Religion in Crossroads

One of the fascinating things about Jonathan Franzen’s novel Crossroads is how each of his characters demonstrates a different way of losing religion.

The saddest, most barren way is to substitute religion with rationality. Trying to reduce life to a series of formulas leads one to the life of an addict who is forever succumbing to every drug-addled method of feeding his narcissistic fixation on the self.

Then there is a less tragic and more pathetic way which relies on embracing the ancestral wisdom of the indigenous cultures because it’s vastly superior to the boring Christianity of the eternally culpable white people. Of course, there is no ancestral indigenous wisdom, and the character who tries to befriend Navajos and “serve” them eventually catches a glimpse of what an enormous dick he is.

There’s also the woke way of displacing religious belief onto political action. A bunch of snowflake wokesters in the novel spends years installing wheelchair ramps on a remote Navajo reservation where nobody has ever seen a wheelchair.

Of course, there’s also the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of the kind popularized by Oprah. People convince themselves that talking endlessly about their feelings is “spiritual” and use these fee-fee conversations to hide how utterly boring and shallow they are.

Other characters try to substitute religion with “therapy,” sex, food, even smoking. The result is a moral, physical, and relational collapse of enormous magnitude.

In the novel, it’s 1971. The characters don’t know what we do: there’s still a long way down from where they find themselves.

25 thoughts on “Religion in Crossroads

    1. What worries me is that precisely the people who need to read the novel won’t read it because it no longer even occurs to them to look to a mainstream author like Franzen to say anything of value. And I don’t blame them. It took me over 100 pages to accept that the novel was doing what I couldn’t bring myself to believe it could be doing.

      What’s really funny is that the novel was positively reviewed at Slate because the reviewer is too dumb to notice that the novel pokes vicious fun at the Slate-style wokesterism.

      Has it been reviewed in National Review? Does anybody know? Or any Christian publication?

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  1. I have no clue how to ask this question politely, but I do want an answer to it, so here goes:

    If religion is the genuine article, one of the few real things that you can rest your soul on, why is it such an utter failure? Everywhere in decline, no real ability to retain itself anywhere, no real way to protect or nurture the best qualities in humanity in a continuous way. We’re not sitting here quietly contemplating the vast depths of the souls of the people around us, and it’s not like religion didn’t have its couple thousand years of chances to figure these things out.

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    1. Short answer to a question that has had volumes written about it is: modernity. Religion lost to modernity. The modern mentality, born in the 18th century (and conceived, many say, during the Protestant revolution of the 16th), is very seductive. It puts an individual at the center of existence, recognizes no constraints on individual will and desire, requires nothing and offers everything. Being a consumer is FUN. Accepting limits on one’s consumption is. . . not fun. “I wanna” is a child’s favorite word. It’s hard to go against the power of human Iwannas.

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      1. I don’t know. For me, I don’t really buy protestantism or proto-individualism as a mentality that successfully challenged and supplanted the tenets of christianity. The history of christianity is one of heresy after schism after multiplying popes, and its ideas being challenged seems like the norm rather than exception.

        For me, it feels like christianity failed not when faced with a new set of ideas that then changed the world, but when faced with a world that changed – peasants that could read and people with their bellies full. And when faced with this new reality, christianity inscribed itself into the lives of its followers about as well as it had up to that point done for bishops and abbots.

        A time of plenty has its own troubles, but in a sense that I cannot fully articulate, I feel that there is something heinous about a way of thought that falters when life improves.

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        1. Absolutely it falters when people get tons of food and other comforts. Bit an interesting question is. . . and then what? After we get sated and oversated? What’s the next step? I think that’s exactly why this novel appeared at this particular time.

          I’ve heard an explanation that Westerners are dismantling their economic well-being because want to experience life beyond consumption. And they don’t know how else to do it. That’s why they exaggerate trivial hardships into apocalyptic threats. They want something beyond stuffing their faces and don’t know how to get it. So they are dismantling the good stuff they’ve got. I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be great if they found a way instead of plunging us all into turmoil, impoverishment, lockdowns, etc?

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        2. Humans need to deal with the fact that they know they will die, and a world that is unfair and unpredictable/beyond their control. We need ways to cope with that psychologically so that we don’t dwell on that all the time and keep going about our business of surviving and procreating.

          This issue has been typically referred to as looking for the meaning of life. Philosophers have talked about it for as long as we’ve had philosophers.

          Anyway, the best way to accomplish that is to be part of something bigger than ourselves – a religion, a political movement, a family, a calling (e.g. teaching others). The terror management theory explains this really well (https://ernestbecker.org/resources/terror-management-theory/).

          Another way to be distracted from those thoughts is via consumption. And over time, it became increasingly possible for regular people to consume things in ways only the rich could previously in human history.

          So what we are seeing is people shifting their meaning-finding focus away from religion in prosperous societies. Religion is particularly important and beneficial when times are tough. You need hope – that’s what makes all the difference, and religion certainly provides that.

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    2. “If religion is the genuine article, one of the few real things that you can rest your soul on, why is it…everywhere in decline?”

      I presume you mean Christianity in the west. Are you aware that Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia has been rapidly expanding in recent decades?

      In the post-Enlightenment west, Christianity has been under continuous attack by various state-centred cults that commonly believe that “science” can create a perfect human society along with universal peace (ie heaven) through exterminating opponents, rivals, science-deniers and religious believers.

      The latest iteration of these cults is, of course, wokeism.

      “christianity failed… when faced with a world that changed – peasants that could read and people with their bellies full.”

      Indeed, much of the New Testament is a root and branch rebuke of materialism. “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

      But the idea that Christian believers were universally poor and ignorant isn’t supported by history. Marx wasn’t the first post-Enlightenment thinker to claim this – “religion is the opium of the people” – and he wasn’t the last but it’s cultist propaganda meant to discredit traditional values and beliefs. Fun fact – the 29% of South Koreans who profess Christianity are drawn disproportionately from the educated and relatively prosperous sectors of their society.

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    3. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Your we is not mine. Religion is not dying. Just because you and your clique (which is large, and confirmation bias confirms you in your smugness) are apostatizing and rejecting tradition and faith does not mean that everybody is.

      You may not be quietly contemplating the quiet depths of the souls of the people around you, or anyone or anything else, but that’s because you’re simply too self absorbed and self satisfied to notice anyone else doing it.

      The new atheism is so knotted in its nihilism, so arrogant in its ignorance, so contemptuous in its condemnation of what it does not know or understand that it notices nearly nothing important. Which is a pretty amusing fate for a group that claims that science is their only epistemic mode.

      Foreclosing on the immaterial as immaterial means that you cannot even discern what is material, what matters, what the matter really is. That’s superbly ironic and amusing.

      Pride catalyzes ersatz gnosis which haughtily clothes itself in the pretense of agnosticism. But agnosticism is the province of the humble, who acknowledge and venerate what and who they do not know.

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      1. The depth of your soul is actually resoundingly loud.

        I think you got me pretty well down – I’m an arrogant godless heathen who is in awe of the abilities of science broadly construed without understanding much of the details of it. It’s a funny type to be.

        Since I’m a godless heathen but still need to navigate belief somehow, the way I tend to do it is by seeing what kind of people a set of beliefs produce. Delve deeper or suspend my immediate doubts about the beliefs based on how much respect I feel for the person. The people who toppled communism in my country had deep religious beliefs coupled with an intellectual stake in christianity, and meeting them was so formative for me that I will always treat christianity as relevant and worthy of respect. But, since I’m nevertheless a prideful heathen, the form this respect takes is callouts to intellectual fisticuffs rather than quiet reverence.

        That said. If all the christian intellectual tradition can produce is complaints about how various forms of atheism is oppressing it (which is true but irrelevant), I find it pretty much just a mirror of complaints made by the laughable form of leftism. And, even if the observations are true, I find the christian side on this more hollow and depraved because I expect more of it. And I expect more of it because it has had thousands of years to develop and mature.

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        1. I think you would enjoy the novel. There’s a character, Clem, whose disbelief takes a form of precisely this kind of intellectual superiority. Since one needs to worship something, and Clem is too smart to believe in God, he develops a painful, unhealthy, obsessive love for a woman he shouldn’t love in that way, his sister.

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        2. “since I’m nevertheless a prideful heathen, the form this respect takes is callouts to intellectual fisticuffs rather than quiet reverence”

          “if all the christian intellectual tradition can produce is complaints about how various forms of atheism is oppressing it…”

          Nincompoopery

          You’re freely offering proof positive of CRC’s assertion that “you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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              1. “100% in Spanish, so no idiot can narc on me…”

                Might be safer to mumble these kinds of things in Ukrainian (and under your breath) in your 100% Spanish language lectures… that’s pretty much guaranteed to confuse the pants off any wannabe narcing wokesters in your classes.

                Can you imagine how many hours of mandatory anti-racism “training” might be imposed by the Diversity and Inclusion police for any positive references in the classroom to Christendom’s historical legacy?? I shudder to think!

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            1. “I present to you Western art, philosophy, and science, all of which are the products of the Christian intellectual tradition.”

              Sure. As is the Enlightenment, marxism and postmodernism. For me, the question of “how did these spawn from christianity?” is of prime importance, and find the story of “woe christianity, beset from all sides by its offshoots!” not particularly sympathetic to christianity.

              The case I’m making isn’t that christianity was supplanted by an alternate superior belief system that everyone needs to get with.

              The case I’m making is that there wasn’t actually a disjunction of that kind, and so the conflicts between modern christian thought, marxism, social justice, whatever else have you, is an in-family disagreement. I also think that modern christian thought isn’t worth much if it doesn’t grapple with this directly, since spawning forth your own worst enemies isn’t really a thing you want to do more than once.

              And if I’m going to be insulted by team acronym, I ask that you at least be more creative with it than you’ve been so far.

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              1. “The case I’m making is… [that] the conflicts between modern christian thought, marxism, social justice, whatever else have you, is an in-family disagreement.”

                More nincompoopery.

                FYI, simply asserting something is the case (or true) is not at all the same thing as “making… a case.”

                As for being “insulted,” I’m not overly sympathetic as you have demonstrated several times in this thread than you actually do “have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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              2. I’ve read Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Abelard, Augustine, Eckhart, Spinoza, had a brief fascination with Loyola, and had read multiple tracts on medieval history, ideas, monastic movements and heresies by the time I was twenty. I’m as good as you can get on this topic, at least as far as random internet amateurs go.

                The Enlightenment is roughly an offshoot of the christian idea that there is a natural order to the world that God has set it to, and that correctly aligning yourself to it is the best thing you yourself and your whole polity can do. These ideas developed at a time when rational consideration and inquiry into nature was expected to be in support rather than in conflict with scripture, faith and religious thought.

                The above, however, is tension with some tenets of christianity because it makes Christ largely superfluous as a figure – all you need to discover a preexisting order is your eyes, after all. Senses are demonstrably fallible, reason checking and coordinating the senses does better, but still fails in some cases, and so you need faith, a guarantee by God that your being is now aligned with what is Real.

                Millenarianism, as I understand it, was never a fully intellectually integrated position in the middle ages, but the promise of immediate and monumental change was nevertheless appealing to the broad populace throughout and was something the church had to regularly deal with. This is roughly what marxism yokes itself to, a belief in a sudden and violent upheaval that leaves the world fully transformed for the better; coupled with the demand of a full transformation of the soul as a precondition to being able to access reality at all – as well as vast conceptual machinery dedicated to finding and demonstrating cases where relying on your senses or your reasoning actually leads you astray.

                Postmodernism is, intellectually, an extension of nominalism, a denial of reality to general concepts and the assertion that things and human beings do not exist as instances of a general class, but as individuals in themselves – God does not follow a blueprint, everything and everyone is truly unique and any generalizations made are by and for humans due to the comparably limited abilities of human reason. In so far as postmodernism has an ethical core or direction, it’s the assertion that the distinct other, the whores and the tax collectors of the world, are not only worth moral regard, they are the primary basis for what a moral being even is. I know a lot less about non-occidental cultures, but I’m pretty sure this one’s pretty unique to christianity and its kin.

                As far as I know, nothing above is particularly controversial or even new.

                But more importantly, what the hell is it that you believe? Christianity was everything for a very, very long time. Did a bevy of hostile beliefs all pop out of nowhere in a single go with no relation to anything that came before them? Did a vast and complicated system of thought that had to integrate multiple changing, warring cultures at different levels of development avoid ever developing any internal contradictions?

                But, yeah, I don’t know. Feel free to go back to your boxing with shadow puppets of Dawkins, you’re really bodying those.

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              3. “I’m as good as you can get on this topic…”

                Thanks for clearing that up.

                Now I know your authority for claiming that “the conflicts between modern christian thought, marxism, social justice, whatever else have you, is an in-family disagreement.”

                In other words, Christendom is responsible for birthing the ideas behind Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and even, I reckon, Orange Man Bad and Wile E. Coyote.

                Totally got it now!

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              4. Good to hear this is finally getting through to you, I was really getting worried.

                It’s a question of scope and level of distinction. You get to say that christianity is at the core of western art, philosophy and science in a broad sense, and I’ll agree, but if you do, you’ll get more than you bargained for in that deal. If Newton and Galileo are part of the christian tradition, then so is Marx. If Wagner is, then so is Hitler. If Kant is, then so is Kendi.

                Christianity broadly construed has a lot of impressive achievements, but then also a number of unwanted guests. Narrowly construed, though, it just kind of explodes into pieces come modernity and then those pieces start shouting at each other.

                For me, the more broader definition fits more naturally just because how all encompassing an institution christianity used to be, because I think it’s influence continued in western life even after it stopped being a heavy hitter as a political and social force, all in a myriad of ways that would be too difficult to disentangle on their own – so it’s the one I default to.

                And, I don’t know. I expect more… self-respect of their own capacities from a religion that had stewardship of the souls of the west for a thousand years. “We were at the heart of western society, but then some bad people came from somewhere and it’s not our fault.” Great, sounds like we should put you right back at the helm of it all.

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    4. With Christianity, it’s always been a cycle of rise and fall. Read Judges, look at the kings of the Old Testament, there are very few success stories, particularly when considering the time frames involved. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. Yet that is part of the mystery of how God works, despite our brokenness, our continual failures, He doesn’t abandon us, leaving us with no hope. There’s always a way to restore the relationship with Him, if we repent and return to Him.

      But this relational aspect is part of why you might see it as an ‘utter failure’, we are only ever one generation away from seeing Christianity moving from being the dominant culture to nearly being wiped out, carried on by the faithful few. Rather than putting your hope in rituals, institutions, or 12 rules to live by, everyone faces the much harder task of living every moment in living sacrifice to the One True God.

      Everything was ‘figured out’ in its purest form 2000 years ago when God came to earth and talked to us directly. But we’re always after new solutions; yet every step we take ‘beyond’ Jesus is the opposite of progress, instead we need to return to Him constantly.

      Not to say that there are no ‘wins’. I’ve been reading a book called Dominion, by Tom Holland: If you’ve been raised in the western world it’s likely that many of your values are distinctly Christian. Charity, forgiveness, considering all humans as equal in worth, where the rich and powerful don’t have natural rights over the poor, weak, young, women, etc – these concepts are alien to the ancient world (they might have been thought of, but as a way of life they would’ve found them laughable). These may all go the way of the dodo again in our modern world, but the God behind them is powerful, and in action in ways we can’t predict, or prevent.

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      1. “There’s always a way to restore the relationship with Him, if we repent and return to Him.”

        Yes, exactly – the promise of forgiveness and redemption by a loving God is at the heart of the Christian message.

        No such thing in wokeism – indeed, immutable personal characteristics such as skin colour and/or ancestry are held to determine one’s relationship to righteousness.

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