An Imperial People

February 2017

2,200 words

Commenting on the conundrum we find ourselves in, faced with the clearly autocratic mindset of Donald Trump compounded by his lack of emotional maturity, Frank Lawlor, observed recently:

We have … to recognize that, as in most historical cases of upheaval, millions of our fellow citizens have willed this historical event for us all.  We have to save our national values and in the process to respect our brothers and sisters who have chosen this path for our nation.

That statement is as paralyzing as it is profound.

Lawlor’s lament is focused on the central paradox: that the problem is not Donald Trump.  Narcissistic autocrats like Trump have always abounded.  By themselves they are a threat to no one.  The problem is that more than 63 million Americans voted to give him power, even after his racist message and truncated character development had been on public display for a year and a half.  Like an IED, the home-made bomb of the “terrorist” wars, what detonated unexpectedly in our faces was the myth that the American People could be trusted to prevent any such person from getting close enough to do damage to our hallowed values as a democratic republic.  Lawlor’s stunned recognition of popular complicity with Trump’s agenda silently asks: how could such a thing happen?

My thesis is this: vast numbers of the American People embraced Donald Trump’s narcissistic definition of the meaning and purpose of American power as self-aggran­dize­ment — the control of others: Imperialism — as essential to maintaining our way of life.  The American People are an Imperial People — the inheritors of the post-war American Empire that has meant wealth for ordinary working people beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  We have come to believe that such wealth is our “right,” earned by our merits, a natural superiority falsely linked to race, culture and religion, and something we are entitled to hold onto.  Trump supporters are not the only ones who believe that.  All Americans have more than a touch of it, and like any self-exal­ting self-deception, we all have to work at controlling it or it will devour us.

power

At the very base of all this is the famous “ring of power” that Tolkien made the centerpiece of his saga.  Power feels like freedom because it allows us do what we want.  But first we have to recognize that power is a fantasy.  Until power takes on concrete existence by being exercised, it’s only in the imagination.  One can imagine using power for any number of purposes.  This is where the door opens to the demonic.  For when the psychopathic imagination — driven to compensate for personal insecurity — couples power to self-aggrandizement it precipitates a behavior the Greeks called hubris: an irrational identification of personal well-being with supremacy over others and its inverse: the belief that another person’s ascendancy represents a net loss for myself.

Some very experienced doctors of the American Psychiatric Association have publicly written to warn us that, and I quote, “His widely reported symptoms of mental instability, including grandiosity, impulsivity, hyper-sensitivity to slights or criticisms, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office.” (Gloria Steinem, 1/21/2017)

When you’re speaking of the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth, whose military and economic stature towers over all others, the possibility that a self-exalting hubris will piggy-back on power projections beyond national borders, augurs ominously for the future of global society.   I’m not the only one who thinks this is what drove Mr. Trump to seek the presidency.  Already wealthy beyond measure, like Julius Caesar he was looking to secure his historical immortality by finding a Gaul to conquer, and he sold his legions of followers on the promise of plunder if they helped him do it.  Like Trump, Caesar rode to triumph on the backs of his supporters.  But Caesar was less constrained.  He lived in a culture of competing egos; he did not have to disguise his motivations.  He could admit openly that he wept because by 33 Alexander of Macedon had conquered the world, and he, Caesar, had done nothing.  Trump lives in a “Christian” culture.  He has to disguise his intentions: the rest of the world is ripping us off, he said, putting us down, creating a “carnage” of the American People.  For Caesar, Gaul was not a threat, it was an opportunity.  I believe Trump’s neo-imperialism is the same, and he has harnessed ordinary Americans — an Imperial People — to pull his war chariot because like the Roman legionaries, they think they are going to partake of the plunder. The hubris is collective.

Hubris is an ego-mania that tends to spawn analogous ego-related reactions in others because it threatens their own insecurities.  The human species seems particularly vulnerable to this false identification of individual well-being with the emasculation of others.   The whole scene descends into the madness of a zero-sum game: anything that enhances you diminishes me, and if I am to succeed at my obsessive task of creating myself by my achievements, you are in my way, you must be correspondingly diminished.  It’s bad enough when it’s found in individuals, it’s chaos when it runs rampant in society, but to have it function internationally is the depths of insanity.

I believe that what happened to our country is that the perception of superior power which is a function of our military capability and economic control, was tarnished by the series of debacles in the middle east, starting with the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters and compounded by the failure to control events in Egypt, Libya and ultimately Syria and the “Caliphate” (ISIS) in the aftermath of the “Arab spring.”  For an Imperial People who have come to believe that they are destined by heaven to rule the world (and be rewarded handsomely for doing it), any “self-determi­na­tion” on the part of others that doesn’t mesh with our interests is intolerable.

The crime of unused power

In this context, you can understand the rise of Donald Trump, floated to the surface by none other than the Imperial People of the United States.  After what has been a series of Vietnam-type humiliations, the ordinary American has come to accept the right-wing argument that his aspirations to a living standard above that of the majority of mankind have been undermined by the failure to exercise American power, rather than the failure to control a capitalist economic system that breeds massive inequality.  Rising standards of living in China, India, Brazil, Korea and other erstwhile “third world” countries accompanied by an increase of their international clout are taken as indications of a corresponding American decline.  But I want to emphasize: there is no  decline.  It is pure fiction.  What is causing consternation is that American Imperial status is no longer acknowledged by people who are beginning to feel and act like our equals.  What’s wrong with that?  This is what the Imperial mindset, silently harbored by the American people and rallied into a deafening roar by Trump’s rhetoric, will not tolerate.  The talk of “American carnage” is in reality a nostalgia for an imagined superiority and accompanying wealth that are pure fantasy, and to which, at any rate, we have no right.   The fantasy has been fanned into obsessive demand and made to work in tandem with Trump’s personal megalomania.

Many people agree about Trump’s emotional morbidity, but  what explains the totally unexpected identification of tens of millions of people with those adolescent needs?  In the case of the 2016 elections the perception projected by Trump was that there was American power lying around that was not being used, and that the refusal to use power for our own ascendancy was a direct cause of the ascendancy of our enemies and therefore was contributing to our national abasement which he said was reflected in the ordinary American’s economic stagnation and insecurity.  That was the excuse he offered and the people who supported him rushed to buy it.  But please notice: the rush was a distraction.  Its effect, if not its purpose, was to bypass rationality … because everyone knew it was a lie.  It was meant to blur the undeniable fact that the country was doing quite well economically by every parameter, especially reflected in the continued growth in the upper sectors’ share of national income.  Reality was not allowed to dampen Trump supporters’ eagerness to embrace his message.  Instead of repairing the system that has created the massive inequality that is really responsible for middle class discontent  (and secretly hoping someday to be the beneficiaries of it), I contend that these people consciously decided to join Trump in employing the excuse that their own problems were the  result  of a non-existent national abasement in order to justify the use of American power to control and plunder the rest of the world.  The ultimate reason for the Roman conquest of Gaul was that landless, impoverished Roman soldiers wanted Gallic land as much as Caesar wanted Roman glory.  Likewise, the ultimate reason for the election of Donald Trump is that the Imperial People want to maintain their higher standard of living by lording it over the rest of the world and refusing to share what they have with those they consider non-Americans, even if they happen to live here and are citizens.  They want that as badly as Trump wants to enter Valhalla.  It’s a pact made in hell.

That was Trump’s message, and despite losing by almost 3 million votes, the fact that he got 63 million people to agree with him would pose a major problem for this country no matter who happened to be elected president.  You can’t have half the politically active people of a nation sympathize with the marginalization of large segments of their own population and the employment of international thuggery to plunder other nations in the name of national ascendancy and expect that your democracy is going to endure in anything but name.  Democracy is predicated on mutual respect.  Without it, it is a dry empty shell waiting to shatter into dust. Even if Clinton had won (and it’s not clear that her foreign policy would have been all that different from Trump’s), the presence of massive numbers of these Imperial People ready to follow their next champion in the work of engorging themselves on the wealth and labor of others around the world, and suppressing efforts to share wealth and security among the poorer strata of the American population, would have continued the gridlock obstructionism that the Republican Party has made the hallmark of its contribution to American Politics for the last 20 years.  By making that accusation I do not mean to exonerate Democrats who now can be expected to begin to dance to the tune that Trump has proved is a delight to the ears of so many Americans.  We have to remember what the term “Clinton Democrats” meant.

The fantasy of Empire

Such Democrats would convince us that there is a way of being “Empire” that is “win-win”: i.e., good for us and good for others.  But it’s a contradiction.  Cooperation and collaboration can be “win-win,” negotiation and arbitration can be “win-win,” but no version of “empire,” which means only and always that one people rule and control others, can be win-win no matter what the kick-back arrangement.  For empire means control and servitude even when for some reason and at some moment it doesn’t mean oppression and exploitation.  No such relationship between nations and peoples is humanly valid, therefore it is not durable and must be constantly maintained by force and fear.

It is time we disabused ourselves of that fantasy.  The Age of Empires is over, relegated to the virtual realities of video games; the harsh violence they assume as the functioning motivation of all human enterprise is a thing of the past.  We, as a species, have turned that corner even if there still exists an Imperial People who have yet to accept it.  It’s time we cast these demons out of our heads.  We know better.  “Empire” won’t work because it can’t work.

If we are to have a future as a species it will have to be characterized by international cooperation, negotiation, and collaboration derived from mutual respect and a sincere esteem for all people as people.  We are never going to stop 63 million people from doing what they think is the best thing for them.  Our only hope going forward … and in the long term … is to help them to understand what the best thing for them really is.  They must begin to think of their well being in terms of humankind itself.  That is the enduring task, there is no alternative.

“Trump is a nut,” I shouted at my Trump supporting neighbor before the election.  He agreed with a dismissive grin.  What does that tell you?  Trump’s supporters know all too well the pact they have struck with insanity.  But they have chosen it freely.  There is no point in denying what we are up against.  The blindness and gullibility that may exonerate our “brothers and sisters” of individual guilt, make the situation even more dire and desperate.  If you are blind, you can’t change what you can’t see.

The question for the rest of us is whether we will have the courage and confidence to overcome the paralysis that the fear of that blindness arouses in us.

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Inventing Capitalism

Larry Siedentop, emeritus professor of political philosophy at Oxford, published a book at the end of last year called Inventing the Individual (Belknap, Harvard U. Press, 2014)It carries the provocative sub-title The Origins of Western Liberalism and proposes to trace the history of the transformation of the Western political paradigm from ancient Rome’s patriarchal / clan-based class system protected by its legal and moral codes to the one that prevails today of autonomous individuals, all enjoying the same inalienable rights guaranteed by law.  Given the history of the West for the last two millennia it should come as no surprise that Siedentop finds the roots of those political developments in the evolution of western Christianity.

The Christian Church grew from a minority cult struggling to be heard in the religious cacophony of the ancient Roman Empire to the only religion in an officially Christian state, a primacy it held for more than a millennium.  During the Imperial Papacy of the high middle ages the Church elaborated a jurisprudence and a philosophical theology to back it up that reflected the political implications of its worldview.  Those mediaeval developments were the sources of our current political preferences, and they were squarely based on the immortality and post-mortem moral accountability of the individual soul.

It is in the foundational Christian vision of the “soul” that Siedentop sees the roots of the supreme value of the human individual which characterizes modern society.  Ironically, he points out, it was the very effort of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the middle ages to protect its interests against the encroachments of theocratic secular princes that drove the Popes to assert the “Church’s” right of universal jurisdiction.  It was because the Church hierarchy had the “care of souls” that its universal right to rule was codified in law — a law which claimed to extend beyond all boundaries and include everyone everywhere, yes, even the “souls” of the very princes who challenged its power.  In pressing toward that goal, Church authorities created a canonical scaffolding that eventually served as a model for the legal systems of the emerging nation-states of Europe.

Use of the word “soul” immediately evokes a radical egalitarianism that puts every individual, regardless of social status, wealth or role in society, in exactly the same relationship to “God” and therefore to the Church and its ruling hierarchy; it supported the Pope’s claim to ultimate and absolute power.  At the end of the day, in mediaeval society, it was because the hierarchy claimed to rule both the prince and the pauper that it developed laws that treated them as equals.  These Church laws inspired the secular authorities who were desirous of achieving the same kind of central control as the Church.  It was the unwitting source of political liberalism, and it is adduced by Siedentop as the explanation for the modern “democratic” republic with its supreme respect for the equal and inalienable rights of the individual.

But Siedentop’s thesis is not without paradox.  The author has selected the one single thread out of the Christian tapestry of the “soul” that led to “individual equality before the law” because it is the specific focus of his study.  But we shouldn’t be deceived.  The picture of the “soul” is much larger and is woven of many threads which Siedentop does not track, some of which lead to social results with a quite contrary bias.  For example, in societies ruled by the Christian worldview, the very same “individual-destiny-after-death” can be cited to account for the crass tolerance for extreme inequality even to the point of slavery and human exploitation; for it is claimed that all injustices will be adjudicated after death, and the oppressors punished.  Redress need not occur in this life.  The hardships created by these “earthly” disparities are temporary; the sufferings of time are insignificant when compared to the joys of eternity. 

An extreme instance of this mindset was on grotesque display during the 13th century Albigensian Crusade launched to eradicate “heresy” in the lands of what is now southern France.  The “crusaders” felt completely justified in employing extermination tactics, in one case wantonly slaughtering 20,000 men women and children in the city of Béziers in 1209, under the religious battle cry: “Kill them all, let God sort them out.”  Clearly the butchers of “the cross” believed that each of their victims would be judged by “God” for an eternal reward or punishment, and the innocent victims of the Church-sanctioned slaughter (and its obedient agents) would be cleared of guilt and compensated by an eternity of happiness.  The “immortality of the soul” together with the individual judgment for an eternal reward or punishment after death provided a unique permission to slay indiscriminately.  Any residual guilt due to an excess of zeal in the pursuit of such a lofty goal was a minor matter — easily disposed of in the confessional.

Siedentop places great emphasis on the contrast between the ancient and the modern conceptions of the human person.  The older version, he says, identified the person as a member of a patriarchal household and its clan extensions.  He claims that such a starting point immediately involves status and inequality because there is a natural, organic subordination within the family of wife and children to the father; and the constituent clans of a community always possess a “fullness of humanity” that externs: traveling merchants, servants, employees, immigrants, slaves, never achieve.  The legal and moral extensions of that mindset create and protect class distinctions that reflect the superiority / inferiority implied in those genetic relationships.  Your “worth” as a human being was determined by where you were born in the social pyramid.  The author says that basing society on those relationships necessarily entails a structured inequality.

The individual relationship to “God,” in contrast, is said to create an invincible equality based on an inescapable moral (not physical or intellectual) accountability over which class, birthright, status or “earthly” qualifications have no bearing.

The contrast also points up a significant  difference in the thought process employed in each case.  For, under the Christian definition, you are not identified with where you come from but where it is imagined you’re going.  You are not defined by your origins in this world, but by your imagined destiny in another — a world for whose existence there is no evidence whatsoever.  Your very concrete relationships to the earth and the species that spawned you and with whom you necessarily interact for survival are determined by your projected relationship to a “God-person” whom you have never met and with whom alone, whether you like it or not, you will spend eternity.  There is no guarantee that your family or loved ones will have “earned” the right to be there with you.  You are on your own and you are encouraged to maintain an emotional distance from everyone else.  It is from these “facts” that modern society has developed its vision of what the human person is and the laws and moral codes believed necessary to protect and enhance it.

Capitalism and the “immortal soul”

But there was still another paradoxical thread whose social import tacks contrary to the wind of Siedentop’s theory of “individual equality.” Defining the very meaning of life as earning a future happiness not available until one’s total merits are tallied and weighed at death can be said to account for the characteristic western obsession with individual achievement measured by the conspicuous display of amassed wealth.  For the Christian believer the urge to accumulate necessarily becomes internalized.  The curious “discipline” of western Europeans — notorious across the globe — that allows them to postpone satisfaction and to continue working compulsively to stockpile resources long after a secure satiety has been achieved, is a peculiar dynamic that can be attributed to the internalization and progressive social application of the “last judgment” paradigm.  The individual’s drive to amass without limit is protected by an absolute right to “private” property, even after it is indisputably clear that the owner’s superabundance is surrounded by (and even may be causing) the severe deficiencies of others.

“Capitalism” sprang from these roots.  Capitalism is an application of the individual’s right to amass superfluous wealth indefinitely and use it for personal profit, despite the needs of others.  Under the ancient paradigm, superfluous wealth was considered the sole right of nobility; it provided a magnificence reflecting the superiority of the blood-line and no commoner had the right to any such public display.  Under the new “Christian-inspired” vision of man, in contrast, the ownership of great wealth is open to all individuals regardless of birth and is accompanied by the exclusive right to use it however they want.  The change reflected a revolution in human self-definition. “Full humanity” was no longer determined by noble blood but by the immortal soul preparing for its day of judgment.  And in pre-judging one’s chances business acumen was often confused with moral superiority.

In inventing the individual, it may be said that the West also invented capitalism.

Clearly, the Church did not introduce these changes.  Far from it.  The hierarchy’s reactionary resistance to the revolutions of the 19th century — giving unwavering support to the maintenance of aristocratic control and their prerogatives — is well known.  But, as Siedentop repeats over and over, the Church provided a radically egalitarian metaphysical definition of man that, however unwittingly, in the long run undermined the structural inequality of the class system based on patriarchal / aristocratic definitions of man.  The egalitarian implications of Christian doctrine were hypocritically ignored by the authorities even though it was increasingly recognized and embraced by the general population.  The Church hierarchy, in the attempt to shore up its own power, undermined the very system that sustained it.  What was revolutionary was the Christian definition of man that put each individual human being into a one-to-one relationship with “God,” solidly joined to the Platonic belief in the immortality of the human soul and its liability to eternal punishment.

Alternatives

It all seems quite inevitable, in the way that what actually happens always appears inevitable in retrospect.  There was also a relative inevitability about the earlier, second century embrace of Platonism by the Christian culture of the ancient Mediterranean.  Platonism was the conventional wisdom of the age; the upper class take-over of the ascendant sect of Christianity meant that the platonic paradigm with its “particular judgment” would be favored as “orthodox” over the earlier Pauline  vision of community salvation.  The official public “sacrifices” to the gods in which all citizens had participated as pagans were transferred to the Christian agape meal turning it into the “sacrifice of the mass;” and a quid pro quo self-interest that contradicted the fundamental thrust of Jesus’ message came to dominate the Christian religion.

But what, historically speaking, may seem “inevitable” is not so in any absolute sense.  Past contingent events do not determine future choices.  In this case the respect for the individual, so characteristic of Christianity, could as easily be derived from other grounds as from platonic theory.  It is important in this case because the platonic premises are, in my estimation, completely false: there is no “immortal soul;” there is no “particular judgment;” there is no reward or punishment after death and there is no “God”-person who adjudicates individual human lives.  The fact that our hard-won and highly cherished respect for the individual person was ultimately derived from these erroneous doctrines does not imply either that individual rights will suddenly evaporate when these beliefs are shown to have been a mirage or that there is no other ground in which equality can be rooted.  Our instinctive enthusiasm for the ultimate value of each individual has convinced us that there must be a deeper reason — one that is not tied to the platonic fantasy that there is another world where we are going after death.

Rediscovering the community

Defining life in individualist terms stands in stark contrast with basing law on intrinsically communitarian social configurations like the family and its social context.  Siedentop locates the very difference between the ancient and modern social priorities in the shift of the source of the definition of the human person from the family and clan — a source of status and inequality — to the individual immortal soul which is egalitarian.  But it is important to emphasize that the source of the inequality identified by Siedentop is the patriarchal family.  It is not because the human individual is born of a family but because the “father” enjoyed an unquestioned superiority that gave him a permanent “status.”  The father in the ancient household was also “priest” mediating relationship with the gods.  Hence the family and clan took on a sacred reality and the “father” was considered, genetically, a source of sacred value; he possessed a status that could not be lost even by physical or intellectual failures or serious moral lapses; it was his forever.  This image of the “father” was carried over into larger society.  The Roman Emperors considered themselves the “father” of the State; in imitation, the Bishop of Rome was called Papa — “Pope” — and every Catholic priest, in direct disobedience to the explicit command of Jesus, is called “father.”  Equality between levels was never possible.

It is only recently that egalitarianism has begun to penetrate the very structure of the patriarchal family itself.  Prior to this development, equality may have been operative in the public forum, but the private domain of the family was still considered sacrosanct and off-limits.  The legislature, police, courts and judicial systems tended to refrain from interfering with fathers’ rights to discipline their wives, determine the destiny of their children and dispose of the family’s goods as they saw fit.  The sanctity of the patriarchal family, despite the victory of the liberal mindset, had been most resistant to interference.  We never realized how resistant until the unexpected shock of the women’s’ movement of the last 50 years brought it to light.  The drive for women’s equality is only one expression of how far the liberal paradigm has penetrated into the foundational structures of society and, in retrospect, the realization of how little, up to then, it had.

But in the kind of “family” that is emerging, the patriarchal prerogatives are being eroded and a new kind of family relationship is developing.  In the industrialized nations where 16% of all children are reared in single-parent households (in the US it is 25%), more than 80% of which are headed by single mothers, the class structures and inequality that were once associated with the patriarchal family have less fuel to burn on.  Even where the family is comprised of both father and mother, the woman’s ability to earn a living is universally acknowledged and the consequent tendency to parental equality is unmistakable.  Respect for the rights of children in the family is beginning to be reflected in law and the policies of government agencies responsible for the protection of the family.  While these trends are far from dominant, the drift is unmistakable and, I believe, irreversible.

That means that defining the human person as an “organism spawned and sustained by a human community that provides survival, personal-identity and social significance” does not run the risk of either slipping back into a class system of structured inequality, or maintaining an ersatz equality grounded in a truncated individualism devoid of any social meaning and based on a projected destiny in a world that does not exist.  If the human person is conceptualized in exactly the terms of her biological-social reality, not only is each individual immediately validated as fully human but there is no need to search for another ground to justify the social reality by which she survives and is recognized as a person with identity.

With this perspective suddenly Capitalism is shorn of its Christian underpinnings.  The personal accumulation dynamic is exposed as an inhuman “earthly” recapitulation on the eternal Christian theme of “gaining merit,” which was itself, in turn, a corollary of belief in the “particular judgment” of the “immortal soul.”  The entire emotional drive toward personal, individual profit as a display of “merit” begins to atrophy because its “heavenly” model is discredited as delusional, and “salvation” little by little comes to be recognized as a community achievement, constructed from the collaborative contributions of its constituents.  There is no individual future life or other immaterial world to accumulate for, and the individual person begins to see her destiny identified with the survival and fully human development of the community where she lives, receives her identity and makes her contribution to others.

In such a communitarian paradigm the always glaring disjunction between the family dynamics of sharing, and the aggressive self-interest that is claimed to rule the marketplace, begins to cede to a cooperative mindset across the entire spectrum of social institutions.  Every social interaction of whatever kind — whether inside or outside the home — can now be considered part of a communal venture: mutual assistance in survival and in the development of the personal potential required to sustain it.  “Love” dominates the definition of the human person and becomes concrete: the gift of self to the community … it ceases being a “law” that one obeys in order to gain merit for oneself and a safe place in another world … and the market ceases being a place where cutting throats is considered a necessary part of living.

“We are indeed his offspring”

Paul’s interpretation the Christ-event was tied to his expectation of an imminent parousía, and it quickly became obsolete.  Christ never returned.  What did “grace” mean in these new circumstances?  Christians would not conclude that Jesus wasn’t coming at all; they said his return was merely postponed.  It’s not hard to imagine that there was also a gradual dawning that the postponement might be quite extended.  But with it a problem began to arise: the apocalyptic pressure to join the Christian community, participate in its rituals and lead a morally exemplary life before the end, was gone.  So Christians developed a new narrative that had the effect of keeping up the pressure for moral living: reward or punishment for the individual “soul” at death.

This significantly modified the earlier religious aspirations.  Since Christ’s coming was postponed, those who died before his return would be judged and sentenced individually as souls alone and their bodies would be brought back for the final coming of Christ at the end of time to live again in “God’s” definitive kingdom.  Because the real concern became individual salvation or damnation at death, the eschatology radically changed and along with it the community dimension virtually disappeared.

With the new narrative the so-called temporary “particular” judgment turned out to be, in fact, permanent.  Your fate was sealed forever at the moment of death when you were given your eternal reward or punishment; the only addition at the “general” (community) judgment would be that your body would join you in heaven or hell.  Given the focus on “salvation” for your individual bodiless “soul,” few were concerned that their bodies would rise, and while all would hope to see their loved ones again, there was no interest in the installation of a human community built on justice to replace the brutal empires that ruled their lives.  It was all superfluous.  The change insured that Christian individuals would be fixated on that other world where they would live happily after death as isolated spirits, and they saw life on this earth as a burden to be endured of no importance except as a testing ground for earning happiness in heaven.  “Grace,” therefore, no longer referred to “God’s” compassion for oppressed humankind, the model of our love for one another, and became instead divine assistance to the individual “soul” in the struggle to “pass the test” and avoid damnation — the only thing that mattered.  It totally reversed the central dynamic of Christian life from the personal-healing and community-building power of loving others as “God” loves us, to saving your own skin.

There is no documentation to tell us exactly when this transition was made; all we know is that by late in the second century when the last of the Apostolic Fathers were writing we see evidence that it was already underway.  It also coincided with the emergence of hier­archical (class) structure in the Church community and the beginnings of proto-orthodoxy.  Christianity transformed itself from a proclamation of free forgiveness and the establishment of an egalitarian community of the human family lost in a world of voracious empires, to a quid pro quo reward or punishment in another world for the predestined individual based on his/her moral behavior assisted by a “grace” that was channeled through magical rituals administered by the elite managers of an exclusive Church.

Augustine’s “grace”

Quid pro quo was theoretically unacceptable, however, because it contradicted scripture: Paul had insisted that the “law” was abrogated.  Redemption was our love for one another; it came alive in us by our “waking up” to “God’s” free gift of forgiving love.  Augustine’s theory of “grace” claimed to counter the quid pro quo character of the new narrative, but he ended up intensifying it.  For he tried to add grace under the rubric of “divine assistance” to the profile of a transcendent “God” who was necessarily bound to protect the established order and could only “save” by first finding a way to insure that all debts were paid.  Augustine said Jesus’ death was the payment for Adam’s sin and it put the capstone on the ongoing assassination of “God’s” character.  For how could anyone believe that “God” was merciful and forgiving if he was ready to send unbaptized infants to hell and even demanded the death of his own son to “atone” for sin?  Clearly, Augustine’s “God” could not “forgive and forget;” his priority was justice, not mercy.

Besides, one needed Augustinian “grace” even to lead a good life.  This resulted in making “God” indirectly the cause of people’s damnation; for it was “God” himself who chose to intervene with his grace — or not — in the lives of those slated for perdition, saving some and allowing the others to be damned without saying why.  Divine predestination seemed unjust.  Quid pro quo at least had some semblance of fairness.

And so the people clung to quid pro quo as the only thing that made sense.  In practice, if Augustine’s theory of “grace” was intended to inspire a feeling of relief and joy about the free gift of God’s love, it failed pathetically.  A thousand years later at the end of the middle ages, quid pro quo still dominated western Christian religiosity … and it remains so today.  I claim it is due to the concept of “God” that underlay it.  Justice was the priority for Augustine’s “God,” not mercy.  Justice was grounded in the nature of things as ascertained by reason, and both “God” and man had to comply.  “God’s” mercy, on the other hand, was ad libitum, a matter of whim; “God” was under no obligation to save anyone.  This made “God” judge by profession and savior only when he felt like it.  The “law” was not abrogated and “grace” became just another requisite that the individual needed in order to be “saved” but could not count on or control …  just another source of insecurity.

Luther’s “faith”

Luther, for his part, made another attempt to reintroduce free forgiveness, but he used the same maneuver as Augustine — a reified “saving grace” he called “faith” — attributed to the same implacable Augustinian “God,” bound and obligated to defend the rationalized “order of nature” which included immutable moral principles enshrined in the commandments, the scriptural restatement of “natural law.”  Luther’s “faith” wrecked on the same shoals as Augustine’s “grace” and quid pro quo today is as prominent in Protestant religiosity as Catholic.  Luther certainly tried; and his “solution” seems to have worked for him personally.  I believe he saw through Augustine’s contortions and went directly to what was implied by Augustine’s grace: that “God” was so bound to the requirements of justice that in fact he was not capable of forgiveness.  But that was not a problem because for Luther forgiveness was not the issue.  What was called “forgive­ness” was actually “God’s” decision to not punish in acknow­ledge­ment of the fact that the individual bore no responsibility right from the beginning because the human will was not free.  The evil done by a totally corrupt and fallen human nature was not avoidable;  any good performed, therefore, from the conversion of “faith” through perseverance in a life of love, was the exclusive work of “God’s” grace.  But this more radical version of Augustinian “grace” entailed a more radical version of predestination, and it made “God” even more of a monster: for it meant that Luther’s “God” presided over the damnation of those who bore no responsibility whatsoever … Nothing surprising here; it was the same Augustinian “God” who insisted on the damnation of unbaptized infants.

There is no way out.  Once you project a scenario where “God” is necessarily committed to the punishment of those who violate the commandments, you must have human responsibility and you must have quid pro quo.  Otherwise law and obedience, reward and punishment, make no sense, and the entire western Christian moral edifice motivated by individual self-interest collapses.

The Western “doctrine of God” evolved in tandem with all this.  Since “God” is totally “other,” we have nothing in common with “God;” all we can do is conform our behavior: we have to obey.  Obedience is an external link between two unrelated moral agents.  No essential “interpersonal” relationship obtains.  A “God” who is pure spirit and other-than-man promulgates a “natural law” that is pure logic and therefore other-than-human.  Humankind is related to the rational “God’s” cosmic order not internally but by extrinsic obligation constrained by rigidly deduced rational principles.  Forgiveness for violators, therefore, can only be an extrinsic pardon — a gratuitous “non-punishment” — in a relationship of infinite insurmountable distance; it can never result in, or be the fruit of, real union.  At the root of it all is the concept of a rational “God” and his relationship to the universe he made, … and humankind as part of it.  The kind of union between God and man which Jesus proclaimed is metaphysically possible only if you are “not-other” than “God.”

Jesus’ message

Jesus was not a philosopher.  His preaching described in personal terms the relationship that should obtain between “God” and man — it was not quid pro quo and it did not include punishmentIt was based on imitation, which implies similarity, sameness — “love one another as ‘God’ loves you,” “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” “forgive us as we forgive one another.”[1]  The message is repeated over and over, and while there is no mention of the metaphysical ground required to make such imitation possible, Greek philosophical Christians later decided that Plato’s science of the transcendent inaccessibility of “God” was the only valid metaphysics, and it had to take priority.  That made “God” not the same as us in any way.  It meant that a remote dissimilar “God” could not really be imitated.  The only relationship you can have with this kind of “God” is obedience and obeisance: you do what you’re told in total awe and submission.  (Other “religions of the Book” function on exactly the same dynamic).  This turned Jesus’ message upside down … and I contend that it is the best argument for saying that the only metaphysics that will support Jesus’ message is some form of pan-en­theism … i.e., that we are part of “God,” where it is understood that we are “indeed ‘God’s’ offspring,” and that by nature we “live and move and have our being” in “God.”[2]

Classic Greek Philosophical Christianity insisted we were totally “other” by nature and said that it was the Christ event applied through the Church’s sacraments that “supernaturally” made us to be “not-other” i.e., to be like “God” (theosis); but in fact the message of Jesus was the other way around: that we were like “God” from the very beginning and that’s why we could live a moral and caring life.  Traditional Christianity bids us become something we are not through the mediation of the Church; Jesus’ Jewish innovation, in contrast, was to invite us to open our eyes to what we always were from the moment of birth without mediation of any kind.  Religion’s classic program is intended to create a relationship where there was none, and reach toward an unknowable divine entity who is always beyond us, always absent; Jesus’ revolutionary program, on the other hand, is dedicated to clearing away the deceptions and confusions that have prevented us from seeing what was there all along, always present.  “We are even now the children of ‘God’ … ”[3]

The only metaphysics that is consistent with his vision is grounded in a source of LIFE — a non-rational “God”— that is immanent in the material universe … and WE ARE THAT.

 

[1] 1 Jn 4:19; Mt 5:48; Mt 6:12.

[2] Acts 17: 27-28

[3] 1 John 3:2

Autogenic Disease (II)

This post is the second half of “Autogenic disease” (the first part can be found directly below this).  The first part ended with this statement“Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, as the conspicuous symbol of one’s ‘achieve­ment’ as a superior being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything material through cerebrally devised technology — the new paradise.”

 energy and entropy: LIFE and death

“Ultimate control” ultimately implies, of course, the conquest of death.  It has been the West’s holy grail since ancient times, and Christianity, once our program of choice to win this victory, has been abandoned by the dominant culture and its quest taken up by technology.  Through the marvels of medical science today we are experiencing the postponement of death to a degree that we never have before; it seduces us into thinking success is just around the corner.  But death at some point, even for those who have unlimited access to the technology of postponement, must be embraced.  We are material organisms in a material universe.  Death comes with the kind of existence we enjoy.  It is not an alien intrusion or a punishment for “sin,” much less an unfortunate anachronism come too early for the predicted conquest by technology.  Matter is what we are, and this is what matter does.  We need to know why that is.

Understanding what matter is helps us understand why it behaves the way it does.  Matter is not a “thing” it is energy.  “Energy” is another word for disequilibrium.  Energy refers to a state of tension that results from things not being where they should be … and which are therefore driven … pulled, drawn, impelled … to traverse the distance that separates them from the place where they belong.  Energy is not a fixed and stable quantum. It is the manifestation of an instability under pressure to do whatever it takes to rectify imbalance and achieve stasis.  The resulting potential-for-movement is the energy LIFE uses for its purposes.

All energy sources are examples of the same fundamental instability.  A gently meandering river becomes a violent torrent when a precipitous drop over a cliff creates a huge disequilibrium in the water’s mass and hurls it through space at speeds exponentially accelerated by gravity.  The energy in a waterfall is the force generated in the water in the effort to restore gravitational equilibrium.  When that force is exploited to accomplish work, it is called power.  In another example, the way batteries work is that electrons are forcibly stripped from the atoms of a particular substance, like lead, in one location and forcibly introduced and held in another.  The artificially displaced electrons are under tremendous pressure to return to the atoms from which they were taken — atoms that are now highly charged because their protons are bereft and “hungry” for their electrons.  When a pathway — a circuit — is created allowing those electrons to return and restore the equilibrium that was lost in the transfer, their compulsive motion in traveling “back home” can be exploited to do work, much as falling water can be used to drive machinery.  This is how we harness power: we interrupt and exploit matter’s attempt to restore equilibrium and stasis.

The very nature of energy is disequilibrium; it is not a thing but a “need” to restore stability.  It only lasts as long as the need lasts; once balance is achieved, the energy disappears.  The dissipation of energy in the effort to restore equilibrium is called entropy.  The very nature, therefore, of material energy is entropic.  It tends, of its very nature, to seek equilibrium, to dissipate itself and disappear.  This even happens to the more fundamental particles which are composites of even smaller energy packets.  Protons, for example, are composed of quarks held together by gluons, the “strong force.”  But even that force is not eternal and someday the quarks will return whence they came, the proton will succumb to entropy; it will disintegrate and its energy disappear.

We call the disappearance of energy, death.  A biological organism dies when the various components at all levels of composition — bio-chemical, molecular and atomic — which had been gathered out of various locations, assembled and held together “unnaturally” (i.e., it is something they would not do on their own) under the forcible drive and direction of a zygote’s DNA to form a living individual, can no longer hold together and they return to their former states.  The “particles” remain, their individual energies now determined by their own entropy.  Nothing ever disappears except the energy gradients involved.

That is how LIFE lives: it appropriates the force of entropy and diverts it to its own ends.  LIFE is anti-entropic.  The living energy available to an organism during life is the expropriated tension-toward-equilibrium (= dissipation and death) of its gathered components.   It is precisely its “being-toward-death” that provides the organism the energy — the ability to do work — like a battery whose artificially skewed electron-to-proton ratio creates the energy we call voltage.  The irresistible “gravitational pull” — like falling water — to restore equilibrium is the energy utilized by LIFE, and which we exploit for our identities and our endeavors, just as we exploit the movement of electrons to start our cars and power our cell phones.  So the very LIFE we cherish so much is really the appropriation of our components’ “desire” to abandon their unnatural conjunction as us and return to their former state … i.e., to dieTo dissipate energy — to die — is the energy source tapped by LIFE.

If somehow you were able to do away with “death,” therefore, you would also eliminate the very well-spring of living motion: entropy.  Death in a universe of matter, I submit, is intrinsic to LIFE.

Sex and evolution

All biological organisms are manifestations of matter’s conversion of its ultimate weakness — entropy, death — into the energy of LIFE.   Matter does what it does because it evolved that way over eons of geologic time; its “limitations” are an intrinsic part of its development, the accompaniment and by-product of the process by which organisms adapted themselves to their environment and survived.  In our case human weaknesses like our strengths emerged organically from the process of surviving under environmental conditions that obtained over very long periods of time … and they persist because those conditions have not changed.  What evolved is now internal to us and binds us with an unbreakable valence to the environment that elicited that evolution.  There is no “essence of humanity” independent of that particular process.  We humans are-here … and we are what we are … because of it, and for no other reason.

One of matter’s more creative achievements was to use reproduction to bypass the natural entropy of all living matter.  But there was a twist.  We have to remind ourselves that at the dawn of life simple cell division — cloning the same individual — was superseded two thousand million years ago by the counter-intuitive innovation of coupling two distinct individual organisms producing a third independent of each; sexual reproduction was invented by eukaryote single-celled animals and it allowed for the production of genetically superior cells with a far greater range of capabilities.  We are the beneficiaries of those seminal discoveries; they determined the basic structure of the bodies and behavior of everything that came afterward.  It happened before the Cambrian explosion, and those advances made possible the emergence of all complex multi-celled organisms in existence, including us.  The sex-based relationships that are so fundamental to our personal identities and our social lives originated in that epic achievement.

Sexual reproduction outflanks death but it does not overcome it.  This was the “immortality” devised by matter’s living energy, and it was obtained at the cost of the reproducing organism which dies.  Individual organismic death was integrated into matter’s energy transcending itself and evolving.  Nature’s concern is not the individual, it is something else … .

“Matter” evolves by working with and within itself.  It’s a very slow process of random interactions that may (or may not) finally yield a viable result — a result that can “live” within the whole.  Matter is one thing and one thing only — material energy — homogeneous, universal, invariable.  Because it is the one and only thing there is, every new form that its internal intra-actions take can survive only if it continues to “fit” within the ultimate sea of homogeneity of which it is a part.  There is no other option.  Matter has to work this way because there is no “existence” apart from this ocean of being.  The metaphor of rockets that break free of earth’s grip and reach into “outer” space doesn’t work here.  There is no escape velocity to take us outside matter’s “gravitational field” because outside matter there is nothing.  Material energy, such as it is, is the absolute condition of anything being-here at all, and entropy — the process of reducing all energy to a lifeless equilibrium — is the source that LIFE mines for its energy.

I am convinced that very few people realize this and there are even scientists and technicians that work with matter’s properties everyday among them.  I vigorously contend that this view is difficult for people to understand, not because of the complexity or abstractness of the ideas but because we have been programmed to think of things in the opposite direction.  We reject matter’s existential universality and ascribe LIFE to an outside “spiritual” source that — no matter how it is contradicted by what we see with our own eyes — we cling to as our escape vehicle from a material world that we have been taught is alien and hostile to our destiny as human individuals.  The inability to understand that we are matter is the source of our disrespect for matter and disdain for its ways.  We have been telling ourselves another story for so long … and we have developed so much of what we think and do around that other story … that we spontaneously project that matter is inferior to “mind” and supine before the “will” of our rational intelligence, as if they were two different things and our brains weren’t themselves organic matter.  Matter to western culture is alien, and at best a slave to kick around, not the sacred matrix which spawned us and in which we remain always immersed like a sponge in the sea, the root and ground of our intelligence itself.  We behave as if there were nothing in mat­ter we need to listen to … to learn from … to be patient and deferential toward, to collabor­ate with, to embrace, to serve … nothing sacred.  We think of ourselves as “spirits,” cerebral “gods,” all-powerful bodiless brains, whose destiny it is to mold a lifeless profane matter to suit our individual desires — to remake the world in the image and likeness of our personal illusions.  And we have been encouraged in our self-exalting hubris by our mother culture’s various epiphanies through the millennia — the principal one of which for us has been mediaeval Catholicism and its “reformed” Protestant progeny — and the legacy they passed on to our modern culture of finding ways to escape from embracing our reality as biological organisms in a material universe.

I do not reject technology.  I propose we use it to deepen our contentment with what we are — individuals within a material totality — not to run from it into a world of illusion.  Part of contentment, of course, is the commitment to equality among us for access to the goods of the earth.  Knowing who we are and how we are related to our source and sustainer is what I mean by religion.  I believe such a radical reformation of religion would transform the way we organize our life on this earth — an earth which gave birth to us and to whose limits we remain forever bound.

Autogenic Disease

The following piece is based on a segment from a work in progress.  The book as planned will deal with the issues surrounding the breakdown of mediaeval Christendom resulting in the Reforma­tion of the 16th century that divided Christian Europe between Protestants and Catholics.  My reflections on that historical watershed, influenced by the transcendent materialism that I have become convinced represents the real world, go beyond the standard religious interpretations.  This essay and its sequel comes from that point in the book where I am trying to stake out the ground from which I will view events and base my judgments.

 Autogenic Disease

So, having explained that the central focus of this study will not be politics, or ecclesiastical allegiance, or theological distinctions, or any of the social, technical and economic developments of the age, but rather the much deeper and more elusive issue of religion, allow me to begin to flesh out the elements of what I believe is involved.

Working backwards, I want to begin with a key antithetical notion: “autogenic disease.” I am using the term to refer to what I claim is a generalized, multi-millennial, specifically Western pathology where the human mind, in an act that seems to belie the presence of intelligence, identifies its own body as alien and tries to destroy it.  Contrary to what we in the West like to tell ourselves about our mental prowess, and despite all our brainy achievements in science and technology and our reputed “materialism,” the fact that we are biological organisms in a material universe seems to exceed our ability to comprehend.  We do not accept it, and we do everything in our power to refute, ignore, disregard and repress it.  We may admit we have … but we do not believe we are … bodies … and we conceive our destiny in other terms entirely.

That other destiny, of course, is spiritual immortality. Thus is generated the potential for an insuperable disgust for what we actually are.  We are biological organisms in a material world where all biological organisms of whatever kind dieWestern culture, forged in the crucible of its own distorted version of Jesus’ message, does not believe it; and that, I submit, is the source of our malaise.  Western Christianity appropriated the message of Jesus and used it to support a ritual and symbolic form of Platonism.  It claimed that we die only because our material bodies were corrupted by human sin; it projected another world of “spirit” from which we fell and to which we long to return … and in so doing internalized a disdain for all things material, including our own bodies.  That religion shaped European humankind whose culture now rules the planet.  The suggestion that this is an ominous development that presages some kind of universal disaster, is fully intended.

Among the myriads of life forms that the earth has spawned, humankind is the only one that is capable of this kind of insanity, for we are the only species that can despise itself.  To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault.  It’s a function of having an imagination.  Since we can imagine being other than we are, we are capable of wishing we were especially when things are not going well.  If being happy can be defined as “having what you want … and wanting what you have,” Western culture promotes unhappiness for in fact, it tells us to not like what we have, and it encourages us to want what is beyond any possibility of obtaining.

In our Christian past we had other ways of obeying our cultural imperatives and escaping our organic reality.  Mainstream monasticism is a prime example; it offered salvation for the “spirit” through a lifelong programmed pursuit of the “mortification” of the flesh.  But generally we have abandoned it, due in part to the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, which tried to make everyone a monk and everyday life monastic, rendering withdrawal into monasteries superfluous.  In modern times our escape vehicle is technology.  We are persuaded that our technology will launch us out of our earthbound lives and into an orbit of cerebral happiness.  At the present moment, the pathology of displacement has gone so far that many of our people look forward to the day when technology will make us something other than human.

Popular culture generates images that reflect this dream: bionic individuals, robotic cops, iron men, mutants and laboratory-created superhumans of various kinds.  These projections are more than adolescent cinematic fantasy.  Already many of us have bodies that have been significantly modified by medical science with joint replacements, coronary bypasses, organ transplants, pacemakers, and a warehouse of chemicals that sustain a functioning balance that our bodies may not be able to maintain on their own.  We believe if only we have enough time that someday we will conquer all the inimical forces of nature that cripple us and embitter our lives … we will provide ourselves with the means for the universal absorption of knowledge and control … we will overcome all our shortcomings, our mental and physical limitations, our vulnerability to disease, the causes of misunderstanding and relational disharmony … we will do away with diminishment of any kind … and, yes, someday we will conquer death.

For all our materialism, you will notice, these projected conquests anticipate transcending the stubborn, stultifying impotence of our biological organisms — organic matter that must struggle to survive in a material universe.  We see all our problems as stemming from the inefficiency of our bodies to deal with the invariable “laws” of nature.  Our bodies do not correspond to the limitless scope of our imagination.  We can imagine anything, but reality gets in the way — specifically this body-in-this-world, ours or others,’ betrays us — and we find we are just not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or detached enough to realize our dreams.  What we want slips through our fingers.  It is all reducible to a mind-body disparity: our minds can think what our bodies-in-this-world cannot do and we will not accept it … and here’s the rub: our cultural Mother has told us since time immemorial we don’t have to.  It tells us to strive for what we don’t … and can’t … have: to live forever in a state of ecstatic happiness.

We have assigned to our technology no less a mission than overcoming the limitations of the way matter has evolved on earth since our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago.  Our efforts are based on a conviction that all our “unhappiness” is due to nature.  And so we want to learn how nature works, not because we cherish it and want to collaborate with it, but in order to transcend it and advance our principal goal: to no longer have this body in this universe.  We don’t want what we have … we don’t like what we are: human beings.

Every victory in this direction encourages us to trust the path we have taken and to believe in “the dream:” someday we will redesign everything; we will become strong, invulnerable, immortal … and we will be happy … because someday we will stop being what we are; we will stop being human beings.

If getting what you want is one path to “happiness,” wanting what you’ve got is the other.  While these two statements seem to have parity when viewed abstractly, in practice they are wildly disproportionate.  For in the West, after two millennia of Christian tutelage we have placed all our bets on the first and abandoned the second.  What we want is to live forever, and despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the most pathetic of delusions, we now think we have a natural right to it.  That we are not immortal we take as standing proof that there was indeed some kind of “fall” that caused all this.  For the last 2000 years all our energies have been focused on overcoming the “limitations” of the body — flying off to some spirit world where perishing matter cannot follow us — a world concocted by our “spiritual” imagination.  And even when people stopped believing in the other world and spirits, they didn’t change their immortal aspirations — which by that time had been elevated into unquestioned “truth” — they simply re-applied the dynamic to another content: the technological paradise.

Hence from paradise in another world to paradise in this one, it’s still “paradise” — a never-never land that does not exist.  The result is that the practical pursuit of learning to live with what-we-are and adjust our wants (and our sense of the sacred) to what we’ve got has totally atrophied.  This madness of make-believe has so penetrated every aspect of our lives that our global economic system itself is irreversibly grounded on the myth of endless expansion, satisfying a population of endlessly increasing numbers with limitless desires to accumulate and consume, provisioned by a universe made to yield endless supplies to our endlessly innovative technology.  Our global survival system is locked into these fantasies as its only source of drive and direction; the system runs on investment, and investors will not buy stock unless they see growth.  Growth is sine qua non, despite the known fact that the earth’s resources cannot meet our imagined needs.  It’s as if we were on automatic pilot watching ourselves plummet to disaster, powerless over the very machine we created to carry us aloft.

The role of the Church in promoting impossible aspirations has now been taken over by the new ideological guardians of our well-being: the entities responsible for the production of goods and services and insuring their avid consumption.  The message to consumers of an earthly “paradise” is being delivered by a chain of interconnected actors: commercial advertisers, career politicians, purveyors of mass information, paid by wealthy corporate providers of consumer products and services, whose businesses are kept growing by powerful financial, energy and human resource enterprises protected by a coercive legal and police apparatus all run by the very same wealthy and powerful people.  What drives it all is the new “immortality:” the promise of the happiness of being endlessly lifted out of the limitations of our material organisms by technology.

Death is “conquered” (in reality, endlessly postponed) by medical technology … or when that fails, death is held in contempt as we are wont to do with an opponent who constantly gives the lie to our pretensions.  We take a delusional satisfaction in projecting that someday we will finally get what we want — we will win the definitive victory over death.  In the meantime we forego the contentment that comes from cherishing what we are … wanting what we’ve got.

Cherishing what we are.  Most people have never had the experience.  “Stress reduction” programs … therapies, exercises, meditations, rituals … that aim at achieving such an adjustment are relegated to the private sphere where they are tolerated as “personal taste” or derided as crutches for the weak, but no one would ever consider organizing society around them.  And so “speech” that promotes exaggerated need and discontent in order to increase sales is officially “protected.” It is not entirely unlike the mediaeval Church that told us we were all corrupt from birth and damned without its products and services.  That “speech” was also officially protected.

Our wasteful economy is based on the illusion of endless resources mentioned above; it literally cannot function without it.  There is no thought of promoting and providing contentment and stasis: a zero-growth goal requiring, first of all, peace of mind that comes from the elimination of inequality, a guaranteed access to the basics for all, and then simplification, reduction in consumption, the encouragement to eliminate the superfluous, avoid wasteful display and unnecessary luxury, aim at optimal functional efficiency in the energy-consuming machines we use every day: our cars, our houses with their refrigerators, washer-dryers, cook-stoves etc.  The word “luxury” has lost its original sense of being “too much” — wanton excess — and has now become a necessity, a desideratum, encouraged, of course, by those who profit from the sale of luxury goods and who are fast becoming the only voice we hear.  Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, the conspicuous display of one’s “achievement” as a human being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything provided by technology — the new paradise.  This pursuit, I contend, is a major source of the inequalities among us; for in order that some may acquire more than they need, others are forced to live with less than they need.  Pie on earth is as dysfunctional for us as pie in the sky.

Do not misunderstand.  I am not starting a new list of do’s and don’ts or advocating the rejection of technology.  I am using these examples to illustrate a mindset.  I am talking about changing the foundational attitudes that stem from our primary perceived relationship: who we think we are and how we are related to the world around us.  How we apply technology to everyday life follows from those attitudes; that primary relationship is what I mean by religion.  

Next post:  Energy and entropy, LIFE and death:

The “branding” of Catholicism

This reflection includes some material from earlier posts

1.

As our tribal identities recede into the oblivion of history, religions that are nothing more than ethnic identifiers will follow them. By saying that I don’t mean to suggest that ethnic identification is a superficial phenomenon. The ferocity it can generate was on horrific display in Belgium in 1985 when Liverpool soccer enthusiasts attacked rival Juventus fans and many were killed. Religion can play a similar role, and many of us come out of such a tradition. “Catholic,” for many, was simply another word for being Irish or Polish … or some other tribe that perhaps had to defend itself historically against a non-Catholic invader or overlord. “Dogmas” became shibboleths … passwords for who was really in the tribe and who wasn’t. Doctrine came to be used principally to contrast with what was “non-Catholic;” it was a “brand” identifier.

So branding is not an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon. But in our post-tribal globalized age, when even nation-states can fail, it has a wider application. Branding identifies the successful transnational business corporation which has become the very symbol of solidity, viability and social preeminence. The Roman Catholic Church has lately begun to exploit this potential by identifying itself as a commercial enterprise which offers quality products for sale. Marketing those products is the key to corporate success, and an essential part of marketing is establishing a clearly recognized profile in the global marketplace, a coherent package of visible symbols — a “brand” — that sets the corporation apart from others in the eye of the prospective consumer. These symbols must be immediately associated with its desirable “product line.” As tribal support wanes, the Church needs something it can sell to anyone, anywhere.

“Preserving the Vision”?

Is this just more hyperbole … a fantasy I have conjured to focus my axe-to-grind, my criticism of the Church? Let me assure you it is not.

In the spring of 2012 when the Bishop of Brooklyn NY, USA was questioned about the documented loss of over 200,000 Catholics from his diocese, he responded: “we’ve still got 1.5 million. We can live with a quarter million less.” Coming from someone who professes to believe traditional Catholic doctrine which includes the claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” this is astounding! Concern for the salvation of those who left, or questions as to why so many would feel impelled to do so were never mentioned. The only thing that seemed of interest to the bishop was his organization’s viability.

Is this one man’s idiosyncrasy? In a letter to the NYT dated May 20, 2012, ex-Jesuit Tim Iglesias of Oakland, Calif., wrote:

… I believe that [Catholic church leaders] are pursuing a very deliberate strategy. They have decided that a smaller, more unified and doctrinally focused church community is preferable to a welcoming, diverse and unruly one. All of their actions are consistent with this strategy.

If what Iglesias is saying is true, the Brooklyn Bishop is not alone. His attitude is part of a “deliberate strategy” of the hierarchy — corporate manager-bishops — who have unilaterally opted for downsizing the Church based on the efficiency criteria of successful business organizations, not on the definitions and goals set by the Church itself.

The fact that these episcopal sentiments mirror the mindset of the CEOs of major corporations must be seen square­ly for what it is: a redefinition of Church — the crass substitution of the goals, structures, motivations and operating dynamics of a commercial business enterprise in place of a community that claims to be inspired by the vision of Jesus. We are not dealing with morality here; it goes far deeper than that. It’s a matter of fundamental identity. Are you a Christian community concerned about people, personal liberation, gratitude for life, justice, widows and orphans, or are you a corporate commercial enterprise concerned about your survival: your “products,” your customers, your income, your assets, your buildings, their utilization and productivity?

As if in answer to that question, less than six months earlier in November 2011 the Diocese of Brooklyn published a “Strategic Plan for Catholic Schools 2011-2014” whose language recapitulates this corporate commercial mindset. It is labeled “Preserving the Vision” and it can be found on the Brooklyn Diocesan website (http://mybqcatholicschool.com/preserving-the-vision/ ). It includes the clear order that all Catholic parochial schools in the Diocese will be converted into “academies” by 2017, thus completing their privatization, their final separation from the parish and any semblance of being the project of a “Christian community.” Education for the paying elite, whether Catholic or not, will be the official order of the day — the “product” the Church sells. The mission statement for the “strategic plan” makes this clear:

Goal #2: Increasing enrollment through effective marketing and outreach to the diverse communities within the Diocese.

Effective marketing? Outreach to diverse communities? Those phrases reveal the commercial nature of the ecclesiastical efforts. The fact that we are talking about conversion to “academies” should dispel any illusion that “diverse” might mean an outreach to the poor … when would you ever “market” to people who, by definition, cannot pay? It is precisely to bypass traditional commitment to the poor in favor of paying customers that this qualifies as a “strategy.” “Diverse” clearly refers to “non-Catholics” who are willing to pay for high quality, private education, where their children can pursue excellence undistracted by “under-achieving” needy Catholics — immigrants’ children — shunted to the public schools.

There is a whole section on “marketing.” The following is from a list (p.13) of strategic goals for the “marketing” effort. Notice the conspicuous use of the word “branding”:

Goal 16. High priority will be given to effectively marketing Catholic schools and acade­mies within the Diocese of Brooklyn in order to build a strong educational brand through­out the Diocese and increase K-8 enrollment by 10% each year so that buildings are fully utilized.

Strategies

16.1 To maximize effectiveness and clarity, marketing and branding messaging at the dio­cesan and local school and academy levels will be presented to all diocesan constituencies in a “single minded” manner and delivered with “one voice.” Schools, academies and various offices within the diocese will work collaboratively to ensure this consistent branding and messaging.

16.2 Specific marketing resources will be identified and committed to fund an integrated marketing communications program of branding Catholic education within the Diocese of Brooklyn and to support individual school and academy recruitment activities.

This uncharacteristic use of terminology coincided, in a most revealing way, with a similar anomaly of speech uttered by Cardinal William Levada, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Commenting on his June 11th 2012 meeting with the nuns of LCWR Levada said:

“Too many people crossing the LCWR screen, who are supposedly representing the Catholic church, aren’t representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity,” [1]

Product identity”? This kind of untraditional talk used in such unconnected circum­stances fairly compels the conclusion that the corporate managers — the bishops — are in agreement defining the Church as a commercial enterprise; and they are spontaneously using terminology that reflects their objectives.

 2.

Based on this I am going to extrapolate and make a serious accusation and prediction: that the morally discredited hierarchy of the American Catholic Church, saddled with an obsolete, incoherent doctrinal inheritance, and faced with the erosion of support from preferred ethnics, is deciding to turn an irrational doctrinal liability to corporate advan­tage by marketing its beliefs as “ancient tradition” regardless of their lack of “truth” value. “Tra­­di­tion” gives an aura of depth and quality to its various services — its “product line” — which include education. This might seem a commonplace observation about a “common sense” strategy. But it takes on a severe condemnatory significance because it means that the Church, far from grappling with the reformulation or repudiation of erroneous, useless and even damaging dogmatic anomalies, is … for “branding” purposes only … entrenching itself behind them, and thus becoming a cynical purveyor of delusion. In its desperation to find a way to escape its terminal obsolescence, the Church leadership has abandoned any concern for the truth.

“Truth,” I contend, has been abandoned. What at one time, and not that long ago, was a sincere belief in the inerrancy of the magisterium, is no longer held by the well-educated Church authorities who are as savvy and modern as the rest of us. The corpus of doctrine is cynically being kept unchanged by men who really do not believe these doctrines are relevant any longer, in order to promote the corporate “branding” for its product line. Pope Francis’ recognition that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church … cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,”[2] reflects this attitude; it suggests that his pastoral style could easily be made to coincide with the strategy of rehabilitation through corporate re-definition. The pope suggests doctrinal insistence is irrelevant, but he does not offer to retract one iota from the dogmatic absurdities hallowed as “tradition.”

This is disturbing. The entire human family appreciates Francis’ warm, familial, humble demeanor and pastoral priorities. His style is a welcome change in the leadership projections of the Catholic Church, which has been, historically, arrogant and overbearing in the extreme.

But it has become clear in the year since the beginning of his papacy that he has absolutely no intention of moving to reform doctrine, even those easily modified like the absurd rationale for the ban on contraceptives and the utterly hollow basis for denying priesthood to women. Our feelings for Francis should not excuse a profound betrayal. The autocracy of Roman Catholicism has been consolidated to the point where no change of any significance can take place unless it is initiated or at least actively supported by papal authority. If Francis has decided he will not attempt to modify the inherited teaching on faith or morals in any way, it cannot happen. There is no other agent of change in the Church. He has to realize if he has any interest in change — and many believe his actions imply he does — he is the one who has to do it. Others may be willing to assume the burdens of “cleaning up” the dogmatic mess and allowing him to live a simple life as he seems to desire, but they cannot; as the Church is currently structured they are not the custodians of doctrine, he is.

The ironic thing is that the first doctrines that need to be changed are those that justify the exclusive power of the pope in these matters. The fact that they are accepted as doctrines means that they are not readily perceived as the typical self-serving justifications always trotted out by autocrats determined to maintain their exclusive grip on power. They are touted as “sacred” dogma. All Catholics (in theory) believe in (1) the inerrancy of the magisterium managed solely by the hierarchy, (2) the infallibility of the pope when teaching ex cathedra on faith or morals, and (3) the apostolic succession of all bishops. These doctrines are declared to be “truths” revealed by “God.”

But I claim the battle ground has shifted. These doctrines are no longer promoted because they are “true,” nor even because they mystify the faithful. The doctrines are clung to because they are “Catholic” and the Catholic “brand” sells. The hierarchy owns the corporation, and the corporation needs those doctrines for its identity. Up-scale families want to send their kids to private “Catholic” schools. The preservation of “tradition” now means things cannot be allowed to change not because they are eternally true, but because they are the essence of the Catholic corporate “brand.”

The hierarchy’s decision to recuperate legitimacy in the form of corporate success through “product identity” and the “branding” that it requires, promises to compound the intransigence against doctrinal reform exponentially. Catholic doctrine is central to its “branding.” There is nothing that symbolizes Catholicism and sets it apart from all other institutions more than the three doctrines just mentioned above. Imagine a Catholic Church without a pope! The papacy is an essential symbol for the corporate Catholic “brand.” If our morally discredited Church with its baggage of destructive, erroneous and irrelevant doctrines continues to survive, it will be thanks to its corporate success in marketing its “product line” and the “branding” that accompanies it. “Branding” by the very nature of what it is designed to do, will reinforce the resistance to doctrinal change; for if Catholic doctrine is allowed to change, the Church will no longer be recognizable as Catholic. Once ethnic community is supplanted by mass impersonal entities like the transnational ecclesiastical corporation, branding recognition is indispensable to survival.

 3.

“Loss of recognition” is disastrous for the mass organization. It was the “mistake” made at Vatican II and it helps explain the confusion among the ordinary Catholic people precipitating a devastating fifty-year conservative backlash led by, but by no means limited to, the hierarchy. It affected many areas of Church life, but let’s just look at one: the Eucharist.

For many Catholics in 1965, changing the way they related to the Eucharist changed the Church beyond recognition. That generation is almost gone, but many of us remember the bewilderment that people of our parents’ age went through when it was announced that the worship of the Eucharistic host was no longer the point of the mass. They were told the mass is to be understood as a symbolic meal evoking love of neighbor … after having been taught all their lives that what distinguished Catholics from Protestants was that the mass brought “God” to earth; we had “God” in the tabernacle, they didn’t. The “real presence” was the centerpiece of counter-reforma­tion Catholicism. Vatican II, by emphasizing the symbolic value of the Eucharistic bread and changing the focus of the mass from “God” to the human community, overturned all that. It had the practical effect of diminishing the importance of the real presence and ending Catholicism’s insistence on its radical superiority over Protestantism. It simultaneously undermined other associated doctrines like the ex opere operato (automatic) function of sacramental ritual and the absolutely indispensable role of the priestly sigillum (“indelible seal”) with its magical power to transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. All that changed.

Consider the devastating effect of announcing the primacy of symbolism: If the mass were truly more than a symbol, then the symbolism should have remained secondary to the literal, factual reality of the real presence, because “reality” trumps all ancillary factors. But if the symbolic is validly given highest priority then you really don’t need a priest, anyone can make and recognize a symbol. How is this different from what the Protes­tants have been saying? What started out as a necessary course correction for a doctrine that had yawed too far in the direction of scientific fact, turned out to completely upend the Catholic worldview as it then existed precisely because the entire interconnected worldview had been taken as scientific fact.

So the Catholic Church lost its uniqueness in the eyes of its own people. The view being encouraged by the Council tended to put Catholicism on the same level as other Christian religions, no better, no worse, to be judged by fidelity to the gospel not by its magical powers. Despite the ensuing conservative backlash, there really was no going back. The cat was out of the bag. The sacraments are symbols, not vending machines. The Roman Catholic priest was no longer a mystical Merlin bringing Christ back to earth in the mass which was also supposed to sustain his life of celibate “holiness.” Celibacy lost its mystique. The ideological source of Catholic exceptionalism was swept away and the Church stood naked before the world … the victim of centuries of self-delusion, painted into a corner by its own insistence that its doctrines were scientific fact and its priests performed miracles. Catholics’ supreme self-confidence collapsed because their divinized self-image evaporated. Such catastrophic loss of self-esteem could never be reversed.

 4.

Or could it? I believe recourse to corporate success as compensation for that loss was predictable for an organization that had inherited a massive infrastructure of property: land, buildings, schools, hospitals … and a tradition of service. Indeed, the Church’s identity as a “service provider” in education was already well established. Once all that infrastruc­ture was stripped of its self-involved religious meaning what was left was its value to larger society, hence the pursuit of recog­nition as a corporation that provides “quality” education and other services.

The Church does not use its doctrines, like the “real presence” for their truth value any longer but only for their “branding” power. The truth value of the “real presence” had already been devalued by Vatican II. The Church can no longer return to that worldview. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is symbolic; its “reality,” i.e., its sacramental efficacy, derives from its symbolism, not the other way around. The “spirit” of Jesus becomes present in the community of love evoked by the symbolic meal of sharing. The power of symbols is the new paradigm that rules this sea-change in Catholic self-definition and ritual practice. Doctrine, as usual, lags behind prayer-life and needs to catch-up. Catholicism must begin reformulating (or repudiating) doctrines — like the “real presence” — that had originally been falsely articulated in terms of magic words and scientific “fact” and restate them as necessary to accommodate their reality as symbol.

But if the Church becomes captive to the siren call of the marketplace, and refuses to allow its ancient formulations to change because it is now committed to preserve the purity of its “brand,” it continues proclaiming doctrines known to be false or falsely stated, and now without even the excuse that it believes them. This would explain the Brooklyn bishop’s lack of concern that 200,000 Catholics had left his Church. He isn’t a monster; like the rest of us he simply no longer believes that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

This is the dilemma facing the present pope. He cannot absent himself from these developments. Catholic doctrine is burdened with the delusions of millennia. Ignoring doctrine will not make it go away; that is the greatest delusion of all. Doing nothing is itself a choice to continue the mystifications of the past, and no one is fooled by them any longer.

The money changers are starting to take over the temple. It was something that Jesus could not ignore and would not tolerate. It’s what got him killed. The bishops are turning their churches into business corporations right before Francis’ eyes, and their doctrinal conservatism is cynical and insincere in service to it. This is all happening on his watch. It is time to ask the hard question: is Francis’ “benign neglect” passively complicit with this development? I am inclined to say that even granting him the benefit of my doubt, it is still a cop-out … it avoids accepting responsibility for what the Church has done with what it calls the “truth.”

 5.

The Church has always claimed it was the guardian of the “truth” and the “truth” was the basis of its claims to power. Throughout its history, no matter how venal and morally corrupt its leadership, no matter how it compromised with wealth and power, no matter how it betrayed the widow and the orphan, it has never wavered on what it insisted was the “truth” that grounded its right to rule. For the pope to dismiss that “truth” now as an irrelevant “obsession” and not own up to the damage it has caused, is grossly irresponsible.

The “truth” was used to justify genocidal crusades launched by direct papal initiative against Islam and dissident “heretical” Christians. The “truth” mattered so much that the Church was willing to encourage Christians to kill people in its defense and in its promotion. And in the matter of the Jews, beginning with the gospels themselves the Church’s version of the “truth” provided the rationale for Jew-hatred that has lasted throughout Christian history. Christian rhetoric about the “truth” of divine providence drove the Christian population of Europe to conclude that only the physical elimination of the Jewish people who denied the “truth” of the divinity of Christ and the necessity of baptism for “salvation” would guarantee that natural disasters would not be visited upon them by “God” in punishment for the presence of Jews in their midst. Every outbreak of plague brought pogroms of slaughter to the Jews.

The virulent anti-Judaic attitudes that seethed beneath the surface in all the countries of Europe in the years leading up to the Nazi holocaust insured that what was happening at Auschwitz and Buchenwald would be ignored if not tacitly approved, and we know now that the Vatican itself was part of that “passive complicity.” The holocaust was the “final solution” prepared for by two thousand years of Christian “truth.” To treat the doctrinal complex that comprises Christian “truth” now as of no relevance is a betrayal of integrity of monstrous proportions. There is no impunity for genocidal Pinochets and Milosevics and the machete-killers of Ruanda. There is no “statute of limitations.” The Church must account for its claim to be custodian of a “truth” that precipitated so much horror. To walk away in silence when you have finally come to know that your “truth” was all along nothing but a self-serving delusion that harbored a psychopathic murderous paranoia toward others, is a crime against humanity in a class by itself.

Tribal “Catholicism” is on the way out. It is disappearing because tribal identity is disappearing in a globalized world … I say, good riddance. People can find other ways to protect their cultural heritage. But there is a new monstrosity coming to birth in its wake, a globalized Church with a new identity: the corporate commercial enterprise, supine before the forces of the market which would make us all commodities to be bought and sold. We don’t need this Church either. When will we learn? Roman Imperial Christianity made Jesus “God” and chained him to its program of conquest and control; it created a machinery that, even as things changed, has functioned, inerrantly, for that same purpose ever since.

If we are to liberate ourselves from its grip, we will have to liberate Jesus along with us.

 

[1]John AllenVatican official warns of ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with LCWR,” NCR June 12, 2012

[2] From Interview w/ Antonio Spadaro pub in America Sept.30, 2013

 

 

The Sense of the Sacred (II)

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.

 4.

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.

 5.

 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.

6.

 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.

 7.

 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.

8

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.