Lumen Christi prepares to welcome acclaimed New York Times Catholic op-ed columnist

At the invitation of the Lumen Christi Institute, nationally renowned New York Times Catholic columnist Ross Douthat is set to visit Chicago later this month for two of what will be among the most popular programs hosted by the Institute this year.

Douthat, who in 2009 became the youngest op-ed columnist in the history of the New York Times, is widely acclaimed for his commentary on politics, religion, moral values, and higher education. He is author or co-author of three books, including, mostly recently, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012) and Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class—an incisive critique, based on Douthat’s undergraduate years at Harvard, of elite universities and the culture of privilege they perpetuate. A fourth book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, is expected in March.

With Bad Religion, Douthat cemented himself as a leading cultural critic. The book’s thesis is that while religiosity and self-professed spirituality are not on decline in America, “orthodox” Christian belief and practice are. Americans today are a “nation of heretics,” professing and practicing faiths inflected by modern elements that distort Christianity into warped expressions. Bad Religion is about “the slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place,” Douthat writes.

Those “destructive pseudo-Christianities” are instances of a “spiritual” outlook, one of the three worldviews that Douthat sees dominating contemporary American life. In a popular 2013 column he described these as the biblical, the spiritual, and the secular. Proponents of the biblical worldview take the New Testament to be factually true, believe that God became flesh in Jesus, and profess creeds that explain how and why this happened—and this category also encompasses traditional Jews and Muslims. Proponents of the secular worldview believe in God but not in historical doctrinal commitments; Douthat describes them as “Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian.” Finally, proponents of the secular worldview deny God, miracles, and the Incarnation, but espouse the egalitarian message with its doctrines of liberty, fraternity, and human rights. (Douthat just revisited these themes in a January 10 column.)

In between secularism and traditionalism lies the most American approach to matters of faith: a religious individualism that blurs the line between the God out there and the God Within, a gnostic spirituality that constantly promises access to a secret and personalized wisdom, a gospel of health and wealth that insists that the true spiritual adept will find both happiness and money, a do-it-yourself form of faith that encourages syncretism and relativism and the pursuit of “your truth” (to borrow one of Oprah’s Golden Globes phrases) in defiance of the dogmatic and the skeptical alike.
– Ross Douthat, “Oprah: Prophet, Priestess … Queen?”

As these worldviews jockey for relevance, interesting questions arise. Can the biblical worldview gain back the ground it is losing? Will the secular worldview carry the day as it continues to spread from what Douthat calls the “intelligentsia” into our common life? Will the spiritual worldview be forced to give way to one of its less pliable alternatives?

Douthat will discuss these questions with an eye toward contemporary political and cultural episodes in a luncheon address titled “The State of Religion in America,” to be given at the University Club of Chicago on January 18 at noon. The day prior he will convene at the University of Chicago’s International House to discuss “Religion and Religious Expression in the Academy and Public Life” alongside a panel of prominent scholars, including DePaul’s William Cavanaugh and the University of Chicago’s William Schweiker, Geoffrey Stone, and Laurie Zoloth. That discussion begins at 4:30pm and is cosponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, the Institute of Politics, and the International House Global Voices Program. Both programs will feature the insightful analysis for which Douthat is well known.