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Can the Church Offer Meaning to a Meaningless Age?

Earlier this summer Senator Mike Lee of Utah joined us at AEI’s headquarters to discuss the Social Capital Project, an initiative of the Senate Joint Economic Committee. Amid warnings of a “fractured republic” that is “coming apart,” of a citizenry that is “bowling alone,” Sen. Lee and his colleagues commissioned a multi-year investigation of “the evolving nature, quality, and importance of our associational life.” The project could be described as a national self-reflection; an attempt to understand the causes and effects of a new paradigm in America’s national identity. What was once a defining characteristic of American people—the wealth of civic association that Alexis de Tocqueville thought made America uniquely American—has undergone 40 years of atrophy.

The initial report suggests that institutions of associational life, “the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations,” have been crowded out by the ever increasing scope of government activity. Membership in fraternal clubs, to cite just one example, was conventional for adult American males only a generation ago. Now, as the financial needs and obligations that once held these societies together have been brought under the care of Uncle Sam, the organizations themselves have been delegated to the margins of society. The institutions that remain are often clownish, bizarre remnants of once vibrant wellsprings of civic life.

Both de Tocqueville and the Committee identify, though not in so many words, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity as a primary good of associational life. Under the rule of subsidiarity, responsibility for common goods is left at the most local levels. Pope Pius XI writes in Quadragesimo anno:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what a lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

As the Committee’s initial report states, “jointly pursuing common goals—prosaic or profound—draws people out of themselves, gives them a reason to get up in the morning, and to be responsive to the needs of others.” Every-day interactions facilitated by associational life make people less selfish, and, relatedly, provide opportunities to discover character, virtue, and purpose. The report goes on to say that, “when people lack the meaning and purpose derived from strong bonds and routine social attachments, they are more prone to alienation and atomization.”

For anyone familiar with the Christian tradition, alienation and atomization is an apt description of a life apart from God. In the words of St. Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” A restless life of nagging purposelessness is nothing less than Hell itself, thus the observations of social scientists like those cited above. We know that we are made for more. But there is a further concern: that in our desperate efforts to find meaning, we will turn to dangerous and despotic idols.

Robert Nisbet, a social scientist and intellectual historian cited in the Committee’s report, warns that interpersonal human associations “will not be denied, for it springs from some of the powerful needs for human nature—needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status, and continuity.” The report goes on to paraphrase Nisbet’s warning that “if people did not find belonging and purpose in human-scale intermediate associations of family, religion, and other forms of communal life, they would find it elsewhere—a grave prospect in the context of World War II, communism, and fascism.” As David Brooks points out, recent events in Charlottesville are a contemporary testament to the evil that deep-seated isolation and alienation can lead. We are all looking for some meta-narrative through which we can make sense of the world and our own struggle within it. We need something to strive for, to hope for. We want to know that there is an arc to history, that we are going somewhere. That it is not all pointless. Yet in our blind celebration of subjectivism and individualism we swear off any true source of meaning and purpose. Nietzsche’s madman proclaims the consequences of rejecting the metanarrative provided by belief in God: “[Are] we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?” Ironically, because we cannot live as nihilist, we either become mad or slave to fleeting and capricious gods. Having foregone community, we turn to tribes. Instead of hopes, we have “strategic interests.”

Nisbet is right to warn against tying our sense of belonging and purpose to government. The Church, one of five institutions that the Committee sees as making up the “web” of associational life, is traditionally the Communion Body wherein we find transcendent meaning and purpose. Yet the institution of the American church is also atrophying. The Committee reports that “[even] among religious adherents, the influence of the largest mainline churches has eroded sharply over time, giving way to a ‘more decentralized personalized, evangelical Christianity.’” The new Christian denominations are more individualist and comprise a more diffuse structure.” Are we forgetting Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians? Has the eye said to the hand, “I do not need you?”

The degenerating effects of American individualism are compounded by a related confusion about where our hope lies. Christians, liberal and conservative alike, increasingly find their identities not in Christ, but political agendas. Frightening conflations of national pride with Christian worship have become all too common. The absolute demands of political and party loyalty have subverted the proper hierarchy of our devotion.

This must not be allowed. To use God to further human agendas is to take His name in vain. It also greatly harms the church’s credibility and alienates those most hungry for true purpose and meaning. The Church must prophetically witness against any government that would promise to deliver fulfillment to its people, reminding a forgetful world of its own recent history when man was able to justify gulags and gas chambers in the name of “cultural purpose.” The Church should remind us that national politics is no replacement for associational life, nor does it bring the individual out of himself in the way that inter-personal relationships do. One can receive affirmation from Facebook and the media, but true community can only be found in human associations. Instead of helping us realize our common humanity, institutions of national politics polarize the public square. The Church is a place where we can be reminded that we are all one in Jesus Christ.

I fear that American Christians are failing in their prophetic role. I fear that we have begun to acquiesce to Uncle Sam’s generous offer to take over the work of giving meaning to the lives of men. I fear that, to the average observer, the American church is beginning to look clownish and bizarre. It has even become, in some cases, an ally and a host to the new paradigm.

The Truth is that it is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government. Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God… Lenin only fell into a slight error; he only got it the wrong way round. The truth is that irreligion is the opium of the people. Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But above all they will worship the strongest thing in the world.
G.K. Chesterton