Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Signs that Religion Is Alive and Well in Our Post-Christian Society

Today Olympianity is the world’s most popular religion. As societies, cultures, and personalities, we devote ourselves to the six gods of Olympus: (1) Jupiter, god of politics; (2) Mars, god of war; (3) Vulcan, god of technology; (4) Venus, god of sex; (5) Pluto, god of money; and (6) Bacchus, god of consumption. As with other religions, these gods are related to us as individuals, to our societies and cultures, and to our past, present, and future, through the Grand Narrative of myth. But the Olympian gods actually encourage us to pursue the widest variety of religious practices knowing that all religious practices lead back to them. Here are a few, popular even among Christians, noted by Jacques Ellul in The New Demons (trans. C. Edward Hopkin, 1975) and still true today:

1. Superstition. According to the Pew Research Center (2009), 25% of the adults in the US belief in astrology while 15% have consulted fortune-tellers. Millions of people purchase mass-produced statues of Hindu goddesses, Buddhas, the Virgin Mary, or various saints. People wear St. Christopher medals, zodiac medallions, or bracelets with WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?”).
2. Fascination with the enigmatic and demonic. Great popularity is enjoyed by movies, TV shows, and books exploring various enigmas such as UFOs, auras, near-death experiences, a sudden new consciousness, immortality, and reincarnation. Then there’s all the recent excitement about vampires, zombies, demons, and even the Devil himself. “The great skill of the producer [or writer] is to be able to present a medieval devil acting in the context of a technological, rational, and scientific society…It corresponds to modern man’s religious conviction of a presence which cannot be acknowledged, of a personalized power at the heart of our world, a world which is the most modern and [135] seemingly the most enlightened. The devil’s disciples have become numerous again in our day” (135-6).
3. The hippie movement. Writing in 1973, Jacques pointed out that religious aspects of this movement included its emphasis on irrationality, spontaneity, community, naturalness, and spirituality. The sharing of drugs allowed people to embark together on “a religious adventure” (138) which could lead to communion, escape, an altered consciousness, and perhaps even a mystical experience. Pop concerts were also collective, mystical, sometimes orgiastic religious experiences.
4. Violence. One sure sign of the presence of the gods is delirium: emotional intensity and stubborn irrationality. Delirium may certainly be expressed in orgies of excessive eating, drinking, and sex. But it may also express itself in outbursts of violence. Even people like hippies, theoretically nonviolent, could rage violently against individuals regarded as embodying the conventional society they despised. Olympians are certain that violence is a meaningful and useful means for ridding oneself, one’s society, civilization, and religion, of evil persons. Any sort of violence will do: war, violence at football games, road rage, even the vicarious violence of viewing sadistic films. “[T]he violence specific to our time…is the overflow of an exaltation, and the means par excellence for the realization of an ideal carried to the absolute limit” (141).
5. “Music, drugs, incense, violence, sexual freedom: festival” (142). Festival? “[H]appenings, barricades, confrontations, sit-ins, fancy dress, theater of participation, pop festivals, deafening and intoxicating music, audiences swaying with the rhythm of the drums, a participation which becomes identification” (142). We have gods of order and gods of disorder. The latter trick us into thinking that we can only escape the control of the gods of government, technology, and finance by busting lose through the violence, sex, and consumption that only the latter offer us. Even if we do bust loose, however briefly, from the gods of control through our devotion to the gods of chaos, we nonetheless remain firmly enslaved by the Olympian gods themselves.
6. Consumption
a. Delirium of consumption. Here again we find our active devotion to Bacchus the god of consumption. “Consumption, along with the technology that produces it and the advertising that expresses it, is no longer a materialistic fact. It has become the meaning of life, the chief sacred, the show of morality…” (144). Bacchus has us emphasize our material standard of living and crave the highest. He rewards us for regarding every person and all else as objects to consume. Consumption is the meaning of life both for us personally as well as for our society. So our society simply must have, for example, space programs, motorways for fast cars, and nuclear power plants.
b. Worship of the technological object. “Man cannot separate material satisfaction from spiritual satisfaction. The technical object has become a religious object” (146). We love our smartphones that much.
c. Advertising. “It is because man experiences consumption as a sacred delirium that… advertising arouses such a sympathetic vibration in him” (146). Advertising “would have no hold on a person if he were not an orgiastic fanatic for consumer goods” (147).
7. Irrationality. “It seems that the more technology and organization are rationalized, so that, logically, they should rationalize man and his behavior, the more, to the contrary, irrationalities increase” (148). So Jacques points out that today, for example, it is wrong to claim knowledge of something. “One must be nondirective, without knowledge, without experience (that crushes the poor other fellow)…One must take his stand at the zero point of scripture, of faith, of knowledge, and of art. One must not give a lecture or preach a sermon in which one knows what he is saying… Everything must be left to the free choice of those who actually know nothing…” (149).
8. Dilution of Christianity.
a. Theology. “‘[T]he Christian renewal’ in the United States [is], in fact, a religious renewal which is not at all Christian. It is, rather, a manifestation of the religious spirit of modern society. For, to be sure, this religious spirit can also revivify old forms and cover itself with the mantle of old religions” (152). We see this kind of religious renewal in theologies that deny the singularity of Jesus Christ and his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return.
b. Practice. We also see it in attempts to make Sunday worship more appealing by making it a pop or folk music concert or by introducing visual spectacles, political partisanship, and liturgical dancing into it. We hold liturgies in stadiums and drive-in movie theaters. We emphasize love but remain quite vague about just what that means. We speak of Jesus primarily as a means of solving our very Olympian problems.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.