Ross Douthat does not understand the meaning of the Death of God.
The New York Times columnist recently wrote a column asking, “Can the Meritocracy Find God?” The occasion was the announcement that the number of Americans claiming membership in any religious institution had fallen to 47 percent. As recently as 1999, that number had been 70 percent. Before then, it was even higher.
Douthat worries that this secularization of American society is leading to a future in which religious impulses are translated into politics, with results that are bad for both. Religion and religious believers become culturally marginalized, while politics is left bereft of forgiveness and hope. The result is a “vacuum” of sources of meaning in society.
Douthat thinks these trends could be reversed but is uncertain how that might come about. He doubts that the anti-supernaturalism of educated Americans is what is keeping them from turning to religion. Douthat is wrong about that. It is precisely the popular rejection of supernaturalism that is secularizing American society.
The God of the Bible creates and controls the laws of nature. That is God’s role. What we call “miracles” are just God’s will manifest, as are the regular workings of nature.
For the religions of the book—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—miracles are not just an element in the belief system, they are foundational. C.S. Lewis even described Christianity as “one grand miracle.”
Millions of Americans have no trouble believing in just this kind of wonderworking God.
Despite these sincere believers, however, the wonder-working God is no longer credible in this culture. That is not just so for the educated Americans Douthat is writing about. It is also the case for many churchgoers, who just live with the inconsistency between what they hear at religious services and what they actually believe about how the world works.
To see the Death of God in operation, consider the popular reaction to the arrival of COVID-19. At one time, an event this monstrous would have spurred soul-searching in America and the West, asking why God had sent such a punishment. Certainly, there would have been widespread prayers to God to spare us and protect us from this disease.
It is fair to say that no such prayers were offered by culturally significant figures in the spring of 2020. This culture knows that viruses are just natural events, without deeper meaning.
There might well be an environmental lesson to be learned from the virus. But not a theological one.
That is what the Death of God looks like.
To put this in Biblical terms, we no longer believe that “even the winds and the sea obey him.”
Religion without supernaturalism is certainly possible. But it is not currently on offer in America among the major denominations. That is why membership in religious institutions is falling.
Douthat does not understand this. He hopes for a religious resurgence premised on the wonder and mystery of reality. For Douthat, people might return to religion based on the regular laws of nature that generate conscious beings like us, who can unlock nature’s secrets and experience “intimations of transcendence.”
Such spiritual experiences are real, but they cannot overcome the rejection of supernaturalism. Therefore, they cannot lead people to religion that espouses supernaturalism.
This pattern will not be broken until there are changes in both our religions and in our secularism.
Our religions have been unable to finally and fully break with supernaturalism. For some believers, the reason for this is sincere religious commitment.
But others fear the loss of their authority without the wonder-working God. They need a God who can transfer title to land to favored groups and condemn groups that are disfavored. Even what we call liberal religion, which is plainly uncomfortable with miracles, has been unwilling to reimagine divinity of a wholly other kind.
Secularists, for their part, have been unwilling to confront the catastrophe that the Death of God has brought. The anger and despair of American life root firmly in this soil. We no longer can make sense of human existence. A universe of uncaring forces and blind matter is incapable of grounding a flourishing civilization.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who announced the Death of God, knew its consequences would be world-changing. But his secular heirs have been unwilling to confront that truth and set the foundation for a different kind of spiritual seeking.
There has always been a way out of this dilemma. Many theologians have tried to explain that the wonder-working God is a misinterpretation. Perhaps the most inspiring such message was that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote, before his execution by the Nazis, of “man come of age” and that “God is teaching us that we must live as humans who can get along very well without God.”
The theologian Bernard Lonergan asked a simple question that he thought could lead a people in decline to reimagine healthy possibilities. He asked, “Is the universe on our side?” He expected a fair consideration of that question to lead to the answer: yes.
For the non-believer, Lonergan’s question points to the possibility of spiritual life without the wonder-working God. If the universe is on our side, if its processes are rational, beneficent and even beautiful, then secular society has a natural starting point for building lives of meaning. Simply put, we can live in harmony with those processes.
Even the mystical experiences that Douthat points to, would become intimations of the deeper unity of all things.
There is no need for miracles of any kind.
This means distinguishing something that can be called religion from the supernatural conception of God. That won’t lead to a resurgence of membership in religious institutions unless those institutions adapt to a new understanding of divinity. That step can only be taken by our religions.
But even without that change, the recognition that the universe is on our side would break the pattern of mutual enmity between what we now call believers and non-believers. It would create a new common ground in investigating the mysteries of existence. It could form the basis for new shared community and solidarity.
We can’t and won’t all find God. But we can reconnect with each other within a beneficent universe.
Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here. His forthcoming book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” will be published in October.