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The Lines of the TimesThe Lines of the Times

The Lines of the Times

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat marks the boundaries of a faith that engages the world without sinking into softness or isolation

23 minute read
The Lines of the Times April 1, 2014  |  By Ross Douthat
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In A Conversation With Father Raymond J. De Souza, Hosted In Ottawa By Convivium's Parent Organization, Cardus, As Part Of Its Hill Family Lecture Series, New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat Marks The Boundaries Of Faith That Engages The World Without Sinking Into Meaningless Softness Or Angry Isolation

FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA: What is it like to be the exotic specimen, the endangered species [laughter], the token conservative — I don't think that's fair, because there's nothing token about your work.

ROSS DOUTHAT: First of all, I would like to thank you all for coming and it's wonderful to be here. That was really an incredibly invigorating double introduction, and I think the combination of the two has inspired me to apply for Canadian citizenship. [Laughter.] Raise a large Catholic army founded on Canada's oil wells and sweep southward toward the Rio Grande. So that's what I'll be committing myself to after this evening is over.

It's been interesting. I live in Washington, D.C., and of course the Times is in New York. We have two small children; they're three and one. So very shortly after I started with the Times, my life became consumed by having small children and just sort of figuring out how to stay alive and keep them alive.

So I probably know less about the sort of rich, internal workings of the Times than I might have under slightly different circumstances. But, I mean, overall, it's been a wonderful experience.

My editors and employers have treated me very well. I think that there is a sense — not surprisingly — of curiosity surrounding my ideas and worldview, as you would expect. But I think the Times made a very explicit choice to hire someone with views at least sort of in my general area, someone who was religious or interested in religion, someone who is more socially conservative; and I think it's a good choice for a newspaper to make. It's a good thing to have ideological diversity on major op-ed pages. And I hope that they think it's worked out reasonably well.

I won't say that I spend a ton of time reading all the comments that are left on my columns by readers of the New York Times. I am told by those who do read the comments that there is a certain level of disagreement and hostility towards some ideas that I advance.

But it's an interesting experience, because I think you're always conscious in that position that your usefulness as a journalist depends on walking a line — one where you can fall off on one side and become the reasonable conservative or the moderate Christian, and simply exist to fill a niche in the liberal imagination that they feel okay reading. Or you can fall off on the other side and spend your time shaking your fist and railing against liberalism or secularism or what have you, and then you aren't doing the job either.

The goal, and sometimes it works out — sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don't — is to maintain a level of engagement with readers who disagree with me, on the one hand, but also a fidelity to the convictions of the other side.

So that's the line I try to walk.

RJS: So the key to a happy relationship with the New York Times is to live in Washington?

RJS: I want to start with your book. I'll talk about some other things, but some people may not know the book. It's called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. It's about the history of religion as a shaper of the public life of the United States and how many of the trends of the United States that have political manifestations, but that are also properly theological, are — as you argue — various forms of Christian heresy.

So I would recommend it to those who haven't read it.

At the beginning of the book, you quote Bob Dylan, to assure the readers it's not going to be heavy theological going, I suppose, saying that you—

RD: From his time as a born-again Christian, as you know.

RJS: Saying, "You gotta serve somebody." That's the quotation you use from Bob Dylan. I'm not as hip as you, so I take my inspiration from other places [laughter], and it struck me that John Paul II wrote something — I've used it many times in my own work. He said, "At the heart of every culture lies the attitude a person takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God."

So every culture is in one way or the other, consciously or unconsciously, religious or grappling with a religious question, which is, "You gotta serve somebody." Or if you don't like 20th century figures, you can go back to Joshua, who says, Who you gonna serve? The gods of your fathers? The gods of the Amorites? As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

So, let's begin there by saying from your perch, observing contemporary, let's say North American, culture — because we're not altogether different here in Canada — you gotta serve somebody. Who's being served?

RD: Well, I think part of the argument in the book is that it's very easy for observers, both religious and secular, to sort of fall into a kind of binary on exactly that question and to say, "Okay, the story of modernity, the story of the last 40 or 50 years in American or Western life, has been a choice between a pure, purely secularist materialism on the one hand and some form of traditional Christianity or traditional religion on the other."

And the answer then to that question becomes, well, we're a culture divided between people who serve some version of the Judeo-Christian God and people who serve — let's just call it Mammon, to use a Biblically resonant term. Right? People who serve more purely materialistic goals and ends and so on.

I think that one of the things I try to do in the book is complicate that binary. I know that sounds like post-structuralist academic language there. I try to complicate that a little bit by arguing that what's interesting and distinctive about a lot of American life in particular — and I think this is true across the developed world but it's particularly true in the United States — is the extent to which our sort of secular materialism is still deeply entangled with ideas that are very explicitly about God, that are not just implicitly about religion in the sense that any value system has a religious component, but that are actually, actively religious.

And so the story that I try to tell about post-1950s or 1960s culture is the story of a society that becomes less institutionally religious without necessarily becoming less interested in religious ideas. I think, in that sense, it's a mistake to look particularly at America right now and say, "Well, you know, the institutional churches are in retreat, traditional Christianity is in decline, and therefore society is just becoming more secular in some straightforward fashion."

Actually, I think what has happened is that people are simply turning more and more towards forms of religion that emphasize the individual — personal spirituality, a sort of do-it-yourself syncretism — and that is really the defining feature of religion in the early 21st century.

The first half of the book is sort of historical and makes a historical argument, but the real meat of the argument focuses on figures from the American context, ranging from Oprah Winfrey to a figure such as Joel Osteen, the sort of prosperitygospel evangelist, to an author some of you may have read, Elizabeth Gilbert, whose memoir Eat, Pray, Love was hugely successful and became a movie starring Julia Roberts, to even Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and other mega best-sellers like it. It looks at those figures and says, "Look, these in certain ways are the religious touchstones, the religious gurus of our age," and the gospel they're preaching is one that is...I use the language of heresy, because I think it's a gospel that takes certain particular Christian ideas and tries to refashion them and repurpose them so they fit better with a materialistic, hyperindividualistic, late-modern society.

So I suppose the answer to who are we serving is that we still think that we're serving God. And by "we" I mean the mass of people, not necessarily every subscriber to the New York Times. You know, some of them are very firm in their rejection of God. But I think, on the whole, even in an age of declining religious affiliation, there's still that reaching upward going on. It's just that it's being done in a way that's no longer necessarily constrained by and informed by a particular religious tradition and is much more defined by the simple needs and desires of a singular self.

RJS: So let's take Oprah Winfrey. Would you consider her, then, a Christian heretic; and if you were to suggest that to her, do you think she'd be more offended by the Christian or the heretic?

RD: Neither. I think Oprah would say — you know, it's not just Oprah, a lot of these figures would say — "I am Christian in the sense that Christianity partakes of the deep spiritual insights that other world religions also partake of." And then they'd say, "I'm a heretic; I'll take that as a compliment in the sense that I am also forging my own spiritual path."

I think if you said it to Joel Osteen, he would be more likely to argue with the heretic part, because he identifies more explicitly with historic Christianity. But I think the idea of taking water from a Christian well but then sort of carrying your buckets in a different direction is the way a lot of leading figures and more private figures think about what religion means now.

RJS: That's a keen reference — drawers of water. We talk about that whether it's water or black gold. To draw out of the ground and carry it off somewhere.

Some of your recent writing has introduced the topic of response to decadence. So I thought, here we are in the Chateau Laurier, a good place to talk about decadence, and we're fortified by the venison and scallops, where an aesthetical discussion about the role of decadence...

What's interesting about what you have been writing is that you can make jokes with that decadence — you eat in a nice hotel, historic place, the food of a certain quality, and that's a kind of decadence that everybody can understand as an equivocal term.

But then there's the more gross decadence that we can observe. You point out a figure like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with his very dissolute, debauched living that actually cost him the presidency of France. Or Silvio Berlusconi, whose debauched living did not cost him, at least for the first 10 years as prime minister of Italy. So we've got these debauched leaders, and then on the underclass side, you've got men who don't take responsibility for their children, neighbourhoods in which the children are completely neglected, and so forth, You could look at it and say that it's decadent. But what's interesting, you're advancing an argument that is aimed not at the corrupt elites or the suffering or afflicted underclass but at the mainstream middle of society.

And you say that they are not — we are not — aiming for high goals that require discipline and sacrifice. We're decadent. And, most provocatively, you state that the evidence of this, or the symptom of this, is the unwillingness to do that one thing that is most oriented towards the future and requires the greatest sacrifice — having children.

RD: Right. I made that argument before we had our second child. [Laughter.] And now I'd like to walk back from the case with my children a little bit. But, yeah, I see the concept of decadence probably as being useful in the same way I see the concept of heresy being useful, in the sense that it's kind of a difference-splitter between narratives of progress and ascent, which are deeply woven into Western civilization going back hundreds of years, arguably going back to Jewish and Christian ideas, depending on your point of view. And there are images of catastrophe and decline, which are always haunting Western civilization, whether in the form of nuclear apocalypse in the 1950s or maybe now again with the Russian incursion into Ukraine.

But then, in this era, it's more likely to be an environmental apocalypse or a global financial calamity that's even worse than 2007-2008. The concept of decadence as a way of thinking about, well, what happens if neither of those is true? What happens if there's no gigantic catastrophe awaiting Western civilization in the 21st century? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that our problems are more manageable than the apocalyptic imagination thinks.

Well then, what happens? How do we continue on, and do we continue on in an unbroken ascent, be it moral, technological, whatever the case may be? Or is what we're seeing right now over the last couple of generations something different? It's a sustainable, extremely comfortable stagnation in a way, where growth rates, fertility rates go down. These two things are connected historically and seem to be connected in the developed world right now. A big part of looking ahead and predicting slower growth for developed economies has to do with that absence of above-replacement fertility.

So you have those two things going on in tandem. And then is it clear that we're making technological progress at the same rate that we were making it 50 or 75 years ago? Yeah, there's a vigorous debate, and you have a lot of people saying, "Well, we're on the cusp of revolutions in robotics and so on that will be transformative." But, at least for the last 30 years, those revolutions, except for the Internet and communications technology, have been more promise than delivery, right? The promises of genetic revolution, the promises of energy revolution, and so on, have all been put off and put off and put off.

Then, in society as a whole, you have this dynamic where the rich are not behaving like the classic image of decadence; they're not having orgies and building huge ice sculptures. I mean some of them are, but for the most part, the rich are actually pretty hard-working in the Western world still. But then you have a growing dissolution of civil society at the bottom. There's enough money around to keep that dynamic going without having any kind of real catastrophe arise; and because of the power of compounding, you can have steadily slower growth, but you're dealing from a wealthy base, which means you're still growing enough to subsidize people who are drifting out of the labour force, and so on.

Then again, society is getting older. The age bulge is shifting through the 30s and the 40s and the 50s, and older societies tend to become more cautious societies, less dynamic societies, less risk-taking societies. So, what it all adds up to is not necessarily Nero-and-his-orgies decadence but a society that is extremely comfortable, lacks a clear spiritual vision that isn't entangled with material goods in a profound way, lacks clear areas of exploration and frontiers.

I actually think this is deeply connected to the inability of the space program to get us to those planets the astronomers keep discovering. It sounds like a joke in a way, but I think there is a frontier for Western civilization that we take for granted and are unaware of, but that actually has foreclosed possibilities for us.

But it all is very sustainable, and so things keep getting a little more degraded and a little coarser and a little more unpleasant, but the world doesn't end and society gets older. Part of it, too, is that there just aren't other civilizations. This is the moment in the story of a Will and Ariel Durant-style history of civilization when you expect another civilization to come along and leapfrog us, right?

It's like, okay, Americans are comfortable and they aren't developing new technologies as fast as they used to, they aren't moving around as much as they used to, they aren't having as many kids as they used to, and their government institutions are suffering from sclerosis. So there must be some other world power coming along to deal with us the way decadent societies in the past have been dealt with, either with fire and sword or, you know, that Canadian army I mentioned swooping down. Or with some sort of supplanting as the world's leading power.

And, you know, that may happen; it may be that the 21st century will ultimately end up being a Chinese century or an Indian century in some way. But when you look at the rest of the developed world, the rest of the rich world, they're converging with us in all of these underlying trends. They're actually often in worse shape than we are demographically. Places such as China and India are likely to get old before they get rich, in some ways. So they're catching up to us, but there doesn't seem to be a sense in which they're likely to surpass us, and so instead you just have a bunch of increasingly wealthy, increasingly aged, increasingly similar civilizations converging and imitating each other — but not necessarily competing in ways that lead to dynamism, advancement and so on.

You know, dynamism and advancement are very general terms, and it's hard to say exactly what they might mean. But you know it when you see it, and we're not seeing it right now.

RJS: You mentioned the frontier — that is, a frontier to conquer, to capture the imagination — that then disciplines the appetites to become channelled towards a vigorous dynamism. The frontier, physical frontiers, can be closed.

What's interesting to me, spiritually, is that if you have the horizon of eternity, then you've got the capacity to build something that you may not see. You've got the discipline to be dynamic for a long-term future. If the horizon is limited, then, to this world, if you've lost the horizon of eternity, does that kind of society necessarily become decadent over time? Because there's only to be enjoyed what is here, and what's the point of being very vigorous when you can enjoy it in a leisurely way?

RD: My Christian bias is showing, obviously, but yes, I think that that's the most likely scenario. And I don't think it's a coincidence that if you look at the exceptions to the rule of low birth rates in the developed world, it's mostly religious communities. If you look at the one highly developed nation that has a surprisingly high birth rate, it's Israel, which combines a mix of actual physical danger, a sense of a religious mission, and then a general sense of a somewhat secular civilizational mission that I think has sort of drifted away.

RJS: In January 2013, I went down to Miami for the National Championship football game to cover Notre Dame versus Alabama. It was a lot more fun going down than the game turned out actually. If you remember, Notre Dame did very poorly. But I went down to cover the game because it's much cheaper than the $2,000 ticket to get into the game. At the media centre at the hotel, they put us on a bus to take us to the stadium, which was maybe a couple of miles away. There were two buses and as we were careering down the highway, I was a bit alarmed because the bus was kind of swaying. It was going probably 20 or 30 miles an hour faster than a bus is meant to go.

And I said, "How can this be?" I looked out and there was no traffic because the two media buses — of about 25 or 30 that left that day — were going down the freeway with five police cars and motorcycle outriders. And we weren't playing in the game. Imagine the motorcade for the players!

When we got to the stadium, there was this huge tailgate party, and I must say the dominant thought I had was, "My goodness, this looks like the end of an empire, a decadent culture." Because this huge amount of resources wasdevoted to...

RD: Well, it alarms me, but, again, I don't actually think it's the end. There's a poem from the 20th century called "Waiting for the Barbarians" and the lines in it have been repurposed at various points. But it's basically a city or a Roman-style civilization that's like, okay, the barbarians are gonna be here today and that's why our senators aren't conducting any business, because once the barbarians are here, they don't care about our political business. And, you know, everybody's gone out to the battlements and expects the barbarians to arrive. And the end of the poem is that evening has fallen and the barbarians haven't come, and everyone's returning to their homes sort of perplexed, and the last line is something like, "They were, those people, a kind of solution." Right?

And I think that is the 21st century developed-world, American dilemma in a way. We're stuck with ourselves. We're stuck with that tailgate and Super Bowl and so on. And it isn't what would come along to really shake things up.

RJS: At the seminary, an elderly Christian brother, the librarian, used to say to us, "You young men, you want to go out and stop the barbarians at the gates. They're not at the gates; they're actually in the living room watching television."

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That's it. We're stuck with ourselves.

The other issue that often surfaces in your writing, especially in your analysis of religious communities, is the path a religious community takes to segregate — to use a stronger word than it probably deserves — itself from the wider society to protect its identity and its mission, or to surrender — again to use a more severe term than is justified — to the ambient culture and therefore make its peace with the conflict between the two.

You observed this and you wrote about the experience of Orthodox Jews in New York, about the Catholic Church in the view of the new Pope and many different aspects. There's a dynamic there for the churches. How do you survive; how do you thrive? What about the dynamic for our common life? Do we risk having a common life in which people of faith have opted out or have nothing distinctive to offer aside from aping a sort of quasi-ideological platform that is really not distinctively religious? And in either of those two cases, our common life is impoverished....

RD: Right. I think that is, in a sense, the central religious dilemma in the post-modern age. To use the image of the gates and being outside the gates and wanting to get in: If you feel like you're outside the gates, then there's a sense that the thing to do is to go off and build your monastery and wait until the walls collapse and then you return to take over civilization.

I think it's an Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged narrative for religious believers, in a way. Where you're going to go off to Galt's Gulch and then society will eventually collapse without you and you'll have had 13 children so you'll be able to repopulate the earth.

But it's understandably appealing, too, in a culture often seen to be shutting its doors on people of faith. And the other alternative is to risk both a moral and theological compromise. But as you suggest, more aptly, it's to risk ending up politically co-opted. This is the story, in certain ways, of religious conservatism in U.S. politics over the last 20 or 25 years, where you have a certain amount of real political success that ends with the realization that you redefined yourself as the Republican Party of Prayer in ways that are limiting your ability to reach out to people who aren't Republican.

You can see this in the United States in opinion data and elsewhere, starting with the 1990s and then accelerating under George W. Bush. You had a lot of people defining themselves out of organized Christianity as a political statement against the Republican Party. If you're doing that, you're probably not on the cusp of sainthood but are the kind of person the churches should ideally be trying to reach out to.

And then you also realize, and I think realistic conservatives are realizing this in American politics right now, that you're dependent on the political coalition that you've attached yourself to, and maybe that political coalition has stopped being interested in your issues and would prefer that you go away. And you realize you have no other protection. You're stuck as a disliked client of a political machine. Which is, I think, the danger for a lot of Christians engaged in politics in the U.S. right now.

I think somewhere in between those two options lies actual constructive religious engagement of the kind that Cardus and Convivium, and all of us, are interested in seeking. But it is extremely difficult to manage it, and I think the appeal of the withdrawalist mentality is an appeal that ultimately mistakes the nature of our present moment. To go back to the themes I've been talking about, it's laced with the idea that there's this cataclysm coming or maybe this moment when we will actually all be thrown to the lions by secular elites, and we need to be ready for that style of persecution. But that style of persecution isn't what the developed West offers.

RJS: We're too decadent for real persecution.

RD: You end up being marginalized. Maybe you lose your tax-exempt status here and you get sued there. But you're not in any kind of visceral, mortal danger.

RJS: There is that danger. My great mentor — not just in the priesthood but in public intellectual life — is Father Richard John Neuhaus, late of New York. He's very influential in some of those movements. People would come to him and they would say, "Richard, we've found such and such a candidate for senator, for governor, for president, for whatever, and he's the one, he's the one. And he's got this, that, and he can do all this." Father Richard would always say, "Yes, I agree with you, but give him time and he — like all the others — will betray us."

If I may plug our own magazine — which I may because it's our magazine — in the latest issue, I wrote about a column that you wrote about Pope Francis — which is fascinating; he has fascinated the world — saying that Pope Francis is trying to do something kind of bold. It's been the story of how you retrench to strengthen your identity and then attract people. Or you engage, lose your identity, and attract no one; and the centre doesn't hold, as it were.

But Pope Francis may be trying to capture that centre, and I give my response to it. But he's the figure that's captured the imagination of the world at the moment. Do you think that is a fair assessment? What do you think he's trying to do? Does it have the potential to succeed?

RD: I think it's a fair assessment. One of the criticisms that I thought was fair of my argument is that it was a very Western-centric argument that locates Pope Francis in the kind of cultural debates we've been talking about. And to some extent what he's been doing really is an attempt to focus on the priorities of the Church in the developing world, without necessarily thinking about it in terms of this sort of strategic engagement.

So that's the one caveat I'd offer. You don't want to be too Western-centric when thinking about a global Church and papal strategy. But with that being said, yes, the whole appeal of Francis in the media landscape illustrates why it's a mistake to write off the developed world as completely secularized in some absolute way.

If we actually lived in a completely secularized, post-Christian, totally pagan society, Pope Francis would not be Time's Person of the Year; he would not be an Internet obsession. The image that many of you have probably seen is of him kissing the man with boils on his neck. In a truly pagan society, that image would shoot around the Internet and people would say, "Ooh, those crazy Christians. What are they doing touching the diseased and deformed?"

But we don't live in that kind of society; we live sufficiently informed by a Christian worldview that people think that image is amazing and inspiring. And so that's reason, from a religious perspective, for real hope. And to say, "Look, you know, if a pope behaving like a Christian can have this kind of reception, then maybe there's life in Christianity yet."

But then, because I'm sort of pessimistic, the dour part of me also thinks, "Yes, but..." The history of these attempts to grasp the centre has ended, ultimately, with either retrenchment or a co-opting that loses the heart of the Christian message. And I do think, in the press, a lot of the appeal of Francis is based around the idea that he's going to change things. You know, the Church will finally come into alignment with progressive values writ large; we'll lose that rock in our shoe that Roman Catholicism has been under John Paul and Benedict, something we define ourselves against but worry might have some point to make.

And now we have a cool new pope and everything's good. I think the big question of Francis' pontificate is, "Is there a permanent honeymoon?" What does the media want from the Catholic Church? I work in the media, and I don't know the answer to that question. If Francis is pope for 20 years and if at the end of it Church doctrine hasn't been rewritten and you don't have whatever changes liberal Catholics or secular liberals would like to see.... Is there a backlash? Is he written off? Or is it enough to have him there, defined against the bad reactionary forces in the Church? So that would be what I would worry about, that the Francis moment will either reap a backlash or peter out without having changed the position of Christianity itself in the developed world's mind.

RJS: You mentioned the Time magazine Person of the Year article. If you read the article, which I was inclined not to do at the beginning — I have to confess, I thought Time magazine had gone out of publication; but that was Newsweek it turns out. Newsweek went out and now Newsweek is back.

RD: Back. It's back.

RJS: So, but Time's been very steady apparently. So, it's there. But the article was, I thought, quite sympathetic. The author made the point — he used a pejorative term, but leaving that aside — he said, "After 35 years of John Paul and Benedict doing doctrinal police work, Francis has elevated the Church's healing mission." Which I think is true. Now, if you leave off "police work" as a pejorative term and substitute "doctrinal defence" or "shoring up of identity" or "defence of orthodoxy" or "clarification of confusions" or whatever, is it not a plausible reading that there was in the 1960s and '70s a certain confusion, uncertainty, destabilizing that required police work?

But that having been done, or largely done, the Church can get back to what she usually does, in the sense that if you get a group of Christians — Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox — together, their first instinct is not to have a theological debate but to start a practical project for a hospital or a school or an orphanage or a youth group or something of that nature — the Church's healing mission.

And so is it not that the Church, even if that doctrinal police work was needed for 35 years, is now in a place where she's able to do more of what she is, be more of who she ought to be, and that, therefore, makes her more attractive. Is that a plausible reading?

RD: I think so. One of the things that I like best about Francis is that he balances the general images of healing and mercy with a stress on the idea, as he puts it, that the Church can't just be an NGO, right? Because I think the problem a lot of more self-consciously progressive or liberal forms of both Catholicism and Christianity, and religion in general, have fallen into over the last 30 or 40 years is they've focused on the works of mercy and lost sight of any kind of foundation in ritual and dogma. And this crisis of liberal Christianity in the '60s and '70s was a crisis of "why am I going to church on Sunday if Christianity is about doing good works and voting for liberal politicians and I can accomplish both those things without mouthing a creed that I don't believe in?"

And so the promise of Francis is a promise of a figure and a Church performing corporate works of mercy out of a clear and deeply rooted religious faith. When Francis gives advice to parish priests, when he talks about going to confession, when he emphasizes the liturgical life of the Church, that's when I respond to him most favourably. Because I see him trying to recapture a synthesis that some forms of liberal Christianity have at times lost.


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