The Soft Tyranny of Sentimentalism

Citing "irreconcilable differences" the Sentimentalist divorces himself from the religious narrative; he takes a measure of the prevailing winds and then tries to shrink God and His Bride—the Church—into the narrow space of a fickle conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom, of course, is often kneejerk, seeing in every considered "no" an evidence of oppression, and every sin within the Church a proof of pervasive darkness.

Doubtless it would help if the Church itself were not such a refuge of sinners, both in the pews and in the robes. The disheartening failings of Church members and leaders lend credibility to a Sentimentalist's declaration that he'd rather spend his time with an honest sinner than a pious hypocrite. It is impossible to argue that a heterosexual priest who is unfaithful to his vows is preferable to a homosexual priest who is. The seemingly endless revelations of the clerical abuse of minors certainly makes a Sentimentalist who casts off the Church in disgust seem more sensible than the equally-sickened Christian who remains within.

When the Sentimentalist's reasonable outrage on behalf of very real victims inspires him to dissociate from the faith, he believes he has safely removed himself from the stains upon the Church. But, sadly he has also made a decision to remove himself from the risks inherent in any measure of trust; that self-protective position may instruct him into a habit of rash judgment and narrow cynicism which can become crippling in other areas of life.

Though his anger at the Church and sympathy for the victims is indeed genuine, his unwillingness to participate in the broader sufferings of the Church entire—to face shame while hoping for clarity, to demand reforms while acknowledging the brokenness of humanity—ultimately denies him the growth that begins within the plumbed depths of shared humiliation, where grace may take root, and eventually grow into healing, strength, wisdom, and a peace that is frankly beyond the world's understanding.

I'm Spiritual . . . Not Religious
Chesterton described the Sentimentalist as one having "no honor about ideas; he will not see that one must pay for an idea as for anything else. He will not see that any worthy idea . . . can only be won on its own terms." That nicely describes the modern man who describes himself as "spiritual, not religious."

The Sentimentalist, anxious to denounce and to distance himself, does not stop to consider that the great reformers within the church—St. Francis, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, and others—did not flounce away from what was difficult. They remained, and the profound insights gained through their struggles have instructed and enhanced the "worthy idea" of faith. Dismissing it all with a few overused buzzwords, a Sentimentalist runs his premium brain on the cheap and inefficient fuel of superior feeling, but cannot be accounted a thinker who enhances understanding. And his destination is up for grabs, too.

The temptation to lapse into feeling-over-thinking is not unique to our century; it is simply the product of what we might call "Evian reasoning." This refers not to the boutique water whose name, read backward, spells n-a-i-v-e (a happy irony), but reasoning that resembles the thought processes of Eve in the Garden, at the very infancy of human wondering. What sounds good and looks good must be good, and so we should have it, despite arguments to the contrary, or "arbitrary" rulings by an Authority. Eve allowed her imperfect reason to be subdued by her feelings and desires and thus she took the world's headfirst dive into the waters of sentimentalism, which—while shallow—are deep enough for infants to drown in.

My God Sounds a Lot Like . . . Me
The social mortification that the Sentimentalist faces among his peers accounts for some of his conclusions, particularly as regards faith. By modern standards, the Church is asking him to bow down in fidelity before a God of embarrassingly retrograde positions, while the God he would prefer to worship bears such a striking resemblance to . . . himself. That god thinks as he thinks, judges as he judges—and asks so very little of him, to boot. For him, the Church seems too black and white, lacking in the nuance that increasingly dulls the bright contrasts of ideas to bleak but soothing shades of gray. To his contemporaries, the Church that knows all life to be a sacred gift, and all babies to be blessings, is a brute who would suppress "a woman's right to choose," and inflict life upon the unwilling, the frightened, the victimized, and .

. . the very busy.

It's Supposed to Be Easy, Isn't It?
The Church that suggests human beings are capable of containing their desires, and that the common call to chastity has both spiritual and social value, is an oppressor trying to keep people from expressing "free love," and . . . feeling good about themselves through casual, empty encounters.

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