One Question Our Spirituality Must Answer

My Reflections on “Making Sense Out of Life: Secularism vs. Faith” with Ross Douthat

On April 2, The Chapel hosted an evening with Ross Douthat at our Montclair campus. Douthat, a Catholic, is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and a film critic for National Review. He covered many topics during his 40-minute lecture and 30-minute Q&A session, but for me there was one concept that stood out, and it’s really valuable. Here’s my quick summary…

Although our culture is becoming more secular, as evidenced by the rise of the “nones,” in reality the majority of Americans will continue to find pure secularism to be very unsatisfying. An increasing number of people will embrace a “spiritual but not religious” self-identity. And for many of them, the brand of spirituality that will seem most attractive is some variety of pantheism: the idea that God is not a personal being distinct from creation; rather, God is a divine energy who is in everything and everyone. This world view is appealing for many reasons, including the fact that it makes very few moral demands of us and is generally very inclusive. In other words, it seems to satisfy our heart’s longing for a higher power, without all the rules and judgmentalism of other religious systems.

But pantheism has an Achilles heel.  One of its core ideas is that there is a beautiful harmony to the universe, and that spiritual growth means recognizing the oneness and harmony of all things. But our experience tells a different story: although there is undoubtedly harmony and beauty all around us, it’s hard to deny that the world is broken. Our everyday experience is marked by pain, disappointment, sickness, environmental decay, terrorism, war…and the list goes on. When a person’s young spouse is suffering and close to death from chemotherapy treatments, telling them that suffering is an illusion, and that they should just meditate on the harmony of all things, seems naïve at best and possibly downright cruel.

And Douthat suggested that this is where the Christian world view has a distinct advantage over pantheism: it provides a more coherent, hopeful, satisfying answer to the brokenness of the world. As John Stott has written, “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” And Jesus was not immune: he entered our broken world to suffer with his creation, and then in the central event of Christianity, he went to the cross to suffer on behalf of his creation. The suffering of Jesus fully acknowledges the evil present in our world (and in ourselves), while offering us hope that the world’s (and our) brokenness will be redeemed through Christ. Just as Jesus’ death was followed by resurrection, we have reason to believe that all death will ultimately be overcome by life. So, while faith in Christ does not remove nor fully explain life’s suffering, it offers rich resources to help navigate it.

I’m grateful for this nugget from Ross Douthat. He reminded me that whatever spirituality one embraces, it must somehow answer the question of life’s brokenness…and he reminded me that Jesus answers that question in a uniquely satisfying way.