As many believers can attest, Christianity is the ideal program for life. Its moral code empowers the individual and brings order to a society. Its liturgy allows for people of different backgrounds to come together as a real community. Its message of divine charity humbles the proud, lifts the poor, and heals all wounds, while its message of hope enables contentment and peace by overcoming the evils of fear, suffering, and death.
On the whole, Christianity’s blessings greatly outweigh its demands. Even if people do not actually believe its central teachings, they will still profit from at least acting as if they do. They will then have the moral and spiritual tools to conquer the modern crises of loneliness, addiction, and existential despair.
This pragmatic argument for Christianity was recently made in The Federalist by Melissa Langsam Braunstein. Although she is an observant Jew, she nevertheless recognizes the important fact that Christianity, when it is sincerely followed, works. As a practicing Catholic myself, I entirely agree.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Moreover, many Christian intellectuals have said the same. C.S. Lewis makes this recommendation in Mere Christianity, and G. K. Chesterton makes a similar argument in Orthodoxy. Blaise Pascal, in his Pensées, also advises the nonbeliever to live as a Christian and see how his life is improved, and even goes further by claiming it also happens to be the best bet for the afterlife.
However, no case for Christianity can be purely “pragmatic” without ceasing to be Christian. To say that the Christian way of life helps individuals and societies means little if it is all based on falsehoods and myths. Logically speaking, putting benefits before beliefs puts the cart before the horse. Christianity’s power to transform comes from its truth. When this truth is diminished or deemed nonexistent, that power disappears.
It’s not a stretch to say that an over-reliance on highlighting the effects of Christianity, as opposed to the reasons for it, accounts for much of its current decline. It has led to Christianity becoming victim of its own success; only people who have enjoyed the many wonderful fruits of the Christian faith would ever see the faith itself as dispensable.
Just as they have done with every other cultural gift, young people today have taken Christianity for granted. Their parents simply assumed that they would keep the faith, just as they assumed that they would reject socialism, love their country, and know their rights. Clearly, this is not the case. Instead, Gen X’ers, Millennials, and now iGen have collectively rolled their eyes and declared, “OK, boomer,” assuming continued prosperity without accepting the underlying principles.
The founding principle of Christianity is faith, faith that it is true. The truth is essential, and, without it, faith degenerates into a kind of preference or feeling. When this happens, Christians will come to realize that they can adopt healthy preferences and have positive thoughts without learning about Jesus (a kind of neo-Pelagianism).
This soft-peddling of truth also ruins religious education. If it doesn’t matter whether Church teachings are true, there is no need to go into them in much detail. If kids receive the sacraments (whatever those are) and act nicely towards others, it makes little difference if they know anything about theology or tradition.
Besides diminishing the truth of Christianity, the pragmatic argument has nearly destroyed its beauty. When faith is predicated on its effectiveness or usefulness, questions of what is beautiful disappear. The artwork, architecture, and music of worship is judged by how well it works for people, not by how well it represents the faith. Hence, Christians of the last few decades have seen their churches and services become more monotone and monochrome. The music and imagery are always saccharine, simple, and ugly.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has rightly lamented this loss of beauty and its impact on the faithful. What layperson is inspired by an old dear warbling David Haas hymns, crude abstract figures on a felt banner, and a sanctuary that resembles a corporate conference room?
With truth and beauty neglected, the goodness of faith also falls away. Normally, the demands and challenges of Christianity are what push a Christian to think of others more, adopt better habits, and live virtuously. When those demands and challenges are made arbitrary by a results-oriented belief, the Christian’s outlook is inverted. He will instead think of himself more, deny himself nothing, and seek the world’s approval by virtue signaling.
At a deeper level, what makes us a good Christian becomes an open question. Is it being a long-suffering hero like Mother Teresa? Or a well-spoken Ivy Leaguer like Pete Buttigieg? By the world’s standards, Christianity seems to work better for Mayor Pete, who enjoys widespread media approval while supporting infanticide and advocating terrible leftist policies, than it did for St. Teresa of Calcutta, who suffered slander from public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens while treating the poorest of the poor in India.
Taken altogether, it is clear that every time people appreciate Christianity more for what it does than for what it is, religious decline is inevitable, and this in turn leads to a cultural decline. The only way to reverse this is to recover and revive Christian dogma.
Unfortunately, the word “dogma” or “doctrine” has negative connotations in a pluralistic society. As soon as people define their beliefs, they automatically separate themselves from others who have different beliefs. This can lead to disagreement and conflict. Therefore, most Christians will keep ideas vague and shallow out of politeness. Even if Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” Catholic bishops will claim that believing in Christ is merely a “privileged route,” as Bishop Barron put it in an interview with Ben Shapiro.
The avoidance of embracing dogma has also led to Christians having far more to say about religious liberty than religious orthodoxy. But without orthodoxy, liberty counts for nothing. It is like defending freedom of speech without also defending the rightness of speech. If every belief and argument is relative, then it is also meaningless and ineffectual. What does it matter if a person can say or believe what he wants when right and wrong are treated indifferently?
If secularism were as neutral as its proponents claim, perhaps the pragmatic argument for Christianity would be enough to make people rethink their drift away from the faith of their fathers. Unfortunately, secularists are not neutral and have no problem destroying Christianity and delegitimizing it at every turn. If Christians refuse to bother with dogma, secularists will gladly reduce religious teachings to insipid platitudes and church services to therapy sessions.
With this in mind, Christians (and Jews) can and should celebrate the many blessings of Christianity. Indeed, if anything can save this world from its current malaise, it is the good news of Jesus Christ. But it must always be remembered that these blessings will only come if people first see Christianity as much more than a lifestyle; it is Life itself.
Image: Pope Clement XI in a Procession in St. Peter’s Square by Pier Leone Ghezzi