Sunday, December 13, 2009

* OPINION: HOUSES OF WORSHIP * DECEMBER 11, 2009 A Hint of This, a Pinch of That

This is an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal. As it concerns Catholicism, especially here in the south, we too sometimes borrow spiritualities and customs from our Protestant brothers and sisters that are not always harmonious with Catholic spirituality and practice. Apart from that, we are now borrowing from our secularized, non Christian culture customs and practices that are clearly not harmonious with our spirituality, morals or ways of worship. I think of pro-choice "Catholics,", tattooed bodies, so-called liturgical hymnody, and music that borrow melodies from Broadway and Hollywood musicals as well as other disharmonious cultural musical idioms. All should know that in the Latin Rite Mass, Gregorian Chant and Polyphony are the musical forms proper to us. But I suspect no one in the pews or at the altar really know this because the practice of music in Mass since Vatican II has all but abandoned what is proper for our Rite. This is a major area for the reform of the reform as it concerns liturgical music. But the tide against Gregorian Chant and Polyphony is like a rip current.


So much for the jealous God. A survey released earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the U.S. is a "nation of religious drifters." If, in the realm of love, Americans gravitate toward serial monogamy (moving from marriage to divorce to remarriage and so on), we likewise flit from one religious affiliation to another, pledging our fidelity, say, to Methodism in our youth, Catholicism in middle age and Episcopalianism in our dotage.

A new Pew study, released last week, shows that Americans are swingers as well as switchers, flirting with religious beliefs and practices other than their own without officially changing their religious affiliation. Catholic leaders have long denounced "Cafeteria Catholics" for going down the line and picking and choosing the Catholic beliefs and practices they choose to uphold. According to this new study, Americans as a group are now bellying up to what my Boston University colleague John Berthrong has referred to as the "divine deli."

Not counting travel, or special events such as weddings and funerals, more than one-third of Americans attend worship services at more than one place, and nearly a quarter attend services held by another religion. Much of this religious infidelity happens in the family, or within the extended family—Lutherans attending Baptist services or Baptists attending Catholic Mass. But among black Protestants 8% attend services at synagogues, and 5% of this same group go to mosques. Meanwhile, large numbers of American Christians affirm beliefs that their theologians have long denounced as heretical: 23% believe in astrology, 22% in reincarnation and 21% in yoga as a spiritual practice.

In many respects this religious promiscuity is nothing new. Many early Christians were also practicing Jews. And in China the "Three Teachings" of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have co-existed for centuries, with many believers turning to Confucianism for etiquette, Taoism for freedom and Buddhism for enlightenment. Yet the Western monotheisms have insisted that there is but one way to afterlife bliss. What has happened to this sort of confidence? Clearly it survives in Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians and traditional Muslims. But for the rest of us, fear of a jealous God seems a distant memory.

The new Pew data provide further evidence for the death of denominationalism in American life and for the enduring power of the ideal of religious tolerance. Once upon a time, Baptists and Lutherans and Disciples of Christ fought bitterly over such matters as when to baptize Christians and just how Jesus was present at the Eucharist. But that stuff is so last century. Today even the distinctions between Jews and Buddhists, or between Hindus and Christians, are starting to blur, not least because most Americans have almost no idea what these traditions stand for.

The great religions have long pursued different goals through different means: Christians sought salvation through faith or works (or some combination thereof), while Buddhists sought nirvana through meditation or chanting. So a century ago jumping from a Catholic Mass to an evangelical revival to a Buddhist retreat would have felt like leaping across vast chasms. But contemporary Americans know almost nothing about their own religious traditions and even less about the traditions of others. Most Americans cannot name any of the Four Gospels, and an overwhelming majority admit to being wholly ignorant of Islam. So we shuffle from one to the other with little sense of what is being lost (or gained) in the process.

As a scholar of religion, I am supposed to simply observe all this without rendering any judgment, but I can't help feeling that something precious is being lost here, perhaps something as fundamental as a sense of the sacred. Harvard philosopher George Santayana once observed that "American life is a powerful solvent," capable of neutralizing new ideas into banal clich├ęs. I worry that this solvent is now melting down the sharp edges of the world's religions, bending them toward purposes other than their own.

It is possible, of course, that as we jump from one place of worship to another we are learning along the way. But what we are really doing looks more akin to commerce than to education.The store managers in our spiritual marketplace seem a bit too eager to sell us whatever they imagine we want.

At their best, Judaism and Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism call us to rethink the world and then challenge us to remake it—and to remake ourselves. But the truths of one religion often clash with those of others, or contradict each other outright. Even Protestantism has carried inside its various denominations strikingly different visions of the good life, both here and in the hereafter. Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions' ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion as we search, in love, for the next new thing.

—Mr. Prothero is a professor religion at Boston University.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page 15
copyright ©2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Gene said...

Well, what can one say? The public (read "government") schools have failed to educate children in history and have systematically removed any semblance of Judaeo-Christian awareness. Colleges are awash in BS Post-Modernism and nihilistic de-constructionist nonsense. Secularism promises Utopia through social work and bowing at the altar of the now mythic "poor." Everybody can feel good about themselves for politically correct thinking.

The Church, Catholic and protestant, needs to re-assert itself as an educational force and take no prisoners. I wish Pope Benedict would live to be about 200years old. I pray there is another like him waiting in the wings.

Templar said...

I agree with pinanv525. What is wrong with he Catholic Church, and all of the other religions if the article is to be believed, comes from poor teaching. How can anyone have a sense of loss if they are not taught it? The loss of the sacred matches exactly the loss in America of any sense of her own secular history as well. Our national attention span gets shorter and shorter; and our focus becomes more self centered. Is it any wonder the Sacred suffers.

The trend can be reversed, a half century is not long in historical context, but the problem for the Church (and perhaps the American society in general) is that we have destroyed much more than the manner in which things are taught, we have undermined the authority of the teachers. That's the real casualties of the 60s and 70s. The loss of trust in authority.

Pater Ignotus said...

I am glad, Fr. McDonald, that you appreciate the careful analysis of Stephen Prothero who formerly taught, by the way, at Georgia State University in Atlanta. If you or your blog readers would like to gain a deeper understanding of the trends that have influenced the Christian faith in the United States including, of course, Catholicism, I would highly recommend his book, "American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon."

These trends are non-denominational and they are influencing people in all religions, Christian and non-Christians. They pre-date by at least 100 years the changes in our liturgy that came following the Second Vatican Council.

To delve even deeper into the psyche of Americans, Catholics again included, a few more serious works are instructive: "Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life" by Robert Bellah; "The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America" by Louis Menard; and for a look at how we Catholics fit into all this, "Catholicism and American Freedom: A History" by John T. McGreevy.