Peter Thiel says every innovative enterprise contains some cultish elements. Fringe voices contribute to innovation but the PayPal co-founder believes they are in decline. It may signal that the innovative spirit is also on the wane.
In his new book Zero to One, Thiel asks why America is facing what he sees as a 40-year economic, technological, and cultural malaise. Ostensibly a book of advice to would-be entrepreneurs, Thiel has an interesting aside on the decline of cults, tying them to the waning of the innovative spirit. Fringe voices keeps enterprises on the cutting edge.
Philip Jenkins makes a similar observation. In a recent article, the renowned church historian notes the decline in “the number and scale of controversial fringe sects.”1 Jenkins says this is something that should worry religious believers rather than comfort them. A wild fringe provides a prophetic voice that is often a sign of health. A religious culture lacking this voice may lack “a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry.”
The implications of Thiel’s argument extends to society at large. The implications of Jenkins’s are specific to religion. Fringe voices, from the Franciscans to the Jesuits, are essential to religious creativity and renewal. They have repeatedly revitalized the Catholic Church by being unconventional, or disruptive. But where is this fringe voice in more recent American faith traditions? Robert Bellah would say it’s absent.
In Habits of the Heart, a landmark study on religion in America, Robert Bellah and his coauthors cite a 1978 Gallup poll where 80 percent of Americans agreed that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” Bellah describes this as “expressive individualism.” It’s “basic to American identity.”2 But it leaves the church facing what he calls “a profound impasse.”
Bellah questions whether an individualized faith can be sustained. He doesn’t think so. “Christians in this tradition are deprived of a language genuinely able to tackle the most important things.” They have little to say about “wider social commitments.” An individualized faith tends to spurn the fringe voice when it expresses concern.
One of those voices was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Two of his books, Nature (1836) and Experience (1844), signaled a dramatic shift in cultural authority in 19th century America.3 Throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, Christian belief had been forced onto the defensive. Rationalism, skepticism, and mechanistic science had cast doubt upon miracles. The Enlightenment quest for scientific certainty called into question the particularity of Christian claims to the truth. The historical study of manuscripts provided arguments that undercut the biblical record.
In the face of these challenges, the argument from design in nature had been marshaled to buttress belief. But when, between 1840 and 1870, new views of nature destroyed this argument, belief became untethered from nature and cultural authority. It shifted to individual personal experience (example: “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart”). This was a dramatic break from the ancient faith.
“Scripture alone” came to mean the Bible removed from all historical and ecclesiastical contexts. Many 19th century American Protestants construed the reading of the Bible as a private encounter between a God ensconced in heaven and a reader removed from history. Men like Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ, the fastest-growing denomination of the early 19th century, sought nothing less than “a pristine biblical Christianity free from all human devices.” He claimed it was possible to read the Bible as though it had never before been read. “If I know my own mind,” he wrote in 1826, “there is not a man upon the earth whose authority can influence me.”
Standing on the fringe of this, Emerson warned how autonomy offers no possibility of “correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are.” Emerson was witnessing the advent of expressive individualism.
Decades later, C.S. Lewis stood on the fringe of this individualized faith. He noted that for both Christian and classical culture, the principle moral task had always been “how to subdue the soul to reality.”4 How do we train our souls to fit in with the order of things in the universe? The Enlightenment project, he warned, tries to “subdue reality to the wishes of men.” It’s opposed to cultural authorities. It encourages liberation rather than restraint. Lewis felt this would ultimately lead to the abolition of man.
The U.S. Marine Corps takes a different tack. On this date in 1775, the Corps was founded. Marines often come from the United States Naval Academy, where plebes are initiated into the Corps by having their heads shaves. They’re issued uniform clothing. They’re given identical eyewear. It’s part of breaking down individualistic traits so that the many become one. Jesus prayed that his church would be one. In today’s faith traditions, this requires heeding fringe voices and breaking expressive individualism. The fringe benefit is fulfilling Jesus’ prayer. But how likely is this to happen in an individualistic faith?
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1 Patheos.com: Where Have All The Cultists Gone?
2 Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California, 1996), p. 142
3 Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (New York: Bowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005)
4 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2001), p. 77.