I read Ross Douthat so you don't have to. I was on the Sunday Review page of the New York Times just, well, reading last night. Frank Bruni was discussing the movies (really nothing there), and I stopped reading Tom Friedman in the 1990s, so when I saw the blurb for Douthat's column
In a divided culture, there are three competing views of Christmas.I thought, "Hm. Interesting" because I'm working on a diary that explains why colonial America very rarely observed Christmas, and I read it. WRONG again if I expected it to make sense.
Below the great orange Christmas cookie for a, well, evisceration.
So, you see, the people of these United States have three different views of Christmas. This is a little difficult for me, as a Jew, because I always thought this was the day that Christians commemorated the birth of the man whose life provides the basis for their religion. But that's not what Douthat means. He looks at a manger scene (well, of course), and he finds it to be an entire worldview, displaying the link between God and man, and because it
it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.And that's sort of nice, because I didn't really believe he understood about the transcendence of the commonplace.
But that really isn't what he means. Here he explains this culture's competing worldviews of what we take from the creche and he indulges in some really dangerous cultural relativism in the process. First we have the Biblical worldview:
Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.Well, sure. These are the people who condemn everyone who doesn't believe what they believe to hell and damnation. But there's a second view, which Douthat calls the spiritual, a vision to which the Biblical vision is, well, losing share:
[It] keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details. This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.Well, maybe, and I didn't realize that Osteen and Oprah had anything in common, so thanks, Ross, unless he's making that up too. He might be, because neither Osteen nor Oprah are Catholics.
So on to the third worldview, the secular, and his wishful thinking gets him into trouble (I think) right at the outset:
Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia.I don't know that this is relatively rare among the general public. I KNOW it's not relatively rare in the New York metropolitan area, unless he thinks everyone in Manhattan is part of the intelligentsia, which says to me he needs to stop listening to David Brooks and investigate for himself. But Douthat is, well, incurious, like several other famous right-wingers (see the last president), and thus he imagines this world view:
This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.Liberte, Egalité, Fraternité. The slogan of the French Revolution, which we all know was a bad thing. Or at least that's what I think Douthat thinks.
The rest of the column is devoted to criticizing liberals and secularists for what he believes they think, which is what he does every week, because, THIS time, the secular worldview (he says)
proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory.I wonder how purposeless he thinks John Calvin's predestinarian universe was. The outcomes he proposes are exceptionally bizarre, because he finds the secular worldview destined to fail.
So there are two interesting religious questions that will probably face Americans for many Christmases to come. The first is whether biblical religion can regain some of the ground it has lost, or whether the spiritual worldview will continue to carry all before it.At least he acknowledges that what HE calls biblical religion has lost ground. Oddly, the liberal wings of the biblical religions seem to be gaining some ground now that they aren't under threat from a presidential administration, but I don't think Douthat takes them into consideration at all.
The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.Maybe, maybe, depends on how you define it and I don't think we define it the same way, and how can you even suggest the fourth option, which is euphemistic for Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism, as an option for a world that mostly remembers what it was like, and at least is being taught to remember what it was like and the consequences. Of course, the fact that two of the three -isms were absolutely opposed to secularism, well, never mind.
The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.
So, taking a page from the Sadly, No approach to these writers, here's my "shorter":
The manger symbolizes Christmas and liberals/secularists are evil.Thank you for reading this, and maybe those of you who are familiar enough with the polling on fundamentalism/liberal religion/no religion can fill in the blanks on that: if it wasn't related to Western Civ before 1700 or the history of California, or Russia's anti-gay laws, I haven't paid much attention to it since the end of August.
Mark Sumner has a brief discussion of the Douthat op-ed here.