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dreamstimefree_2776077In a recent New York Times editorial, Ross Douthat, describes religious trends in 21st century America as neither shifting towards the extreme of unbelief or the extreme of fundamentalism.  Instead, religious trends are shifting toward a “generalized ‘religiousness’ detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.”  While growing numbers of Americans are abandoning organized religion (Douthat bases this claim on recent polling data), we are, by and large, not opting for atheism. 

Stay-at-home religionists are actively seeking and building eclectic and high-personalized theologies “with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away.” 

Pause here, please.  Douthat himself pauses on the part about “moral requirements shorn away.”  It should give us pause too. 

Yes, build-your-own-theology-types are shearing moral requirements from their generalized religiousness.  But they are not alone.  Americans affiliated with specific faith traditions, whether liberal or conservative, seem to be following the same trend.  Douthat complains that religious people of all stripes are showing a distinct preference for a God “who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.” 

Hmmm.  Not sure what Douthat means here because large incomes and numerous divorces aren’t necessarily moral no-nos. Most likely he’s wagging his finger at Americans whose God doesn’t raise a peep at HOW they make their money or HOW they spend it (see Post #22 “How good are we without God?”).  He’s probably wagging his finger at Americans whose God doesn’t raise a peep even when children are involved in a divorce.

Christians, Douthat says (and here, his meaning is quite clear), are drawn to “a Jesus who’s a thoroughly modern sort of messiah—sexy, worldly, and Goddess-worshipping, with a wife and kids, a house in the Galilean suburbs, and no delusions about his own divinity.” 

Hyperbolic language and claims aside, does Douthat have a point? 

Okay, so polls show that generalized-religiousness Americans are shearing moral requirements from religious ones.  But why are we doing so?

One answer:  we’re done with religions or Gods that ask us to reflect on the harm we may have caused.  These religions or Gods have too often made us feel like we’re bad people and we deserve to go to hell.

Another answer:  many of us are quasi-universalists–any God worthy of that name loves us and is simply too good to condemn us.  We’ve removed God from the judge’s bench in the sky.  The all-about-love God, the one to whom we’re willing to pray, no longer sits in judgment of us.  God loves us, unconditionally.  

And since God loves us, unconditionally, God loves us regardless of how much money we earn (or how we made it and what we do with it) or how many times we’ve been married (even if our kids end up with exponentially-more-difficult lives).

So, is the unconditional-love God really the kind of God we want?  Even a liberal Jewish theologian like Martin Buber, who made a principled decision not to attend worship services, imagined that the soul, after death, would be reunited with God (or not) based on the quality of our deeds.  The Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, no lover of worship services, imagined the afterlife as an opportunity to encounter more situations requiring moral choices; in this way we would get all the time we needed to hone our willingness to do the right thing for the right reasons. 

What would Buber or Kant think of a “thoroughly modern” God who is “too busy validating” our particular version of the American dream to care about our moral decisions?

And you, what do you think?  Are you troubled by the current trend to triage moral requirements from religiousness (whether yours is a generalized religiousness or a specific-faith-tradition religiousness)?

Next week’s post will take up this issue again and explore the creative approach of the mystical theologian, Julian of Norwich.

References:   Ross Douthat, “Dan Brown’s America” in The New York Times online edition,18 May 2009.

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