The intense quasi-spiritual reaction to the death of Steve Jobs, who was characterized in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed as “The Secular Prophet,” and the Obama administration’s increasingly bold challenge to the religious freedom of Catholic institutions reflect a powerful current of secularism moving within American culture. In these past weeks, we have witnessed secularism in both beguiling and thuggish forms, reflecting an inner contradiction its supporters would prefer to ignore.
Jobs — baptized Christian and a practicing Buddhist — was no self-professed enemy of religion. But his extraordinary success as an entrepreneur who innovatively wedded function with form in personal technology has been associated with a public persona of visionary individualism.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become,” said Jobs during his famous commencement address at Stanford University in 2005.
Jobs’ definition of dogma as “living with the results of other people’s thinking” is telling. Like many public secularists, he does not pause to distinguish between the various dogmas available in the modern marketplace of ideas and religions. Nor does he compare the strengths of one religion to that of another. There is no appreciation for the rich reflection on human freedom and responsibility that characterizes Catholic theology, for example.
The repudiation of dogma is especially appealing to those who chafe at the moral requirements imposed by traditional Christianity. They want to believe that the transcendent virtues of faith, hope and love can be extracted from a cumbersome tradition and customized by each individual, according to his or her own guidelines for success. Isn’t that what Jobs did?
But the secularist template for a better world must coexist with the unpleasant truth that the reality of evil and of suffering outlasts the five-year plans of the most stubborn utopians, and even the fertile imagination of a Steve Jobs. Sadly, the pristine vision of human rationality offers no compelling explanation — or realistic defense — for the evil that lurks in the hearts of all men.
The moral law of the Jewish and Christian faiths incorporates the paradox that while our hearts know well what good should be chosen, we may still choose self-serving ends. Acceptance of this paradox fosters humility, while a refusal to accommodate it can breed arrogance, and worse.
Jobs’ “most singular quality was his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple’s early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure — the bitten fruit — and turned it into a sign of promise and progress,” writes Andy Crouch, an editor-at-large at Christianity Today, in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. And the unstated hope is that technology will “relieve us of the burden of being merely human, of being finite creatures in a harsh and unyielding world.”
The outpouring of adulation and sadness that marked his passing surely reflects the struggle of a depressed and fractured nation seeking to find a rallying point for optimism and unity. In the midst of an economic crisis, Jobs’ remarkable legacy resembles a comet passing through a dark night, undimmed by a rising sun. But the promise of technology cannot sustain our unquenchable, God-given thirst for hope during times of great trial. We must turn elsewhere: to the wellspring of true hope.
Jobs represents the more appealing face of secularist ideals. But in the political sphere, an aggressive campaign to divest the public square of all religious trappings is gaining considerable traction — and an able assist from the Obama administration.
The U.S. bishops contend that the religious freedom of Catholic institutions is now threatened by a series of regulations and a key Supreme Court case backed by the Justice Department. “[O]rganized religion is being marginalized,” said Bishop William Lori, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ new Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.
Elsewhere in these pages, he states: “We have to struggle. The Church and its institutions are mediating structures between the power of the state and the individual. Religious freedom is vital to our culture.”
Secularists contend that the retreat of organized religion will advance human freedom. But when religion is “marginalized,” the power of the state increases.
Thus, the aggressive campaign to impose the Health and Human Services’ regulations mandating contraceptive services on Catholic institutions has been accompanied by an attendant rejection of individual conscience rights for everyone who may hold a moral objection to contraception.
Taken to its natural conclusion, the modern secularist ideal of creating your own private universe of motivational principles provides no defense against aggressive state power — or the self-justifying immorality of individual men and women.
Secularists have a tendency to demonize religious belief as the source of instability and evil in the world — see Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. But their substitute is a flimsy version of hope with a poor track record: good intentions unsecured by a strong framework made for durability.
Jobs advised the Stanford graduates, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” That individualistic ethos will likely provide much-needed confidence to struggling entrepreneurs.
But the fiction of the “self-made man” must be seen for what it is and for what it can never be: the hope that — as St. Paul assures us — “does not disappoint.”