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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
11.2 (Spring 2011)
FAITH AND CULTURAL MELTDOWN
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Under the Bridge: How Faith Survives as Christian Leaders Collaborate on the Tower of Babel
In the late fifties and early sixties, one of the hottest shows on primetime television was also one of the first hospital dramas: a weekly serial titled Ben Casey (after the eponymous chief resident). At the very beginning of each new hour, the producers affixed a kind of signature unassociated either with credits or with the upcoming drama’s specific contents. It was a rigidly formulaic sequence. The hospital’s senior surgeon, Dr. Zorba (played most memorably by Sam Jaffe) appeared before a blackboard with a piece of chalk. He proceeded to draw the essential signs of the life cycle to the bitonal, very distant strains of a violin, his voice following the cadence of his writing. “Man… woman… birth… death… [and an ever-so-slightly longer pause as the chalk inscribed a figure “eight” on its side] infinity.”
Probably the most informative fifteen seconds of television ever made, this “signature” has perhaps passed into irrelevance for contemporary society and the contemporary church, along with everything else of sense and humility. We no longer take for granted that our sex is a natural limitation upon our behavior in this world: today’s Dr. Zorbas can change all that (and change it back again, if we like: any of us can be Teiresias). Birth is increasingly approaching the kind of operation foreseen by Aldous Huxley, where the desired genetic material is incubated in an amniotic jug. Death is quite possibly the last remaining obscenity in a culture which has rapidly gone through all the four-letter words once written out only over toilets in public men’s rooms. The case could be made, even, that the imminent and much-discussed “death panels” implied in the new Health Care law really aim at shielding the living from death at least as much as saving the moribund from painful, irreversible degeneration. The Man on the Streets believes that we will one day “defeat” death (which, of course, also has consequences for the future of birth–similar to those that the car had for the future of the carriage). In the meantime, we expect Dr. Zorba to remove all pain from our lives, to cure all non-fatal diseases instantly, and to do so at a cost affordable to the lowest of the low.
As for infinity… well, one of the heroes of the delightful children’s flick Toy Story quite adequately sums up the best adult thinking on the subject today: “To infinity and beyond!” We no longer accept the existence of limits–not spatial, not temporal, not logical limits. The very notion of being limited was all a trick of the patriarchy to make us submissive. Though something generally called reason continues to whisper that we can’t possibly have no limits whatever, we now recognize that reason itself was the carrier of the infection, and hence is to receive no honor or trust from us. The more unreasonably we act, the more sure we can be of avoiding re-infection.
What, then, would the new Dr. Zorba write on his blackboard–or thumb-key into his iPad? Perhaps (to continue this foray into pop culture) he would be some hybrid of the shaggy-headed Willie Wonka and the shaggy-headed Dr. Who pirouetting from medical school to a hospital half chocolate factory and half time machine. And his words, his wisdom? Some version of the legend spanning the entrance to Rabelais’s Abbey de Theleme: “Do what you want!” This wide-open, narcissistic invitation to pleasure is no doubt a kind of infinity–probably a most hellish kind which Dr. Willie Who’s patients cannot begin to conceive. It most certainly is not an acceptance of one’s relative pettiness, at least in time and in the body, before the vast scheme of things.
Science has done us in, as a healthy culture. Though that observation is not particularly original, the extent of its truth–and probably its proper application–escapes most people. Few of us regret the benefits of modern medicine: surely Dr. Zorba himself did not regret them as he was reminding his unseen audience that medicine can only take us so far. It clearly isn’t bad to have a cure for polio, it isn’t wrong to take a good shower every day, and it isn’t wicked to have handy refrigeration for one’s food supply. Yet all of this together is somewhat spoiling. Like a brat child, we have been given too much with too little effort, those of us who have inherited so richly from the twentieth century’s first half. We are now inclined to believe that everyone has a right to good health, to state-of-the-art plumbing, and to a humming kitchen aglitter with appliances. Those in our own society who have been “left behind” should receive government subsidies: it isn’t right that anyone should live in squalor while the elite take cruises to the Bahamas. Those around the world who have even less than our poor should become the target of a massive relief effort that will consume as much of our collective wealth as the leveling endeavor takes, up to that point where everything is indeed level.
Organized Christianity, alas, has largely bought into this vision. All denominations, from Catholic to charismatic Protestant, have significantly contributed rhetorical support to the ongoing annihilation of boundaries between advanced nations and the Third World. In Europe, the Church has championed the “right” of Muslim immigrants to disrupt classic architecture with mosques and to impose Sharia law in certain neighborhoods. In the United States, bishops, arch-deacons, and other prominent leaders of the entire Christian spectrum have repeatedly endorsed de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants and dissolution of the nation’s southern border. Many authors have alleged many causes for this advocacy. The self-interested ends of swelling the church’s membership and multiplying the church’s political power are often cited. Yet it is just as likely that these advocates really see a quasi-socialist sharing of material wealth as a solemn Christian duty. The resulting meltdown of the state’s political coherence and of the domestic economy’s incentives for energy and creativity do not much matter to them beside duties so compelling, or are even seen as a happy event; for division of all shapes and kinds is viewed by their eyes as driving the kingdom of heaven away from earth.
When did Christianity’s highest officials forget that heaven is not meant to be on earth–that the marriage is impossible in secular time? Probably about when they decided (singly as well as by groups, through soul-searching as well as through crowd-following) that an organ-transplant is a better answer to most prayers than a serene death. The old god cannot give someone a new heart: the new doctor can. The old church told its faithful to accept the scourge of famine or plague: the new understanding shows us how to stock up on food and offers us vaccinations. The old religion showed us how to die: the new religion shows us how to keep from dying. For someone who has spent a lot of time trying to console parents in the surgery ward, this may not seem like a very tough choice.
Nevertheless, the selection of science as supreme authority is eventually disastrous to the spirit. Sooner or later, we will all die, no matter what science tries to do for us: Dr. Zorba was right. If we undercut our faith in a higher reality by turning only and always to this one, then we must at last come face to face with oblivion and futility. The rich man may indeed die later than the poor man, but he may also die in greater anguish–not because poor men still exist in the world around him, but because he has made a god of his wealth. If we were to divide up his loot with the poor, what should we have done but to spread this corrupting, diseased belief to them, as well? The logical extension of our New Age theology would call upon the rich to work even harder that they might give away more. Would not the best advice of a spiritual counselor, though, urge the rich man to work less fanatically and take more interest in rearing his children? Today’s cleric would have difficulty in telling a nonagenarian why she should abstain from suicide even though her medications may cost her grandson a chance at college. Yesterday’s cleric would have informed the grandson that college and all of its subsequent advantages just might cost him his soul if he didn’t go comfort his old grandmother.
This spiritual battle has in fact been steadily waged for the past century and more. Its beginnings date to the New Awakening and the Social Gospel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the abject misery of society’s poor and the marvelous benefits of the latest technology created a stark contrast which tempted many conscientious people into believing that the latter must be put at the disposal of the former. Children of privilege, these social crusaders could appreciate the rich man’s spiritual cancer–his Scrooge-like attachment to pelf and plunder–far better than they could the poor man’s bone rot of class envy; yet worship of material things is just as fatal whether one has luxuries in superabundance or can only dream of having them. The great crusades of the time (Prohibition was one of them: another was eugenics) had no energy left over to ponder the absolute, immutable, ultimately unknowable divinity of the Christian past’s god. Many of these luminaries inclined more to some neo-Darwinian version of the faith, wherein God was “in becoming” through the evolution of human society. A minister from this school of thought would no doubt apprise a dying man that his body would rot away without leaving a soul, but that his society would carry his microscopic personal efforts along in its grand ascent to an ever better future. To infinity and beyond…
Such “faith” is no longer Christianity. Buzz Lightyear is not among our prophets. Most of us can understand how church leaders come to be seduced by progressive doctrines, and the susceptibility may be evidence of a good heart. But it may also be evidence of a light head–a swollen pride that has chosen to declare the more comprehensible answers of science superior to the mysteries of an unseen reality. Whether the basic motives are good or tarnished, they must eventually lead those who succumb to them to a bad place. Those clerics, for instance, who suppose that abortion can be politically defeated by massive infusions of blue-collar Mexican workers into their congregations (and about as many of this group become fundamentalist Protestant as remain Catholic) are playing a losing hand. The politicians who most want to rush millions of illegal immigrants into citizenship are precisely those who most want to limit the growth of families, by abortion and other means, and to reduce the human “footprint” on the face of the planet. They are also least averse to genetic engineering and various eugenic programs. (One of the current administration’s trusted advisors has authored papers on techniques of mass sterilization.)
Christianity will survive. It is the faith of people who suffer rather than cross the line to side with the worldly; and suffering, as Dr. Zorba knew, will never be in short supply on this earth. Whether it can survive within the current power structures of the organized church is another matter. The leadership of Christendom needs to take serious stock of its doctrine. Christians at one point early in their history met in catacombs, entrances to which were marked by the sign of the fish (ichthys = Iesous Christos), for fear of being hunted down. In the near future, Christians may simply meet under the bridge, so to speak. Forgotten by titular leaders who busily build a new Tower of Babel in the great crusade for social justice, perfect health, and complete sharing of all possessions, they may congregate openly in humble twos and threes, yet so close to the ground that starry-eyed, delirious gazes will never find them. ~ Pancratistes