I have three peeves with modern presentations of Christianity, which seem intent on reducing that grandiose historical singularity to a domesticated pet. The targets of my peevishness can be named as follows: provincialism, sentimentalism and moralism. There you have it. The venom is on my lips as I pronounce the names. The first puts inherited custom and local color so much into the foreground that the global role of the Gospel is obscured. However, this applies equally to all unreasoned resistance to inculturation beyond Latin Europe, in which one “province” imposes itself on another, as became an issue in the rites controversy of the Jesuits in China in the 17th-18th centuries.
The second peeve puts emotion before thought, all forms of what Ronald Knox termed “enthusiasm” in his masterful (if polemical) book of that title. Meant here are liturgical excesses of improvisation, charismatic exaggerations and saccharine religious songs and gestures.
The third peeve allows moral stricture and a litany of prohibitions to push aside metaphysical and theological instruction, and what should follow on instruction, namely, growing insight. We find ourselves expecting youth to get their moral act together before they have heard the good news that might encourage them to do so. Indeed, Christianity (and especially Catholicism) ought to be seen as the most gargantuan, shocking and revolutionary teaching about reality ever uttered. But the targets of my critique reduce it instead to: 1) our precious national, or family, traditions; 2) something we only connect with when our emotions are stirred; and 3) a series of moral do’s and don’ts – end of story.
Sin, of course, is connected in the minds of the young, almost invariably, to things that make them feel good, indeed quite unmistakably good. And young people know good things when they feel them. The big world of religion seems to have gotten it all wrong about the obviously good pleasures God created.
Metanoia, as generations of exegetes have pointed out, is not inaccurately translated as repentance, but even repentance is misunderstood if one does not take a hard look at the Greek word itself. The “change” suggested by the preposition meta, is of the nous, the thinking, the way we understand and look at reality. To be sorry you must see that what you did was wrong, and that requires in turn seeing what is right – that is, how the world God created really is, and how you, therefore (say it again: therefore), ought to be. In other words, to see what is right morally, you must have at least a rudimentary grasp of what is true metaphysically.
To expect us to be horrified by sin without even a glimpse of the beauty of goodness is typical topsy-turvy modern religiosity, sure to send sane people running from the pews (and, predictably, to any immediately available pleasures). Young people, who have already touched real pleasure and excitement in their lives, will never be persuaded by a moral code articulated by pallid faces and wagging fingers. They know better, and they are right.
Just as practical philosophy has pressured theoretical philosophy into a defensive posture in recent times, similarly instructional preaching and well thought-out catechism and doctrinal theology find themselves out-gestured by moralizing postures, or by swaying liturgical songfests. Church congregations often seem to be trying to compensate with frenetic emotion what they lack in sober conviction.
If folks are no longer taught that the Trinitarian God is about a generating, living Father, about Christ as a truly generated Son (overwhelming, indeed innerwhelming with life and logos abundant), and about a Spirit that is a love forever on the verge of overflowing, and that therefore the creation is an outpouring of gifts from that bosom of eternally sprouting life – then one outcome is certain: all our moral prohibitions will rise and fall as we speak them. They will be unable to steady themselves without the backdrop of a properly detailed theological worldview, which alone can give them rationale and warrant.
Locale, emotion and commandment will only make sense, and only win hearts, when one’s limited place on Earth shines forth from a map of the universal and global (the catholic); when emotion is allowed to move vibrantly and fervently indeed, but only within the steady matrix of the will (our rational appetite); and when moral injunction emerges lovingly, but logically, from a carefully articulated metaphysics of the real.