Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Change and the Lack of It

with 10 comments

Every once in a while the comments actually point to someplace I’m trying to go, and that’s incredibly helpful.  In this case, John wonders how so much could have changed so thoroughly in less than fifty years, and my answer would be:  it changed less and less thoroughly than he thinks.

As to the reaction of nonChristians to  Christian practices in public and in public schools, for instance, it’s a mistake to think that “didn’t say anything about it” means the same thing as “didn’t mind it.”  There is a Catholic parochial school system in this country because Catholics objected to their children being forced to say the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer and read the Protestant version of the Holy  Bible in public schools. 

Most religious groups, however, didn’t have the numbers the  Catholic Church had, and if they objected to these practices, they did so in the privacy of their own homes.   Objecting in public could get you into a lot of trouble even in the Fifties.  But people did object.  They objected a lot.   And since my father was a civil libertarian with a reputation for defending people with unpopular causes–and someone who gave a lot of pro bono time to the ACLU–some of those people ended up at my parents’ dinner table and made no secret of just how much they resented having these things forced down their throats. Those people included Jews as well as atheists and agnostics. 

I said that this comment dovetailed with what I was hoping to talk about anyway, and it does, because it higlights a reality that almost everybody gets wrong:  by the mid Fifties, the Christian consensus in general, and the Protestant Christian consensus in particular, was already losing force in the  United States.

Right up through the beginning of World War II,  the majority of people in this country not only said they believed in God, but actually believed in him, in the only way it makes sense to define that world in regard to religion.

I’m not saying here that all, or most, of the people who were declaring their belief were secret atheists, or agnostics, only that the belief they were declaring was more like “I believe that George Washington was the first President of the  United States” than “I believe that I am standing right next to a large, angry dog that is about to rip the hell out of my rear end.”

No,  I’m  not saying that I think Christianity demanded fear, or that any belief in God demands fear.  What I am saying is that  Christian belief as it existed for somebody like  Donne, for instance, was not an academic thing.  It wasn’t a question of  Donne having learned a lot of “theological facts” by rote and “believing” them in the sense that he was aware he’d learned them and didn’t question them because he really hadn’t thought about them since.

Donne lived every day of his life–or every day that he bothered to record–in the presence of  God, who was present to him in the same way your brother or sister is present to you when he’s sitting across the dining room table at breakfast.   Donne “believed” in God in the same way you and  I “believe” in the chair we’re sitting in.  For  Donne, “believing” was simply accepting the reality in front of his face.   Donne’s faith was not faith as we use the term, an acceptance of things not only unseen but unperceived.  

One of the Catholic saints called this way of living “the practice of the presence of  God,” and it informed a lot of people, Catholic and nonCatholic, during the period of the  Reformation and the eras immediately following.  Teresa of  Avila and St.  John of the Cross, the founders of the Discalced Carmelite nuns and priests, both wrote extensively of it, and  St.  John’s “dark night of the soul” turns out not to be the abyss of doubt modern writers now use the phrase to designate.  

But look at the Donne poem, which is, structurelly and formally, a remarkable piece of work in poetry:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Donne is not talking to an “imaginary friend,” as some secular writerts like to say today.  Nor is he descending into an orgy of emotionally-charged mindlessness, blotting out his reason by indulging in a kind of psychological drug.  He is instead expressing what is for him a completely  mundane but desperately important reality.  This is the world as  Donne lives in it.   It is as real and immediate to him as my computer is to me, and considerably more important.

It is because this world is so immediate and so real for  Donne, and because his expression of it is not Romantic emotionalism but tightly controlled and strictly logical exposition, that this poem energizes me in spite of the fact that it speaks of things I do not believe, and speaks of them in a way particular to a corner of a tradition that is not mine even in its whole.

I’ve said before that what makes a work of literature “good” or not has nothing to do with whether or not we “like” it, but this poem is both good and something I like, in fact something I love, much as I love Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  I don’t have to believe in Zeus and Athena to find Odysseus’s return from Troy compelling.  I don’t have to believe in a divine Christ with the mission and capability to save the souls of men for all eternity to find myself caught up in Holy  Sonnet 14, or in Bishop  King’s  “Exequy.”  I promise to get to the “Exequy” tomorrow.

Right now I want to say this:  somewhere along the line, somewhere in the twentieth century in America (although possibly earlier in parts of  Europe), this kind of Christian faith was, if not completely extinguished, extinguished from the publid face of Christianity.  When  I shift through the channels on my television set and find religious programming, I do not get John Donne, or anything like him.  I get a legion of “pastors” who seem to be pushing one version or another of “believe because if you don’t you’re screwed,” with the “screwed” being related entirely to the events of this life.  Believe or you’ll lose your job.  Believe or you’ll go bankrupt.  Believe or your husband will leave you for another woman.

Looking at these “pastors” on television, I do not see men, or women, who live as  Donne and St. Teresa did, always in the presence of God.  Most of them live no more in that presence than I do, and when they say they “believe,” or that they “have faith,” the impression they give is that one of “believing” that George Washington was the first president.  It’s an academic “belief,” the way I “believe” that Genghis Khan once ruled most of Asia.  I could be right.  I could be wrong.  The knowledge has exactly zero impact on my life. 

What changed over the past fifty years,  I think, was the perception of non-Christians as to Christian belief.  For a long time, non-Christians and Christians of denominations outside the American Protestant mainstream felt resentful of being forced to support religious practices they neither shared nor approved, but they didn’t do anything about it, because the tradition demanding them seemed so strong.

But the resentment was there, and at the first sign of weakness in the tradition it rose up and rebelled.  

I’ve come to the realization that it’s not Christianity  I object to, but mindlessness, and too much of American Christianity is almost willfully mindless.   The faith of a John Donne or a St. Teresa seems to me to be no longer on offer.  When I am forced to confront faith, what I get is that emotional charge and the demand that I shut down my mind and feel the  Spirit.

Like I said, I think this is the greatest damage the religious right has done–by being emotionalist in religion, and by being the loudest and most visible wing of Christianity in the public square, they have given the world the impression that this is what Christainity is, and they’ve made the job of the kind of atheist who wants to tag al religious believers as “stupid” a much easier job.

And tomorrow we’ll get on to  Bishop  King, and good and bad poetry.  Or something.

Written by janeh

December 27th, 2008 at 9:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'Change and the Lack of It'

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  1. Excuse me? The Christianity of John Donne and St Theresa of Avila is “no longer on offer” because (Hyperbole Alert) IT’S NOT ON TV THIS SEASON? Was it ever?

    Secularism is not dead no matter how many ignorant fanatics get published. Environmentalism is not dead regardless of Greenpeace’s policies. Even putting James Carville on national television does not mean liberalism is dead. If you want to object to mindlessness, there is plenty to go around. As for the Christian sort, we were warned of them nearly two millenia ago, and I expect the warnings will still be useful two millenia hence.

    But supposing a reporter landed in Donne’s Britain, who would he interview? On present form, Archbishop Laud (C of E) perhaps an imprisoned Jesuit, maybe a Puritan minister about to depart for America, and almost certainly a minister of the Scots Kirk. John Donne, a minor parish priest, wouldn’t have made the list.

    If you wish to find faith lived out, stop hanging around the marketplace. That’s not where it lives.

    As for the timing of the American cultural breakup, yes, of course. Faced with a massive cultural consensus, one either submits or separates. The immigrant generation tended to keep its head down. By the late 1950’s and 1960’s, their children were not so inclined, and that was enough–there were enough of them–to end that consensus.

    As for separation, my home town maintained and maintains a Missouri Synod Lutheran school system in addition to a public and a Roman Catholic. And now we have an embryonic “Christian”–non-denominational Protestant–system forming up as well. Any educational system reaches decisions on what’s true and important enough to be taught, and not all the parents will agree. The parents putting their own money into Blackhawk Christian HIgh School may not believe as the people sitting at your father’s table believed, but they have the same problem. It is, in fact, inescapable.

    But if you think that some of what is now taught in public schools on sexual conduct, the environment and cultural matters escapes propagating a religion with public funds because no prayers are offered, you miss the point. Being comfortable with a consensus doesn’t mean one has indisbutable Truth.


    27 Dec 08 at 11:48 am

  2. There is something missing; something lacking, in the information about Christianity that gets the most publicity. Maybe it is the idea of a passionate attachment to God that doesn’t require a turning off of the brain that’s missing.

    There seem to be two fairly common strains (not counting US TV preachers; I can’t speak for them)! One is that produced by the Spongs and the Harpurs, who preach a Christianity for this age which is (to my eye, anyway) so dissimilar from previous versions of Christianity as to be almost unrecognizable. That version certainly doesn’t contain a God to whom Donne might have addressed his poem! It seems so impersonal and cold to me.

    On the other hand, you have the ‘Purpose Driven Life’ and ‘Alpha’ materials – far more conventional theologically, but really little more than a basic introduction to Christian beliefs and practises.

    I find myself delving more into older books for ideas and guidance. I’m not alone, although I am in a minority. There are churches all over that offer help to people wanting to understand a God who is more than a mere list of characteristics and precepts that can be memorized.

    What startles me is that people can come out of a school in which they have been taught religion without any concept that there’s more to it than ritual and words. It’s not that they reject religion, it’s like they don’t know what it is supposed to be.


    27 Dec 08 at 1:31 pm

  3. North American Protestantism requires no substantial belief system; it simply requires one to follow the crowd, the bigger the better! Hence, we have the TV media preachers, “The Purpose Driven Life”, and Starbucks in church narthexes. The goal is to make people feel comfortable, happy, and successful . . . all things which, theoretically, require little thought or belief.

    Robert made mention of the Missouri Synod Lutheran school system, of which I am not only a product but have also been, for 39 years, a teacher. Unlike the Catholics, Lutherans did not establish this school system out of dislike for the public schools. Indeed, there have been Lutheran schools since the 1500’s, and the Europeans who came here brought this along. Many of our MoSy Lutheran churches began with a school first.

    Why? Because, for these people faith was real; it was daily; it was “normal.” The faith of John Donne and Martin Luther, I believe, existed more firmly in the lives of our ancestors.

    In 60 years, however, I have watched this disintegrate as our churches and schools have been “infected” with mindlessness and mind-numbing rhetoric in place of the truth of God’s Word. The liturgy has been discarded as old-fashioned; parts of God’s Word is tossed out as methaphorical or simply not true; the hymns that teach the truths of faith are replaced by songs that belong with campfires and marshmallows; the whole concept of worship being “what God has done for us” is now “what we are going to do for God.”

    To “cperkins”: Your last paragraph distressed me, because this is exactly what I’ve been fighting against throughout my career. I am 64, and I’m still learning, because I have a pastor who cares that his parishoners understand. He is rare!!! Many (should I say “most”) of our teachers (men and women who have been trained to be Lutheran teachers) don’t know themselves and are incapable of instructing our children in the “whys” and “wherefores,” as well as the “whats.”

    And each year it gets worse.

    Yet, truthfully, we were warned that this would happen. We have seen it happen elsewhere (i.e., Germany).

    Jane, I understand what you’re saying, and it makes sense. Unfortunately!


    27 Dec 08 at 6:15 pm

  4. Sara, its nice to see a new name. Welcome!

    As an agnostic Jew living in Australia, I don’t feel qualified to comment on what has been happening to Churches. But my general impression is much like Sara’s. The Protestan churches have abandoned those parts of their traditional dogma which doesn’t fit the prevailing social fashions. If I had any interest in relgion, I’d be tempted to convert to Roman Catholic which is at least trying to maintain its traditional dogma.


    27 Dec 08 at 10:28 pm

  5. Hi Sara!

    In my area, the Catholic decision to found their own schools wasn’t because they disliked public schools, but because, as Jane says, the public schools tried to force a Protestant view of religion on them. The educational and religious history of my area (Newfoundland, Canada) is in some ways unique, but there was a movement to set up public schools to replace the ones established by various missionaries. However, the Protestants (no Lutherans; almost certainly mostly Anglicans and Methodists, although I believe the Salvation Army also had a presence here that early) insisted on their own version of the Bible being used as a text for all students. This was unacceptable to the Catholics (I expect you’re aware of some of the history of the different translations of the Bible and how they’ve been used to argue different theological points), and none of the groups at that period wanted no religion in the schools! So we had separate denominational schools, in various configurations, right up to the late 20th century.

    As for education, I’ve had relatively little formal religious education, but I read a lot on my own and sometimes attend study sessions put on by my church (or sometimes others). Sermons, even good ones, seem useful mainly for inspiration rather than explanation.

    And John, I too have a lot of admiration for the Roman Catholics for standing their own ground. In the pews, of course, RCs can be about as varied as any other group in their personal opinions, but the church itself has very well-thought out teachings that don’t change with every prevailing wind.


    28 Dec 08 at 8:14 am

  6. But Cheryl, does the Catholic church teach its dogma consistently? I was raised Catholic – sort of, my father left the church when I was 12 and became a public atheist. But what I was taught as a child (and I attended Catholic schools for the first five years) barely skims the top of Catholic teachings and belief.

    This is probably at least partly because I was only 11 when I switched to public school, but still – supposedly back then the Church considered the age of reason to be something really young, like 7.

    And then I hear from Mique and what he was taught by the Australian nuns doesn’t match with what I was taught by American nuns. I know that a lot of this comes from the size of the organization and the fact that individual schools are a long way from Rome and individual teachers can and do interpret what the Church teaches or even decide to leave things out.

    I guess my point is that though I agree that the church does have a consistent and well-thought out theology, the average Catholic on the street is quite likely to know very little about it.

    In fact a lot of them seem to be just as ignorant as their Protestant counterparts. And I always wonder – maybe you can help me with this. What’s the point of belonging to a church if you cherry pick beliefs? A guy I work with goes to a (Lutheran) church where his daughter was taught that homosexuality is wrong. He discussed it with her at home because he doesn’t share that belief – but he stayed in the church. And most, if not all, Catholics that I know practice birth control, and many of them differ with the Church on gay marriage.

    So what’s the point?

    It seems to me to be part of what Jane’s talking about here. Religion, for most people, is a surface thing, something you do rather than something you are. If it’s truly what you ARE, it seems to me that you’d be less likely to question this sort of thing, or cherry-pick beliefs.


    28 Dec 08 at 1:23 pm

  7. The Catholics have a very slowly-changing body of teaching – I’ve got two books of the latest North American version; one short booklet intended for the lay person in a hurry and a massive longer version with much more detail. But as you say, how much each bit is accepted and taught varies, although not, I suspect, as much as it does in many Protestant churches. I know lots of Catholics, and because of the accident of history of where and when I live and grew up, just about all of them had 12 years of religious education in school. I’m sure it wasn’t all technically 100% accurate or 100% retained – and as for effectiveness, a few of the Catholics I’ve known for years are now atheist or agnostic, a few are practicing Catholics (although often with the same kind of questioning engagement I have with my own faith rather than with total certainty about everything from birth control to the transubstantiation). Most are what a local Catholic priest once called – I think it was ‘social Catholics’; I may not have the term exactly right. They identify as Catholic, they’re married by a priest, have their kids baptised, probably turn up at Christmas and Easter – but they don’t seem to worry about theology.

    I don’t think there’s ever been a time when any church larger than maybe a single house church or one-family sect was totally consistent on doctrine and moral teaching.

    Attempts to decide what is essential to Christian belief and what can be tolerated as a local variation go all the way back to the second and third century, IIRC, and the Creeds (plus some nasty wars, riots and polemics) were tools used to deal with the questions.

    My own denomination tried several times to solve the problem of providing a ‘broad’ church – one that could shelter people who honestly disagreed about some aspects of the religion, but who also honestly believed that they should worship together. These attempts haven’t always worked, and I don’t think they will always work in the future, but at least people are trying to solve their religious differences.

    I’m mentally working my way through the your last point about cherry-picking and the practice of religion. I’m instinctively against cherry-picking – and yet, I don’t tend to accept religious claims, even (or sometimes especially!) from high up in a church hierarchy without thinking, reading and praying about it myself. I do try to make my religious practice – which I came back to only 4 or 5 years ago – the core of my life; ‘what I am’, but I don’t always succeed. At the same time, religion as ‘something you do’ has become very important to me. I used to consider routine church-going the worst kind of hypocrisy and a waste of time, especially if I was tired or bored or disliked the choice of music or…well, it didn’t take much for me to think I could find better things to do with a Sunday morning.

    I now think that attending services and other events regularly helps keep me on track. It reminds me of the path I’ve chosen and keeps me in touch with other people who are on the same path – even though some of them have very different ideas that I do!

    So I’m not sure that the right distinction here is between religion as something you do and religion as something you are. I do think that a lot of people, even those who identify themselves as a member of a church, don’t seem to engage with their religion – they do cherry-pick, but don’t give much thought to the reasons they have chosen to go against the official teachings. I don’t think this approach to life is limited to religion. There are lots of people whose views on science or other aspects of life are just as superficial. And sometimes we have to deal at a superficial level. We’d be paralysed if we tried to analyze everything.

    I sometimes wonder if the reason Christian churches are supposed to encompass groups of people who would otherwise have nothing in common is to give them lots and lots of chances to practice loving kindness towards people they don’t like very much. Never mind gay marriage or birth control – just watch all the practice at solving conflict you can get during a fight over the style of music used during services, or whether the choir should wear gowns, or whether there should be a liturgical dance during the service!



    28 Dec 08 at 7:37 pm

  8. There is a small group of MoSy Lutheran churches who have become known as the Confessional Lutherans. These are churches who focus singularly on Lutheran beliefs and historic practices. There are no politics or social issues in the sermons; they are religious instruction. Bible classes and Sunday School (God forbid) come from the Bible.

    I would suspect there are similar groups in other denominations. No matter what happens, the Word of God will remain, although it probably won’t be too popular. As to life and religion . . . my life will end, but my convictions will last forever. Should I not, then, live my life by those convictions?


    31 Dec 08 at 3:05 pm

  9. That’s interesting to hear. I don’t know much about the Lutherans – we don’t tend to have very many around here!

    I think many churches offer some kind of educational sessions, and have some groups which are more traditional in their teachings than others. I could name a few myself.

    Oddly enough, aside from an occasional article on megachurches, almost none of the day-to-day stuff that goes on in churches hits the mass media. Oh, they might mention an effort to raise money for charity on the local news, and will certainly mention anything that involves sex of any kind and/or lawsuits over property (generally getting some of the details wrong). One or two controversial authors might get a mention, too, if they’ve got a new book out that might be taken to imply that some traditional teachings are wrong. But the media don’t mention Bible studies or introduction to Christianity classes or anything routine like that. Maybe it’s because too few people do it. Maybe it’s because people doing the expected isn’t news. The result is that religion as portrayed in the media is often unrecognizable to me.


    31 Dec 08 at 7:57 pm

  10. The media doesn’t have a clue about religion. Religion and the media shouldn’t even meet. My beliefs are my own; I will share them with you if you want, but I’m not going to hammer you over the head with them. Religion, like sex, should be a private matter. Besides, the media has never been interested in facts; they want sensationalism, and the more, the better. So, don’t look there to learn about religion.


    2 Jan 09 at 8:59 am

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