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In Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” the narrator peeks into a church, apparently at random, while on a bicycle ride. He shuffles in, feeling sheepish and wondering about the “brass and stuff” crowded about the altar. He wonders what will happen “when churches fall completely out of use,” and when marriage, birth and death become wholly unmoored from religious faith. While expressing no inkling of belief, the poem ends with a paean to the church as a site of moral education and heritage, albeit one that is no longer meaningful for the disenchanted visitor. “Bored” and “uninformed,” he makes his way back to the lonely world outside.

Published in 1955, the poem still captures the uncanny way the word “church” seems to pull a sentence into the past tense. This is true on the personal level, for me at least. Despite all I now know as a longtime student of church history, that round syllable immediately conjures childhood memories of a Lutheran church in central Florida. I remember belting out hymns, and ringing bells with tiny gloved hands. I remember donning an absurd gown to quake down the aisle as a wise man on Christmas Eve, and I remember wriggling to the front of the line for the Easter Sunday pancake breakfast.

My nostalgia for the church, both personally and as a social institution, began soon after I left home and went to college. It was not really prompted by a lessening of “belief in God”: a concept that has always been opaque to me. My church had been a space of gathering and community, not a space in which to assent to propositions about what did or did not happen in a place and time I could scarcely imagine. In my case, and I suspect in others’, too, what may look like a loss of faith is better described as a transition in the sorts of communal spaces one wants to inhabit. And in college, I longed to inhabit a world of high, or at least middlebrow, culture: the world of my professors and the New York Times—a paper that, as its executive editor recently admitted, doesn’t “get religion.”

In this new environment, the concept of “church” had quite a different meaning. Church became a relic of the past in a decline-and-fall story: a place that had played host to noble, if misguided, souls who believed that they lived in a coherent world—one worthy of a salvation that was, in fact, forthcoming. The church provided structure to the passing of their days and even their lives, playing host to christenings and marriages and, finally, funerals. This kind of plenitude (the story goes) is simply unavailable to us today. We know too much, are too cynical and wise. We can encounter churches as tourist sites, perhaps, but we can never recover the original meaning of those buttressed spaces.

Once upon a time, the world made sense, and the church was the antechamber to that meaningful universe. We disenchanted moderns, however, are forced to make our own way. Sociologists, philosophers and filmmakers alike have peddled some version of this story over the past half-century. It informs our perpetual nostalgia for the Middle Ages, either as a historical epoch or as filtered through the mythmaking imaginations of J. R. R. Tolkien or George R. R. Martin. Personally, I encountered it most powerfully in modernist literature, where artists and poets like Larkin have limned the God-shaped holes religion has supposedly left behind. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man features breathtaking depictions of the Catholic Church of his childhood. In childhood, of course, they remained. The book is structured as a Bildungsroman that chronicles Stephen Dedalus’s conversion from the church of his fatherland to the temple of high art.

It was this nostalgic and aesthetic sensibility that first drew me to study the history of the modern Catholic Church. I wasn’t raised Catholic, and I didn’t know many Catholics. The story of their church, though, seemed elegant and poignant to me: all mitered mysteries and hushed cloisters. I felt like I was peeking in the doors of an irrelevant but once mighty institution. An understanding of what I took to be its collapse, I thought, would allow me to diagnose the anomie of modernity as such. What had happened to the church? Why, and when, had we left its warm embrace, preferring to shiver in cynicism and doubt?

Over the past fifteen years, however, a number of personal experiences have led me to question any story that relegates the church to the sacral past. Before moving to my current home, in Durham, North Carolina, I became involved with Mary House, a shelter affiliated with the Catholic Worker movement, in New York City. There, I saw people grappling with moral questions in a way that was more imaginative and searching than what I had encountered on university campuses. Meanwhile, if Larkin’s mythical cyclist stopped by any of the churches in my neighborhood in Durham, he would not encounter the proper stage for his ennui. He would find, instead, crowded and multilingual sites of childcare, eldercare, substance-abuse treatment, social-justice activism and volunteer work. If he had cycled by the Lutheran church across the street from my house a few weeks ago, he would have found a free dental-care clinic run by Baptists—one that many of the neediest in the city rely upon, whether they are Christian or not. Or he might have stumbled into a soup kitchen run by an interfaith ministry, serving hundreds of people and staffed by overworked families impervious to the sniffing critique that religious charity work does no more than lubricate the bearings of neoliberal consolidation.

In a church a few blocks from my house, Larkin’s cyclist might have been asked to leave because the building was being used as a home. On a sweltering day in July, I mounted my own bicycle to visit it. The occasion was a press conference designed to publicize the fact that a 52-year-old pastor and undocumented immigrant named José Chicas was taking sanctuary in a religious community. A decades-old criminal record has made Chicas a priority for deportation, and immigration enforcement officials are, for now at least, reluctant to storm religious facilities. In addition to activists and well-wishers, an array of pastors and priests were in attendance. The master of ceremonies was the Reverend William J. Barber II, an imposing man with a thundering voice, and one of the most visible leaders of progressive political causes in the state. The proceedings were capped off with the taking of communion.

None of this fit neatly into the decline-and-fall narrative that had seemed so obvious to me. If anything belonged in the past, after all, it would be the notion of “sanctuary,” abolished centuries ago. And yet it has reappeared, in my own neighborhood, while the concept has been expanded to encompass entire cities. Meanwhile both Catholic and Protestant churches continue to grow explosively in the global South (over half of the world’s two billion Christians live in Asia, Latin America or Africa). Even in Larkin’s England the story is not so simple as it appeared. The English church of 1955, for instance, is not the one portrayed in “Church Going.” The churches of the 1950s, in Britain as in America, were undergoing something of a revival. The year before the poem was published, Billy Graham preached to 120,000 people in London’s Wembley Stadium. While churchgoing rates have certainly declined in many places, England included, this does not necessarily mean that churches have ceded their influence. As historian Daniel Loss has explained for the English case, the past half-century has seen less the birth of a “secular society” than of “a new religious landscape” in which the church retains immense moral and cultural prestige—even if more people are sleeping in on Sunday.

The same is true for the United States. The media excitement over the rise of the “nones,” especially among millennials, primarily evinces a hope that we are finally turning into the secular country many elites have imagined themselves to be living in all along. But the persistence of religious practice is at least as important to understand as its (modest) decline in popularity. Many moralizing institutions, like universities and the media, have suffered dramatic collapses in public confidence, while group rituals like bowling leagues have almost completely disappeared. Yet about half of Americans attend some kind of religious service at least once a month, and even more claim to pray on a daily basis. When it comes to the few institutions of American public life that remain sacred, churchgoing is slightly less popular than voting, and slightly more popular than the Super Bowl.

The decline-and-fall account of church history legitimates particular voices while discounting others. It presumes that the cynical modern city is more intellectually or morally advanced than the putatively God-soaked hollers of the Trumpian heartland. And it presumes, too, a definition of the church that focuses primarily on the questions of belief (as if people went to church primarily to signal assent to propositions). Both of these presumptions should be rejected—not only because they can authorize smug elitism, but also because they lead us to misunderstand what it is that churches actually do.

It is simply not the case that secularization proceeds apace with modernization. The truth is that throughout their history, and especially since the onset of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century, churches have been innovative and indispensable institutions, as people labored to understand and survive in a rapidly changing, grotesquely unequal world. Karl Marx famously said that religion was the “opium of the people.” In interpreting that line, however, we should remember that opium in Marx’s day was a common analgesic, and one Marx often used himself. Marx also called religion the “heart of a heartless world,” predicting that the church would not disappear until capitalism did. It provided, he knew, too much spiritual and material sustenance for too many people, ravaged by a system that created far more needs than it could fulfill.

In my own study of church history, once I discarded the decline-and-fall narrative I started asking a different question: not whether church will continue to matter but how it will. Specifically, how has the church responded to the political and economic crises of modern times?

This new direction in my research led me to study different sorts of figures, and to reinterpret the significance of others—most notably Jacques Maritain, one of the main protagonists of my book. While seldom read by Protestants or secular scholars, he was one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of the previous century, and his biography neatly reverses the modernist Bildungsroman we find in Joyce. If Joyce traveled through church to arrive at a form of religiously literate secularism, Maritain traveled through secularism to arrive at the church. Born in 1882, he was raised to respect the secular values of the French Republic. In his early twenties, he suffered a crisis of confidence. He and his wife Raïssa made a suicide pact, promising to shuffle from this mortal coil if they could not discover a meaning in life. They avoided this fate by converting to Catholicism.

I had originally been interested in the younger Maritain, who was in some ways the mirror image of Larkin. While agreeing that modernity and the church could not coexist, Maritain had decided the answer was to reverse modernity and reinstate the vanished, monarchist order of the medieval past as a storehouse of value in a world gone mad. When I returned to Maritain, however, I became more interested in Maritain’s later career. In his forties, confronting the rise of Nazism and the crises of the democratic order, Maritain began to ask how the church could lend its weight toward reforming modernity, as opposed to overcoming it. His change in focus was in part a product of his interest in the Christianity of the catacombs: the dusty and small meeting spaces that resemble the storefront churches of our own suburbs. The earliest and purest Christians had no inkling of the yawning granite structures that would one day symbolize the faith. For them, the church was ambulatory, representing the spirit of Christian assembly operating within social structures, like yeast in dough, rather than confronting them from without. Instead of viewing the church as a “fortified castle,” Maritain urged, “we must think of an army of stars thrown across the sky.”

Maritain called for the church to spill its way back into the streets, bringing the mission of Christian love and even revolution with it. A sensitive reader of Marx, he was scathing towards bourgeois liberalism and the spiritual indifference of the supposedly religious. This made him a controversial figure in certain circles—his willingness to publish in socialist journals, especially, made many of his Catholic peers uneasy. His point was never, though, that Rome should submit to Moscow, but that Catholics on the ground should be working with anyone, atheists included, in the pursuit of a vision he thought that many shared: a society of tolerance, diversity and freedom. He was quite explicit about these goals, and unlike many then and since, he was admirably clear that sweeping social changes, and overcoming capitalism, would be necessary to realize them. In Integral Humanism, his 1936 masterpiece, he imagined a “New Christendom”—one that would exist on the far side of capitalism and, unlike the Christendom of the medieval past, be spearheaded by interconfessional trade unions and civic organizations.

Maritain’s influence grew after World War II, when Catholics ceased crying for the restoration of a vanished Christendom and began working with non-Catholics in pursuit of a more expansive vision of human rights. He celebrated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included the elaboration of civil and social rights (among them the right to a just wage, and the right to join a trade union). Yet he believed the text did not go far enough, making too many concessions to the statism and capitalism that he diagnosed as having caused the war in the first place.

Maritain’s understanding of the Catholic mission has not prevailed. While he was writing, the global and American church alike took a conservative turn, emphasizing “family values,” the threat of homosexuality, and anti-communism over the issues that were dear to him. And when he died, in 1973, Maritain was in near despair over the state of the church.

And yet, Maritain’s vision has hardly been forgotten. A spirit something like his emboldened liberation theology among a new generation of Catholic activists in Latin America, as well as the experimental Catholic intellects at journals like Commonweal. Catholic activists have subsequently chained themselves to trees and nuclear facilities, and been on the front lines of efforts to provide welfare to refugees, the sick and the elderly. One Catholic group (the Community of Sant’Egidio) concerns itself with HIV care in Africa, while a young community organizer named Barack Obama got his start with African-American Catholic activists in Chicago. Echoes of Maritain’s message can also be seen in Pope Francis’s Laudato si’, which ties a concern with climate change to a broader ethos of civic activism and skepticism about consumption. The Pope has also depicted the church, in a prosaic translation of Maritain’s “army of stars,” as a “field hospital” tasked with healing the real and metaphorical wounds created by social injustice.

Maritain was not, of course, a secular progressive. His justification for his political positions was profoundly Catholic, rooted in accounts of sin, salvation and natural law. And yet a story like his should have both strategic and moral significance to non-believers. Pragmatically, the intra-religious debates he engaged in are likely to have an impact on the future of our shared world. The Catholic Church, whatever its relative significance compared to the distant past, remains one of the most sophisticated global purveyors of ideas, morals and sensibilities ever devised. Maritain’s example can help us wrench our conception of church out of the isolation chamber of the biographical and national past, a crucial step toward better understanding both ourselves and our countrymen. While some of Maritain’s work sketches the church that might one day be, much of it simply elevates to a theoretical register the church that already exists—the one that populates the American landscape, and the one that many of us were raised in, whether we knew it or not.

To a degree that still surprises me, adulthood involves less an escape from the past than a series of perilous, convoluted returns to it. I had imagined that historical research on the church would help me to mature beyond my childhood. Instead, in those long and lonely hours in the archives I was, I think, trying to scrape away the barnacles of nostalgia that had accreted around my own memories of the church. Once they had been removed the institution’s meaning appeared in a new light.

Just because I was a child does not mean the experience I had there was a childish one; just because I was ignorant does not mean that others were. I dimly recall, now, debates about Somali refugees and gay marriage; I remember quite public grappling with alcoholism and mental illness; I remember canned-food drives and volunteer work that partially made up for the disappearance of government services. I remember a place where imperfect people gathered in an attempt to make sense of an imperfect world, and where old words and old music combined to create something like beauty. Some people can find these things in secular places, but many cannot. And the list of secular institutions in which racially and economically diverse populations come together to confront moral questions with any degree of seriousness is not a long one.

For many, the church will likely be a source of bodily and spiritual comfort in the future, as it has been in the past. Or, at least, I hope so. Whether God exists or not, a world without the church would be a poorer one. We need now, more than ever, the sort of space that Larkin presumed to be a relic of the past: “a serious house on serious earth,” and one “proper to grow wise in.”

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This article appears in the latest issue of The Point,
as part of the symposium “What Is Church for?

Subscribe now to get the whole issue in print!

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