Indifference, not Skepticism, is the issue.

Indifference, not Skepticism, is the issue. September 1, 2014

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.

A recent book by Timothy Keller made the New York Times Best Seller list. “The Reason for God, Belief in an Age of Skepticism.” I suppose it has value for those for whom it has value; doubters who wish to believe. It is a nicely written, if somewhat condensed mashup of CS Lewis, Francis Collins, and Josh McDowell.  

But the great religious issue of our age isn’t skepticism. It is indifference, an indifference justified in part by the massive gap between the claims of religious people and what they are actually accomplishing in the world. 

Progressive Christians may rejoice to see the gradual extension of gay rights in the US, but they can hardy take credit. Most barely have the backing of their own denominations and associations. It was in fact an ancient document, the US Constitution, whose interpretation is in the hands of arch-conservatives, that delivered that victory. And Protestant and Catholic Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Orthodox Jews with their agenda? They are the majority of the US religious population but when it comes to imprinting their social conservatism on the fabric of law they have made almost no progress since Jerry Falwell proclaimed the “moral majority.”

There is a theme here. Post-enlightenment governments and their constitutions represented a victory for a universal ethic grounded in universal public reason rather than communal revelations. They delivered the power to change society into the hands of the public, whether it was religious or not, and removed it from the hands of religious groups and their leaders. Relevance in such a world is directly related to being able to deliver a vote. 

And we Christians can’t do that, at least not nationally or with any meaningful consistency. And neither can the Muslims, the Hindus, or the Buddhists, or the Jews. Indeed we can’t do it all together. The public, including the religious public has overwhelmingly decided to put its trust in non-religious government institutions to effect real change in society and to insure that peace and justice prevail. 

But wait! Don’t we have other things to offer? Expertise in dialogue, reconciliation, grass roots organizing, community building? 

Not really. At least not uniquely. Our religious communities can certainly play an important local role in building civic society. But it is really hard to see that they are more effective than other civic organizations in promoting the public good. In much of the US religious life is at an all time nadir, yet civil society endures rather nicely. Indeed many progressive Christians find themselves most politically at home in regions where Christianity is virtually dead. The progressive values they associate with the gospel appear to thrive best where God is held in least regard.

So what I have noticed this year is that radical cultural change has left behind our reflexive modern ways of enacting the gospel. Noticing that we live in a post-modern age is only the beginning of characterizing that change. We are living in the midst of people who don’t share the fundamental premises on which the gospel has always been enacted: the enduring existence of a self or soul, the association of meaning with purpose, the primacy of society over biology, the penetrability of time by eternity, and the existence of ideals independent of the human mind.

Instead we live among people liberated/imprisoned by what Charles Taylor calls the immanent frame. A frame of reference in which the transcendent is neither needed nor particularly desired. The self is merely the body looked at from a different frame of reference. Meaning is a place in a shifting network of relationships rather than an origin or an end. Biology determines society. Time exists without eternity. And ideals are nothing more than ideas wedded to political power. 

A recent article in Scientific American illustrated wonderfully just how attractive this immanent frame really is. In “The Black Hole at the Beginning of Time” (SA August 2014, pp. 37-43 the authors raise the problem of the singularity posited by the big bang theory. “A singularity is an unimaginably bizarre thing, a point where space and time curve in on themselves, making it impossible to distinguish the future from the past. All the laws of physics break down. A singularity is a universe without order or rules. Out of a singularity could come anything that might logically exist. We have no reason to think that a singularity would generate a universe as ordered as the one we see.” 

And the authors offer a solution to this problem. They have developed mathematical models that describe our universe as the three dimensional “event horizon” surrounding a black hole in a four dimensional universe. “Cloaked by an event horizon, the singularity is rendered impotent. Its disturbing effects cannot escape, making it possible for the laws of physics to describe and predict all that we observe.” This is in contrast to the big bang singularity, which has no event horizon and thus cannot shield us from its “catastrophic unpredictability.” 

In short, their theory allows us to comfortably live within the immanent frame, insuring that we see nothing at the origin of the universe but a black hole that can be simply described. And indeed it appears the very reason for the theory is precisely to allow us to live comfortably in the immanent frame, secure and confident in the descriptive and predictive power of our scientific theories.

But is such comfort adequate to our humanity? There are hints across the ages that it is not. Spiritual seekers have always sought to pierce the immanent frame, to feel the full, unpredictable power of the transcendent. Popular science fiction television returns again and again to this theme of escape from the immanent frame through breaches of space and time that force us to confront chaotic forces and unpredictable dilemmas. 

Even Carl Sagan, skeptic and atheist, flings the hero of his novel “Contact” across the universe through such a breech of space and time. Upon her return she is asked to describe what she saw: “They should have sent a poet.” Indeed. An expert in the place where verbal boundaries are broken down so that the truth is freed from the linguistic prison of common discourse.

I believe that the most critical witness we bear is not the continued political effort to transform human society toward this or that vision of God’s Reign. For such a witness may very well trap the gospel, and indeed all religion, within the immanent frame. It may be just an idea rather than ideal. 

Instead the most critical witness we bear will be the firm reassertion of the cult that ever redirects human energy toward the praise of God. For this alone can break the bonds of immanence. In our time orthodoxy, the return to true worship may as liberating ortho-praxis, worship as liberating as voting.

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