Belief as relief

Once again Leon Wieseltier has found something useful to say about a fairly useless controversy:

"You'd think he'd do other believers the courtesy of assuming they've also thought about their beliefs," Kristol remarks about Obama. Auf keinen Fall, Genosse! American religion may be the most unreflective religion in the world. It is unreflective almost as a matter of principle. The most significant American contribution to theology--the merry dismissal of thought known as "the will to believe"--lifts the soul up with probabilities and risks, with a vaguely economic calculation that the profit is worth the gamble. In recent years "studies have shown" that religion is even good for your health. What if it is good for your health, but false? And what if it were bad for your health, but true? It would be wonderful one day to meet an American whose God has made his life harder, not easier. But here belief is relief. It is "elitist," I know, to expect philosophy of every man and woman: whether or not all intellectuals are God's children, all God's children are not intellectuals. Still, Christians in America care more about what Jesus would do than about what Jesus would think. This accounts also for the wild politicization of religion. Obama, remember, champions mainly "the Social Gospel," and first entered the church in Chicago for the purpose of community organizing. But the Social Gospel is about benevolence, not transcendence; and there is no moral difference between the good works of believers and the good works of unbelievers. May the world be improved by whoever can improve it! As for Obama's neoconservative critics: they are second to none, and close students of Machiavelli, in their insistence upon the usefulness of religion to society as an authority and a principle of order, and also upon its usefulness to their candidates. They, too, hunger for the benefits, and not for the mysteries.

Over the top? Maybe. But not by much. The problem of pragmatism in American religion is old and many-rooted, connecting phenomena that would seem to have very little in common. As Wieseltier says, it shows up in a certain kind of Social Gospel Christianity,but also inthe kind ofChristianity that can sing with Janis Joplin -- and without embarrassment -- "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?" Of course, Christians believe that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging our need, and our neediness. But we also believe that Christ is the truth, and that, after the Fall and before the Last Judgment, the truth is not always "useful," orcomfortable. Real consolation is a grace, and not to be rejected, but thehunger for consolation is not always as finicky as it should be. To reduce religion to its psychologicalor socialutility is finally to turn it into akind of idol.I doubtWieseltierwould ever want to be compared toSimone Weil,but on this question at least they aren't far apart. Describing her own religious struggles, Weil wrote:

For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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