Ross Douthat’s column on Dan Brown is getting a decent amount of attention today, with theology blogging mega-star Halden quoting it approvingly. There are some cheap shots — as Yglesias points out, the claim that no one could advance conspiracy theories about Judaism and Islam and get away with it elides the fact that the Roman Catholic Church really is structured in a way that invites conspiracy theories, whereas Judaism and Islam are decentralized — but that’s not what I want to address. The problem with this article is its central premise, which poses cheesy eclectic “religiousness” against presumably more authentic religions:
In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.
I would contend that the problem with “Brownian” religion isn’t a lack of truth claims — instead, the problem is that it’s nothing but truth claims. It’s an overflow of purported knowledge about the real story behind Jesus, or in the case of an eclectic fascination with “world religions,” about the deeper truths expressed by all faith traditions. The distinction between “Brownian” religion and Roman Catholicism, for example, isn’t that the former has no truth claims while the latter offends our postmodern sensitivities by insisting that we take our medicine of truth claims — rather, it’s that the former is made up of truth claims that undermine loyalty to any particular institution (and implicitly reinforce a kind of generic “going with the flow”), while the latter is made up of truth claims that underwrite loyalty to a specific institution.
The accusation that eclectic “religiousness” is uncomfortable with truth claims in general acts as a smokescreen to avoid dealing with the real problem: namely, that religious institutions have consistently betrayed the trust of their constituents, making them open to anti-institutional conspiracy theory literature. What’s more, the people who most loudly claim to be loyal to the institution tend not to be the types of people you want to imitate — for instance, outside of a small hard core group, I doubt anyone found the anti-Obama/anti-abortion protestors at Notre Dame to be an admirable bunch, and I don’t think it was because they were offending postmodern sensibilities by standing up for truth claims.
(And I would add: what is more postmodern than standing up for the idea of strong truth claims in general? To the one who sees nothing but nihilism in the contemporary world, the great temptation is an “at least it’s an ethos” mindset — which is itself the most dangerous form of nihilism.)
I admit that I share Douthat’s distaste for generic “religiousness” or “spirituality,” but for a different reason: fundamentally, it’s not serious. Most of the time, it’s just a kind of vague curiosity that makes people into boring conversation partners full of spiritual platitudes. At its best, it can become a kind of stress-relief technique, which is certainly important and necessary — though perhaps not what the great religious traditions of humankind have been aiming at. But at the end of the day, much of what our great religious institutions are offering us is difficult to take seriously as well.