“(Portentous sight!) the owlet Atheism,
Sailing on obscene wings athwart
the noon . . . “
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Individualism is the question of first concern to the future of the West. The dread argument of the individual case is, I think, the fundamental idea of modernism. Books like those by Turner and Bellah & Associates which deal with this question have significance, however, only within the framework already constructed by some of the finest minds of the past 150 years. It is necessary to review at least the broad outlines of that framework before the value of these works can be determined.
Man’s worship of himself became possible because of two related but conflicting reasons. One, the Founder of the Christian religion gave infinite value to the person, a being worthy in His eyes of His death. This central liberating truth, fully and incontrovertibly proclaimed in history, is unique. Two, by the time of the Renaissance the inevitable workings of mankind’s weakness made themselves felt in secular humanism, the ideology in which the person is perceived as the center of reality and, hence, the compelling image of culture. This shift is so profound that Lionel Trilling held that a mutation in the human psyche had taken place then, making it possible for man to see himself as at the center.
By this shift the Christian sense of person was anamorphosized into individualism. The Christian West had hit upon that object of all objects most worthy to replace God. The point was, as Auguste Comte noted, that once God was shut out. His place must be taken by something else if you did not want Him to come back again. Atheism, oddly made possible only after Christ, is in its most consistent form when holding that man takes the place of God because he must not owe his existence to anybody except himself. The most powerful ideologies of our own time, often in competition, are alike in agreeing on this doctrine.
This deep-laid distortion of the meaning of personality led to the deliberate transference over the past four centuries of all value from “other worldly” to “this worldly.” Such a basal shift shaped itself finally into an ultimate opposition. As Walker Percy put it, two gods are one god too many for the cosmos. In such a situation it is impossible to be neutral. The place from where we start as we face the world determines our judgments and our moral principles. Hence, the idea is no longer shocking that the opposition should be between God and man. We do not expect, bolts of lightning to fall from the heavens or the very stones to cry out, and, alas, if they do, we do not hear them. Where theism tried and failed, positive humanism offered the needed remedy, the something completely new. The undergraduate commencement orator at the University of Wisconsin (1875) spoke for Modernism when he said, “THE KINGDOM OF MAN IS AT HAND.”
Or so its supporters believed then. The shocking experience of the past four centuries, however, so different than anticipated, caught up with the times and forced a radical review of positive humanism. For one, the new religion of man had no way of dealing with the primitive terror—elemental, violent, untamed—which is in the individual and in society. And by the 19th century, the authority of personality, one of the great achievements of Christianity, was undermined and exhausted by being forced to play a role it could never master. Its flutters of independence could not cure the wound of the heart. That Jones should wind up worshiping Jones turned out to be as peccant as G.K. Chesterton promised it would be.
Genesis had defined the essential temptation (and the cause of the Fall): “You will be like God.” In the great tradition of literature, this argument of the individual case is always a dread argument. Whenever characters in such high dramas plead the dread argument of the individual case, claiming that they are responsible to no tribunal but themselves, they inevitably find themselves facing the abyss. Let Anna Karenina, the most glamorous exemplar of the 19th century, stand for all of them.
James Turner is not as interested in literature as he is in letters. Using such documents he aims to explain in Without God, Without Creed how it became possible for many people in the 19th century and thereafter to say, “I do not believe in God.” Before that time “atheism or agnosticism seemed almost palpably absurd.” For all practical purposes, America before 1800 does not seem to have harbored a single person who did not believe in God. Thereafter, and quickly, unbelief emerged as a plausible choice for millions. Without God, Without Creed, “the center fell out of intellectual life.” Although to this day most Americans continue to believe in God (or say they do), the option of unbelief in itself shattered the common basis of thought and experience. Making God private meant that public intellectual life could do without Him.
The aggressive self-assertion of man demanding independence resulted in his claiming the supremacy that belonged to God. When the cart is once pushed over the brow, there is no telling it to stop. Doing without God meant that the image which gave order to culture, an all-or-nothing proposition as the First Commandment made crystal clear, was declared redundant, and the consequences swept through the body politic like the shock waves of an earthquake. In considering how the practically universal assumption of God disappeared. Turner concentrates on Anglo-American culture, focusing on United States Protestantism after 1800 in particular. Since Protestantism arose at the beginning of modern times, it is much closer to the dynamic which produced Modernism than Catholicism is. It more readily opened itself to the powerful currents of modern thought as well as found its shape in part by confronting them.
Contrary to common belief, neither science nor social transformations caused unbelief; religious leaders were the culprits. By adapting belief to cultural changes and the discoveries of science, “the defenders of God slowly strangled Him.” The history of the 19th-century Protestant aggiornamento in the United States is the most original aspect of Turner’s study. Because of Pius IX’s vigorous response to these same forces, the Catholic aggiornamento would be delayed for a century.
Before 1500 in Europe, belief in God was fixed in the very structure of things. The estrangement from reality necessary to support unbelief was a practical impossibility. With the Renaissance and the Reformation came the application of positivism, the empirical way of thought. The only reliable knowledge was that verified in experience. Logically formulated and exactly specified propositions satisfied the desire for precise knowledge—the technological habit of mind. Undergirding these ideas was the progressive belief in the historical evolution of knowledge. The result was the rationalizing of religion. Belief became moralized and morality became humanized. “I believe in nothing,” said Leslie Stephens, “but I do not the less believe in morality.” Benjamin Franklin provided the classic example of this mode of thought: “Vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful, the nature of man alone considered.”
The Ten Commandments were reduced to two moral ideas, progress and humanitarianism. The first idea presupposed that man had made so much intellectual progress that he ought not to believe anything any longer without sufficient evidence of the proper kind. As to the second, one need consider only the theological flight from the perennial problem to which religion had always responded—suffering. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. asserted that “suffering is a wrong which can be and ought to be prevented.” Both ideas are, necessarily, man-centered, the result of a new appreciation of personality which, unchecked, came to be individualism. Since it was the individual and not God who made choices, belief in the supernatural became offensive to one’s moral sensibility. Submission to any external authority “endangered the moral integrity” of the person. “To vindicate liberty I must dethrone God,” said Samuel Putnam.
Mainstream Protestantism in the United States encouraged the moralizing of God because of its strategy of making religion conform to the demands of the modern world. The notion that it is the world which opposed itself to Christianity was put aside. One did not dare to be in opposition to what the prevailing culture regarded as obvious, natural, and plausible. God became merely a part of history, not as He had in the Incarnation but as if He was a part of creation:
The great error of church leaders—their blasphemy, to put it in their terms—was to forget the tension that must exist between man’s wishes and the intentions of a Deity who might plausibly be imagined to have created our universe. They had let gather dust the ancient wisdom that creation transcended human grasp.
At this point the Comte thesis came into play. A secular morality was possible only if a new central compelling image for culture was available; the new idea of man was available. Work in anthropology and archaeology demonstrated in purely natural terms that man evolved his morality by living in response to nature. Morals are the expression of “the secular experience of mankind.” The guardians of belief had made God so much like man that it became feasible to abandon God and believe in man alone.
In short, God as the ruler of nature was abstracted into a scientific explanation. God as the source for the code of moral behavior was humanized. God as mysterious and transcendent was tamed and made to appear irrelevant to human needs. These changes came about because church leaders and intellectuals chose to deal with modernity by embracing it. What modernity wanted as a functional God could not be made compatible with a transcendent God.
At bottom, this error resulted from a radical misunderstanding of Incarnation, the historical event which gave flesh to the Still Point about which the universe turns. In Four Quartets T.S. Eliot named Incarnation the impossible union of timeless and time. And for us who are trying, the timeless can be found only in time. Thus, history is not progress or evolution or mere addition, but a pattern of timeless moments. Hence, all of us have had the experience but missed the meaning, yet in the effort to find the meaning the experience can be purified. Although God is not owned by history, if you take Him out of it—separate Him from hunks, colors, gardens, and garbage dumps—you lose Him, having missed the whole point of the free truth of Revelation, which is Christ Incarnate in history. The true distinction (and marriage) of divine and human can be found only through the revelation of the impossible union—that essential paradox.
Turner’s sense of an incomprehensible God and of the hopeless fallibility of human effort to know Him threatens to jeopardize his otherwise sound study. An essential part of God’s transcendent mystery is that He did reveal Himself in time in the person of the Son who is like us in all things but sin. As a result of His coming, we have not been left orphans. The conclusion that can be drawn from the rest of his study, however, is of great value. The Protestant aggiornamento, which is still going on particularly in mainstream Protestantism, is presented lucidly. Turner’s final words are cautionary; in 1986 they can be read as applying equally to the Catholic aggiornamento: “Yet perhaps after all, there is really one lesson here. The universe is not tailored to our measurements. Forgetting that, many believers lost their God. So may we all run into trouble.”
Habits of the Heart is also concerned with individualism, and one wishes that it had been a better book. Written in jejune prose, it hardly seems to know that it is asking the right question: Given the cancerous effect of modern American individualism, how can we preserve or create a morally coherent life? It is difficult to imagine a group of writers less likely than Bellah & Associates to consider such a question. They think the answer is to be found in taking a survey. Four research projects are the models within which the answer can be found. But of course the answer is already in their heads. Some 200 persons were interviewed, half of whom were Californians, half of them being therapists or in therapy, and the third quarter were political activists who come from the left side of the political spectrum. I thought of the Kinsey Report. Another method was wanted, and I make bold to recommend it to them. Study St. Augustine. I think he offers what Bellah & Associates were looking for. “‘Bad times, troublesome time,’ thus men are saying. Let our lives be good and our times will be good. We make our times what we are.” On second thought, I wonder if Bellah & Associates would be willing to embrace the base on which St. Augustine stood and which was the source of his wisdom.
[Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, by James Turner; Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press]
[Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert N. Bellah et. al.; Berkeley: University of California Press]