When doctors ask new patients about their religious life, a Catholic psychiatrist noted, they find that almost everyone identifies religion with morality, and solely with morality, and this is as true of people who go to church or temple as people who don’t. These people profess a “negative religion” concerned mainly with not doing bad.
The result is that many people “live a religion of anxiety and of fear. They think of God and of the Church with what I might call a kind of inner tension, a fear of wrongdoing and a vague sense of the primacy of punishment.” And guilt, lots of guilt.
Christmas offers an answer for this.
The psychiatrist Karl Stern was a German Jew who fled the Nazis and entered the Catholic Church in Montreal in 1943. He told the story in 1951 in “The Pillar of Fire.” From the late ’50s into the early ’70s (he died in 1975), he was a minor public intellectual. Friends with Graham Greene and Dorothy Day, admired by people like Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis, he was a significant intellectual figure among Catholics. He’s not very well known now, alas.
I take from his writing that the Christian’s anxiety- and fear-inducing “negative religion” grows from failure to understand what Christianity is. We fall into it (most of us know this from experience) by assuming that morality, and a misdirected morality at that, is at the heart of our religion.
“It frequently happens,” he writes in an essay on “The Emotional Development of the Child,” that “a Protestant patient will tell me, ‘my father was a very good Christian, he did not drink, he did not smoke, he did not play cards.’ In Catholics, this negative concept very often touches on sexual problems — for example, the patient will say, ‘I am a good Catholic. I do not practice birth control.'”
He gives another example in an essay on “The Problem of Guilt.” When the doctor asks the patient what past sin upsets him, few say, “A Black man came to my door and looked for employment and because he was Black I turned him away.” They almost always give a sexual sin.
Working as a psychiatrist with Catholic patients, Stern writes, “You get the impression that there is actually only one sin — the sin against chastity.” He wrote in the ’60s, but an experienced priest tells me this is still broadly true of people in the confessional.
Stern concludes, “For a patient to think of his morality mainly in positive terms of love, of God or of his neighbors, of the primacy of charity, is unfortunately the exception.” But why should we think of morality in terms of love? Because of Christmas.
Stern saw the Incarnation, God given to the world at the Annunciation and brought into sight on Christmas morning, as the event that made Christianity real, a personal reality who works in the world and even conquers death. Without the Incarnation, Christianity would be “fleshless.” He would not have bothered with Christianity had God not become man.
God with us, even as that baby with poo on his bottom crying for food, he called “the manifestation of infinite love.” He insisted, as a psychiatrist, that love always works, and that infinite love will necessarily work infinitely.
At the end of the essay on child development, Stern speaks of his kindergarten encounter with Christianity. His parents sent him to a Catholic kindergarten run by nuns because it was the only one in town. He still remembers the pictures on the wall of the major Christian stories, the story of the Good Shepherd in particular.
“We got our religious instruction on this basis of the concrete experience of a loving and lovable God, of loving and lovable saints,” he writes. “If our instruction had consisted of explanations instead of stories, or of discourses on sin and punishment, I am certain today that I would forever have been estranged from Catholicism.”
Years later, he saw this love in Catholics he knew. They made it real, showed that the kindergarten pictures told the truth and moved him toward the Church.
He then gives the answer to the so destructive negative religion so many of us feel, speaking of life lived in charity: “The sense of sin grows out of this organically — not the other way round.”
It’s the picture of that baby we know to be God incarnate that shows us love, that points us to charity as the central fact of human life. We needn’t begin with morality, which points us to our sins as the central matter of our religion, which quickly leads to anxiety and fear, and constant guilt.
Knowing Love Himself, seen for the first time on Christmas, living in Love’s care, we see our failure to love and turn to Love for forgiveness and the power to love more. That’s why the herald angels sing.
Davis Mills writes from Pennsylvania.