Why 'The Idol of Our Age' Resonates with Readers
To believers who have noticed a disconcerting distortion of Christianity’s ideals of love and charity, Daniel Mahoney’s “The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity” may be a godsend.
The book, which was published last December, addresses the problem of secular humanitarianism and its effect on the Church’s thinking about divine mercy and Christian charity. “The Idol of Our Age” has been widely reviewed, somewhat–though not entirely–to the author’s surprise. In an interview, Mahoney said the book has resonated with Christians in Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical circles who were aware of the problem he diagnoses but hadn’t put a name to it.
“I sensed that there was real discontent in thoughtful Orthodox-minded Christian circles about this increasing conflation of the Christian religion with a humanitarian political agenda, reducing Christianity to simply a project to promote left-wing social justice and pacifism, and, I think, a deeply problematic interpretation of the Gospels,” Mahoney said.
It seems unusual that “The Idol of Our Age” would resonate with Christians of such varying beliefs, but perhaps this speaks to the widespread effects of the religion of humanity. To understand the themes that most resonate with readers, it is helpful to examine the many reviews this book has received. Reviews often emphasize Mahoney’s explanation of love according to humanitarianism versus Christian love and charity, particularly in his critique of Pope Francis.
The humanitarian version of compassion is, Mahoney said, motivated by a desire to be nice to other people and understand their perspectives. While these are admirable goals, this compassion is clearly different from the biblical concept of divine mercy. “Compassion without a rooting in principle and a call to a change in behavior can lead to an abandonment of moral truth, and Christianity can become about ‘cheap grace’ way too easily,” Mahoney explained. “The modern sensibility is to identify forgiving and forgetting without a need for repentance. This also has a political dimension, and identifies Christianity with a kind of softness and relativism.”
In a review of the book, Rémi Brague, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris and the University of Munich, addresses this substitution of humanitarian compassion for divine mercy in writing, “Christ said: ‘Ye are the salt of the earth, love your enemies.’ The new humanitarian religion says: ‘Ye should be the sugar of the Earth, you have no enemies…’ The new idol is all the more dangerous [in] that it apes Christian charity and tries to replace it.”
One reason the compassion of the religion of humanity is dangerous is because it emphasizes mercy but does not call for repentance, something Mahoney says Pope Francis is guilty of. “I’m not Jonathan Edwards talking about sinners in the hands of an angry God,” Mahoney told me. “I think the God of the Christian tradition is a loving God, but love is not an excuse for irresponsibility. It demands what Plato called a ‘turning of the soul,’ or what the Christian tradition calls ‘repentance.’ If one is satisfied in one’s sin, that’s not the Gospel. It has much more to do with modern hedonism.” Thus, humanitarians in the Church emphasize loving one’s neighbor, but misunderstand what Christian love entails. “Think of the two criminals on the cross with Jesus,” Mahoney said in an interview with First Things podcast. “One repents, and Jesus says, ‘This day you shall be with me in paradise.’ The other doesn’t repent, and Jesus says no such thing to him.”
Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, but the religion of humanity is concerned only with what is of this world. When Jesus spoke to a woman caught in adultery, he assured her that he did not condemn her, but he still instructed her to “go, and sin no more.” The religion of humanity would emphasize the lack of condemnation, but ignore the call to change. And yet, this subversion of Jesus’ message is not new, and extends even beyond the philosophers Mahoney engages. He references Pope Benedict XVI’s teachings on the temptations of Jesus. “The Devil promises Christ political power and the amelioration of the ‘social problems’ that plague humanity,” Mahoney writes. “Christianity can never be understood as a merely ‘humanitarian’ project without betraying faith in the promises of God or a true understanding of Jesus’s mission on Earth.”
An impact of the humanitarian influence on Christianity is that it not only distorts Christ’s teaching, but corrupts the authority of churches. “The more [churches] endorse a reductive, secularist religion of humanity and pretend it’s Christianity, the less attractive authentic Christianity will be for ordinary people,” Mahoney said in the First Things interview. “It’s quite possible the Catholic church could go the way of the Church of England– not die, but become a fundamental irrelevance, and that’s a deep concern of mine, that they literally don’t know what they’re doing.”
Mahoney examines a series of thinkers including Orestes Brownson, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Vladimir Soloviev, but readers and reviewers of “The Idol of Our Age” have paid particular attention to the chapter titled “Pope Francis’s Humanitarian Version of Catholic Social Teaching.” Mahoney refers to the Pope as “half-humanitarian” and “blind” to how “humanitarian secular religion subverts authentic Christianity.” “Of course I respect his office,” Mahoney said. “As a Catholic, I’m obliged. I think that in decisive respects he is really guilty of confusing Christianity with the religion of social justice.”
In his book, Mahoney writes that Francis has left the Church “divided and vulnerable to an unthinking political correctness,” and critiques his opposition to capital punishment. Though Francis opposes abortion, his understanding of mercy seems to prevent him from speaking out against it when it is difficult to do so, preferring to condemn what is considered evil in leftist circles. In fact, “Pope Francis has recently said that life imprisonment is just as immoral as capital punishment,” Mahoney said. “I think that does not reflect Christian judgement. The Biblical tradition makes clear that it’s possible for human beings to reject God’s love and grace, and Hell is a real possibility, but the humanitarian logic would lead to absolute rejection of punishment.”
Mahoney said that he has received responses ranging from those he calls ultramontanists, who refuse to criticize anything from the Vatican, to people like the writer Maureen Mullarkey. On her blog, she accused Mahoney of being too respectful toward Pope Francis, writing, “When ‘the arts of intelligence’ are applied to the actions of an office holder who distorts his office, it is reasonable–even mandatory–to withhold respect from him.”
Nonetheless, his careful assessment of Francis’s papacy impresses many of the book’s reviewers. In a piece for National Review, David P. Deavel writes, “Among Francis’s negative critics I’ve read, Mahoney takes the pope’s official documents the most seriously, finding in his work continuity with the Catholic tradition and, even in the most controversial documents, important insights.”
“Mahoney is no facile optimist or facile pessimist,” Deavel continues. “He’s a prophet calling us to listen with the heart, avoid the humanitarian siren song, and heed the civilizing memories of some figures, too little remembered.” “The Idol of our Age” diagnoses an important problem not only in Pope Francis’s theology, but in the Church as a whole. It is no wonder that, for those concerned with the perversion of Jesus’s message of love and divine mercy, and the effect that the religion of humanity has on the authenticity and authority of the Church, the book provides an important look, as Brague writes, into the unmasking of of the religion of humanity and “gives us a precious help for how to exorcise it.”
Chandler Lasch is the editor of RealClearReligion.