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Do-It-Yourself Deity

[World, February 5, 1994] 

During my college years I lived on "Olympia Hill," a site less heavenly than its name suggests. Our southern city had once been host to a booming textile industry, and a hundred years ago a ramshackle collection of unheated wooden houses for employees had been thrown together beyond the railroad tracks. By the time I arrived, Olympia Hill had developed a mixed population: what my grandmother contemptuously referred to as "po’ buckra" (i.e., "white trash") and hippies from the college.

If I had not had such neighbors, I would not have spent Sunday evenings on the sagging front porch pondering the desirablility of religious faith. Down the street there was a small white clapboard structure, with a sign reading "Pentecostal Holiness." On Sunday evenings the little church would fairly rock with shouts and singing, raising dust in the pink twilight air. The exuberance of the congregation’s voices moved me, sometimes, to longing tears.

How lovely it would be to believe in something, I thought. Not to believe in Jesus necessarily; that myth was just a bit too much, and so sexist. But religious belief was such an obvious good: it gave meaning to life, banishing the Existential Nausea which afflicted me and so many other sophomores. Religion gave a community, a place to call home. It gave order and discipline, which I had to admit made for a more civilized society. Religious people were good neighbors.

But such faith was impossible for me. I knew that God was an illusion, and I could never go back to the childlike simplicity my neighbors had innocently preserved. So I continued to treat my Existential Nausea with various forms of Existential Alka-Seltzer (not noted for its effectiveness), until the day that the Holy Spirit snuck up behind me and hit me with a two-by-four.

I have been reminded of these front-porch meditations by a similar theme recurring in contemporary intellectual circles. Secular America is beginning to recognize that there has been much damage caused by eliminating religion from public discourse, creating what the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus calls the naked public square. Where there is no civilizing influence of religious faith, civilization disintegrates. We need a return to the kinds of values that faith imparts, many commentators cry.

The Presidential couple have themselves championed this return to values. Michael Lerner, whose fashionable journal Tikkun is a showcase for what he terms the "Politics of Meaning," is one of Hillary Clinton’s heroes; it is recounted that she rushed up to Lerner at a gathering, exclaiming, "Am I your mouthpiece, or what?!" Stephen L. Carter’s respected new book, The Culture of Disbelief, details how religious values have been excluded from contemporary culture, to general detriment. Bill Clinton took the book along on vacation last summer, waving it enthusiastically at reporters and exhorting them to read it.

Bill Bennett expounds the social benefits of religious faith with typical clarity in The Book of Virtues. Faith brings "discipline and power and meaning"; it "is a potent force in human experience" and "binds people together." Without faith, a person has no moral compass, but "the world’s major religions provide time-tested anchors for drifters." Bennett reassures his theologically-diverse readership that "there is nothing distinctively Christian…in recognizing that religious faith adds a significant dimension to the moral life of humanity world-wide."

But while many are rediscovering the benefits of having faith, there is hesitation about submitting to a particular sovereign God, with all his irksome rules. Like the teenage girl who falls in love with love, like Julie Andrews trilling, "I have confidence in confidence," they have utter faith in faith. It’s God they have a problem with.

Andrew Sullivan, the editor of "The New Republic," confronts this dilemma head-on in an essay on Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II’s unabashed call to return to the morality of the faith. "The Splendor of Truth" is a dashing title, and Sullivan responds to that appeal: "It’s hard not to feel the thrill of the subversive, the exhilaration that comes from reading an astringent attack on conventional wisdom from unapologetically religious assumptions."

But "as a typically tortured Catholic" and "an equally tortured citizen" he finds it hard to take. The encyclical’s "call for rapturous abandonment to God contains no help for those of us whose faith seems stuck in sacramentalized doubt." How can we take seriously the idea that we should submit our consciences to external, revealed standards of right and wrong? Such a notion would construct a "carapace of moral correctness" that would paralyze the right of individuals to make their own choices and be guided by their own moral voice. While admitting that any "serious human being" greets a document like Veritatis Splendor with "deep attraction," Sullivan expects political liberals to respond with "suspicion and hostility." It is a warning of the dangers to which the search for meaning, if embodied in classic religious faith, can lead.

That was why I stayed on my porch, reluctant to join the joyful worshippers down the road. I could not bring myself to submit to their Holy God; instead I spent several years trying to fabricate a God who met my specifications, a God made in my own image. Of course I found out that such a do-it-yourself-Deity could be no bigger or mightier or wiser than I was. A God who comes in at just over 5’1" was not going to be a mighty help in trouble, nor a source of any meaning beyond my own petty experience.

Popular wisdom says, "It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in something." Bill Bennett is correct that someone reaps great psychological and social benefits when he gives himself to any one of "the world’s major religions." But if he did not choose the one that has a crucified Jesus in it, he has made a catastrophic mistake. Likewise, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied." (I Cor 15:17,19). Faith is really worthless unless it is faith in Truth.

The Gods we tailor to ourselves, that we make mouth our own favorite commandments ("Learn to love yourself"), will crumble to dust. The fashionable impulse to conjure up Faith, without submitting to its Author, will do the same. It is only in embracing the true God, in all his terrible splendor, that we find peace, order, morality, and justice.

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