Sunday, June 25, 2006

Could the Sacred Survive Without Materialism?

My previous post took on Rod's "Dangerous Question" of whether our society could truly survive in a secular materialist culture. In the discussion that followed, commenter Jeff said,
IF it is true that we can't pick and choose, THEN the Society that gave us Penicillin and MRIs (just had one myself) can go straight to hell. The price is too high: all the medical and scientific and technological benefits in the world do not offset the negatives of an institutionally depraved "Girls Gone Wild" culture that is bent on spiritual suicide.

There is a significant thread of thought out there which holds that all our modern comforts create barriers to our spiritual progress. To cut to the chase, the suggestion is that we spend less time worrying about our immortal souls because death is now largely held at a safe distance; that we spend time building up our treasures on Earth because Heaven is a long way off.

Here is a great example of this sort of thinking, as stated by a very popular and well-known pastor:
It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand. It is no security to a natural man, that he is now in health, and that he does not see which way he should now immediately go out of the world by any accident, and that there is no visible danger in any respect in his circumstances. The manifold and continual experience of the world in all ages, shows this is no evidence, that a man is not on the very brink of eternity, and that the next step will not be into another world.

The pastor is none other than Jonathan Edwards, in his awesome Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, delivered on July 8, 1741. So let us dismiss the notion that any of this is uniquely connected to the degree of comfort now available.

Also, there is a more sinister undertone of Leninist "the worse, the better" in commentators' laments over our material abundance. This line of thinking, it seems to me, is one short mutation away from concluding that an Avian Influenza epidemic that killed millions of urban sophisticates woud be a good thing. "That would show them!" is not far off from the jihadist slogan, "We love life, you love death."

But this is all prologue to my main point, which is to offer a further riposte to the notion that modern materialism represents some newly lethal pathogen to the Good life, as Dreher and many others clearly believe. All of this is compared, unfavorably to the Medieval era, which comes in for significant praise on the original Crunch Blog and other kindred sources.

Certainly, one will get little argument even from me that the Church sat atop the commanding heights of human thought and that society was oriented around the authority of the Roman Curia and old Christendom in a way profoundly different than what is seen today. But, sitting here in my agnostic's perch, I cannot help but ask the question: was the Medieval Church more sacred, or simply more worldly powerful?

My study of European history suggests that it was the latter. If the average man feared God more than he does today, the leaders of the institution certainly took their liberties with the definition of right and wrong. Indeed, the City of Man and the City of God seemed much closer then, but it was because the City of God had been dragged down to our level. Unlike some, I do not view this as an indictment of the Catholic Church in particular, or Christianity in general. But I refuse to accept that the worldly role of the Church in that time has no bearing on this.

Of course, this is precisely what brought us to the Reformation, which as far as I can tell is not on the Crunchies top-10 list of positive historical events. And yet it was this which started us on the path to today's Church, full of gay priests delivering limp-wristed sermons, and yet focused almost entirely on the transcendant and spiritual. As always, fate has a way of mocking those who pretend to understand its designs.


Blogger Jeff said...

A high quality post for this blog: thank you. I'd like to comment but I've got work to do. For now, let me just critique this statement:

"And yet it was this which started us on the path to today's Church, full of gay priests delivering limp-wristed sermons, and yet focused almost entirely on the transcendant and spiritual."

You obviously haven't heard many sermons delivered by the typical gay or effeminate Catholic priest. They are limp-writsted, true, but totally worldly and lacking in transcendance or genuine Catholic spirituality. The new "spirituality", the end result of the Reformation, can be summarized by "luv everybody and be nice and hold hands and let's have a group hug".

6:24 PM  
Blogger The Contra Crunchy said...

Jeff- Thanks.

My point is that in the Middle Ages, joining the clergy was like getting a Harvard MBA and going to work for McKinsey. It was a path to worldly power, and the only one for those not of noble birth.

I can sympathize with the desires of those who wish to see a more muscular Christianity. Yet looking to the deeper past, one certainly finds more muscle, but perhaps not more Christianity.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Cubeland Mystic said...

It is all about balance. When I first started reading about CCism around April, it described many of our lifestyle choices (e.g. gardening, wine making, cooking from scratch, organic farm support, permanent things etc etc etc.) I never considered hyphenating my politics. Notice I did not say Organic gardening. Why because I don't have time. I use about a gallon of Roundup a year for weed control. Nearly none of the Round-Up is used in the garden. Around 90% of the cultivating on the property is with the hoe. I also use a gas mower. I use insecticide around the house 4-6 times a year outside only. I do it myself because I am careful to keep it away from the beneficials when possible.

As far as technology is concerned, we are preparing to "lab-up" the house. We are going to purchase 4-6 computers over the next 12 months. It's all talk right now, but I think we are going to do it.

This is personal testimony of balanced and reasonable technology use. As I grow older I hope to use less to the point of only what is necessary for comfort. (There is that comfort word again.)

JPII spoke frequently of balance. What Rod describes in his book is Catholic 101 stuff, and articulated by JPII in various papal documents. It was not shocking to me that he was talking about it, other than the linkage to politics. Let's consider extending chastity to all aspects of our life. Jeff, reconsider your views. Let's just work on cooling off those boys and girls gone wild, and keep the MRIs etc. It's nice that Grandpa Contra is around to enrich his grandchildren with time and love. And Mr. Contra perhaps it is time to get off that agnostic perch? There is more to life than being in a perpetual state of distance and analysis. Jump in the water if fine.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Pauli said...

CM said:
> Mr. Contra perhaps it is time
> to get off that agnostic
> perch? There is more to life
> than being in a perpetual state
> of distance and analysis.

To pick on your metaphor a bit, Mystic, I would suggest that Mr. Contra may not be on as much of a perch as Mr. Dreher. Contra let three religious people post on this site alongside him. We're a regular "rainbow coalition", disagreeing on some things, but united by common sense and unusually good bullsh*t detection abilities (among other talents).

Do you think that an agnostic is more apt to go for a religious practice which is all out of balance with worrying about strip malls and tomatoes and architectural crises or one that shows the adherent how to love God and neighbor in a rigorous yet natural way, IOW focusing on how to practice the virutes rather than being able to pick out what's wrong with the local police, the capitalistic system or the church hierarchy? Once again, I propose that if anyone is on a perch it's Dreher with all his lofty criticism, 20/20 hindsight advice for the clergy crisis and refusal to really answer Bubba, the most patient human being since Job.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Cubeland Mystic said...

"But, sitting here in my agnostic's perch . . ."

The perch analogy is Contra's from his post. That's why I was referring to it. I didn't come up with it. I wrote it with a smile on my face too. I should have use a smiley face. It was a sincere invitation though. I used to be a very strong agnostic (nearly 20 years) almost atheist. I couldn't creep that last inch into oblivion. Sometimes agnostics just want to know that they are welcome. ;-)

I am not sure what makes people revert or convert. It is something to consider if Rod's ideas attract or repel. It's a tough question to answer. It's 3:30 I have to go back to sleep now. Here is a question for you. Do you think our culture is Christian or anti-Christian?

3:43 AM  
Blogger The Contra Crunchy said...

I honestly think that exhaustion plays a big role in conversion from the two A's. Pondering the Void, the ever-expanding wilderness of Infinity, is quite draining. I would much prefer to think that Baal is presently turning Stalin round and round on a spit. Or even that Stalin and his victims are all sitting together in some celestial bar, like soldiers from opposing armies meeting decades after the war's end. I can stomach the notion that Jim Morrison's consciousness simply blinked out of existence. But Mozart's?

I think most garden-variety atheists simply don't think very hard about these things. The very serious ones, the Daniel Dennets and Richard Dawkins, strike me as arrogant and naive at turns. The ancient Greeks, who understood human nature perhaps better than even we do, had only the inklings of the nature of the material world. Aristotle would fail a high school physics test. Or they play at historical gotcha! as if disproving this or that story in the Bible rules out the existence of God, any more than the existence of Hinduism calls Christianity into question.

As you see, the more I think about these things, the deeper things fold into themselves. So I suppose I am waiting to be hit by a lightning bolt. Mistakenly, perhaps, but that's the honest truth.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Cubeland Mystic said...

What a beautiful comment.. You already have been given grace, and it is honest and truthful. What you are describing here is the process of conversion. As you rightly say there won't be a lightning bolt. Things will continue to fold into themselves until one day you wake up refreshed and rested one quiet Sunday morning, the deep night of thought behind you, and realize that you've been a believer all along. God bless you.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Pauli said...

Sorry, CM, I stand corrected insofar as that wasn't your characterization, but I stand by my point that Rod is perching more. At least 12.3% more that the average percher, perchance.

If I have to choose between anti-Christian and Christian to describe our culture, I'd go with Christian. You can point out all kinds of non-Christian and anti-Christian things going on at the highest levels and the lowest levels, but you can do that with any church as well. Christians should all be trying to make themselves more Christian and make the culture more Christian. We should point out to agnostics and skeptics along the way that lighting people on fire, and molesting children are not Christian practices, even though Christians have been guilty of these throughout history.

Having said that, I don't think it's wise to run around saying "My country is Christian!" anymore that it's wise or humble to run around saying "I'm a good Christian, look at me!" I gets its a balance thing....

I really enjoyed your comment about the "two A's", Contra Crunchy.

8:00 PM  
Blogger The Contra Crunchy said...

Well, I haven't told you the other side, which is that I have a suspicion that all the world's religions are manifestations of humanity's ability to sense but not quite grasp the cosmological foundations of the universe. We exist in four dimensions, but math and physics tell us there could be an infinite number. There could easily be a fifth, or five-hundredth, dimension of existence which is connected to every single point of the universe that we know, but which does not ordinarily manifest itself in an obvious manner. And yet, perhaps under the right conditions, we can experience a sense of these things, just as someone like Stephen Hawking can see quantum phenomena unfolding in his head.

Hawking talks about how we place special significance in the passage of time, because as humans we experience it moving only forwards, and ever so. Yet in his exotic corner of understanding, time is a variable like vertical height; just as I can move my hand up and down, in Hawking's universe, time can move in any way.

Perhaps there is a fith or five-hundredth dimension in which resides a form of something which we know as consciousness--and perhaps the human brain, by pure accident, happens to act as an antenna of sorts for this dimension. If such a dimension existed it would be from our perspective, eternal in time, infinite in size, and present in all places at once. And it would contain a unity of experience, in a way. What does that sound like to you?

My own suspicion is that the Hindus, Catholics, Zoroastrians, Maya, the temples of Jove and Athena, are all reaching towards the same place. Just as the alchemists saw but did not quite grasp the foundations of chemistry and pharmacy, theology today may be seeing but not fully understanding something which physicists have not yet the tools to even contemplate. Just as physics has been anthropormorphized, so perhaps is theology.

Which, BTW, is something CS Lewis I think would agree with. In "A Grief Considered," he questioned whether our understanding of Heaven and Hell were really sufficient. Among other things, he asked why, if he missed his dead wife in Heaven, she should not also miss him on Earth? But I think the answer is that she would, if she had the time to do so. But in such a quintenary dimension, Lewis and his wife would meet each other at precisely the same moment. The Bible speaks after all of the end of time. To the average man this sounds magical. And yet to a cosmologist, it is quite plausible. The universe is a place far grander and stranger than we imagine. My understanding of it leads me to see organized religion as a well-intentioned misunderstanding.

But I could of course be massively wrong. See what I mean?

10:18 AM  
Blogger kathleen said...

Contra, I don't see how your take on things and the religious take on things are mutually exclusive.

for example, many scientists who originated this line of thinking and/or continue to investigate it are, or become, religious. there is a world of difference between glimpsing the reality of different dimensions intellectually, on a chalkboard, and incorporating it into a life practice like religion. to me, it seems uncreative and unnecessarily limiting to relegate such mysteries exclusively to the life of the mind.

But I suppose the universality you perceive in all religious experience it might make it difficult for you to "choose" a religion, assuming you weren't raised with one.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Pauli said...

This is really intense sh*t. You're going to get me into science fiction again. "Time" might be one of the most intriguing parts of creation, to mortals at least. Possibly to the angels also. "He who sits in the heavens laughs."

12:52 PM  
Blogger Cubeland Mystic said...

Contra said: What does that sound like to you?

Sounds like God to me. I like the multidimensional notion of the trinity.

You're not an agnostic, if you seriously think about these things you fall more into the mystic category. The more you reveal the more you convince me that you are already a believer.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Cubeland Mystic said...

Pauli, what kind of Science Fiction do you like?

5:21 PM  

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