Friday, July 24, 2015

The Consumerism of Religion

   Sitting in the library this afternoon, I glanced up and noticed that my chair was situated right next to the "Religion" shelves. Religion. Hmm... when I see this word I get a strange blend of feelings initially. The first is a feeling of prickly guardedness and caution, while the secondary one is a sense of familiarity and confidence in the all that the word means.

 I ponder what kinds of books will be housed in this section, and the Holy Bible, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux float across my consciousness. Then of course I imagine there must be books about Judaism and Islam as well, but it is less easy for me to imagine their works apart from the Q'uran and the Talmud. It's a strange thing isn't it. Centuries of conflict, all resting peacefully together in one tidy little section of a vast library.

   In some way, this situation strikes me as humorous. It's a secret little joke I share with myself. I realize that the categorization and smallness of the "Religion" section is somewhat analogous to the American attitude toward religion in general. The attitude among my peers, and indeed more than a few of my elders, is one of somewhat disinterested choosiness. Many young people have the idea that they can pick, choose, and filter what they want to believe from any number of different religious systems without any sense that this could lead to instability, inconsistency, and a false sense of reality. I have a hunch that this consumerism of religion has a deep root in our cultural heritage...

      I have plenty of friends who have bounced from church to church, with no real rhyme or reason. If asked, a lot of times their reasoning is along the lines of, "Well, their beliefs just didn't quite add up with mine", or "I didn't like many of the people there". I find it kind of strange how they see their own views on Christianity, probably less informed than a pastor, as holding more weight and value. It would be like me - having never taken a physics class in my life - telling someone with a PhD in this field that his views are irrelevant because they don't correspond with mine. That's just pretty absurd.

   I'll tell you my rough "theory" on how this phenomenon came about. Cultural relativism. If you've ever taken an introductory Philosophy course, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Cultural relativism is a philosophical view which holds that no culture is superior to another in any regard, and that whatever one culture views is true must be legitimate.
   It permeates all aspects of American culture, including politics, law, education, entertainment, morality, and religion. Let me make it clear, as an anthropology major in college I was constantly bombarded with this standard, because from the academic standpoint it is the least dangerous to the cultures we are trying to understand and study. The core maxim of anthropology as a field (particularly in the "cultural anthropology" sub-field) is this:
"In conducting and publishing their research, or otherwise disseminating their research results, anthropological researchers must ensure that they do not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities, or who might reasonably be thought to be affected by their research."
   This idea is hammered into our empty skulls from day one, and I am always wryly reminded of the Wiccan Rede, summed up by one of its statements,  'An it harm none, do what ye will'. Oh well, I take it with a grain of salt. I can appreciate the relevance of cultural relativism, properly utilized, in my chosen field. However, I will never allow cultural relativism to trump my moral convictions that are informed by Christ and His Church.

   By no means am I an expert in history, so bear with me if the following seems a little generalized. I will state an educated guess about the formation of this subjective, relativistic worldview. It seems to me that it must have come about, particularly in America, as a counter-movement against the conquesting mentality of our European ancestors.

   The Anglo-Saxons in Europe and their descendants as well as the Romans and all those who made up the "dawn of civilization", as it were, left a lot of death and destruction in their wake as they conquered and assimilated smaller, less advanced peoples. They swept across Europe through the centuries until there were only several large empires remaining in the Eastern hemisphere.

   After the Spanish, French, and English sailed the Atlantic Ocean to colonize the New World,   important ideological views were shifting. The initial impetus of conquest was informed by religion, under the conviction that God wanted His Church to subdue all of the earth and bring it under Her dominion. Over time, this idea shifted to the desire to escape from the all-encompassing authoritarian rule of the crown. Some of those who left Europe and their descendants decided they wanted to have supreme ownership of their brand new country and the British were overthrown and cast out (wow talk about history 101 in fast-forward). They wanted a fresh start, and did not want to be accountable to the British, nor to have to pay taxes to the monarchy.

  Of course, the ideal of freedom from oppression and hierarchical rule,  among other things, eventually lead to the American Revolution and Independence. It's no wonder Americans have a serious problem with authority, particularly when presented with the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church! And it's certainly no wonder we have a problem with telling people that they may or may not be wrong about anything. After all, we all have freedom of speech and everyone has a right to their own opinion! Sigh.

(Pic credit here)

    I believe that as globalization has progressed and greater strides have been made in our knowledge of the world and other societies, we realize all of the horrible things that have been done in the name of religion. We see also the damage that has been done by cultures who deem their own to be superior and the "only way to do things". A humorous side note: I know some English people who still hold this mentality to some extent, although they do not carry it through to its tyrannical end!

  Anyway, cultural relativism is a worldview that attempts to reconcile all people without taking the moral or cultural high ground. However, this view has the potential to be dangerous, as it rejects all objective truth. A relativist, if remaining consistent with this perspective, would not be able to look Hitler in the eye and say "what you're doing is wrong". There is no justice within a relativistic system.

   Say, for example, that according to a particular culture cannibalism is not only morally acceptable, but is even actively encouraged. According to American sensibilities, cannibalism is both morally wrong and extremely repulsive. Objectively speaking, both of these views cannot be true. An action is either objectively immoral or objectively moral. The only grey, subjective area is intentionality - but only God truly objectively knows what a person's intentions were.

   Imagine the "Ghearlapha" (made up) tribe believes that every day the sun is pulled into the sky by a giant unicorn pegasus that has rainbow fur. In the United States, most of us believe that the earth rotates around the sun and each day represents one full turn of the earth on its axis. One of us is correct... but according to cultural relativism, the US culture does not have a right to tell the Ghearlapha culture that they are wrong. If the Ghearlapha tribe wants to believe that a unicorn pegasus brings the sun into the sky, they can, because who are we to tell them their truth isn't true? LOL HAHA

Here is something for all of you relativists to consider: the classic relative trump card. Here it is: If all truth claims are relative, and there is no objective truth, then how can you make that claim? Isn't that statement self-refuting? If there is no objective truth, then you cannot say that your relative view is true.

   On a more serious note, this relativistic attitude carries over to religious views. Looking at the book shelf categorization of Religion in the library, I came to this realization. Religion, in American society, is just another category we get to shop around in. It's very nonchalant, and appears to be of no consequence. All over the internet, people proclaim that everybody has a right to choose which religion to follow and that no one can be more right than someone else about religious truth.

   We are encouraged to pick which religion to follow based off of... well, what? How we feel? What "seems" truest? Did everyone suddenly become Biblical and Quranic scholars overnight?? No. No, they did not. Oftentimes they dabble here and there and settle with whichever religion makes them feel best. (Um yes, I was very guilty of this in my earlier days - before college, mind you! Which is kind of ironic because it seems to me that a lot of college students pick this up while they're in college. But I digress). How have we come to this? I believe it is the result of a dangerous mixture of cultural relativism, consumerism, and the mistaken view that the goal of life is happiness and comfort.

   If all religions were philosophies, then perhaps this pickiness would be justified. After all, how would we even know which religion is true, since they all come from different premises? For example, some religions claim there are many deities (pagans), some religions believe there is no Supreme Being at all (atheists), etc. Everyone has their own arguments as to why they think they hold the most reasonable position. Fine. That's just how it is. Christianity, however, is not the same as the all the other world religions.

Here is why.

   To steal an idea from Fr. Robert Barron (from his DVD "Catholicism"): The Dali Lama would say he has discovered divine truth, and is the instrument of God who disseminates this knowledge. The prophet Muhammad would never in his wildest dreams claim that he is God - no, he was a Prophet of God, but not God himself. Jesus, on the other hand, claims - and proves - that he is the Son of God. He is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", and no one comes to the Father except through Him.
(borrowed from

   To steal a wonderful quote from another great thinker of our times, C.S. Lewis,
 "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse."
 Luckily for us, Jesus was and is truly the Son of God. He is the second person of the Trinity, the Son, begotten, not made, of the Father, and he came to redeem us and reconcile our broken humanity with Himself. He humbled himself in the form of a slave and poured out His blood for our sake. The Resurrection confirms all the truths of the Gospel, and they were written by the apostles and disciples who had a personal encounter with the one True God. If you want or need more information about proofs of the Resurrection, here is an excellent starting point, written by one of my favorite modern Catholic apologists, Peter Kreeft:

   So if Jesus is truly who He claimed to be, and really meant everything He said, and really wants us to take up our crosses daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23), then don't you think that the most important pursuit of our lives is to determine what we need to do to really know Jesus, His teachings, and what He really wants from us?

   If we disregard Christ, then we disregard not some aloof abstract ideal. We reject a person, a person who loves us so much that He endured unimaginable torture for our sake, knowing full well that He possessed the power to make it all stop. He did not do that for some abstract "humanity". No, He did it for each and every individual who has ever been conceived. When you look upon a crucifix, imagine Christ's eyes piercing yours as you hear Him whisper solemnly "I did this for you".

   Will you reject his love by remaining in sin? When I sin, I imagine myself spitting in Jesus's face as he is burdened with the cross. It breaks my heart that I'm capable of offending Him so, after He has forgiven me countless times, but He is always there to accept my repentance as soon as I implore it of Him. Our God is Love unconditional.

Please pray for me, I'll be praying for you.

Next blog post: A Mystical Rosebud - the source of my blog title!

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