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 youâ€”
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."