manifest their head. No one better saw this than Nietzsche himself. His Parable of the Madman is worth considering in light of the rise of the unaffiliated. Here is the parable from The Gay Science:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"---As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?---Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us---for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars---and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]

I think that in light of where American culture has gone in the last twenty years we can more confidently see that “it” (that is, if it is one monolithic thing) is not disposed to the practice of the Catholic faith. Perhaps the first step out of this predicament is first by becoming aware of its disposition against Catholicism.


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