Sunday, June 20, 2010

'I no longer wish that individual things were better' - St. Augustine

The American idea of progress is that we are getting better at understanding everything.

However, reading the classics, I wonder if when trying to comprehend nature, we are actually getting worse.

Since at least the beginning of the Industrial Age people have been "improving" nature, which often means exploiting it -- clear cutting forests and strip mining come to mind.

Water is taken from Colorado to turn the desert around Los Angeles into suburbs with green lawns that try to make the Mojave look like New England.

Viewing almost everything as an us-versus-them struggle for dominance, we have also been at war with nature. Creatures that got in our way, most notably the buffalo, are virtually eradicated.

We fight floods and resist hurricanes that inconveniently interrupt our pursuit of the good life.

However, reading St. Augustine's Confessions in a new translation by Garry Wills the reader finds a classic viewpoint that is in sharp contrast with our modern perspective.

If St. Augustine were today "alive as you or me," it seems likely that both our political institutions and media would shun if not condemn his point of view. He accepts what we condemn and praises what we often disdain.

As Augustine tells the classic story of his progress from pagan to Catholic bishop, one of the things he gains is an acceptance and reverence for what he quaintly sees as God's creation. And the old bishop isn't just praising the Lord for a sunny day at the beach, he also accepts all the yucky nature that we are working so hard to fix up, change and correct.

"I am far from saying that anything that exists should not do so," Augustine writes, although he acknowledges this is a new and hard won point of view that comes as he moves away from materialism toward God.

In his ongoing conversation with God, Augustine writes: "'There is no soundness' in the person who disapproves of anything you made -- as I once disapproved of many of them."

Then Augustine goes off the charts: "Taken individually, I might prefer something different about them. But in the present argument I acknowledge the duty to praise each item individually. On earth everything shows that you should be praised -- even 'monsters and abysses, as well as fire, hail, snow, sleet, hurricane. All act on your command, as do mountains and every hill, trees with their fruit, every cedar, wild animals, and all cattle, serpents, and flying things.'"

He praises everything, even hurricanes and monsters?

You can almost hear the TV talking head: "This religious nut, this so-called St. Augustine, is praising monsters. How crazy is that?"

Augustine might get some support from one of those shaved head Zen monks who might support his "radical acceptance" of the world as it is rather than as he wants it to be.

But how many Zen monks get on TV?

So what would happen to the hapless Augustine when he tells a cable interviewer: "When I look on all things taken together, I no longer wish that individual things were better."

First, they would cut to a commercial where a coal mining company would extol the virtues of strip mining America's biggest source of clean energy. That would be followed with ads for cosmetics to help you be a better younger-looking you. And if that doesn't work, there's always beer, wine, whiskey and a new truck with a Hemi engine that sucks gas the way Dracula sucksblood.

This being the era of reality TV, when we get back from the commercial break, we would see security guards leading the old bishop off the set where a team of psychiatrists wait to take him in hand.

Electroshock will eventually get him to see things right.

If that doesn't work there's always pills and injections.

One way or another they'll teach him to wish that things were better.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Original Sin and Its Discontents

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation ...
-- T.S. Eliot

G.K. Chesterton used to say that he found it odd that people deny original sin because it is the one Christian doctrine that is verifiable just by looking around at what is happening on the streets.

But the very thought that we live not only in an imperfect world but in an imperfectable world seems too dreadful for most people, whether they are religious or not.

The media constantly reports on the obvious failures of humankind to live up to anything like a vision of a perfect world, and yet immediately commentators demand solutions.

So we are constantly looking for a politician who will rid government of its tendencies toward inefficiency and corruption, even though we have no evidence that any government ever came close to this ideal.

This leaves the media, barflies, and most of the general public asking a series of questions that the history of the human race indicates are just plain silly.

Why are business executives so greedy? Why do politicians lie so much? Why are entertainers so prone to bad behavior? Why do people who drink get drunk? Why do 17-year-olds want to have sex?

When will all this end?

Who is going to fix these people and rid us of these problems?

Generations raised on TV sitcoms where all family problems could be solved in 30 minutes seem not to grasp that this only works in popular fiction.

Generations numbed by commercials believe the classic sales pitch: "You've got a problem and we have the solution." (And by the time the problem reasserts itself, the seller will have another solution.)

So, voters continually vote for candidates who promise to fix up all their troubles, and then are surprised when things get worse instead of better. Next election, they cast their vote for another politician, who promises to do better than the last one, to say nothing of the one before that.

Self-help addicts are sure the next book or tape or weekend seminar will change their lives for the better. This week's prosperity gospel may not work but there's always another Sunday and another sermon.

Shoppers are sure that if they buy a new gadget it will make them cool. And when they lose their cool, there will be another gadget on sale.

Sufferers from restless leg syndrome are only a pill away from a cure. And when the first pill makes them larger, they'll get a script for another pill to make them small. Until they catch the sickness unto death for which there isn't any pill at all.

These things are obvious cons believed by people who don't believe in original sin even though confirmation of St. Augustine's teaching is available 24-hours-a-day on the cable news channels.

Chesterton, up in Heaven now, may find this amusing although not surprising.

For as Eliot observed:

... human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

American Religion

As Harold Bloom pointed out in The American Religion, our fellow Americans make up a theologically inventive group.

What other country has created so many new religions ranging from the not successful Shakers to the very robust Mormons and Pentecostals? Plus Unitarians and Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Unitarians and others.

Bloom, who is a non-observant Jew, says Marx was wrong because in America, religion is not the opiate of the masses, it is the poetry of the people.

And it appears that people are writing their own poetry in the individualistic way that Americans approach almost everything.

This has a bearing on "churchless Christians" that many standard brand denominations are trying without much success to lure back.

There are two reasons for polling data indicating that a majority of Americans believe in God but fewer and fewer are attending churches.

First, there is the hodge-podge lodge of pick and choose beliefs, most notably found among the so-called cafeteria Catholics. But there may be a lot of cafeteria Protestants as well. There is also cross-cultural mix and match going on among different religions, such as Zen Catholics. It may drive purists nuts but welcome to the American religion.

Second, those of folks in congregations may be underestimating how difficult it is for an outsider to visit their church. A standard-brand Protestant church I visited earlier this year has a form visitors need to fill out during the service: name, phone, address, email etc., which in my humble opinion is a lot of data to collect on someone who is just visiting. There was also a microphone passed around where visitors were pressed to stand up and introduce themselves. I found this very over-the-top intimidating. To say the least I never went back. I don't know if this is common practice in standard brand denominations but it felt like a marriage proposal on a first date: "While we wait for our entree would you like to marry me?'

So while churches may believe they are inviting us "churchless Christians" back into their homes, they may not be making us feel all that comfortable. Beyond that, some churchless Christians may never fit into an existing church structure because they are inventing their own unique American religion, and that is just a fact of life in these United States.