In the tradition of writers like G.K. Chesterton, Douthat suggests that these heretical beliefs take particular aspects of Church teaching – like Jesus' mercy toward sinners, or God's presence in nature – and sever them from other doctrines that provide nuance and balance.
“The core of Christian faith has always emphasized the importance of mystery and paradox, and of being willing to say 'both/and' rather than 'either/or' – that God is three and one, that Jesus is God and man, and so on,” he explained.
“One of the characteristics of Christian heresy is that it basically tries to be a little more 'logical.' It says, 'Let's clean up this mystery a little bit.' Instead of saying Jesus is fully God and fully man, we'll say he was a 'man who was particularly favored by God.'”
Modern heresies, Douthat says, take the same reductive route. Where Christian orthodoxy accepts the legitimacy of patriotism in the service of the common good, heresy hints at a religious covenant between the Founding Fathers and God. Where the Church stresses God's providential care for believers, the “prosperity Gospel” invents a God who promises real estate gains in exchange for faith.
“The (heresies) I talk about are less likely to focus on the identity of Jesus himself or the nature of the Trinity,” Douthat noted, drawing a distinction with history's better-known religious errors. “They're more likely to focus on ideas about sex, money, and what God wants of us in this life.”
In a February 2012 lecture at the Archdiocese of Denver, Douthat drew on theology and sociology in a critical analysis of Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir “Eat Pray Love.” Traditional Christians, he said, should not simply dismiss such books, but should seek to grasp the appeal and premises of the “heresies” they promote.
“I think it's very important to take 'pop spirituality' seriously,” he told CNA. “Whatever you think of it, I think it's the most important form of religious expression in the United States today, and has the most influence over how people think about God and their relationships with one another.”
“It's also worth taking seriously because there are powerful theological ideas at the root of even what seems like the shallowest and most glib treatment of religion – whether it's Joel Osteen or Oprah Winfrey.”
Such figures “aren't just sort of making vague appeals,” Douthat observed. “They are making, implicitly or explicitly, theological arguments – about who is God, and what does he want from us – that people find appealing.”
Douthat's fellow Catholics, and other historically-rooted Christians, will likely agree with the diagnoses of doctrinal error in “Bad Religion.” But the New York Times writer is not merely preaching to the choir.
He also wants to engage secular audiences, by arguing that Christian orthodoxy offers important benefits for culture and the common good. Likewise, Douthat maintains that heresy harms not only souls, but also families, communities, and society at large.
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“If Christian anthropology is true – the Christian view of what human beings are, what we're here on earth for, what our relationships should be to one another – then a more robust and culturally-influential Christian faith will make people, in some sense, 'happier,'” he said.
This kind of happiness, he qualifies, is not personal self-gratification, but authentic and shared “human flourishing.” While Douthat upholds Christian orthodoxy as an end in itself, he also argues for its contribution to the “ordinary forms of human stability and well-being.”
“A flourishing society is a society that is recognizably successful – not just on a 'macro' level of achieving high growth rates, but in the sense of having robust institutions that people feel confident in, (or) having children growing up with a mother and a father,” he explained.
Douthat asserted that if “you go back to the Roman Empire, and the early spread of Christianity, part of the reason the early Christians were such an appealing group is because they did, I think, manifest this reality.”
“Christians were more likely to take care of each other than pagan Romans, were more likely to seem charitable and look out for one another when a plague struck the city, and so on. They were happier in their marriages; they weren't asking women to expose their infants (to death).”
“There are some definitions of human happiness and success that secular people and Christians can agree on,” Douthat said, summing up his appeal to skeptics and doubters.