People are not abandoning the churches because they are too religious, but because they are not religious enough. They understand that if a religion is about no more than mouthing spiritual platitudes and working at the soup kitchen, then they don’t need to get up early on a Sunday and troop off to church to hear bad music and a shallow sermon…

I can remember my dismay when studying theology at Oxford to come across the modernist interpretation of the seventh chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. Church goers will remember the King James version of verse fourteen: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The professor said in his usual languid way, “Of course the word alma which is translated ‘virgin’ can just as easily, and more probably be translated ‘young woman.’ There is no real reason to put upon this text a supernatural meaning.” This learned essay disputes the point, but there is another problem of which the question of interpretation of one Old Testament term highlights. The reason it was suggested that alma means “young woman” not “virgin” was not out of any concern for precise and proper translation of ancient texts, but out of a preconceived notion that the supernatural is impossible, and St. Matthew’s idea of a virgin birth was not only quaint and outdated, but mistaken.

This is the tiresome (and now mostly discredited) drive to demythologize the gospels. The modernists argue, “Modern people cannot be expected to believe in miracles and so forth, so let us have the birth of Christ, but not from a virgin. We will have the shepherds, thank you, but not the angels. Wise men are allowed, but not the wonderful star of the magical, mystery tour.

I am painting with a broad brush. In fact, the de-mythologizers have a point. We should be prepared to strip away the parts of our religion that are no more than legend and myth. We can certainly allow some legendary and mythical parts of the Scriptures, and to be sure, over the centuries many superstitions and myths did accumulate—especially in the devotional customs and celebrations of popular religion. Saint Nicholas riding his horse across the rooftops along with Black Peter? Girls wearing wreaths and candles on their head for St. Lucy’s Day? Come now, it is all very charming, but this is the stuff of legend and folklore, not history.

But the modernist de-mythologizers would strip it all away. There are to be no miracles, no angels or demons, bodily resurrection and presumably, therefore, no Heaven or Hell, no Virgin Birth, and no Incarnation of Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary.

To strip the supernatural out of religion has always seemed to me to be not only extraordinarily dull, but extraordinarily stupid. After all, what is religion about except the interface of this world with the next, the ladder from earth to heaven, the interruption into this world of the gods and goddess—the terrifying beings from another realm? Religion—any religion—from the primitive to the Presbyterian is about some sort of connection with the supernatural. When you remove the supernatural what is left? It is not religion at all. It is a set of table manners.

Which brings me to this year’s Christmas rant. A storm has blown up over the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. The traditional creche is usually uncontroversial, but this year a theme was imposed on the scene from Bethlehem. Instead of just showing the Holy Family with adoring shepherds and magi, a tableau was set up portraying the seven corporal works of mercy. The corporal works of mercy are:

  1. To feed the hungry.
  2. To give water to the thirsty.
  3. To clothe the naked.
  4. To shelter the homeless.
  5. To visit the sick.
  6. To visit the imprisoned
  7. To bury the dead.

The seven are portrayed realistically with some of the faithful dismayed by the nakedness of the unclothed and the gruesomeness of the corpse. But this prudishness disguises a deeper reason for discontent with the nativity scene.

The corporal works of mercy are so dominant in the scene that they conceal the Holy Family and inadvertently reveal what is left of Christianity when the supernatural is plucked out. All that is left is the parroting of religious bromides and good works. If there is no supernatural dimension to Christianity, all that is left is Jesus the storyteller and kind religious teacher—a blend of Gandhi and St. Francis, and to follow him is to join a sort of Rotary Club with some spiritual vanilla flavoring.

This is the true reason why so many churches are emptying. People are not abandoning the churches because they are too religious, but because they are not religious enough. People are not stupid. They understand that if a religion is about no more than mouthing spiritual platitudes and working at the soup kitchen, then they don’t need to get up early on a Sunday and troop off to church to hear bad music and a shallow sermon.

I call this religion without the supernatural neo-Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the heresy that good works are sufficient for salvation. Neo-Pelagianism is the ultimate form of salvation by good works. The modernist does not believe in the need for salvation because he does not believe a Heaven to be won or a Hell from which to be saved. Therefore all that remains is to save not himself, but others by his good works.

Do not imagine that I am therefore against the corporal works of mercy. We are certainly called to love our neighbor, but the first and greatest commandment is to love God. It is a question of priorities, for we cannot truly love our neighbor unless we love God first and we cannot love God if we think he does not exist, or if he does, that he never interacts with this physical world.

I find it interesting that Pelagianism, when it first appeared, was most popular among the well-to-do, the well-educated and the well-connected. So it is today. It is always easier to believe a religion that requires no belief. Pelagianism’s blend of spirituality and good works is just the sort of religion you would invent if you were to invent a religion. It is the religion of the respectable, and it makes respectability a religion.

A religion, on the other hand, of a God who interrupts this realm first in earthquake, wind and fire, then by an angel who announces a miraculous birth and a child who is the world’s stranger and the world’s great danger, a burning babe of Bethlehem, who came to Palestine and lives today in bread and wine…

…now that is a real religion.

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The featured image is “Angel Musicians” by Hans Memling, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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