To St. Augustine: “Prudence is love choosing wisely between the things that help and those that hinder” (De Morib. Eccl. xv). Contrary to the Beatles’ message, love is not all you need, for many well-motivated acts do much harm. So cautionary tales, such as Ross Douthat’s Bad Religoin: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, c. 2012), should provoke serious reflection on what we are actually doing in our religious life. Douthat is the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for The New York Times as well as a practicing, traditional Catholic who writes with a deep concern for the current and future well being of Christianity in America. He argues: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities” (p. 3). Clearly “most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses” (p. 4). Consequently, we are less a Christian nation than a nation of heretics!
Knowing the word “heretic” is a loaded term, Douthat takes Alister McGrath’s definition for his own: “‘a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith’” (p. 9). Its converse is the historic orthodoxy defined in ecumenical creeds that have distinguished conservative Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) for centuries. During the past half-century, however, such orthodoxy has virtually disappeared. Douthat documents the vigorous health of America’s churches following WWII—churches and seminaries overflowed; preachers such as Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen effectively reached millions with a soul-saving gospel; serious thinkers and writers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Jacques Maritain, Walker Percy and C.S. Lewis provided compelling intellectual guidance. It was, quite simply, an American age of faith.
“The crucial element” in this era, Douthat says, “was a deep and abiding confidence: not just faith alone, but a kind of faith in Christian faith, and a sense that after decades of marginalization and division, orthodox Christians might actually be on the winning side of history.” The churches “at midcentury offered believers a relatively secure position from which to engage with society as a whole—a foundation that had been rebuilt, as we have seen, rather than simply inherited, and that seemed the stronger for it” (p. 53). “For a fleeting historical moment, it seemed as though the Christian churches might” in fact “become something more like what the Gospels suggested they should be: the salt of the earth, a light to the nations, and a place where even modern man could find a home” (p. 54).
With the rapidity of a punctured balloon, however, this burgeoning religious world deflated in “the locust years” of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Despite desperate attempts to soften standards and accommodate cultural trends—especially regarding sex and marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and women’s ordination—the “Protestant Mainline’s membership stopped growing abruptly in the mid-1960s and then just as swiftly plunged” (p. 58). As if sharing the same harness, the post-Vatican II Catholic Church dramatically lost priests, monks, nuns, schools, and mass-attendees. “Only what Dean Kelley described as the ‘conservative churches’ bucked these trends” (p. 60), though in general “the heretics carried the day completely. America in those years became more religious but less traditionally Christian; more supernaturally minded but less churched; more spiritual in its sentiments but less pious in its practices” (p. 64). Reflecting this societal shift, a surging “dismissive attitude” triumphed in the nation’s elite institutions—universities, media, bureaucracies—so that by the century’s end “the tastemakers and power brokers and intellectual agenda setters” snidely dismissed orthodox Christianity as “completely declasse” (p. 82).
Churches zealously accommodating to the culture—substituting a message of “social justice” for personal redemption, replacing theology with sociology, embracing Harvey Cox’s prescriptions in The Secular City—were the biggest losers as their seminaries and congregations quickly shrank. They perfectly illustrated Dean Ralph Inge’s dictum: “He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower.” Claiming to function “in the spirit of Vatican II,” accommodating Catholics (especially in universities, religious orders and liturgical committees) quickly distanced themselves from embarrassing vestiges of antiquity. By the mid-‘80s, one scholar noted that “‘the dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology, by Catholics themselves, is by now a fait accompli” and seminarians were taught “‘that Jesus of Nazareth did not assert any of the divine or messianic claims the Gospels attribute to him and that he died without believing he was Christ or the Son of God, not to mention the founder of a new religion’” (p 100).
Resisting the spirit of the age, of course, were believers who dared to be somewhat old-fashioned, and “it became increasingly clear that what vitality remained in American Christendom was being sustained by the unexpected alliance between Evangelicals and Catholics” (p. 115). Their stance was visibly present in the mesmeric Pope John Paul II, who, George Weigel says, “‘did not propose to surrender to modernity. He proposed to convert it’” (p. 119). “In effect, John Paul made his pontificate a rallying point for the resistance to the redefinition of Christianity. And rally many Catholics did” (p. 120). They were joined in that endeavor by Evangelicals such as Francis Schaeffer, who early urged his readers to oppose the culture of death and deftly critiqued many of the threats posed by modernity.
Turning from his historical assessment, Douthat points out various heresies now captivating Christianity in America. There is, first, the effort to add various “gospels” to the New Testament canon. Accomodationist scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, and Elaine Pagels, employing historical criticism and generally discarding any notion of biblical inspiration, propose adding various “gospels” to the New Testament canon, reverting to variants on the Gnosticism early condemned by the Church. Their views are invariably non-judgmental and tolerant of all sexual orientations, promoting self-esteem and the political agenda of the Democrat Party. But ultimately, “whether we end up with Jesus the Gnostic mystic, the Cynic philosopher, the proto-feminist, or the apocalyptic prophet—the present-day theological implications of his ‘real’ identity usually turn out to look a lot like the accomodationist Christianity of the Protestant Mainline” (p. 161). Traditional orthodoxy, rooted in the thought of St. Paul, is discarded by emulating rather than worshipping Christ, treating the crucifixion as an example of brotherly love, and reducing the resurrection to a psychological insight. Equally attuned to the spirit of the age—and equally heretical—popular, entrepreneurial preachers such as Joel Osteen promote a God who “gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next” (p. 183). The Houston megachurch pastor has effectively refashioned “Christianity to suit an age of abundance, in which the old war between monotheism and money seems to have ended, for many believers, in a marriage of God and Mammon” (p. 183). Douthat cites a study “suggesting that 50 of the 260- largest churches in America now preach prosperity theology” (p. 192).
Even less attached to historical Christianity are various New Age spokesmen, such as Elizabeth Gilbert, who promote a mystical, pantheistic “God within” who “‘dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are’” (p. 230). The author of the phenomenally successful Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert felt inspired to leave her husband and travel the world in search of personal enlightenment, carving out for herself a satisfying religion. “‘You have every right,’” she writes, “‘to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God’” (p. 214). Whatever works for you must be true! The God within speaks to Gilbert in her own voice—the same message “preached by a cavalcade of contemporary gurus, teachers, and would-be holy men and women” as well as the same “theology that Elaine Pagels claims to have rediscovered in the lost gospels of the early Christian Church” (p. 215). Fortuitously, “the greatest popularizer of God Within theology” is Oprah Winfrey, effectively (and profitably) using her TV empire to spread the message. “It’s the church of the Oprah Winfrey Network, you might say: religion as a path to constant self-affirmation, heresy as self-help, the quest for God as the ultimate form of therapy” (p. 230). Needless to say, the God of the New Age resembles neither the Yahweh of the Jews nor the Holy Trinity of the Christians.
To “recover” Christianity in America, Douthat urges and prays for revival—a return to the kind of good religion so brilliantly set forth in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. He hopes “to persuade even the most skeptical reader that traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe” (p. 293). It should be: 1) “political without being partisan;” 2) “ecumenical but also confessional;” 3) “moralistic but also holistic;” and, 4) “oriented toward sanctity and beauty.” “We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn. Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world” (p. 292).
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In Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, c. 2012), Robert D. Lupton offers invaluable advice regarding compassionate ministries. Having worked for more than 40 years in inner-city Atlanta and studied projects around the world, he is determined to discover how best to help the needy. Early in his work he joined a group of sincere believers giving Christmas gifts to a needy family. While the gifts were being opened he noticed the father of the family quietly slipping away, obviously humiliated by the fact he was unable to buy toys and clothes for his own family. To Lupton that incident provided a key to ministry: giving care without providing a cure cannot be right. Providing momentary assistance without orchestrating lasting development cannot be wise.
Unfortunately, though we Americans are quite charitable, “much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help” (p. 1). “Take Haiti, for example. No other country in the Western Hemisphere has received more charitable aid and services from governments and nonprofits. Yet its poverty and dysfunction continue to deepen” (p. 36). So too in America: “For all our efforts to eliminate poverty—our entitlements, our programs, our charities—we have succeeded only in creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work. And our poor continue to become poorer” (p. 3) as we promote “disempowering charity through our kindhearted giving. And religiously motivated charity is often the most irresponsible” (p. 4).
This is particularly evident in many “mission trips,” sending groups of teenagers or young adults to impoverished areas around the globe. In 2006, 1.6 American Christians took such trips, spending $2.4 billion. However: “The money spent by one campus ministry to cover the costs of their Central American mission trip to repaint an orphanage would have been sufficient to hire two local painters and two new full-time teachers and purchase new uniforms for every student in the school” (p. 5). Clearly these folks sought to uplift the impoverished. Without question they learned something from their endeavor. But the ultimate, too often unasked and unanswered question is this: did they actually help the people they “helped”? Lupton insists they do not. They effectively harm the poor, discouraging their work ethic, and promote a demeaning dependency. In fact, they do little more than polish the self-image of the helpers! Too easily we forget this axiom: “Little affirms human dignity more than honest work. One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people” (p. 151).
Lupton records a conversation with Juan, the Nicaraguan director of Opportunity International, who lamented that “entrepreneurship declines as dollars and free resources flood in, how people become conditioned to wait for the next mission group to arrive instead of building their businesses through their own efforts. He talked about how dignity is eroded as people come to view themselves as charity cases for wealthy visitors, how they pose with smiling faces for pictures to be taken back for the marketing of the next group. ‘They are turning my people into beggars,’ Juan said’” (p. 21). He discovered what Jacques Ellul declared, in Money and Power: “‘It is important that giving be truly free. It must never degenerate into charity, in the pejorative sense. Almsgiving is Mammon’s perversion of giving. It affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before’” (p. 34).
The same occurs in poverty-stricken neighborhoods in America. In 1991, Jimmy Carter launched the Atlanta Project, “the largest private antipoverty initiative in Atlanta and the boldest effort of its kind in the country” (p. 87). A massive organization, relying on the best the brightest scholars, promised to transform the city. Hundreds of folks were hired and dozens of offices were opened, offering various kinds of training and financial aid. But in a few years little remained of the Carter initiative. Its “greatest achievement,” a Stanford University analysis concluded, was ‘‘consolidating application forms for social services from sixty-four pages to eight. All of this for $33.6 million’” (p. 92). An alternate approach was taken by some entrepreneurs who bought an aging golf course adjacent to an impoverished section of Atlanta. Investing wisely and rebuilding shrewdly they developed a world-class course, attracting well-heeled competitors. In the process, small businesses opened in the adjoining neighborhood and scores of jobs were afforded residents. A thriving eddy of prosperity spread its goodness in dramatic contrast to the Carter project.
Given the problem of toxic charity, Lupton suggests benevolent organization take “The Oath for Compassionate Service:
- Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
- Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
- Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
- Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
- Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
- Above all, do no harm” (p. 9).
As is evident in this oath, Lupton consistently concentrates on practical, common sense solutions to poverty. Anyone concerned to wisely invest either time or money in charitable endeavors will profit from a careful study of this book.
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In Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c. 2009), Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist with an earned doctorate from Oxford, demonstrates the deadening influence of the massive amounts of “aid” given African nations. Whether distributed by international organizations (e.g. the World Bank), nations (e.g. the U.S.), or humanitarians (such as the rock star Bono), billions of dollars have harmed their recipients. “Aid has been, and continues to be,” she says, “an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world” (p. #85 in Kindle edition). In the five decades following the demise of European colonialism, more than US$2 trillion has been showered on “developing” nations, primarily in Africa, reflecting the desire of the rich to help the poor. And what has happened? “Aid has helped make the poor poorer and growth slower” (#218). It “has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world” (#224). This is not true of “emergency” or “charity-based aid” sent by organizations such as World Vision to alleviate a famine or provide clean water for villages! Her criticism is directed at the “billions transferred each year directly to poor countries’ governments” (p. 8) through grants and loans.
Moyo provides a succinct history of post-WWII efforts to lift impoverished peoples into prosperity. Decade by decade, a variety of strategies, mediated through multitudinous organizations, have been tried and proven unsuccessful, basically because they propped up “client regimes” controlled by corrupt dictators and while rendering dependent and dispirited the alleged recipients of this largesse. “Vast sums of aid not only foster corruption—they breed it” (p. 52). Sadly enough: “One of the most depressing aspects of the whole aid fiasco is that donors, policymakers, governments, academicians, economists and development specialists know, in their heart of hearts, that aid doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and won’t work. Commenting on at least one aid donor, the Chief Economist at the British Department of Trade and Industry remarked that ‘they know it’s crap, but it sells the T-shirts’” (p. 46).
The few African exceptions to this pattern, such as Botswana, “succeeded by ceasing to depend on aid” (p. 38). And the model for helping impoverished nations shines forth in places such as India and Chile, where an emerging middle class practicing self-reliance and encouraging free markets have replaced aid-dependency. Amazingly, representatives from China, making investments and building roads and seeking raw materials and establishing profitable industries have done far more good for Africa than Western aid! “The mistake the West made was giving something for nothing. The secret of China’s success is that its foray into Africa is all business. The West sent aid to Africa and ultimately did not care about the outcome; this created a coterie of elites and, because the vast majority of people were excluded from wealth, political instability has ensued” (p. 152). “China, on the other hand, sends cash to Africa and demands returns. With returns Africans get jobs, get roads, get food, making more Africans better off, and (at least in the interim) the promise of some semblance of political stability. It is the economy that matters” (p. 152).
Consequently, Moyo proposes market-based solutions for Africa’s problems. As “Senegal’s President Wade remarked in 2002: ‘I’ve never seen a country develop itself through aid or credit. Countries that have developed—in Europe, America, Japan, Asian countries like Taiwan, Korea and Singapore—have all believed in free markets. There is no mystery there. Africa took the wrong road after independence’” (p. 149). And multiplied millions of people have suffered the consequences.