The ‘return to religion’ is a renewed academic interest in the problems and questions of religion. It has a few different manifestations – it shows up in sociology, philosophy, politics, in studies of culture and cultural aspects like art and literature – and there was in some circles almost a sort of surprise about it. There probably was a section of people who genuinely thought that we’d moved past religion, or that its last little remnants just needed to be educated out of existence. Other people weren’t surprised to see religion return – in particular, religious people, who were already convinced that religion was very important, and who saw its return as validation of what they knew all along. “To think that people can convince themselves that ‘metaphysical anxiety’ is a thing of the past!” writes Cardinal Henri de Lubac in The Discovery of God. “The soul comes to life again though we think we have killed it.”
De Lubac was writing in 1956 – so he wasn’t really addressing this latest ‘return to religion’ specifically. In the chapter ‘God in Our Time’, he focused more on the impact of Nietzsche: “‘God is dead!’ or so at least it seems to us until, round the next bend in the road, ‘we find Him again, alive.'” Even so, he takes the time to point to the constant cycle of people deconstructing particular ideas of God, thinking that they’ve killed Him, and then discovering that He was never really tethered to that particular construction in the first place. “We have witnessed, during the last few centuries, ‘the rationalistic evaporation of God.’ But it was the rationalist God. A single puff will disperse the vapour. We shall not be disturbed.” For de Lubac, this cycle will continue endlessly – regardless of how many false constructs or outdated notions of God we dismiss, there’s an underlying need that will always bring us back to the divine.
De Lubac defines this need as a sort of anguish or despair: “Man is wounded – a sign of his greatness, often hidden and always indelible. When the wound breaks the surface of consciousness, it assumes the most varied forms. It becomes the source of a continual unrest, of a deep dissatisfaction which not only prevents the sufferer from being content with any one position, but from being satisfied with progress in any single direction.” He argues that this anguish is more than mere psychological phenomena – that it in some sense prefigures or calls to the eternal home. “Sometimes it is a presentiment, the presentiment of another existence, and those who experience it vividly can sometimes communicate its flavour, or at least the suspicion of it, to those around them.”
De Lubac further suggests that some people have managed to forget or ignore this need, but that it appears readily in people who are sick or suffering. It’s like the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes – or my preferred version, God doesn’t exist until you’re throwing up at 3am. And de Lubac is talking here about suffering both in terms of physical pain and in terms of suffering injustice or oppression (“when the social organism is not in sound health”). When you experience injustice, when you suffer under racism or sexism or any other form of violence, there’s something inside of you that cries out. You know that it’s wrong, viscerally, through your guts. That sense of longing, of discontent – it’s not just the feeling that something’s wrong, it’s that we don’t even necessarily belong here. It’s the sense that we should be somewhere else.
De Lubac doesn’t want to over-state the connection, though. He first insists that discontent is not always the same as existential longing – that you can just be discontent without anything transcendent or special about it. Secondly, and relatedly, he argues that even if all social ills disappeared – even if we reached the utopian Marxist end of history – the “wound” would remain. He sees suffering and existential longing as connected, but not identical. And this distinction prompts de Lubac to say something a little strange. He reassures us that we therefore shouldn’t shrink from trying to lessen injustice and suffering, as our actions will not in any way impact an individual’s yearning for God. We aren’t undermining the longing for God by making people’s lives better, he says: “So we should work with all our hearts and with no misgivings, and certainly without the slightest danger of going too far, to improve the lot of man and to promote progress on every front: success, however great, can never heal the wound”. And – like, the general sentiment isn’t bad, but is there maybe a weird vibe here? If ending suffering did somehow make people less interested in God, would that make it bad? Does the fight for justice have value in and of itself, or only for as long as it doesn’t interfere with the church’s evangelism? The instruction to work with all our heart is a positive instruction, encouraging us to strive towards specific emotions – but the other two parts are injunctions, warnings against being a certain way. Have no misgivings, he says, as if we otherwise might. Have no misgivings about ending suffering – it’s not going to cause problems. There is no danger of going too far, you don’t need to worry, nothing will go wrong if we’re too good at ending injustice – like, what? Who’s worrying about the negative consequences of making the world better?
I dunno – it could be an issue of translation. It just feels a little weird to argue that there’s no danger of ‘going too far’ in terms of improving people’s lives. It hints at an audience that might need persuading of that fact. As a point of reference, Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian priest and one of the founders of Latin American liberation theology, was accused of being bad at theology because he (allegedly) wasn’t concerned enough with salvation or spiritual things – that is, he spent a lot of time worrying about people’s material conditions, and some Christians saw that as a problem. It feels like there might be hints of that audience in de Lubac’s comment. It’s not a great vibe. The big thing about our current ‘return to religion’ is that regardless of whether believers are doing good or bad things, they’re doing them for political reasons. They’re motivated by political instability and unrest. Instances of Muslims motivated to terrorism are sparked by decades of Western interference and exploitation of the Middle East. Pope Francis is out here talking about how Christians are obliged to try and end poverty (“Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society” – Evangelii Gaudium, 2013), and the fucking American evangelicals are using Christian nationalism to justify riots in the Capitol building. Where religion is returning to the fore, it’s deeply, indelibly political. It’s driven by people looking for change in the physical, material world – for better or for worse. We can’t just talk about suffering in terms of how it affects our understanding of the metaphysical anxiety for the divine – we need to talk about it as a thing in itself. That’s the current trend in religion. It’s the fuel to the fire – arguably even more so than this supposed metaphysical anxiety.