Avoiding Decadent Theologies, Becoming a Child of the Moment, and Attuning to the Divine Lure

Jared Morningstar
6 min readMar 5, 2024
Radiant Attraction, painting by Eugenio Cruz Vargas (1923–2014).

Theology which causes harm to individuals and communities is, quite simply, distorted and inaccurate theology which demands urgent reconsideration.

Theology which is all sunshine and rainbows, which provides nothing but shallow comfort, and which is impotent to shock people out of their habitual being-in-the-world and forces them to turn a critical eye upon their own existence — this is likewise a theology which fails to serve its inherent function.

There is a thin and delicate space between these two errors. Striking the right balance requires attentiveness to particular contexts, a good dose of humility, and intellectual integrity as one attempts to holistically understand existing perspectives and reconstruct contemporary alternatives in line with the most basic religious intuitions of the tradition to which one subscribes.

Avoiding the first kind of decadent theology requires that one remain attentive to dissenting voices within one’s religious communities who are questioning the religious authorities, institutional structures, and particular beliefs and practices, especially with regard to the ethical entanglements of these particular aspects of one’s faith.

If one has a knee-jerk reaction to immediately play the apologist as opposed to first listening, especially in the case that the critics are decrying harms which one’s religion may be perpetuating (or worse), one is almost certainly complicit in these harms continuing or worsening.

Is every dissenting voice, raising alarm bells about ethical issues in a religious tradition de facto correct in their perception of the situation and diagnosis of it? Certainly not. But these are questions which must be investigated earnestly, and it is not possible to preemptively judge the validity of such claims while maintaining integrity — jumping the gun in such a way is, quite simply, a grave sin so far as I can see. To defensively posture in response an expression of pain or anguish of another — such is a betrayal of the very basic religious ethic to care for one’s fellow human beings and Creation more broadly.

Avoiding the second kind of decadent theology requires a reverence and humility towards one’s tradition: its history, its venerable saints, and all that it has graciously and earnestly shepherded through the ages. To always interrogate religious perspectives from contemporary standpoints, without allowing these presuppositions themselves to be brought under scrutiny is likewise a kind of ego-centered arrogance. The religious reactionary has an excess of critiquing the contemporary on the basis of tradition, but it is likewise a deficiency to be unable to use the ample resources of the past to question our own moment, its values and culture, and the basic moral and aesthetic intuitions that it extols.

The great minds and spirits of one’s tradition likely had good reasons for many of the ideas they put forth. It is our duty to sincerely grapple with such material, seeking integrated understanding that allows oneself to see such perspectives “from the inside,” so to speak. It is very easy to throw the

Of course, even the greatest of thinkers in any tradition are, in certain respects, products of their own time and may have inadvertently promoted various perspectives, practices, or institutional structures which from a perspective unavailable to them, leave something to be desired.

But there is much contained in our inherited theologies and practices which may at first glance appear oppressive, problematic, or otherwise distasteful to our sensibilities. However, some of this material may very well have deeper functionality which is oriented towards transformation — something which actually makes one more ethical, more attuned to the needs of others, the world, and the contemporary moment. Again, this is not a kind of judgement one can make prior to getting ones hands dirty by actually engaging deeply with whatever is at hand. There is certainly decadence and garbage that has accumulated in our traditions, but we must be careful and prudent in our responsibility to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Is there a tension between the demands required to avoid both kinds of decadent theology? Absolutely. And this is a feature, not a bug.

The felt experience of this tension is a queue to turn one’s attention to the particularities of the case one is investigating, and to be very sensitive to context — both historically for the received materials of tradition, and in terms of the unique features of the contemporary context. This move of contextualization allows one to be more nuanced and flexible — getting rid of the bathwater, but saving the baby.

There is of course (at least) one additional layer to this inquiry — not judging received traditions from the basis of more contemporary perspectives, and not judging the present moment using the resources of tradition, but being able to turn a critical eye to both of these from novel perspectives that are just now entering the horizon of consciousness.

Without this, the best one can hope for is to strike a balance between being a sort of holistic, attentive conservative and an attuned and prudent representative of the current zeitgeist. In such a case, there is little chance for the entry of genuine novelty — a novelty which allows one to transcend both the limitations of inherited and contemporary perspectives.

To take up this third calling is to holistically participate in the Divine activity of creation. Of course, this is done best when one is deeply attuned with the plenitude of the past — to provide ample raw material from which this creation can spring — and sensitive to the arching of history which has already provided the earlier novelties which constitute our contemporary moment — so that one may be able to intuit, even vaguely, provisionally, a certain telos which can serve to direct one’s activity of co-creating the New.

This is a religious vocation just as much as faithfully stewarding one’s tradition — in fact, from a certain perspective, this is simply a transcendent dimension of such stewardship.

We have a tendency to think of religion looking backwards — that a pristine, primordial moment of revelation or enlightenment contained the perfection and totality of the faith that was to emerge in response to this Divine ingression. While there may be some truth to this in a more abstract sense, attempting to merely reconstruct all the practices and beliefs of the earliest adherents to one’s faith and implement this program in the now is a deficient and shallow project lacking genuine inspiration or participation in the Divine creative spirit.

Almost everything worthwhile which has accumulated in any religious tradition was, in its own time, a striking ingression of fresh creativity — a creativity, of course, in contact with the self-same wellspring of inspiration at the root of the founding moments of the tradition in question. It is simultaneously the intrinsically New breaking onto the scene in history, and also logical extension of the originary Revelation of the tradition itself: a repetition in a new octave, wholly continuous with the source even as it is happening now for the very first time as an indivisibly particular newness. Not a necessity, but a very exemplification of the perfect freedom of Divine creativity to which we are called to be co-participants.

To take up the trust of this co-participatory relationship with the Divine is what it means to be a child of the moment, as the Sufis say. This is to be faithful, not merely to one’s creedal affiliation, and not merely to the important moral intuitions an values of our day and age, but to be faithful to the lure of Divine creativity itself. In a very simple sense, this is nothing but taking a strong posture against idolatry — putting God above any of the things of the world, whatever they be. It is also to have a personal relationship with the Divine — a relationship which is a source for inspiration; a relationship that calls one towards irreducibly individual action and service. This is all to say, this is an incredibly primordial and basic religious disposition — one common to the gamut of prophets, saints, mystics, and enlightened devotees.

To take up this trust is the middle way between various forms of decadent theology which are stuck in their own modes of superficial repetition, insensitive to the ever-present lure towards participation in the co-creative activity of the Divine. This relationship requires one to both listen deeply to the moment and to graciously embrace what has been transmitted down the ages — and from there to bring forth what is possible. Just as has been done from times immemorial.



Jared Morningstar

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI.