Gerald R. McDermott (emphases added):
In Updike’s religion, then, there are no commandments we are meant to keep except the obligation to accept what is: “Religion includes, as its enemies say, fatalism, an acceptance and consecration of what is.” Our only responsibility is to “appreciate” the great gift that life represents. He learned from Barth that the next life is simply this life in review, and from his Lutheranism, he wrote, “a rather antinomian Christianity”—the idea that there are no laws we should fear or live by—which he was “too timid to discard.” There is no hint of final judgment. Nor is there any imperative to repent or improve ourselves: in Begley’s words, “Original sin may be inescapable, but any concerted effort to improve one’s game resembles a righteous struggle for salvation.” And if there was anything he learned from Barth, it was that all human efforts to save ourselves are wrongheaded and futile. As one critic summed it up, Updike “radically divorced” Christian theology from Christian ethics.
The upshot was a self-indulgent religion that basked in self-affirmation while running from voices that would challenge the self to change, particularly in ways that were not pleasant. It is telling that Updike’s last poem ends with words of self-assurance from Psalm 23: “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, forever.”
One cannot help thinking that Updike’s religion helped build the theological scaffolding for mainline Protestantism’s baptism of gay marriage. Updike wrote of mainline Protestants and their efforts to justify the sexual revolution. Although Updike himself regarded heterosexual sex as normative, his elevation of sex as a way to transcendence would prevent heterosexual Protestants from barring the door to other kinds of sex. Updike told the CBS reporter, “Sex is one of the means—maybe the foremost means—whereby the [moral and religious] search is conducted.” Once mainline America became persuaded—even in the absence of empirical evidence—that gays are born that way, how could they deny that their sex might be their way to the divine? Updike would surely have agreed. And millions of Updike readers could thank the novelist for helping them see that marriages defined by desire were not only a right but also a sacrament.
'See' is standardly employed as a verb of success. I wonder: does the author in his last sentence so intend it? 'Believe' would work better, no?
More importantly, it is just self-serving nonsense to view sex as the foremost means for conducting the moral and religious search. That sounds like a joke. I am put in mind of Chogyam Trungpa. According to one report, ". . . Trungpa slept with a different woman every night in order to transmit the teaching to them. L. intimated that it was really a hardship for Trungpa to do this, but it was his duty in order to spread the dharma."
We are concupiscent from the ground up. So it is no surprise that even Christianity can be so twisted as to serve the sex monkey by one who apparently was its slave.
But if truth be told, I just now ordered Couples to see how the brilliant Updike makes his case. Updike is a master of social phenomenology as I discovered when I read Rabbit is Rich in the early '90s.
As for the radical divorce of theology and ethics, there cannot be anything salutary about splitting them asunder. But if split them you must, it would be better to jettison the theology and keep the ethics for the sake of our happiness in this world, which we know, as opposed to the next which we merely believe in. It is an empirical question, but on balance the sexual revolution has not improved human eudaimonia. Our predicament post-pill is hardly a paradise.
Updike looks to be a poster boy for the false dichotomy of spirituality versus religion.
Related: A Death Poem at Year's End. I reproduce and comment on a fabulous Updike poem.