United from Above

“Religion is divisive,” we Christians hear from our secularist critics, and have heard from them since that night of totalitarian cravings called the Enlightenment descended upon Europe from Paris to Prussia. “It needs to be kept in check, relegated to the closet, for the sake of a decent and civil society.”
Yet exactly the reverse is true. Nothing so unites a people as does religion, and no religion stresses the fundamental communion of all human beings as does our faith in Christ, who would draw all men unto himself. It is instead secularism itself that, once removed from its subordination to the ultimate good of human beings (which is, as Christians affirm, sanctity and transformation into Christ) and exalted to the status of an idol, must necessarily sever people from one another. It is secularism-as-faith, and not Christianity, that homogenizes, that levels the free associations of men that once stood between the individual and the state, and that provides no principle of communion whatsoever.

The reason is easy to see. If human beings are no more than bundles of appetites, and if a people acknowledge no transcendent Good against which to judge between one appetite and another, then civil life must necessarily degenerate into a competition for the satisfaction of appetites. This competition, ironically, will grow all the more acute in proportion as it becomes more feasible for me to appropriate your goods to myself. I am not justifying gross inequalities in material goods, but merely observing a psychological and practical fact.  If you live in a castle and I live in a hut, I will likely not trouble myself about reducing the distance between us; there would be no point in trying. But if you live in a house with new cabinets and I live in a house with prefabricated shelves, I may then be moved by real envy. Academics in America, spoiled by relatively light work and generous remuneration and tenure, are notorious for their intestine hatreds, because they share no common faith, and because the material distinctions among them are both obvious and slight.

How, after all, does secularism-as-faith judge the worth of a person? How, if not by his capacity to procure for himself certain goods that cannot be shared: a fine house, a goodly income, prestige in one’s profession, and so forth. No egalitarian scheme can bridge the differences among persons, simply because not everyone will be born with equal intelligence, equal luck, or equal beauty. Some must be losers in the game, by the secularist’s own terms. The best parody of communion that the secularist can provide is something like a common allegiance to what is otherwise trivial — as, for instance, 80,000 fans in a football stadium, caring not for one another but for the fortunes of “their” team, in opposition to thousands of fans elsewhere pulling for the visitors.
What, after all, does secularism provide that can elevate the heart? Suppose my neighbor is richer than I am. Suppose he is also bad-tempered. Suppose his children succeed in school, while my own struggle. Suppose even, to descend to the paltry irritants of mundane life, he is a fan of the Yankees, while I am a fan of the Red Sox. Suppose, to descend even further, he is a Democrat, while I am a Republican. What can unite us? What can bring me to say of him, or bring him to say of me, “How good it is that you exist!” He pursues the objects of his appetite, as I pursue mine, and let us beware lest either of us gets in the way of the other’s pursuit.
But suppose instead that our calling comes not from below, but from above; not from the things of earth, but from things that transcend the earth. In The New Tower of Babel, Dietrich von Hildebrand discusses the difference between the ideal of efficiency, which lies at the heart of a secularized workplace, and that of holiness. It is the latter, if a people commonly acknowledge it to be the call of a truly human life, that can unite rich and poor, intelligent and dull, beautiful and plain, fortunate and unfortunate:
If it is true that this formal efficiency may be a source of satisfaction, it does not suffice to span the abyss separating the different categories of profession.
If, on the contrary, [the common man] feels himself to be worth as much as he is as a person, according to his relation to God and his neighbor, and his responses to all authentic values, if he grasps the common vocation of all men and the common and main sources of happiness, the differences between the respective professions vanish and can no longer constitute insurmountable walls between the different classes.
In other words, the mechanic at the auto shop, if he understands his calling to live anew in Christ, loving God and his neighbor, will not only feel no envy for the doctor or the politician; he will feel a solidarity with him, understanding that they are both called by the same God to the same holiness. That will be the case even if they do not bend the knee together in the same church. But if they do, they can turn with ease to one another, across all their differences, and perhaps even rejoicing in their differences, to say, “How good it is that you exist!” How good that you are a doctor, and that I ply the humble wrench! How good that God has seen fit to grant gifts to you that He has withheld from me!
I recall one evening when my family and I were riding a nearly empty train in Italy, going back to our pensione. I was the well-off academic on sabbatical, taking my family with me as I did some none-too-wearying research in several Italian libraries, while otherwise enjoying the beauty of the country with my wife and children. And then at one stop three young men from Africa got on the train and sat near us. My small son went up to them like a puppy, and a broken conversation in Italian ensued. They were manual laborers in Italy, sending almost all their money back home to their families in Nigeria. They were also, as we found out, Christians. When they learned that we were Christians too, they were delighted. It was as if we had discovered unexpected brothers and sisters.
I had nothing in common with those boys, and yet I had everything in common with them. We could — and someday, let us hope, we shall — sing together, if only we knew the words to a song. What on earth does the secularist have that is comparable to that? Yet that is just what the secularist fears. For people who have Christ, all the pomp and glamour of a secularized existence — and there is not too much glamour even at that — is of little account. The state is a drop in the bucket. But they that wait upon the Lord — not one by one, but all together, in communion — shall mount, as on the wings of eagles.


  • Anthony Esolen

    Dr. Anthony Esolen is the author of 28 books on literature, culture, and the Christian life, whose most recent work is In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John. He and his wife Debra also produce a new web magazine, Word and Song, devoted to reintroducing people to the good, the true, and the beautiful. He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College

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