“Chase religious ideas out one door and they inevitably come in another — because the human mind naturally rebels against a worldview as incomplete, as manifestly threadbare, as pure materialism.” Ross Douthat
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I used to say “I’m not religious. I’m a Christian,” which was not entirely misleading about Evangelicalism: Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio Journal once referred to Evangelicalism, in its doctrinal diversity if not chaos, as orthopathos, “right feeling,” rather than orthodoxy, “right belief.”
I am fortunate that I was kidding myself about the “not religious” part, and that the truth finally manifested itself. With my religion now being capital-O Orthodox Christianity, I have no hesitation calling myself “religious” (and for today, at least, I have no interest in quibbling over the etymology of the word).
I still casually follow doings in the Evangelical and Calvinist Christian traditions, but even someone who is “interested in religion” as well as “religious” cannot keep up with every tradition other than his own. Part of what I can’t keep up with is the menagerie of people today who earnestly deny being religious (my old denial was playful) while clearly toying with ideas that do not enjoy a Neil deGrasse Tyson Seal of Approval.®
So I was grateful for today’s Ross Douthat column on The Meaning of Marianne Williamson, which was extremely stimulating for anyone who acknowledges that religion is both consequential and ubiquitous. He helped me place Williamson, heretofore only very vaguely known to me, in a religious neighborhood to which I’ve at least paid a little attention in the past.
Douthat’s point is not that Williamson is a serious contender for the Democrat nomination or election in 2020 (though she might be a forerunner in something of the way Pat Buchanan foreshadowed our Very Stable Genius). I would have been a very hard sell on that, as are the pollsters so far.
Rather, I’d call Douthat’s perspective “meta,” in the the sense that he uses Williamson partly as a springboard into the sometimes conflicted psyches of people who fancy themselves staunch adherents of reason and science, and specifically the possible development of a “Religious Left.”
A recurring question in American politics since the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition has been “where is the religious left?” One possible version has been hiding in plain sight since the 1970s, in the form of Williamson’s style of mysticism, the revivalism of the Oprah circuit, the soul craft of the wellness movement, the pantheistic-gnostic-occultish territory at the edges of American Christianity’s fraying map. We don’t necessarily see it as a “left” only because it has acted indirectly on politics, reshaping liberalism and the wider culture from within and below, rather than acting through mass movements and political campaigns.
Certainly in the eternal pundit’s quest to figure out what a “Donald Trump of the left” would look like, a figure like Williamson is an interesting contender. If Trumpism spoke to an underground, often-conspiratorial populism unacknowledged by the official G.O.P., Williamson speaks to a low-on-data, long-on-feelings spirit that simmers just below the We Are on the Side of Science and Reason surface of the contemporary liberal project.
It’s not a coincidence, against this background, that some of the refugees from contemporary progressivism who form the so-called Intellectual Dark Web or publish in journals like Quillette have commonalities with the Bush-era new atheists who once bashed right-wingers for their religiosity — or indeed are Bush-era new atheists, in the case of Sam Harris, born again as an I.D.W. eminence and scourge of the progressive left. In this trajectory you can see one potential arc for proudly secular liberals, if the left’s future belongs to woke covens and progressive pantheism …
… but then it’s also not a coincidence that perhaps the most popular of the Intellectual Dark Webbers, Jordan Peterson, talks about Enlightenment values in one breath while offering Jungian wisdom and invoking biblical archetypes in the next. Chase religious ideas out one door and they inevitably come in another — because the human mind naturally rebels against a worldview as incomplete, as manifestly threadbare, as pure materialism.
It would take the entire course in miracles to put Williamson in the White House, but she’s right about one big thing: There’s more to heaven and earth, and even to national politics, than is dreamed of in the liberal technocrat’s philosophy.
At this level of abstraction and speculation, other approaches probably are plausible, but by all means read Douthat all if his approach intrigues you. I think you’ll find it rewarding.
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