Cathedrals and Haunted Houses

sailI’ve spent a fair amount of time decrying the decline of the Church in America, particularly so much as it is a consequence of a lazy Christianity that just assumed lost neighbors would find their way to church without any effort from the converted. But if you asked me if I was afraid if the Church in the world was going to pass away, I would have to admit I’m not afraid of that at all. My reason for that confidence is not a strident declaration about the gates of hell never prevailing. It’s far more amusing than that.

It’s because we live in a haunted house.

By house, I mean the planet Earth, and by haunted, I mean haunted. The free-wheeling secularist cannot suppress the cathartic tears at sunset and at the symphony. She can’t muster up a plausible grounding for all of the passionate ethical positions for which she tirades and votes and argues. She will never sufficiently suppress nor rewrite a history that is filled with church-going grandmothers who find her life a shame. And to be honest, one out of every ten people I talk to has actually seen a ghost. The world is haunted, or to use Charles Taylor’s more pleasant term, enchanted. The hard-nosed laboratory researcher who claims to have dissected away the enchantment doesn’t come off as a genius. He comes off as one in denial, like a captain who keeps insisting the leak isn’t that bad.

I’m happy to say there will always be a Church, because the world will always be haunted. The intrusiveness of its ghosts can be dodged by denial no more than a bee sting can be avoided by closing your eyes. They will keep poking us. My worries for the Church in America have far less to do with anything about metaphysical reality and far more to do with the fact that my son and my daughter will likely marry and raise kids in this generation, and they will be surrounded by blind captains sailing sinking ships.

The Mystery of the Missing Mystery

shellIt occurs to me that the secular culture can only succeed in triumphing over the Church when it misplaces mystery.  The secular culture must lead us through some back-bending mental gymnastics to convince us that there is no mystery where it obviously is, and that there is mystery shrouding all kinds of things that are patently obvious to a clear-headed ten year old.

 

First, it must extract mystery from experience like taking color out of a painting.  Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has made a name for himself recently by suggesting that blind Darwinian evolution is simply an inadequate explanation for the complexity of life.  He writes, “Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect.  But for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works” (Mind and Cosmos, p5).  This position is not unique; rather, what is unique is that the well-respected atheist got picked by the same team captain who chose the Kansas Board of Education, the President of Southern Baptist Seminary, and the Pope.  Secular society must convince us that wonder is a physiological reaction no more meaningful than indigestion.  In fact, wonder is sonar.

 

A child walking down a beach can consider the vastness of the ocean without being aware of the uncharted world within her own brain.  She can run her fingers over the smooth, ivory underbelly of a spiraled shell without understanding the Fibonacci sequence.  She is cascading with sensations and emotions and imagination, and everything inside her tells her that the world is magic.  A good education will cure her of that.  Science will do its darndest to reduce her to overconfident explanations, and, should she go that way, seminary will do worse.  The fact is that she right now has a better sense for the way the world is than the person who can analyze its particulars.  Her wonder is a compass pointing her in the direction of a wonderful counselor.

 

Second, secular society must put mystery where it’s not.  It must convince us that our intuitions for morality, which seem, on their face, straightforward, are forever awash in grayness.  Derrida would claim to stand at the place where forms are stamped into particulars, where, if one were sufficiently adept, one could see that every clear and distinct idea is simply the manipulation of whomever is in power.  Clear and distinct ideas are not.  Truth, said Foucault, is the error that has been hardened by the long baking process of history.  If we had the time and patience to trace every idea back through its genealogy to its origin, we would find that none of them have any more authority than if they had been announced by the Wizard of Oz.  Thus, secular society would have us believe, those things that seem most obvious to us actually shouldn’t be.  The moral goal of secular society is that morality would be reduced to, “Seems like I shouldn’t, but it’s not hurting anyone.”

 

C.S. Lewis quips in the Screwtape Letters that the tempter’s ultimate goal for humanity is the materialist-magician: he who believes in the supernatural which can ultimately be explained naturally.  Secular society will be able to put the Church aside when it has finally turned particles into little, tiny gods.