Have you ever watched a typical, moody adolescent interact with his or her family in public? Picture a sixteen year-old girl in a restaurant with her parents and younger siblings. She’s at the far edges of both the table and the conversation, ashamed of her family. It’s obvious she’s simply enduring her family with less than a subtle patience. Her speech, manner, body language, most everything about her, suggests disaffection. Yet, we don’t take her attitude all that seriously. It’s common and natural. When you’re sixteen, your family can do nothing right, you’re ashamed of its faults, and your parents and siblings seem the prime agents blocking your freedom, potential, and growth.
What an apt image to describe how so many of us, wanting to be mature in a sophisticated culture, relate to our Judeo-Christian roots and its churches. Nurtured in a culture that was born out of a Judeo-Christian womb, many of us are at the edges of our religious heritage, hyper-critical about the religious family we’ve been born into, and convinced that our Christian roots are what stand between us and proper freedom, achievement, and enjoyment. Whether it is expressed or not, this is the spirit that undergirds much of the anti-Christian, anti-ecclesial, and anti-clerical feeling within our time.
The metaphor is taken from the writings of Kathleen Norris and captures more than what is evident at first glance. What it suggests is that in both a hypercritical, young person and in the attitude of many of us today towards our religious roots there is a lot of adolescent grandiosity, but that this is natural and something that is generally outgrown. A lively, struggling, iconoclastic adolescent, hypercritical of her family, is not bad, just unfinished. She only needs to grow-up more to come to appreciate who and what gave her the freedom, tools, and self-confidence to stand on her own and be critical.
Louis Dupre, the renowned philosopher at Yale, says the same thing, though in academic language. Answering the question, “Should modernism be reversed?” he replies: “I think not. Instead, we ought to return to, and elaborate, the fundamental principle of modernity as it was first enunciated half a millennium ago: human creativity must and can be developed in full integration with the transcendent and cosmic components of the ontotheological synthesis. Contrary to current anti-modernist theses I consider the program of modernity not obsolete or in principle wrongheaded, but unfinished.”
The intellectual disaffection with Christianity today is not bad. It’s just unfinished. It needs to grow-up more and become cognizant and appreciative of the fact that the heritage that it has been so critical of is the very thing that has given it the freedom, insight, and self- confidence to speak all those words of criticism. It can learn something from the young man or woman who at thirty-something, now carrying real responsibility, begins more and more to appreciate and drink from the wellsprings of his or her family heritage, despite seeing the family’s faults. We see this all the time, the bitter, distrustful adolescent, mouthing criticism of the family from the edges, growing into the responsible adult at the centre, grateful for how the family has shaped his or her soul.
A Roman Catholic feminist (I think it was Rosemary Ruether) was asked: “How can you be a Christian theologian and a feminist? Aren’t these incompatible?” Her answer: Christianity gave us feminism! The roots of feminism and of most everything else in the Enlightenment which takes as non-negotiable the values of individual freedom, democracy, equality of opportunity, and respect for others, lie in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. It’s no accident that these values have arisen so strongly out of Western, Judeo-Christian, culture. It has simply taken us a long time to understand more deeply the demands of our own heritage.
Anyone doubting her answer might try reading Alfred North Whitehead’s famous study on the origins of science and technology, how the road for these was paved by the Judeo- Christian scriptures as well, and how it’s no accident that science and technology emerged in the West. In the end, despite current protests to the contrary, it was Judeo-Christianity that gave us the Enlightenment and its making sacred of the values of individuality, equality, democracy, tolerance, and rationality. But, like an adolescent feeling her oats, the Enlightenment, right into our own time and culture, believes that it has been its own source of wisdom, self-taught, a child without parents.
Gil Bailie has a little dictum that runs something like this: We didn’t stop burning witches because we stopped reading scripture; we stopped burning witches because we kept reading scripture.
A haughty adolescent girl is not bad, she’s just unfinished. That’s also true for the Enlightenment and so much of what it has spawned, including most liberal ideologies within our culture and the anti-Christian and anti-ecclesial spirit of our time.