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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Do We Still Need God?

David Brooks has reviewed A Secular Age by Charles Taylor who probes the evolution of religion from singular and uniform faiths – like Catholicism – to a plurality of individualistic pursuits today.  In the Middle Ages there was but one faith, and the Catholic Church the only arbiter of morality, the only path to salvation, and an important player in the world of finance, health, and education. Today society is made up of thousands of sects, cults, storefront churches, subdivisions of mainline faiths, e.g. the Ninth Baptist Church or the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist; as well as a spectrum of non-believers. At the beginning of the book Taylor asks a fundamental question:

“Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?

This drift from a universal commitment to religion to an often indifferent co-existence with it has both upsides and downsides, says Taylor.  On the one hand the world has been positively changed by scientific inquiry and discovery, but new and challenging areas of philosophical thought. Secular literature and exhaustive studies of history have opened the world of every individual and allowed him to escape the the restrictive confines of an authoritarian, all-encompassing church and explore the world of ideas without prescription and injunction. On the other hand, the power and glory of old-time religion is missing in our increasingly secular world.  The Passion of Christ, once celebrated every year in an almost orgiastic expression of faith and devotion, is now little more than a child’s Easter story.

As importantly, the increasing secularization of society may be one factor behind angst, depression, and loneliness.  If this is all there is, we might ask, then life increasingly resembles a bleak, sere, and featureless landscape. In an age of rejection of faith, even the faithful begin to doubt infected as they are by the rational or dismissive arguments of non-believers.

According to Taylor (and Brooks), modern society has adapted to Godlessness, and has not fallen apart or degenerated to a state of lawlessness and immorality.  Secular institutions and traditions have provided stability and meaning. Even if scientists talk in terms of probability, timelessly expanding universes, and chaos, the world in becoming more knowable is not a featureless landscape at all.  Biblical injunction has been replaced by secular law, and many of the Ten Commandments are respected as important admonitions concerning the right life.

At the same time Taylor avers that Man is not capable of total indifference to the transformative, ecstatic nature of religion. Most of us, he says, while not adrift in the secular world still feel something is missing. “The yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is painted as,” Taylor writes.

On a  trip to southern Mexico I explored the pre-Columbian ruins near Oaxaca and was impressed by the pagan religion celebrated by the Zapotecs and recently wrote about it: http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/01/monte-alban.html

The Zapotecs lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.  Here in the Oaxaca valley under a powerful sun and surrounded by mountains, there was no escaping the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods.  Farther north in the Aztec civilization, warriors dressed as panthers, wolves, mountain lions, and bears and became them as they engaged the enemy.  They were human soldiers and animals and gods all at once.

I especially was taken with the idea of human sacrifice.  The ‘sacrifice of the Mass’ was nothing to actual ritual sacrifice.  I could not imagine the power, the mass emotional power – thousands around the sacrificial mount, surrounded by the living gods of mountains, sun, wind.  Not even the 70 million pilgrims convening for the kumbh mela at Allahabad could possibly generate the religious feeling that must have been felt at the moment of sacrificial death.

I reflected on my own traditional Christian upbringing and the passionless experience of the Mass, a once-a-week obligation to a hot, airless, and spiritless church.  The priest was unctuous and bloated, the choir sang off key, the rituals of sacrifice lost in the cramped pews and the restlessness of churchgoers anxious to be out in the sunlight. I imagined that as difficult, short, and painful life was like in the Middle Ages, a high Mass in a great Gothic cathedral, with soaring music, pageantry, and pomp must have been spiritually thrilling.  Religion was not just the architecture of the times giving orientation and grounding, but a powerful psychedelic drug which lasted for days.  Imagine really believing that Jesus Christ descended from heaven and was present on the altar at the moment of the Consecration.  Nothing has changed today.  The Consecration is still the invocation of Christ and a celebration of his divinity; but the modern Mass, stripped of all mystery and wonder, is perfunctory and listless.

Taylor sees our new spiritual pluralism as a collection of secular and religious elements. “People in search of fullness are able to harvest the intellectual, cultural and spiritual gains of the past 500 years. Poetry and music can alert people to the realms beyond the ordinary.” Brooks sums up Taylor’s argument:

Orthodox believers now live with a different tension: how to combine the masterpieces of humanism with the central mysteries of their own faiths. This pluralism can produce fragmentations and shallow options, and Taylor can eviscerate them, but, over all, this secular age beats the conformity and stultification of the age of fundamentalism, and it allows for magnificent spiritual achievement.

I take exception to Brooks’ statement that “this secular age beats the conformity and stultification of the age of fundamentalism”.  Passionate religious expression whether it be that of the Zapotecs, Hindus, or Medieval Christians, required an absolute, unchallenged spiritual ethos. God was never an abstract essence, but a real, immanent, and powerful being who lived in mountains, rivers, trees, and plains. He was invoked by priests in elaborate ceremonies designed to elicit passion and spiritual energy. Religion was vastly communal – all Zapotecs believed in the same thing, and during religious ceremonies their collective passion enhanced individual feeling a thousand-fold.  There was no way to have an ecstatic vision of God without the ceremony, the universal convention, and the priestly intermediary. Many world religions have offered this:


Our age of diversity can only be regarded as a watered-down version of this ancient spiritual power.  Although some revivalist churches manage some ecstasy, they are nothing compared to the intensity of universal passionate belief.

In other words, the hope for real ecstasy is a vain one.  We must be content with diluted humanistic substitutes. Shakespeare may provide insights into human nature; and a Bach fugue may give us momentary respite from a day’s work; but they are one-off events, occurring before or after a trip to McDonalds or Jiffy Lube.  The God that Bach was celebrating is absent once we leave the organ recital.

Religion, of course, is everywhere in America.  We are, next to India, the most religious country on earth, and although the ranks of non-believers are swelling, most of us believe in something.  If religion is no longer an anchor for our lives, it is at least a mooring rope.

Bits and pieces of religion, fast food, musical comedy, and commercial enterprise comprise the hodge-podge that is America. There may come a day when in a virtual world we will be freed from convention and secular concerns and experience a personal ecstasy and divine revelation as powerful as that of the Zapotecs; but for the time being we will have to be satisfied with our half-secular, half-religious world.  As Brooks and Taylor say, it could be worse.

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