The Meaning of Life

One of the threads that works its way through several of Dostoevsky’s major novels is that if there is no God then “anything is possible.” In a word, without a supreme being morality is a sham and each of us can do whatever he or she wants to do without fear of punishment — except by the state if we are caught. Nietzsche echoed these thoughts when he announced at the end of the nineteenth century that God is dead and each of us must create our own morality, “beyond good and evil.”

In Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother, Ivan, convinces his disciple half-brother (who isn’t very bright) that “anything is possible” and the latter murders their father. This is not what Ivan had envisioned, but it is certainly a possibility in a world in which there is no moral high ground. Ivan goes made in the end — which may be Dostoevsky’s answer to Ivan.

For centuries Westerners have sought to find the meaning of life in the word of God or a religion of some sort — even if it is in pagan gods. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead he was not far off the mark because, beginning with the age of “enlightenment” in the West, there have been fewer and fewer people in the West who seek to find meaning through religion of any sort. This was especially the case after  the First World War. As the years have passed church attendance, for example, has fallen off precipitously — except for mega-churches which are really nothing more than grand social clubs with comfortable chairs and  hot coffee and the promise of everlasting life to all who attend and pay their dues. In a word, those who seek to discover the meaning of life must look elsewhere. Many look within — or perhaps at their electronic toys. But for most, especially the young, the church is no longer the answer.

John Carroll, to whom I have referred several times in this blog, suggests that the meaning of life for modern Westerners is best found in the small things that are commonplace. By this he means that we can find meaning in our work, in sports, in friends, in our homes, in our families, in projects, in Nature. Indeed, he contends that Nature has displaced God in the Western world, though I would point out that the way we treat the earth raises some doubts on that score. But the key to finding meaning and avoiding nihilism, as he sees it, is the total involvement of the individual in the world and in others. Our guide, he contends, is our conscience. As he puts it:

“. . .all humans, unconsciously, know the true and the good, and are inwardly compelled to find what they know, through their lives and what they see. . . an instinctual knowing prevails, seeking meaningful shape in cultural forms. It does so for almost all and for most of the time. It signals that there is beauty and goodness and an order in the everyday, affirming why we are here.”

He refers to some of the interviews published by Studs Terkel years ago in which people tell what it is about their work that they love or hate. He mentions a waitress who takes special pride in the presentation of the silverware on the table, in the way she takes an order or brings the order to the table. She doesn’t just do a job, she works and takes pride in the manner she does what many would see as a menial job.

Meaning is not to be found in the self alone, which Carroll calls, simply, the “ego.” In order to find true meaning we need to become one with the world around us, immerse ourselves in what we do, doing it with total absorption and concentration and taking justifiable pride in a job well done. We need to turn our attention outwards to others and, especially, to the beauty and goodness that surrounds us.

Now some are lucky enough to have real faith and to find meaning in a God that loves them and promises them a reward for doing the right thing. But most no longer share this faith despite the fact that deep down most of us, Carroll insists, still have traces of the conscience that directs us to do the right thing. Our friend Jill reminds us each week that there are good folks out there doing good things, many of whom go unnoticed and unrewarded. They find that doing the deed in itself is reward enough. We need to listen to the small voice inside each of us and to direct our attention away from ourselves and to others and to the world we share. If there is meaning in life, that it where it will be found.

In Pieces

In his remarkable book, The Wreck of Western Culture, John Carroll paints a bleak picture of what he sees around him:

“We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those ice gales that regularly returns to rip us out of the cozy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.”

He might have also noted, our children in school hold their heads under their desks in fear as they regularly practice the latest drill to thwart maniacs who, demanding loudly their right to bear arms, arrive with automatic weapons and start to shoot.

Disturbing as is Carroll’s picture, it is not overblown. Much the same thing was said many years ago by Jacques Barzun who warned us to lock up our treasures because the barbarians were about to arrive. Well, they have arrived and they have taken over. They now have rank and tenure in our major universities and control matters of curriculum and edit the prestigious journals. They prance on our streets in outlandish garb insisting that we look at them rather than to the beauty that surrounds us all. They use social media to demand that we think about them and not about anything of real importance. They have provided us with toys we hold in our hands or which greet us upon entering the room with constant reminders that the corporate world is the real world. As the inheritor of a humanism that began with an attempt to raise medieval human beings from the mud to greater heights, the world of business and corporate profits has placed itself firmly at the center of a commodified culture. And we are told repeatedly that we are the most important thing in the world.

Humanism was born at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance when humans began to see themselves as the center of the world. Not God. Certainly no longer. The corruption within the Church coupled with the invention of the printing press and growing literacy among the population at large all led to religious revolutions coupled with the industrial revolution and the birth of modern science which have engendered general prosperity and long life, reinforcing the notion that human beings no longer need to lean on God or any other “superstition.”

These are the stepchildren of the Humanism which, Carroll tells us is now in tatters around us. This is because we are learning of the terrible mistakes that come with the riddance of something greater than the self. We are seeing around us, if we look with Carroll’s eyes, the reductio ad absurdum of the Self as God. Medieval men and women, living in terrible times, knew that death was the beginning. Humanists insisted that death is the end, as we learn if we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet carefully. That was the problem: could humans replace God? They could not. What began as a powerful movement to empower the human spirit, to allow it to express itself in extraordinary works of philosophy, art, and science, soon degenerated into the “Cult of Me.” What resulted was  a fearful, industrialized world polluting the air and water and producing an economic system that equated wealth with success. But there’s more.

Among other things, we have come to confuse freedom with license, to descry restraint and self-discipline, to stress human rights and ignore human responsibilities, to see law as nothing more or less than a curb on the impulses that, being human, are ipso facto a good thing. “Let it all hang out!”  We wallow in a sea of self-importance while at the same time we dimly sense that something is missing, that there is more to life than pleasure and the “stuff” of which George Carlin makes delightful fun.

John Carroll sees the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as a symbol of the destruction of our puffed up sense of self that has morphed from humanism; it reveals to us all that human beings are not worthy of self-adoration, that there needs to be something more in our lives than our own selves. It seems trite somehow, but it is profound. For all its beauty and intellectual splendor, humanism was hollow at the center.

As Carroll notes,

“humanism failed because its I is not the center of creation in the sense of being creature and creator in one.”

The times demand greater self-awareness, the admission that humans are not the center of the world and that we need something greater than ourselves to provide our world with meaning if we are to avoid the continuance of what are essentially meaningless lives. It need not be God and it certainly need not be organized religion. But it demands an acceptance of the fact that we are a human community bound together by a common purpose, living on a fragile planet, and aware that there is something beyond our selves.

Capitalist Realism

I am reading a short book with the above title written by Mark Fisher. The author is a teacher in England who is both well read and articulate, though a bit enamored of postmodern jargon. His argument is a fascinating blend of insight and overstatement.

An example of his tendency to overstatement is his sweeping generalization about the inevitable destruction of the planet by “capitalist realism.” As he would have it, “. . .capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.” This claim flies in the face of the endeavors of such people as Elon Musk and the growth, world-wide, of the renewable energy movement which is clearly driven by the profit motive. The fact is that alternative energy is a step in the direction of saving, not destroying, the planet. And it is a step taken by capitalists — and those governments that support capitalism.

Fisher also conflates religion and superstition, almost in passing, as do so many intellectuals. The two are not the same, though in the case of many devotees the differences may be hard to make out. Superstition is a crutch the fearful lean upon to help them make it through the day and it attempts to explain the mysterious in simple terms that can be understood by the tiniest minds. It is above all things self-regarding.  Religion, on the others hand — at least in principle — requires faith in a Being greater than the self and demands constraints on impulse and a willingness to sacrifice self-interest in the name of sympathy, if not love, for others. In a word, religion demands that its followers do their duty; superstition demands nothing.

But when it comes to the topic of education, which is close to Fisher’s heart, the man has important things to say. Much of what he says rings true and echoes my own experience and that of the folks I have read and spoken with who are also concerned about the sorry state of education in our day.

Fisher worries about what he calls the “post-disciplinary framework” within which education finds itself today, a time when the very notion of discipline has been lost in the wave of education’s gobble-de-gook about “self-esteem” that leads invariably toward a sense of entitlement in the spoiled child. He worries, as do I, that education has also succumbed to the dreaded business model and is now all about profit and loss rather than about the students and their ability to function in an increasingly complicated world. He has also discovered the truly disturbing effects of the fascination on the part of the young with electronic toys and the social media. He is aware, as are growing numbers of people (backed by several recent studies) that they are addictive and that they stand between the young and their ability to use their minds in a thoughtful and productive way — a way that will benefit them and those around them. He draws upon first-hand experience to help us understand the pitfalls of the digital age in which these young people live and thrive:

“Ask students to read more than a couple of sentences and many — and these are A-level students mind you — will protest that they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint teachers hear is that it is boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is of issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed ‘boring.’ What we are facing here is not the time-honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored means simply to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. . . .

“The consequences of being hooked into the entertainment matrix is twitchy, agitated, impassivity, an inability to connect or focus. Students’ incapacity to connect current lack of focus with future failure, their inability to synthesize time into coherent narrative, is symptomatic of more than mere demotivation . . . . What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture — a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.”

In a word, the new electronic toys to which the young have become enslaved are standing between them and the possession of their own minds. They cannot possibly become educated citizens who are involved and able to creatively address the problems they will indubitably face in the future. Worse yet,

“By contrast with their forbears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged . . .[Moreover, they] seem resigned to their fate.”

Fisher blames it all on capitalism and he may be right. I suspect he is. But whether he is right or wrong about the cause of the inability of today’s young to become responsible participants in their own future what he says is disturbing, to say the least. And while many will dismiss his claims on his inability to understand the young — the latest version of the generation-gap — we must remind ourselves that he is himself young and much involved with others younger even than himself. And, more to the point, he just may be right. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger and think about what he is saying.

Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

Morrison’s Pill

Carl Gustav Jung noted in the 1930s that modern man is in search of a soul. Postmodern man denies he ever had one. In any event Jung proposed a number of possible substitutes for the loss of a deep relationship with a powerful and demanding God, and many of those suggestions have been taken to heart by a people who share a sense of the loss of certainties once so assured. Many would argue that those certainties were compensation for short lives, deprivation, wide-spread poverty, and human suffering; but, be that as it may, Jung was very much aware of the radical alteration in the outlook of a disenchanted  people who exchanged an all-pervasive religion for psychiatric counseling, T-groups, scientism, and creature comforts. The age of Industrialism, capitalism, and democracy came in with a roar and folks turned away from the heavens and toward their iPads and determined that their very own here and now was the most important thing.

One of those who worried about the radical changes and sought to cling to a past that was already dead — perhaps to resuscitate it and bring it back to life — was Thomas Carlyle, a conservative who, at the same time, espoused universal education and worried deeply about the disadvantaged, restless poor and what could be done to make their lives easier.

Carlyle was a staunch supporter of Oliver Cromwell and saw what he called the “Healing Parliament” of 1660 (usually referred to as the “Cavalier Parliament”) as the turning point in English History, marking the death of true religion for all intents and purposes. This Parliament acted in accord with Charles II who was restored to power after the death of Cromwell — one of Carlyle’s heroes. Carlyle saw him as a powerful man who could rule England with an iron fist and make the decisions that would heal her wounds and avoid another “reign of terror” that tore France asunder. In any event, the major results, as Carlyle saw it, of the “Healing Parliament” were the ruthless attempts to restore the Church of England and displace other religions, attempts that took the form of “repressive religious legislation.” Religion was once again experiencing a power struggle among the various Churches: the plight of ordinary folks was ignored in the fallout.

Carlyle saw what Jung saw later: human beings had become cut off from a God who could save them from any and all evils that might befall them while making the demands on their consciences that would result in the salvation of their immortal souls. Needless to say, these demands were not welcomed by increasing numbers of people who worried much more about the state of their pocketbook and where the next pint of ale might come from. Carlyle saw this alteration of focus as dangerous and ultimately catastrophic. In his book Past and Present — in which he wanders all over the place and sounds at times like a born-again preacher with a sense of humor (if you can imagine) — he makes a number of astute and somewhat startling observations. Regarding our love of money (including the Church’s love of money, of course) he has this to say:

“Money is Miraculous. What miraculous facilities has it yielded, will it yield us; but also what never-imagined confusions, obscurations has it brought in; down almost to total extinction of the moral sense in large masses of mankind. . . . Let inventive men consider whether the secret of this universe, and of man’s life there, does, after all, as we rashly fancy it, consist in making money?”

The problem, as Carlyle saw it, is precisely the loss of religion — not a religion we put on once a week for an hour and which allows us to seek wealth through self-indulgence, but rather a religion that demands that we seek virtue through self-sacrifice. He likened the recent practice of religion to taking a pill, one that would quickly and painlessly cure all ills. As he put it:

” . . . religion shall be a kind of Morrison’s Pill, which they have only to swallow once and all will be well. Resolutely once gulp down your Religion, your Morrison’s Pill, you have clear sailing now; you can follow your affairs, your no-affairs, go along with money-hunting, pleasure-hunting, etc. etc.”

The point of my bringing up the ramblings of a mind long dead and often dismissed out of hand is that despite his peculiarities, his concerns have been echoed by many intelligent folks who have lived since Carlyle died in 1880. One such thinker is the liberal economist Robert Heilbroner who notes in his study of capitalism that the passion of the capitalist to gain more and more wealth has created a “moral vacuum” in which anything goes and the end always justifies the means — the end being the maximizing of profits, needless to say. And, of course, there’s Jung, the brilliant psychiatrist, who echoes Carlyle’s regrets that modern man has lost his soul. As Carlyle would have it:

“There is no longer any God for us! God’s Laws are become a Greatest Happiness, a Parliamentary expediency: the Heavens overarch us only as an astronomical time-keeper . . . . man has lost the soul out of him; and now after the due period begins to find the want of it!”

One is tempted to dismiss this man as so many have done. But, still, he does make us think in our disjointed age — if we can think any more. Just because a man is a bit off-the-wall at times doesn’t mean he may not have important things to say!

Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.

Religious Americans?

In reading books by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have cited on numerous occasions in these posts, I delight in the fact that she and I agree so much with one another. This, of course, leads me to conclude that she is a brilliant woman, since brilliance is defined as “in agreement with oneself.” In any event, we do agree about so much and I have learned a great deal in reading her books. She insists on one point, however, that strikes me as simply mistaken and I decided to write this post pointing out just where I think she went wrong.

Himmelfarb insists that America is the most religious nation on earth — or certainly in the West, at any rate. She cites de Tocqueville as support who, when travelling in America in the nineteenth century, was struck by the religiosity of so many Americans. Indeed, he was convinced that the American Republic rested on religious faith. As he said:

“Religion is the first of [America’s] political institutions because it was the prerequisite of both freedom and morality — and thus of republican government itself. . . . [Freedom] considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own duration. . . . At the same time that the law allows the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

The problem is, of course, de Tocqueville visited America in 1831 for nine months and while his book was extraordinary — and still is — it may not be totally adequate to describe the state of things in this country today. But, more to the point, de Tocqueville and Himmelfarb both neglect to define what they mean by “religion” and this causes problems. Himmelfarb seems to mean by the word simply church and synagogue attendance which is higher in this country than it is in many European countries, especially France. As it happens, though, fewer than 40% of us report that we attend church regularly – and critics insist that this figure is inflated. In fact, attendance in church among the young has lately fallen off drastically and the vast majority of the “millennial” generation – born after 1980 – claim no church affiliation whatever. But, regardless of these figures, church attendance does not determine religiosity, especially in the age of mega-churches that serve our favorite coffee laté and provide us with television sets on site to fill our empty minutes when we are not browsing in the bookstore for souvenirs. Indeed, many churches are nothing more or less than social clubs where folks go to meet and greet one another for an hour or so of a Sunday in order to make themselves feel good about themselves.

But it behooves me to define what I mean by “religion.” When I was  freshman in college back in the dark ages I wrote a seminar paper on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as a religious work. The first question out of my seminar leader when I sat down to defend the paper was “what is religion?” I looked aghast. I gaped, I was stunned. I thought everyone knew what religion is! So I struggled and tried to bluff my way, which did not serve me well. Accordingly, I now seek to make amends for past failures and will define religion as a set of beliefs based on the conviction that there is something in the universe greater than the self and that we owe to that entity respect and reverence, even devotion. Those who are indeed religious center their lives around the worship of this entity and find meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to something greater than themselves.

Contrast today’s notion of what it means to be “religious” with the medieval world in Europe in which church was the center of most people’s lives, with daily attendance (sometimes twice daily), prayers in the evenings, and total dedication to making one’s life on this earth a preparation for the next one. In that regard, I do think Lucretius’ book was religious and his “entity” was Nature, which he sought to love and respect and, as far as possible, become one with. In doing so, as a Stoic, he was convinced that, with discipline and determination, we could become one with something greater than ourselves and find peace in a chaotic world. For the truly religious, there is profound mystery in the world and it gives meaning to their lives.

In that regard, there do not seem to me to be many religious Americans. The data suggest that the traditional churches are closing their doors or seeking to conform to the pattern of the non-denominational churches that focus on fellowship and good feeling, demanding as little as possible from the parishioners and continually reassuring them that they are loved and are among the happiest and luckiest people on this earth. In a word, those churches that do manage to fill their pews do not demand “respect and reverence” for the God they profess to worship. Certainly not sacrifice. Parishioners, for the most part, do not center their lives around the church and its teachings. Indeed, the churches demand very little of their worshippers at all. They seek, rather, to make things as easy as possible for the congregation so they will continue to attend and help pay for the new roof.

I exaggerate, of course, but I seek to make a serious point: the claim that Himmelfarb makes about the supposed religiosity of the American people rests on flimsy evidence and flies in the face of the fact that so many “religious” people in this country have tended to resort quickly to violence, elect self-absorbed morons to political offices, and are caught up in the self-as-God movement which places the focus of their lives on themselves and not on something greater than themselves “out there” in the world. I conclude therefore that Himmelfarb was mistaken — at least on this topic.

Ethics Schmethics!

Not long after the Republicans in the dark of night, prior to the opening of the new session, eliminated the independent Office of Congressional Ethics they knuckled under to immense pressure to rescind the move. It would have placed the responsibility for determining ethical and non-ethical practices in the hands of the Congress itself. But despite the reversal this attempt sends a clear message to the world: ethics simply don’t matter; they just get in the way of what we want to do. It isn’t so much that the independent group was doing its “due diligence” and watching the hen-house like a fox (who eats only naughty hens) and that now the fox will be dismissed. It’s the principle of the thing, and “taking it back,” or “having your fingers crossed” does not alter the fact that this is what the group wants to do! The horse is out of the barn and we now know exactly what it look like!

As a nervous electorate waits to see what sorts of mayhem the new president will bring with him and worries that his choices for Cabinet members begin to look more and more like a F.B.I. “Most Wanted” list, now we hear that the Republican Congress would prefer to not have anyone hold its feet to the fire and make sure that they play by the rules. None of us is quite certain what those rules are, of course, but it is reassuring that there are some (somewhere) and that someone every now and again will still be ready to raise a red flag when a Congressman or a Congresswoman commit an egregious act of some sort.

We live in an age of ethical relativism. The standard question when ethical questions are raised is “who’s to say?” This applies not only to the Congress, but to the country at large. The notion that there are things that are simply right or simply wrong has pretty much disappeared behind the smokescreen of doubt and self-assertion. Thus, it makes no sense to wonder what sorts of principles are applied to those who sit in Congress and waste the taxpayers’ money. But the notion that there are still some restraints on their otherwise unbridled graft and greed, vague though the restraints may be, is somehow reassuring.

I have always argued that there are ethical principles that cut across cultures and apply to all individuals as well. Most people agree without realizing what this implies. When an atrocious act is committed — like date rape or domestic violence — we don’t simply say “that’s not the way we do things here in Sacramento.” We say, “Dammit! That’s wrong and someone should be punished.” Despite our rejection of abstract ethical principles, most feel that somewhere a line must be drawn. I fully agree, though I think there’s more to it than that.

The ethical principles of which I speak have to do with such things as respect for persons — all persons — and fairness. These are principles that form the warp and woof of every religion in the world and they form the background for the ethics of such thinkers as Immanuel Kant as well. They may not be openly accepted by everyone, but they provide a base on which to construct a dialogue with other people here in this country and elsewhere in the world. We can always ask “Why? and wonder if a particular act in faraway India (such as Sati), or in the darkest parts of Africa (such as clitoridectomies) are wrong —  even if those who practice such things are convinced that they are not. Dialogue is possible at the very least.

But we now have the governing body in this country saying, loud and clear, ethics be damned — though they would have us believe they had their fingers crossed. They don’t want anyone, fox or otherwise, watching the henhouse. They would prefer to keep an eye on it themselves. On the contrary, I would argue that effective or not, there must be a body assigned to the specific duty of watching what the hell the hens are up to. Keeping an eye on it themselves pretty much guarantees that they will be up to no good and no one will hear about it until it is too late. It’s good to know that enough people were so outraged by this vote that it was rescinded almost immediately. Let’s hope those same folks aren’t too busy texting their friends or checking Facebook to cry out when the next outrage issues forth from Washington.

Empty Churches

Abandoned Church Photo by Matthias Haker

Abandoned Church
Photo by Matthias Haker

The photograph on this page is one of a series of abandoned churches around the world taken by German photographer Matthias Haker. Interestingly, he does not name the churches or the places where they can be located. But all are, like this one, abandoned and falling apart. The pictures tell a story much more powerful than words: like the churches, religion is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

This is not a popular theme and I have written about it in the past with little or no response. People don’t like to think about it. But the fact remains that traditional churches, generally, are being abandoned and turned into apartments, homes, or even public houses and taverns. The latter are simply more useful in a culture absorbed by itself and its pleasures. The church which has traditionally made demands of people — following the admonitions in the New Testament — preaches to closed ears and closed minds.

To be sure, the mega-churches have grown in size while their preachers buy jet planes and try to explain their huge salaries in light of the fact that the Gospel they preach urges all to give up their wealth and follow the Lord. But these mega-churches, as I have noted in the past, are really gathering places for folks who want to give the appearance of being religious while, during the rest of the week — if not the rest of the day — they go back to business as usual. It should not be thought for a moment that those churches have anything whatever to do with religion. They simply collect people once a week in huge buildings complete with coffee bars, lounge chairs, TVs, and bookstores selling the latest publication written by the man standing before them in flowing robes pretending to be a model of religious purity.

Indeed, the commonality among all religions is the notion of sacrifice. Those who seek to follow the path laid out for them by divine direction always, without exception, must sacrifice short-term pleasure and control their desires in order to do “the right thing,” the holy thing. The notion that one can simply “go to church” once a week and ipso facto be a religious person borders on the absurd. There is nothing whatever about attending church in, for example, the New Testament, though there is a great deal about the sacrifices required in order to do what is required to purify one’s soul.

But, like the churches themselves, the notion of the soul, along with the concern for what might happen to it after one’s body finally gives up, are passé. That’s yesterday’s news. Today, it’s all about growing the numbers of communicants and making sure they are told what they want to hear and not required to do what they might find demanding. Talk about sacrifice would result in wholesale exiting of the congregation in order to find a more appealing church to attend of a Sunday. I know of a specific case in which a large portion of a congregation left a particular church because the leaders had decided that it was acceptable to hire homosexual preachers. Now, the fact that the number of homosexual preachers can probably be counted on one hand, it was regarded, nevertheless, as a matter of “principle.” That is, it was grounds for rejection of a doctrine that is consistent with the love preached in the Gospels, because those retreating members regarded that doctrine as unacceptable. Today it’s not about what others demand of us, it’s about what we demand of ourselves. And that seldom, if ever, requires any sacrifice whatever.

Thus the crumbling and abandoned churches. Nietzsche was right: God is dead. We don’t need Him any more. We’ve got Google.

Our Violent Age

In a brilliant short story the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges attempts to get inside the head of a Nazi war criminal, Otto Dietrich zur Linde. The man awaits execution and is writing, not an apology, but an explanation of what led him to assist in the execution of Jews. He feels no contrition since he is convinced he is part of a historical movement that will bring the dawn of a new day — even after the defeat of Germany by the allies. He believes that he is dying for a great cause, much like the martyrs who died for Christianity. And that thought consoles him. “To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully. . .The battle and the glory are easy.” And Nazism was a religion, of sorts.

One of the Jews that zur Linde must “deal with” is a poet by the name of David Jerusalem who is brought before him, a man he greatly admires. Finding himself unable to condemn Jerusalem to the gas chambers, he gradually drives him mad until the man takes his own life. Still, zur Linde has no regrets. With Jerusalem, he tells us, whatever compassion he may have felt died.

The “new age” that zur Linde thinks is dawning and which makes these sacrifices worthwhile is an age of violence.

“Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age and are now its victims. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules.”

Now, aside from the fact that zur Linde is borrowing from Nietzsche, whose philosophy informed the thinking of many a Nazi and who condemned Christianity as the religion of the weak, we have here a profound and penetrating observation: we now live in an age of violence. All international disagreements are solved by killing. The Christian religion of love and forgiveness, if it ever truly blossomed, is no longer possible in this new age.

This is a bleak outlook, to say the least. And it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a novelist’s attempt to understand the tortured thinking of a condemned Nazi. It is all of that, and it is gruesome, to say the least. Evil is gruesome and most of us cannot stand to even think about it. Hanna Arendt, after studying the Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, concluded that evil is banal, more common than we can imagine. That, too, is a gruesome thought. But it is one we really ought to ponder, since it does appear that Christianity is no longer a force in our world — it does not course through the veins of the average Westerner as it did in the middle ages when, we are told, there were no atheists. Today we do not find a religion that demands sacrifices and appeals to the weak the least bit appealing, since we cannot imagine ourselves to be such a person. We are strong and life is not about sacrificing what we want. And we solve our problems with violence, not diplomacy and civil discourse.

I don’t know how much of Borges’ tale I buy into. But I find it worth pondering, since we do seem bent on shooting first and asking questions afterwards. “Make my day!” To be sure, men have been prone to violence throughout the ages. But while we regard the “Great War” as the war to end all wars, it “only” cost an estimated 20 million deaths, as contrasted with the Second World War which cost an estimated 60 to 85 million deaths. Joseph Stalin alone was supposed to have been responsible for 20 million deaths, in addition to the millions the Nazis killed. At the end of World War II England ordered the bombing of Dresden, which had no military objective whatever. And even ignoring the atom bomb, which may or may not have been justified by war standards, America, which is supposed to command the moral high ground, has recently condoned torture and sent drones into the far East to kill supposed terrorists, while also taking thousands of civilian deaths in what is callously referred to as “collateral damage.” Moreover, nine countries count 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals, any one of which would drarf the atomic bombs used in the Second World War.

We tend to think of strangers, such as the Syrian refugees, as a threat rather than as folks to be welcomed into our hearts and homes. We find it difficult to “live religion fully.” Instead, we pay lip service to religion and bend it to our preferred way of looking at the world. True religion makes demands on us and we are not comfortable with a doctrine that requires that we do our duty and love our neighbor. Perhaps we do live in a new age, one that rejects love and finds it much easier to hate.