This week millions of Jews in America and around the world celebrate the holiday of Passover. Meanwhile, millions of Christians are preparing to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday and rejoice in his resurrection on Easter Sunday three days later.
And then there's everyone else.
I don't mean Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and adherents of many other smaller faiths around the globe. I'm talking about the growing number of people, mainly in the U.S. and Europe, who couldn't care less about religious holidays and rituals. These are the "nones" — the roughly one fifth of all Americans, and 32 percent of those under 30, who profess no religious affiliation at all. For these tens of millions of people, religion is largely a matter of indifference.
A good number of the nones pray and claim to have spiritual experiences. But they have no interest in joining concrete religious institutions or abiding by religious traditions of any kind. For them, organized religion simply isn't an active option.
What, if anything, can organized religions say in response to the rise of the nones? How might they make a case for religious faith and observance? Why should a young person choose to be seriously religious today?
Predictably, liberal churches and synagogues usually claim that religious institutions would benefit by becoming more liberal, while more conservative ones see the confident embrace of tradition as the key to revival.
Joseph Bottum's An Anxious Age — which I reviewed critically in a recent column — contains in a few stray paragraphs a less conventionally political account of religion's potential appeal to at least some young people. It's a suggestion worth pondering.
Reflecting on the worldwide popularity of Pope John Paul II, Bottum proposes that serious piety appeals to those who demand "that this world — the universe, creation, life, truth, and beauty — makes sense," and that all of these aspects of existence "cohere."
That is indeed the great promise held out by the great monotheistic traditions: To grant us a coherent account of the whole of things.
The longing for such a holistic view of existence is deeply rooted in human nature, though the pervasive irony and cynicism of our age convince many to view it with suspicion.
The greatest philosophers and theologians were less inhibited. Plato called it "eros" and linked it to both sexual desire and the hunger for philosophical wisdom. The Christian tradition, especially in its Eastern mystical modes, talked about an inexpressible and inextinguishable yearning of the soul for communion with divine infinitude. Immanuel Kant described reason as a faculty of the mind driven toward metaphysical speculation by the craving for knowledge of the "unconditioned" ground of all conditioned causes.
What separates ancient and medieval from modern accounts of these longings is the question of whether there is an object that can satisfy them. Plato suggested that eros ultimately seeks to gaze upon eternal Ideas that exist above and beyond our imperfect world of contingency and accident. Theologians argued that the longing is satisfied by the worship and contemplation of God. Bottum implies something similar — though he includes the entire edifice of post-Vatican II liturgy, dogma, doctrine, theology, and apologetics.
That places him, and the Catholic Church, on the opposite side of a chasm from much of modern thought. Kant, for example, was a quintessential modern in claiming that the metaphysical objects of reason's longings are produced by human subjectivity itself. The human mind projects ideas of perfection (including God) onto the void and then tricks itself into thinking they're real. That's why enlightenment, for Kant, is largely a process of reason disciplining itself. Human beings need to tame their metaphysical longings and learn to channel them into the practical project of reforming the world to bring it into conformity with moral ideals, instead of seeking satisfaction in otherworldly contemplation and worship.
In responding to the indifference of the nones, religious institutions face two challenges. First, convincing the nones to recognize and respect their own religious longings. Second, persuading them that what the churches teach and demand can truthfully satisfy those longings.
My own view is that the first should be relatively easy to accomplish, but that the second may well be impossible.
Atheists often act as if the findings of modern science (including critical biblical scholarship) make belief in traditional religion impossible, but that issue is typically overstated. A bigger problem is the often horrifying contrast between biblical moral teachings and the behavior of clerics and other ecclesiastical bureaucrats. (How many people have permanently turned their backs on the Catholic Church in disgust because of the pedophile-priest scandal and its cover-up? I suspect it's more than a few.)
But perhaps the most daunting obstacle to getting the nones to treat traditional religion as a viable option is the sense that it simplifies the manifest complexity of the world. Yes, we long for a coherent account of the whole of things. But we don't want that account to be a fairy tale. We want it to reflect and make sense of the world as it is, not as we childishly wish it to be.
The tendency toward oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it's especially acute in matters of religion. My former boss Fr. Richard John Neuhaus exemplified it quite vividly when he grandly pronounced on numerous occasions that economics is a function of politics, politics is a function of culture, and culture is a function of religion. It sounds nice and tidy, but it's too nice and tidy.
Each of Neuhaus' nested spheres — economics, politics, culture, religion — has its own dignity and logic. Each can and should be understood on its own terms — and the tendency of each to subsume the others under its own categories and assumptions can and should be resisted.
There is a whole, and it can be grasped. But it is a complex whole. A pluralistic whole. A differentiated whole shot through with contradiction and paradox. This is something that modern men and women intuitively understand, even if they've never read a word of the great philosophical pluralists (Daniel Bell, Isaiah Berlin, and Michael Oakeshott), and even if they choose to devote their lives to fighting it in a futile and self-defeating embrace of fundamentalism.
Until religion comes to grips with and responds creatively to the fact of pluralism, it will find itself embroiled in a battle against reality.
And that is a battle it is bound to lose.