This is not a separate essay. As the section numbers indicate, these reflections are the continuation of the last post “The Sense of the Sacred,” Aug 2, and are built on those premises.
The sense of the sacred is always associated with the community on which survival depends. So the religious rituals of self-sacrifice performed the secondary function of sacralizing social life by grounding the community — its routines, its regulations, its castes and its “values” — in the wellspring of the sacred, but always in terms of religion’s separation of the sacred from the profane. As society changed — specifically in how it guaranteed survival — what religion had narrowly sanctioned as “sacred” had to change with it; if it didn’t, society would generate a religion that would. Society and religion are integral. Theocracy is the normal state of affairs; it is natural. Religion is society’s sounding board for declaring its values sacred. Those values are what justify society’s survival system guaranteeing existence.
The adjustments made by Christianity in the second century of the common era is an example of a change of this type. It adapted to living permanently with and within the Roman Empire instead of actively anticipating Rome’s downfall in the Second Coming. Those modifications were responsible for allowing Rome to feel confident that in selecting Christianity as its state religion it was not shooting itself in the foot. There were a number of features that assured the empire that its own existence and values were safe with Christianity: hierarchy, a rigid upper-class control of authority and ritual, a quid pro quo “salvation” conditioned on compliant behavior judged by a demanding “God” who sanctioned Rome’s right to rule. It was a far cry from the original invitation to join Jesus’ “Way,” an egalitarian movement of the common people wrapped in the arms of a merciful “God” who promised the final overthrow of Rome’s system of injustice and idolatry. Christianity effectively re-invented itself, choosing to function on a dynamic that was quite the opposite of that of its founder. It changed its world-view from one-world to two, and embraced as its own the class structures that were at the very heart of Roman exploitation. Christianity never challenged the ancient Mediterranean economic system which was based entirely on slavery on a vast scale. Control by an aristocratic hierarchy and serfs bound to the land remained in place throughout the subsequent history of Europe in all the nations of the West including the Americas, until the late 18th century. And all through that time its sacred justification was provided by the Catholic Church and its many reformed versions, very few of which ever challenged those structures.
We can’t fail to appreciate the political implications of all this. These dynamics are not just the fall-out of ancient illusions; they are invariables that do not change with time or with the symbols that objectify them. The Catholic/Christian hierarchy was tied to the Roman Imperial, class-based world-view. They have not officially represented European nations since Europe’s “democratizing” project began with the French and American revolutions. The Christian state religions of Europe disappeared but left a great tension in their wake. Society requires a “religion.” We are still defined by the inescapable need to sacralize the social realities by which we survive and work out our destiny. Our sense of the sacred will not go away, and the connection between survival (being-here, existence), the community, what we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for, and “God” is a constant. “God” is a projection of human existential dependency. It is naturally dominated by society’s existential (survival) role. Young men have always killed one another and died willingly for their clan and nation even though they were of the same religion. Religion did not create this disposition; it was an innate inclination and ancient religion was the expression of it. The human proclivity to be of service to the “sacred” as determined by the survival community will continue to function in the absence of an established religion; it will ineluctably interpret as sacred the processes by which the community currently guarantees survival, and it will eventually develop symbols and rituals — however “irreligious” they may at first appear — that objectify and externalize those “sacred” processes. In the United States politically conservative Christians, the most socially prominent of whom are the Roman Catholic hierarchy, are currently attempting to redefine Christianity along the lines of the “modern” sacred categories of economic wealthmaking — the corporate business model — in an attempt to align their religion with the values that rule our societies. The fact that this redefinition stands in stark contrast to the words and spirit of their founder is generally not a matter of serious concern — nor has it ever been.
This is not the willful immorality of greedy and arrogant men, it is the normal process by which society attempts to find a way to declare itself sacred. A new sacred world view begins to emerge and to function as the old religion did, shaping and subordinating all of economic, political and social activities to the new values. If a traditional religion can re-tool itself to do this, all the better. In the case of Christianity, impossible as it was to imagine, it changed itself to reflect the sacred structures and values of the Roman Empire. If it wants to become the “state religion” of today’s global capitalist empire currently managed by the United States, it will have to reinvent itself once again. Some believe that transformation is, in fact, well under way and that a return to theocracy, now openly part of political discourse, lies ahead.
In our times, traditional hieratic controls and their associated values in the West began to be abandoned two hundred years ago with the collapse of the ancien regime and its birth-right nobility rooted in land and agricultural wealth. The Catholic/Christian hierarchy had been wed to that nobility. Simultaneously, the industrial and political revolutions spawned a technology-led world of values focused on “freedom,” increasingly interpreted in our day to mean the opportunity for any individual to pursue the unlimited accumulation of wealth for the purposes of consuming at levels once available only to the aristocracy — the “good life.” The “divine birth-right” class structures supposedly razed in that transition, were quickly re-erected under the rubric of the “superiority” displayed by individuals who had the ability to produce and accumulate wealth. Wealthmaking took the place of nobility of birth; it became an ultimate value and qualified the economically successful — despite their lack of political credentials and experience (like movie stars)— for membership in the ruling elite. Political power was now a derivative of wealth and not birth. By our time it has already become “tradition” and is given the deference reserved for venerable elders.
The current survival pattern in mass society is based on industrial production. Even our food is produced in industrial modes. Production and consumption are mutually dependent aspects of this system. This is the mechanism by which the community provides actual survival and security to its individual members, hence it has become sacred and its sacredness radiates out to sacralize whatever serves and strengthens the system.
Each side of the cycle of production and consumption requires the other. Production must be aimed at providing what consumers want, and consumers must be encouraged to want what is being produced or the system will fail. Success in selling, and active participation in buying not just anything, but specifically the products that are being made by the production machinery, take on a value — a “sacredness” — determined by the needs of the survival system as it has evolved regardless of its relevance to the optimal physical and spiritual health of the human organism. In order to guarantee survival, the system itself must first survive, and consumers must be made to “sacrifice themselves” for it. These are common patterns that have defined the “sacred” life of the species since time immemorial. People sacrifice themselves for the survival of their way of life. Human society is like a “superorganism” and its parts and members spontaneously live for what they see is the good of the whole … by which they survive.
This accounts for some of the anomalies that characterize our times. For example: national governments like our own, dedicated to keeping the system alive, use public funds to shore up industries and enterprises which provide dubiously important goods and services on the claim that they are so essential to society’s survival that they cannot be allowed to fail. Governments are also officially in the business of finding overseas clients (consumers) for their producing industries. Where a country like ours has, for historic reasons, developed a machinery for making weapons of war, the government encourages other governments, however poor their people, to buy these military supplies, effectively transforming themselves into warmaking nations pushing their neighbors to arm themselves in self-defense. In 2012 The US accounted for 79% of arms sold to third world countries. This insanity does not come from a satanic desire to foment wars or to divert much needed resources from the poor, it is the result of having to support the nation’s productive sector and the high paying “jobs” that it supports. No religion denounces it.
An entire industry has developed — advertising — dedicated to manipulating consumers so they will desire the items that are being produced regardless of quality or need. The tools of persuasion employed to these ends can be so seductive, and their public display so unavoidable, that they undermine the individual’s self-possession and self-control. Studies have shown that the high American obesity rate and associated disorders like type 2 diabetes correlate with the avalanche of advertising by large restaurant and fast-food chains. Despite everyone’s recognition that this is more than a mere annoyance, and that the damage to the public’s health is significant and costly, there is no effort to control it; rather, consistent with the analysis presented here, it is declared constitutionally protected speech: advertising is essential to the running of the system, and so is “sacred.” The churches, of course, never say a word about it.
Few remain unaffected by the brainwashing. People find themselves drawn into habits of “conspicuous consumption” where a decision to buy is not made because of need, but for other reasons: a visible proof of their worth as consumers — their value as participating members of society — and a response to subconscious desires created by commercial advertising.
Valid members of society are certified as such by their participation in the consumption of what the economic machinery is producing. The pursuit of “social justice” is co-opted and rendered acceptable because it is seen as the attempt to include more people in the consumption benefits of the “good life,” thus strengthening the system. Those who don’t agree with these values are considered eccentric if not sociopathic. This applies to those who dare to pursue “other” goals: the formation of an egalitarian, classless society, the radical equalization of wealth and international power, the enrichment of human relationships, a pursuit of knowledge for wisdom and not for “higher paying jobs,” the enjoyment of manual skills and communal labor, eliminating reliance on the production machinery of the system, solitude, silence, and the contemplation of LIFE. These “sociopaths” are often (self) quarantined in asylums of varying degrees of coercion and respectability, from jails to monasteries. Why do we all find this “normal”? … because the definition of what is “sacred” is dependent on the actual survival systems that are in place. We all know what is expected of us even if it is never articulated: producers must provide what will sell (this includes intellectual, esthetic and religious “products”), and consumers must buy what is being sold (however superfluous) … and we comply.
Careers and life-styles are chosen, not because of interest in the work, but because people want to secure for themselves sufficient consumer power to sustain their recognized membership in “respectable” society. “Respectability” is the system reinforcing itself by transforming what it needs into “sacred values;” those who do not venerate those values are ostracized. This is the role of religion. It sanctions the status quo — it “baptizes” how we actually survive and galvanizes people into the common effort. Those that think it functions otherwise are living in illusion.
Contrary to what many believe, this is not a corruption of religion, it is rather its authentic historic role. Society is normally and naturally a theocracy. Mystics like Jesus and the Buddha were eccentrics — sociopaths — who were so appalled at conditions and so transfixed by the universality of the sacred and its echo in us that they were able to transcend society’s mediation of existence entirely and relate directly to its source in our sense of the sacred. Their sense of the sacred did not correspond to any existing social structures and so could not be immediately utilized. Each of them took the symbol of “God” from their ancestral religion and revised it so radically (Buddha eliminating it altogether) that it could no longer serve to support their society’s sacred claims. Each ended up negating the social order of his day. Jesus projected the end of the world and the beginning of a society ruled by “God” himself, and the Buddha counseled leaving society entirely and permanently living in the sangha, an alternative community sheltered from society’s false “sacred.” Their visions implied a new society. Their message was a rebellion against the status quo. Each was later co-opted and harnessed into service by being integrated into their contemporary society’s religious project. And so their visions were deformed. Now we have the delicious irony of a Jesus who said we had a “loving Father” who forgave all, himself being turned into the “Terrible Judge” of the living and the dead, and a Buddha who rejected belief in the gods entirely, being made a god who grants what people desire.
There are a number of ways people have reacted to modernization and the end of state religions, but they never go so far as to challenge consumer-focused wealthmaking as sacred and the consuming individual as the symbol of respectability — the “proper” (sacred) way of being-here as a human being. Conservatives loudly bemoan the loss of the “old values” embedded in traditional religions and claim to seek to reimpose them. But it is significant and very revealing that they do not challenge the heuristic role of wealth in the exercise of political power: they do not advocate for the re-installation of birthright aristocracy. But while their own self-interest is surely a factor here, what I want to emphasize is that they are promoting a value that has gained credibility as the sacred symbol of the system by which we all currently survive; wealthmaking and the wealthy consumer are icons that are now old enough to be respected as tradition.
Then there are the people conservatives call “liberal” whom they accuse of simply letting the “takers” (non-wealthmakers) guide economic and social policy. In an “Ayn Rand” scenario, conservatives equate the accumulation of wealth with hard work and intelligence, the qualities of “superior” human beings. You don’t have to know someone personally to know their “worth” as human beings, you just have to look at their level of consumption. Liberals are accused of not respecting the accumulation of wealth as the sacred guiding principal of personal superiority, social aspiration and the true indicator of the right to rule. It is similarly revealing, however, that liberals for their part do not argue with the premise, but rather vociferously deny the charge. They make it a point to declare the goal of public policy to be the “good life” for all, an expansion of the power to consume at high levels identified as “middle-class,” a maneuver they insist will strengthen the system. There is no commitment whatsoever to reduce superfluous consumption, to pursue the equalization of wealth or the elimination of the enormous disparities of income in a world where one half of the population of the earth, 3 billion people, live on less than $3 per day. Conservatives seem not to hear any of this this and insist on denouncing liberals as “socialists” which identifies them as demonic — the anti-Christ. Their sense of the sacred is clearly in play here. But in fact, from the perspective of sacred values there is no difference between them and they are both supported by religion.
Practically, however, those differences can be very important because even a slightly more equitable distribution of wealth can spell the difference between life and death for people on the edge; but I want to emphasize, that is more a by-product than a goal. Liberals’ redistribution efforts are rarely couched in such basic terms; they prefer to describe their policies as functions of upward mobility — giving more people access to the “middle class” and the power to consume at respectable levels. It reveals that whatever else is going on, the system will always be served and preserved. There is, in fact, no serious talk of socialism, and for conservatives to call the adjustments proposed by liberals socialism is ludicrous.
They are both illustrations of the undisputed place of the power to consume as the sacred value in the culture of our time. The entire globe is now infected with its pursuit. Whether in the long run this will be good or bad, beneficial or not, for a human species that must find ways to sustain the earth’s life-support systems and sister species if it is itself to survive, remains to be seen. But we can be sure of one thing in advance: whatever guarantees being-here will eventually become “sacred” and society will find some way to proclaim it loud and clear.
The upshot of the discussion so far is that the sense of the sacred is an abiding feature of humankind as it has evolved. The claim that the loss of tradition entails the loss of the sense of the sacred is simply not true. The sense of the sacred cannot be lost. The loss of tradition involves a change in the focus of the sense of the sacred and therefore a change in what symbols are used to objectify it, and what kind of society it sanctions, but the sense of the sacred remains. It can be manipulated, deformed and exploited, but it cannot be eliminated for it is our instinctive predisposition to recognize and cherish the matrix in which we live and move and have our being.
As a non-rational instinct, our sense of the sacred functions less like reason and more like taste. The principal source of taste is tradition. People tend to like what their ethnic and family traditions have liked. Food is a prime example, but tradition determines taste in many areas, like politics and religion. Tradition is an objectified set of symbols — a world-view — whose values are held in high regard because of precedent alone. It is the power of social inertia. What is sacred is what everyone believes has always worked for community survival. Like the common instinct to do what you see everyone else doing, respect for what people “have always done” is an non-rational survival mechanism, hard-wired in us by evolution, of awesome weight and momentum.
Traditional taste is dominated by assurances that are not rationally grounded. They come only from a trust in what we believe worked for our ancestors. The naïve attempt to make the current system conform to the traditional “sacred” is pathetic and doomed to failure; few really try it though they couch their goals in those terms. The truth, as always, is rather the opposite: religion tends to conform to the system within which it lives and survives.
Part of what complicates these issues in our times is the simultaneous presence of multiple obsolete historical traditions and their availability for the refined taste of the discriminating consumer. In this form religion has become a “product” of commercial enterprise. Like a museum that provides an esthetic experience of life in another era, the “Church” makes a business of offering the experience of an ancient tradition as an item for sale, and thus secures a respectable place for itself as a wealthmaking business in a business society. The traditional “sacred” it brokers, however, is irrelevant to the times we live in, as its own submission before the “god” of the marketplace for its self-identity shows. The overt call, quite explicit in documents coming from the Catholic hierarchy, for church personnel to concentrate on promoting the “Catholic brand” and the crass marketing of “Catholic education” to those who can pay regardless of religious affiliation makes the case clearly. The corporate business model dominates Catholic policy in practice and is more consciously articulated as such all the time.
Whatever “new sacred” might be emerging under pressure from new survival imperatives created by our global economy at the present moment does not (yet) enjoy the assurances that come with time and tradition. Conservatives are afraid, correctly in my opinion, that future survival for our self-consciously global community depends upon an abandonment of many of the practices that are proving to be destructive of the earth’s ability to sustain life, and will require an equalization of wealth and power across the globe. Both these inevitabilities will entail a radical reduction in consumption as currently enjoyed by the heretofore privileged “first world.” Traditional focus on wealth and the wealthy will no longer work. Emerging needs will require “socialism,” and tradition cannot support it. Accepted tradition, per se, carries weight regardless of the incredibility or even absurdity of the objectified symbols it happens to rest on. Conservative ideologues attempt to provide some rational support to what is really cherished and chosen for other reasons, not for their relevance to what the human community actually needs.
It is proverbial that you cannot argue with taste. You can argue with the rationalized world-view that is adduced to support it, but since taste is tied to a tradition embraced for itself and ultimately without needing any further reason, demolishing its rational supports will change nothing. It will simply reveal the non-rational roots of these preferences.
It hardly needs stating that when conservatives claim that the loss of tradition has caused a loss of the sense of the sacred, what they are really complaining about is that the sense of the sacred is now beginning to project different sacred objects — symbols and rituals that do not accord with their taste. They simply do not like the emerging world-view, which they presciently call socialist; but they cannot claim that it represents a loss of the sense of the sacred. The sense of the sacred cannot be lost, it can only be changed. They do not want these newly emerging values to determine how society will structure itself. They want to preserve “old” structures. It is not surprising; those structures are the very ones that preserve (their) wealth and privilege.