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Sin, Salvation and the Search for Meaning

by James Hitchcock
October 14, 2002

Asked about the purpose of religion, many people would say that it is to reveal the meaning of life, and most scholarly treatments of religion reach that conclusion. But to a surprising degree, contemporary religion has all but abandoned that task.

That may not seem to be true, and liberal believers protest that, to the contrary, they are very much concerned with life's meaning. However, it usually turns out what they see as meaning is not substantially different from what non-believers see, which comes down to saying that we should try to make a better world.

Saint Paul, in the classic formulation, speaks of faith having to do with "things unseen", and religion finally makes no sense unless one believes that there is more to reality than what our own experiences reveal. Christianity, in its classical sense, has no meaning unless we have some inkling that we are in need of salvation, that something is radically wrong in this world and that it is beyond our own power to set it right.

The main reason people are not religious is that they lack this sense. While they see things wrong in the world, on the whole they are satisfied with an essentially worldly outlook on life, which is why religion tends to decline in prosperous times. The world possesses certain anesthetics which it uses to dull people's religious sense, making them feel self-sufficient and basically comfortable.

Thus when people now express disapproval of religious "extremism", they usually mean the very heart of the Gospel -- "repent your sins, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" -- and preachers who talk of sin and salvation are deemed to be fanatics. This of course requires downplaying belief in the Redemption itself, since it is not at all clear why we need to be redeemed. Jesus then becomes a teacher, a friend, a role model, anything but a savior. (Church-goers sometimes remark on how seldom they hear sermons about sin, but how often do they hear sermons about Jesus' redemptive sacrifice?)

The struggle to improve the condition of the human race (and, increasingly, of other biological species as well) has validity in Christian terms. But making it the central task of religion implies that our problems are mainly social and that they can be corrected by human effort. The Christian doctrine of redemption holds that, even in what might seem like a perfect society, we would still need to be redeemed. It is precisely when the world seems most benign that we have to confront what is missing in our souls. But rather than preaching repentance, liberal religion now expends great effort helping people to feel comfortable with who they are.

Liberal religion also abandons the task of offering people meaning because modern secular thought, which liberal religion has imbibed deeply, holds that the classical doctrines of Christianity -- everything having to do with the supernatural order -- are intellectually untenable. We simply cannot know life's meaning, in the traditional sense.

Sociologists of religion find that it tends to function as a unifying force in a culture, even as it can also function as a disruptive force and, without most believers being aware of it, there is a growing movement which regards real religion as actually dangerous to society, because deeply held beliefs -- those which cannot be compromised -- create social disharmony. Some influential people seek to drive genuine religion farther and farther into the private sphere, treating it as a barely tolerable personal anomaly, welcoming it in the public sphere only if it seems to support "progressive" causes.

"Good" religion then is that which in no way threatens to disrupt the social fabric by "distracting" people with thoughts about God and eternity, which does not question the human enterprise in a fundamental way. Alternatively, "bad" religion urges people both to raise their eyes to heaven and to cast them down in humility before Almighty God.

Even at its most corrupt, classical Christianity, by reminding people that they require salvation, holds out the possibility of ultimate meaning. Modern liberal religion is, in the end, preeminently a religion of belonging, instructing people on how they can fit ever more comfortably into this world.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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