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Inventing a Religion of Tolerance 

by James Hitchcock
October 24, 2003

Gnosticism, the ancient heresy now revived in, among other places, the best-selling thriller The DaVinci Code, is enjoying a vogue partly because it insists that the Gospels are not to be taken at face value and the New Testament can be dismissed as historically false, even as a conspiracy of lies.

Part of this appeal, as is inevitable in our sex-saturated culture, has to do with sexual behavior. Modern people are eager to discredit every kind of religious authority, because by doing so they free themselves from every kind of binding sexual morality.

For three centuries the standard secularist criticism of religion was simple rationalism -- the denial of "things unseen". But human beings have never been able to overcome their intuition that there is much more to reality than the mind can understand and that the most important things, those which disclose to us the meaning of life, are not accessible by empirical evidence.

As a result, secularism, in its attempts to discredit traditional religion, now appeals to the same human religious feelings which it used to deride. The danger is no longer the denial of all religion but an actual excess of religion. Christianity is now being assaulted from two different directions, which might be called horizontal and vertical.

The horizontal attack derives from the encounter between Christianity and other religions. The claim that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ is fundamental to Christianity, and that is now being denied. Overcoming the gulf between Catholics and Protestants is a trivial enterprise when the real issue is the significance of Jesus Himself, and liberal Christians now have no intellectual basis for affirming His ultimate significance.

The vertical attack reaches back into history and claims that what has been regarded as the Christian faith over the centuries was not authentic and that its true meaning is only now being discovered, finding the "real" Jesus not in the Bible but in apocryphal books admittedly written later.

The DaVinci Code can be viewed as merely an ephemeral product of popular culture, but its immense sales insure that it will have influence on people who never read serious books. Dan Brown, the book's author, has found a formula for becoming rich -- sex, sensationalism, feminism, ant-Catholicism, and the occult. But it is also obvious that he sincerely hates Christianity and is engaged in an anti-crusade. The culture is ripe for such a debased book, and even some professing Christians are intrigued by it.

Critics have painstakingly documented the fallacies in Brown's book, which include distorted history (the witchcraft phenomenon) and sheer fantasy (the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalen). But ultimately such debunking is irrelevant, because the Neo-Gnostics, like their spiritual forbearers, regard history as irrelevant.

The essence of New Age religiosity is the claim that people are free to invent whatever beliefs they choose, because religion is nothing more than the subjective emanations of one's own soul. Millions of people read The DaVinci Code not because they necessarily believe its absurd story but because it creates a myth that serves certain emotional needs, allows them to be "religious" without submitting to any of the demands of faith.

Modern secular culture is fundamentally imperialistic, meaning that, despite all its talk about "tolerance", it cannot tolerate a genuine diversity of beliefs. The Enlightenment critics of Christianity were at least honest in setting forth the issues. But the critics of our own day do not even concede that orthodox believers are truly religious. Instead the New Age phenomenon has appropriated for itself the "true" meaning of all religions and claims to understand those faiths better than the faithful do.

Thoroughly modern people, products of a prosperous and hedonistic culture, do not deny themselves anything. Not believing in the teachings of the various religions, they nonetheless consider it their right to experience the satisfactions of those religions. They cannot tolerate orthodox Christianity because it reminds them that, while Jesus preached the Gospel of love, it was not love as the world understands it and Jesus is a very demanding master.

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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