David Brooks, theological rigorist

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David Brooks, the Last Puritan Columnist, lovedThe Book of Mormon,” but then had guilty second thoughts about its message that religions have weird doctrines but can do “enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as
long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and
service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people
practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different
beliefs.” Harking back to Dean Kelley’s old diagnosis of the ills of liberal Protestantism, Why the Conservative Churches Are Growing, Brooks takes after this kind of Golden Rule religion.

Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The
religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts
of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and
definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some
individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to
understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on
their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or
avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

The religions that thrive have exactly what “The Book of Mormon”
ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in
claims of absolute truth.

Is this right? Is the key to the survival of religion what Brooks calls “rigorous theology”?

Last evening my wife and I went to see Of Gods and Men, the remarkable film that tells the true story of eight Trappist monks who decide to stay in their monastery in an Algerian village in the Atlas Mountains even though they are likely to be killed–and are killed–by Islamist guerrillas. Certainly the monks work hard and pray regularly. They also read the Koran, provide their Muslim neighbors with medical care, and participate in the life of the larger community. In turn, the villagers, devout Muslims that they are, consider the monks as holy sustainers of their world–as one woman says, the “branch” on which “we birds” sit.

Historically, communities have dealt with religious differences much more the way the monks and the villagers do than in the manner of the guerrillas. The latter are the theological rigorists who come and go, depending on social, political, and economic circumstances. No doubt, they will always be with us. But it is not their rigid theologies that have sustained religious traditions throughout the ages. That has had much more to do with, yes, the love and service that, underneath the doctrinal particulars that may or may not be superficial, they all do tend to preach.

  • Charlieford

    Excellent point, that. Worth checking in for.
    But, were the monks really that un-rigorist? Or was their rigor of a sort that led them to live the lives they led? Would they have waffled, say, on the Trinity? On the resurrection of Jesus? On Judgment Day?

  • Mark Silk

    Fair questions…and the movie, at least, doesn’t permit us to answer them. (There’s a book, which I haven’t read, that may.) But let’s assume that the monks wouldn’t have waffled on those doctrines. Would that have been sufficient to explain their commitment? What the doctor among them says, after telling a village girl that he once had love affairs, was that he later found a greater love. There’s a difference, it seems to me, between being powerfully convinced of God’s love and “theological rigor,” as Brooks sees it.

  • Kevin M. Schultz

    Rather than Dean Kelley’s book, my mind went immediately to Finke and Stark’s CHURCHING OF AMERICA, which makes a historical argument that supports Brooks’ point. It’s pretty convincing stuff, if not entirely unproblematic. But the notion that deliberately choosing not to align with the broader surrounding culture is good for filling pews seems pretty solid–and helps provide some context for the long and perpetual decline of liberal Protestantism.
    And today we have Douthat following Robert Putnam’s question about where Hell went in American life. More fodder for tomorrow, I’m sure!

  • Mark Silk

    Liberal Protestantism did pretty well from 1945 until the mid-sixties…so “perpetual” is not quite right. The real issue, it seems to me, is what’s actually going on in the broader surrounding culture.

  • Charlieford

    Mark, I agree that the “love and service” is critical–if you don’t have that, theological rigor alone doesn’t get you much traction. However, I don’t want to deny that in many instances it is theological, if not rigor, then commitment, insight, inspiration, that produces the “love and service.”
    Kevin, I think there’s a lot of small devotees of eccentric beliefs out there that prove this–“deliberately choosing not to align with the broader surrounding culture is good for filling pews seems pretty solid”–needs some qulification.

  • Mark Silk

    As an empirical matter, the only numerically significant segment of American Christianity growing today is comprised of those who identify as “non-denominational Christians” or “just Christians.” They seem mostly to represent the world of megachurch evangelicalism. I wouldn’t call them theologically rigorous; and they partake of the surrounding culture in manifold ways–not least aesthetically and technologically. They are believers who enjoy their big subculture. In that sense, they are very much of a piece with American evangelicals of yore.

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