The Catholic Response to Feel-Good Religion

You’re sitting in the dentist office and the hygienist you’re scheduled to see is running late so you pick up the latest issue of People magazine. You leaf through what feels like an endless stream of pop culture ephemera but then come to an article about an actress whose work you’ve come to respect. The piece is mostly about her struggle with depression on her rise to become an A-list star of stage and cinema but the article does devote two paragraphs to her recent separation from her less famous screenwriter husband.

A source close to the couple told the magazine that her issues with depression did put a strain on the marriage but bigger problems included his drinking and their differences concerning how to raise their two daughters. “She’s a practicing Catholic,” the source said, “and wanted to raise them that way. That means weekly Mass and Catholic schools. He describes himself as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and is adamant that the kids should be exposed to a variety of faiths and philosophies and make up their own minds as they mature.” As a practicing Catholic, you cringe at the cliché “spiritual but not religious (SBNR),” and the thought of it annoys you the rest of your workday, like a small pebble in your shoe that’s pressing up against your heel.

When we look at the SBNR sensibility through the lens of Scripture, we find a thematic continuum whose origins go back before Eden. The devil and a large contingent of angels fell from grace because they “radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign,” and then the tempter seduced our first parents to join his rebellion by promising them that, “You will be like God” (CCC #392). Later a people would try to make a name for themselves by building a tower and a city without any deference to God (Genesis 11:1-9) and still later the nation of Israel would come to a place in their history when, “…there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

This drama of fallen creation switching places with God and assuming divine prerogatives continues throughout the rest of the biblical narrative. It’s a kind of godship that is dramatically illustrated in Milton’s Paradise Lost when Satan declares that it is, “Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” C.S. Lewis opines that “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”

What does this have to do with the increasing number of SBNR people in American culture? Before we can answer that question, it’s important to understand that SBNR comes in many different varieties. For example, there are some in evangelical and evangelical-charismatic circles, many of whom are Millennials, who reach a point where they are frustrated with many activities and emphases in their churches that they believe are not rooted in Scripture or centered in Christ. Perhaps they feel that a charismatic pastor or their denomination or a building program is taking up all the oxygen in the room and Christ himself has been forgotten. They’ll say things like, “I don’t want religion; I want a relationship with Christ,” or “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” Sometimes when a practicing Catholic hears these words, they think it is an attack on the rituals, traditions, and Sacraments of their faith when it is actually self-criticism of their own Protestant, ecclesial life. It’s not godship, and, for many people, such disillusionment may be the first steps toward crossing the Tiber.

There is another variety of SBNR that is decidedly different, deleterious for our culture, and has the signature of godship all over its DNA. This person senses the Transcendent, has intimations of Someone or Something that cannot be reduced to the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics, and, who may, from time to time, influence their daily lives. However, they either haven’t submitted themselves to a divine metanarrative (e.g., Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterium), or choose cafeteria-style what they like from different faith traditions and philosophies. Either way they make themselves the arbiters of truth in understanding the nature of God, comprehending Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, determining right and wrong, and answering the ancient question, “How shall we then live?”

Often the fruit of such an approach is that the person creates a “God” in their own image because they equate their inner human voice with the voice of God. Ross Douthat calls this “the God within,” and finds it very much on display in such wildly popular books as Eat, Pray, Love. This dovetails with what sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, found in his research, and, especially, in a famous interview he did with a woman named Sheila. Sheila said, “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”

If godship is a ship (excuse the pun), then one of the major engines driving it has to be the therapeutic sensibility. I explored this aspect of American culture in a recent essay in this magazine that marshaled both anecdotal and empirical evidence to argue that a significant number of Americans, including many weekly Mass attenders, are not so much concerned about doing good or being good as they are about feeling good. This pursuit of subjective sentiments of well-being often trumps the clear obligations of their faith tradition. As Philip Rieff predicted half a century ago, in the West, Religious Man, who is concerned with salvation and sanctity, has been replaced by Therapeutic Man, who is concerned with experiencing a plentitude of endorphins.

Two stories come to mind but many more could be furnished. Both involve women who were members of orthodox Christian traditions for years. One was a former pastor’s wife who left her husband and the tradition and is currently living with a man; the other joined a liberal Episcopal church and is presently in a lesbian relationship. In both cases two different nominal Christians came up to me after these changes and gushed about “how happy they are now.” These behaviors are often made more palatable by other declarations such as “She’s following her heart,” and/or “She’s finding herself,” and/or “She feels alive,” and/or “She’s found her soul mate.” This is all therapeutic bilge washing up on our cultural deck and code for: “This behavior increased ‘happy chemicals’ in her brain, caused her to feel good, and, in so doing, legitimized a behavior that is forbidden by orthodox Christianity.”

What nominal Christians often overlook is that just because something may make you feel good, it may not be good for you or the culture you live in. Evidence indicates that two adults cohabiting may make both of them feel good initially but such an arrangement significantly increases the risk of divorce and produces marriages with less relational satisfaction. Homosexuals have a wide variety of negative mental health outcomes. Also, a behavior may increase subjective feelings of well-being but decrease spiritual and moral health—i.e. the other type of happiness that Aristotle called eudaimonia that he described as “an activity of the soul expressing virtue.” Feel good happiness often trumps eudaimonia and virtue is sacrificed on the Altar of Endorphins. In conversing with nominal Christians, it may be wise to point out that someone’s soul can be hollowed out while they feel just great about their behavior.

Because I’m not an historian or a sociologist, I hesitate to shout from the housetops, “We’re living in the Age of Therapeutic Godship!” However, there’s too much anecdotal and empirical evidence to deny that these are major players on our cultural stage. The Church’s response to these aspects of the Zeitgeist should be to manifest the opposite spirit of the times with greater intensity. Put another way: Any strategy of cultural engagement should be guided by this principle: if you find something widespread in your culture that is toxic, incarnate the opposite virtue with greater force. The Life and Passion of Christ is the perfect lens for the Church to look through to understand what this looks like: humble self-sacrifice defeated therapeutic godship.

Think of the aforementioned SBNR person. Though he called himself the Truth, Christ paradoxically didn’t make himself the sole arbiter of it and constantly declared that he only did and said what he received from the Father. He provided an example for us of eschewing godship and being submitted to a divine metanarrative. Though he had the prerogatives of divinity, he did not exploit his status—“pull rank”—but instead humbled himself, became a servant, and died an ignominious death. His subjective feelings of happiness were not enhanced by the Passion. It was a bitter cup to drink: endorphins were sacrificed on the Altar of Self-Giving Love.

One of the things I love about being a Catholic convert is that all of these dynamics are re-presented for me and the entire Church every time we celebrate Mass. Mass is a tutorial on how to engage this present age. The “seed of the woman” crushed therapeutic godship under his feet. “Go, the Mass is ended,” really should be translated, “Go, the [congregation] is sent,” and is a commandment to follow in his footsteps. What does this look like in our age?

I can’t help but think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s relationship with Malcolm Muggeridge. His autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, reveals Muggeridge, prior to his conversion, as very much a man of the world and not a stranger to therapeutic godship. Extra-marital affairs abounded, though, the trajectory of his life, in some ways, was headed in the right direction. What he receives from Mother Teresa wasn’t so much taught as caught: she imitates the Passion and her humility and self-giving love provide the antidote to his therapeutic godship. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. A convert is made. She stands as a symbol of the anti-therapeutic in a therapeutic age: all this happened during her “dark night of the soul,” while she was bereft of feeling the consoling presence of God. She didn’t feel good but she certainly did good and was good.

Her example provides guidance for earnest believers today who find themselves in the crucible of a difficult life. Their lives are filled with many tasks and relationships that produce very little initial “feel good happiness,” but can, if they embrace humility, cheerfulness, and self-donating love, cultivate much eudaimonia. Like the silkworm they take the mulberry leaves that are given to them—their challenging circumstances—and produce one of the finest fabrics in the world (Christ-likeness). To them I would say, “You’re crushing therapeutic godship under your feet and don’t even know it. Your quiet life is leavening our culture with righteousness. Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning. Keep doing small things with great love. Your reward is great in heaven.

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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