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Looking for Religious Truth in All the Wrong Places

[Religion News Service, July 25, 1995] 

It’s as adorable as a kitten sitting on a teddy bear holding a balloon, licking a lollipop shaped like a rainbow that smells like violets and plays "Send in the Clowns." Make that a pink kitten.

Superlatives fail me. The latest porcelain doll catalog just arrived from the Ashton‑Drake Galleries, and just thumbing through it is enough to make my teeth hurt. There are babies you pose in bathtubs; naughty toddlers with artfully applied dirt; dolls with scooters, skates and popsicles; dolls with their own dolls, for goodness’ sake. And for that touch of dissonance, a cute li’l Babe Ruth swinging a cute li’l bat.

The most gloriously awful thing in the catalog lies right at the center, next to the cute li’l order form: little porcelain babies wearing halos and wings. The heading on the page gushes,

"They’ll make all your wishes come true!"

They grant wishes? What the heck are they, anyway?

"Floating down from heaven above, this angelic messenger is here to fill your home with love!" The blonde has a teddy bear, but the brunette (who has "a gentle look of reverence on her face") is holding "a decorative cross."

A decorative cross. My favorite kind. I will cling to the old decorative cross, with a gentle look of reverence on my face.

In the same mail comes a partial explanation of this folderol: "Christianity Declining" reads the headline. The Barna Research Group found Bible reading to be at the lowest level since tracking began nine years ago; adult Sunday school attendance has also hit bottom. Thirty percent of church attenders believe Jesus sinned while on earth. The percentage of adults claiming the label "evangelical" is half what it was as recently as 1992.

G.K. Chesterton observed nearly a century ago that when people stop believing in God, they’ll believe anything at all. That hunger to believe is still there, but when the faith once delivered is rejected, people become suckers for anything that comes down the road.

Here in the United States of America, paganism and humanistic rationalism have been duking it out for 150 years. If it’s not the Transcendentalists communing with the dead and sacramentalizing free love, it’s New Age channelers doing the same thing.

Even Disney is selling animism these days. But if Pocahontas’ "I‑talk‑to‑the‑trees" spirituality sounds nutty to you, try this alternative theory: humans are so noble, kind and just that we don’t need an external God ‑‑ we can be perfected by our own power.

Right, and the holocausts and horror of this unforgettable century just occurred when we were having a bad day.

In the absurdity sweepstakes, paganism and humanism are neck‑ and‑neck. But whichever wins the prize for foolishness, paganism is the rising winner for cultural dominion. Modernism, that chin‑up confidence in human progress, began seriously disintegrating a decade ago. Now we’re left with post‑modernism.

The term alone is a tip‑off: anytime a phase is defined by what things aren’t anymore, a fog lies over the horizon. In fact, with post‑modernism, the whole point is fog.

The disintegration of meaning pushes some to the brink of existential nausea, where they may rediscover a clenched‑jaw "faith in humanity," for lack of any other hope. But many go groping for the existential Pepto‑Bismol: pleasures and purchases, sexual adventure, gluttony, vanity, therapy.

There is a nostalgia for religious faith, but not one that makes annoying demands; instead, the market calls for spiritual bonbons, little angel‑fairies that grant wishes and look so reverent you just have to chuckle.

Christianity is declining in part because we can’t, and shouldn’t, pander to this current demand for sentimental spiritual delights. Our message is unfashionably tough: that the humanists are wrong, and we are not perfectable under our own power ‑‑ that we are more lost than even our panicky despair indicates.

The latest crop of pagans is wrong, too. Pet spirits and self‑ esteem are futile cures, and homemade religion, to the extent it actually contacts spiritual power, is explosively dangerous.

But God has made a way. We can stop denying our sinfulness and stop fooling with ersatz gods. Jesus alone paid the price, and he is the way ‑‑ the only way ‑‑ to make sense of our lives and make peace with God. There’s nothing exclusive here. Salvation through Jesus is offered to all who will respond.

The worn words are overly familiar, but you don’t get a new truth just because the old one got to looking old‑fashioned. Many are looking for this very toughness; they’re fed up with Cocoa Puffs and are searching for real food.

Those who seek, Scripture tells us, will find. Others will find, on the catalog’s page 17, a glassy‑eyed cherub wearing a "praying hands" charm, and that will be quite enough.

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