The Soft Tyranny of Sentimentalism

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Editors Note: This is an excerpted chapter from Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind, and is re-printed here with the permission of Ascension Press.

In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness, and tenderness leads to the gas chamber. ~ Flannery O'Connor

If 20th-century atheism rode in on the backs of totalitarian regimes, the 21st-century has delivered unto the world an anti-God, anti-Church movement that fits seamlessly into shallow, postmodern popular culture. Having no need for uprisings and the hardware of destruction, the new fog of faith has crept in on the little cat feet of Sentimentalism and it now sits on its haunches, surveying its splendidly wrought sanctimony.

Sentimentalism is the force of feel-goodism, the means by which we may cast off the conventions of faith and casually dismiss those institutions that refuse to submit to the trending times and morals. The Sentimentalist trusts his feelings over hallowed authority or the urgings of his reason, frequently answering hard religious questions with some noble-sounding phrase like "The God I believe in wouldn't . . . " (fill in the blank). What fits in that blank is typically some tenet of traditional faith that isn't currently fashionable, some moral demand that pop culture considers impossible—and hence, not worth even trying. Thus the Sentimentalist, while believing he follows the inviolate voice of his conscience, is really sniffing after trends, forming his heart according to the sensus fidelium of middlebrow magazines and public radio.

A Sentimentalist cannot reconcile religious convictions—whether rooted in scripture, tradition, or cultural practice—that do not correspond with his own considered feelings, which for him are both weighty and principled. Convinced that the people he loves cannot possibly be denied anything they want by a just God, or that the same just God would not permit deformities, illness, war, childhood abuse, or any of the human sufferings common to us all, he will not participate in a Church so fault-riddled and out-of-step with a generous and enlightened generation as . . . his own.

I'm Too Good for the Church
That the churches are faulty is undeniable. The Catholic Church, indeed much of Christianity, is an unkempt housemother to a den of miscreants. The place is teeming with gossips, adulterers, cheats, and liars—and that's just in the pews. Her leadership is, to the progressive perspective, irredeemably sexist, patriarchal, repressed, intolerant, and perhaps malevolent; it supposedly clings to outmoded tradition and outmoded thought due to a shrunken heart and—moderns suggest—an insufficient capacity to reason.

These charges are easy to make; they are full of modern buzzwords that suggest other buzzwords and people use them as a sort of verbal shorthand, a social coding that denotes at which table one may sit in the societal lunchroom. They signal a bent of mind so "advanced" that it has done away with the need to reason, and is content to let feelings and desires dress up as critical thought. Hence, a Sentimentalist says he cannot reconcile himself to a Church that "holds women back"—a vague term used to signal support of women priests, while ignoring the historical evidence that Christianity helped women to "self-actualize" as no other societies ever did. He says he cannot believe in a God who would "punish love" and in this way signals support for gay marriage, while brushing off pesky questions about physiology, covenants, or Scripture.

Of Sloppy Thinking and Loose Shoes
The Sentimentalist uses such happy talk because it is inexact, squishy, and comfy like a gel insert in a shoe. He willingly trades the clarity of ideas for the feeling that he (as opposed to you) is enlarged of heart and ennobled of mind. Nearly a hundred years ago, long before the sexual revolution, G.K. Chesterton wrote, "We can always convict [Sentimentalists] by their weakness for euphemism. The phrase they use is always softened and suited for journalistic appeals. They talk of free love when they mean something quite different, better defined as free lust . . . they insist on talking about birth control when they mean less birth and no control."

8/21/2011 4:00:00 AM
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    Elizabeth Scalia is a weekly columnist at First Things.