There’s an argument one could make—illuminating, if not entirely explanatory—that many of the twists and turns of modern times have come from the attempt to have a kind of ersatz Christianity, except without Christ. To build churches without God. To form congregations without prayer.
It seems particularly true of the worst of modernity: Nazism, communism, extreme forms of nationalism. But even some of the gentler efforts of modernity can be forced down into this description of a Christless Christianity. “Little moralistic females à la George Eliot,” Nietzsche one sneered at those who thought they could keep Christian ethics while abandoning Christian metaphysics. Something similar is surely going on in Matthew Arnold’s religious view of art as the great replacement for religion.
It’s even possibly true of the modern ethical claims that are often used to bash Christianity. The constant charge of hypocrisy as the only moral narrative that journalists seem to know, for example, or our cultural judgment that judgmentalism is bad, or our national desire to be inclusive. “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad,” Chesterton once complained. “The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” We live, day to day, surrounded by the unspoken—and possibly unspeakable—feeling that it is somehow more Christian not to be a Christian.
I have the feeling that this is also part of what’s going in the Occupy Wall Street camp-out. The elements of what Flannery O’Connor mocked as the “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ” seem to include the sense the protesters have of an impending environmental apocalypse. Their feeling that they can change the world simply by being themselves redeemed. Their lack of specifics. Their attempts at the brotherhood of community. Their renaming themselves. Their fascinating views of money. Their claim to speak for the poor. Etc.
But it’s only a feeling I have. I’m not particularly interested, at this point, in discussing all the ways the movement seems to be going wrong. Every conservative website in America is on that shtick already. I’m interested, rather, in the Christian elements that may have wandered, isolated and alone, into the movement.