Were one to attempt a response to, a refutation of, Ross Douthat’s New York Times column of April 10, 2021, “Can Meritocracy Find God?,” it might be necessary to begin with the title of the work, to begin with the interrogative found there. For the title seems to want to generate questions in reply, such as: In any rigorous theological discussion, does the question being asked here, in this title, make any difference at all?
And that’s before you even get into the substance of the piece.
Indeed, the author of this response to Douthat, this occasionally practicing Christian, this “knowledge worker,” as Douthat calls us, finds the question posed in Douthat’s title such a head-scratcher as to make further considerations at first impossible. The title, perhaps, is such as to cause a swarming of other questions.
Does the church need meritocrats?
Does God need the church?
Does God need the church hierarchy?
Does God care if there’s a decline in church membership?
Does God have different feelings about the different faiths?
Does God prefer Catholicism to, for example, Lutheranism, or Episcopalianism?
Does God need Catholicism, or any other sect?
Is God, actually, Christian?
If God does not prefer one faith to another, is it a necessary conclusion that God prefers a practicing religious person to a person with religious feelings who does not practice a religion?
Does God know what a meritocrat is?
Does God care especially for meritocrats?
Does God need to be venerated?
Does America need the church in order to be American?
Does God need America?
Is a preference for the Christian church, above others, not, perhaps, inherently prejudicial?
Is prejudice not to be avoided?
And, assuming you are a Christian, which in no way is a reliable or necessary assumption, you might have a host of secondary questions, too, questions that are equally urgent, and more narrowly concerned with doctrinal points.
When Jesus says, in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:5), that the meek shall inherit the earth, is he not making a sort of a commentary about meritocrats in any future Christianity (which, it bears reminding, was not a thing at the time of the Sermon on the Mount)? Would it not be reasonable to assume that his purpose with this beatitude, produced for the use of others of the Jewish faith, outcasts, fishermen, tax collectors, et al., is to indicate a lack of urgent need for meritocrats or “knowledge workers” in his spiritual community, as in the case of the Pharisees?
When Jesus says, in Luke 18, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” is he thinking about meritocrats, and/or is a wealthy person as indicated here not equivalent to a meritocrat? (For the sheer explicatory joy of such things, let me say that I have heard this “eye of a needle” described as a certain gate into Jerusalem, into which a camel could enter only if it knelt, and in this allegory the idea might be that meritocrats would enter the kingdom if they were to surrender their self-identification as meritocrats, their idea of power, the necessity of power, the necessity of conquering, their certainty, and so on.)
A similar paradoxical quality inheres in Jesus’ injunction, elsewhere in Matthew (circa chapter 22), that we “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Douthat’s comment about Jesus “endorsing the wisdom of serpents,” further down into his column, is perhaps intended to touch down on this point. Maybe Jesus the itinerant Jewish preacher did hang around with the tax collectors, maybe Jesus the itinerant preacher was powerful, and politically wise, for not ruling out what was Caesar’s in the syllogism shown above. But, at the same time (contrarily), and this is surely part of the complexity of the gospels, he, the itinerant mystic, is also never short of support for the things that are antithetical to earthly power. (He did, after all, get assassinated by the elites.)
Let us observe, therefore, that if Douthat’s column is adjudged as a backwardly-constructed plea for meritocrats to (re)join the Christian church, in order to reverse its decline (assuming you believe in a decline, or think any decline is relevant to the theology of a Christian faith, a faith premised on reverence for the poor and outcast), then it is supremely hard to find scriptural or theological footing for such a thing.
A perfume of it-used-to-be-so-much-better hangs over the buttery smooth tones of Douthat’s column, and with this perfume come such thinly veiled conservatisms as: “ … where the impulses of religion are poured into politics instead,” and “ … from partisanship to ethnic identity to sports or superhero fandom,” and “ … which among other things might temper the movement’s prosecutorial style with forgiveness and with hope.” In each of these throwaways is concealed an assumption just as loaded as the idea that the United States of America would be better if more people went to church, in particular if more wealthy, elite, upwardly mobile, socially connected people went to church. Arguably, the assumption is not just that America would be better if more people went to church, and perhaps to coffee hour, where the networking takes place, the assumption is that America would be better if more people went to a certain kind of church. The implication may be that, for example, liberal Protestantism, or, similarly, a Buddhist practice, or a Sufi practice, or a Shinto practice, or some Taoism, are all not entirely acceptable with regards to the argument, because they somehow lack a moral force of a certain kind, the kind Douthat associates with the traditionalist Catholic practice.
And therefore in Douthat’s piece there is, numerically, the obsession with decline, which is much like the Republican panic about contemporary demographics with respect to voting rights. In no case is this decline quantified at length, backed up, supported scientifically, which is not surprising, as Douthat laments “scientism,” as a replacement ethos for elites. (In other columns he has treated the numerical subject directly with some widely-repeated statistics about the shrinkage of the ranks.) But the lack of on-the-ground data makes his argument here palpably insubstantial. The rash assertions swell into the vacuum. Who says that the impulses of religion are being poured into politics, as shown in the quotation above? Is it a problem if moral thinking is being used politically? Is that not to be desired to some extent? Is it not very frequently the case that conservative “moral thinking” of a certain kind takes place among, for example, Catholic bishops and in the conservative media outlets? And thus is the problem for Douthat simply that the progressive thinking is being employed in the same way? Is it not somehow abominable to compare a political engagement to “sports partisanship” and/or superhero fandom, as if these are the same or equally pertinent? And is it demonstrable in all cases that the “movement,” the alleged liberal conspiracy that often feels more like a circular firing squad, has a “prosecutorial style untempered by forgiveness?” Is this barrage of anecdotal arguments ever supported by evidence or even quotation from more ardent empiricists? Are we meant to believe the writer simply by virtue of the buttery tones?
Douthat reaches a summit of grasping for evidentiary footing with the following passage: “A second obstacle [to the integration of the elites into the church community] is the meritocracy’s anti-supernaturalism: The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.”
The muddle here makes it hard to tease this sentence into a perception, and it’s not just the cognitive dissonance that, for me, comes from being a person who has taught for many years in the Ivy League, but who has none of the other qualities ascribed to the persons under scrutiny in this passage. I do not regard religion as anti-rational, and if I think that miracles are contraindicated by facts most of the time, that has not inhibited my enthusiasm for the Christian story. I would resist vehemently the idea that I am, as “knowledge worker,” therefore trained in “scientism.”
Rather, as a professor in the liberal arts, I imagine that my area of study manifests in a belief in humanism, the broken, frail, contradictory consciousness of the human being, in the midst of her human struggle, for whom religion, like literature, like visual art, like music, like drama and ritual, is a path to wholeness and understanding, at least for some. Nor do I see “strong religious belief,” which to my mind is a very odd phrase (as though there is an amount of religious belief that is obviously superior), as anti-rational, since, as most scholars would rightly suppose, not only the confessional impulse of St. Augustine of Hippo, but also the positivism of Bishop Berkeley, or even the General Relativity of Einstein, are all fundamental rational impulses issuing from persons with religious capacity, or even religious fervor. Religious feeling is not exclusive of science, and science is not exclusive of religious feeling, and the examples are myriad, and continue to be, for all the cool atheism that we read these days from certain quarters. Nor is higher education an exclusive domain of atheists. Moreover, the Douthat quotation, exemplary of a scattershot whole, seems to conclude with the idea that a “personal God” is somehow required for religious belief, or for Christian belief, when the contrary examples are legion. My personal understanding of the triune conviction of Christianity is that God is specifically not a person in the conventional sense, and thus not personal, unless in the incarnation of the supposedly portionally-divine Jesus Christ, or in the disseminatory verve of the Holy Spirit. The personal god, a frequent trope of the evangelical belief system, is reductive, maybe even infantile, and definitely not required, unless you are an adherent of a Christian denomination that requires lockstep interpretations of the basic texts.
It’s easy, when reading Ross Douthat, with his talk of a “tribe” of meritocrats and culture workers, with his feel-good conservative Catholicism, to know what you are against spiritually. Being against things is at the heart of Douthat’s article. It’s at the heart of certain kinds of evangelical practice, it’s at the heart of the ideologically pure Left and the ideologically pure Right. What’s much harder, especially in the Christianity of the present, is to say what you stand for, even if standing “for” things is theologically central to all that Christianity imagined of itself, when, e.g., it codified the Nicene Creed.
Let me, then, say what I imagine liberal Protestantism, e.g., stands for. In my daily reading of the work of Franciscan contemplative Richard Rohr I recently came across the following from Julian of Norwich, a profound early English mystical voice, and a writer much admired by Rohr and other contemporary thinkers about Christian theology: “Would you like to know our Lord’s meaning in all this? Know it well: love was his meaning. Who revealed this to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why did he reveal it to you? For love. Stay with this and you will know more of the same.”
Douthat’s mechanisms of sorting and counting, his implicit profiling by class, his injunctions to obey church power centers, his implicit call to Catholicism above other religious paths, his romanticism of a Christian hegemony past, the time of a glorious (and perhaps white) upper middle class: it all mounts up in a way that obscures the love at the heart of a Christian apothegm such as is found in Matthew 10: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In this Christian precept, you don’t have to wait, you don’t have to be led there, you don’t have to change your behavior in order to be granted admission, you don’t have to do anything, you just have to know that the kingdom of heaven is here, and that love is at its crux. This heaven is everywhere around you. Even in the United States of America now. Even if there are more Muslims in the United States of American than there are Episcopalians, even if there are more Mormons than there are either Muslims or Episcopalians. Even if there are more atheists than either one. The kingdom of heaven is at hand because love, according to scripture, and according to the mystics, is what is, is the coin of the realm, is the metric according to which doctrinal success might best be measured, is the science that matters, is the thing that we might be weighing, and sorting, and assigning, the doctrine that is no doctrine at all, but love.
Does a God of love presumably love the meritocratic less? Doubtful. And if your world view or your theology turns on loving meritocrats less because of what color they are, or if they have more money than you do, or if you think they go to a church that you don’t think is the “real” church, then your argument is not unlike Ross Douthat’s. It’s just as stratified and just as rooted in the inhumane. But if your church starts with acceptance of everyone, every sentient being, even, e.g., the LGBTQ+ community, the trans youth, the non-binary kids, even the non-Christians, even the disenfranchised, the homeless, the mentally ill, people of every color and creed, the immigrants, the disabled, schizophrenics, alcoholics, addicts, the prodigal sons and daughters, the Black descendants of enslaved peoples, the Rohinga, the Dalit, the Romany, the Jews, the Irish, First Peoples, Uyghurs, Inuits, Hmong, then you might begin counting the church as a success–not based on numbers of parishes, and numbers of donations, or on ideological adherence, but on the basis of love and respect shared freely among the humans, such that they look out among their fellows without seeing a sea of strangers, but rather cousins embarked on the struggle to love.
Jesus of Nazareth, who according to the editorially unsound and rashly translated gospels, loved especially well the lamb who went astray, the fuck ups and rubes, the exploitable, would not be the one to cast out the meritocrats, it’s true, but neither will the meritocrats save the church of no denomination but love, which does not need their saving at all. Rather they, the meritocrats, should they visit therein, will be like everyone else who comes through the doors on a Sunday, wrestling with the problem of how to be human, how to love, how to give it, how to accept it, how to cause it to be more widespread, and on that basis, they will be welcomed, as should we all be.