I’ve been thinking about the spiritual train wreck of the 20th Century, and the opportunity that presents for us in this time. I’ll riff off the following texts:
Hebrews 11: 1
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
From Jackson Browne, Looking East
Hunger in the midnight, hunger at the stroke of noon
Hunger in the mansion, hunger in the rented room
Hunger on the TV, hunger on the printed page
There’s a God-sized hunger underneath the laughing and the rage
There’s a God-sized hunger underneath the questions of the age
From Emily Dickinson, This World is Not Conclusion
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul
I’ll start with a story.
I remember clearly the cover of the of the April 8, 1966 issue of Time Magazine. Stark red letters on a pitch-black background asked what, to me, was a startling question: Is God Dead?
I was 13, just an anxious eighth grader, and I was genuinely shaken. I grew up in a rural Mennonite Church in Central Illinois. I did not realize until that moment how big a role the assumption of God as creator, presence and central actor played in my life, my world. Suddenly, the possibility loomed that existence was simply mechanistic, that things like love and caring were just coldly adaptive behaviors and that the end was, well, just the end.
But the reality of this death had been there for nearly a century, if not longer. In 1882 Friedrich Nietzsche, in a moment of prescience wrote:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
For most of its brief history on this continent, leaders of the White Protestant Church, our historically dominant religion, had been duking it out over whether we were saved from damnation by grace or works. That fight continued powerfully in the 20th Century between independent fundamentalists and more progressive mainline protestants. Meanwhile, another god had snuck up behind them both and, to this day, it has left them in the dust. You and I can change that.
By 1966, when the Time article came out, positive scientistic materialism had indeed killed God, killed him (he was him then) dead. We had learned to see the foundations of matter and manipulate it. But real science, the observation of all we can see in awe and wonder, began to morph into scientism, a dogmatic belief, a religion, that nothing beyond the material was real. We were becoming the gods that Nietzsche declared we must. We could solve the world’s problems on our own.
At first it looked pretty good. In the 1950’s my grandma innocently bought in. She started serving Cool Whip, oleo margarine and Sanka instant decaf coffee. That, a couple of new appliances and a polio vaccine pretty much cemented that the marvels of science were going to accomplish everything needed for our satisfaction and comfort. Better living through chemistry.
But a specter loomed – something like the opening of Pandora’s box, or the terrible fury that screamed forth at the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. World War I did not end all wars and make the world safe for democracy. Right here on the sands of New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer captured the horror of our becoming Nietzsche’s nihilistic gods as he watched the first atomic explosion. Quoting the words of Vishnu from the Bhagavad Gita, he uttered: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” And the company that soon after became IBM got its start by helping Hitler manage the tedious but necessary task of counting the Jews and other defective beings that must logically be eliminated to engineer the perfect human society.
Disillusionment began to set in. We had killed God and God’s replacement wasn’t looking so good.
Enter postmodern deconstruction. By 1960, the emptiness of the bloated illusion of material wonder began to show itself. Black folk began to speak up about the price exacted for white comfort. Flower children unmasked the god of war and challenged long-held sexual mores. Women gave the lie to millennia of misogyny. I thank and praise these prophets of change. OK the hippies kind of fizzled out, except here in Taos, and maybe Eugene, Oregon and Woodstock, New York. But women and people of color have persisted wonderfully. It’s been a long and weary haul, this necessary tearing down, with heavy prices paid.
White Mainline Protestant Christianity was one of the casualties. Recall the centuries long losses of Christian dogma to the advance of material science. The earth turned out to be neither flat nor located at the center of the universe. By extension, human existence on this tiniest speck in one of possibly many universes could hardly hold any real meaning. By the emergence of Darwinism, just the label of science, if no longer the real substance, was enough to scare the bejesus out of a church convinced that it would die if not on the progressive bandwagon. Theology, preaching, and practice began to be confined to limits that excluded mystery and magic. Down came the virgin birth as well as any literal acceptance of miracle. And resurrection could only be alluded to as metaphor.
It’s true, when the scientistic god abandoned them, mainliners kind of jumped ship to social justice. But how is your social justice anything uniquely special if your god is dead? Who needs a church for that?
Numbers, my friends, have been declining and average age increasing steadily in this miasma.
As one empty god withered, another was ready to take its place.
By 1980, newly popular Evangelical alarm bells began clanging wildly in response to desegregation, the peace movement, the sexual revolution, and ascendant feminism. Politically this was expressed in renewed anti-communist fervor, this time paid for by the blood of the impoverished of Latin America. It also came in a return to bootstrap economics with its trickle-down theory of social progress. Make the rich richer and there will be more scraps under the table.
But this new god has indeed shown itself to be little more than a thin wallpaper of morality issues pasted over a gospel of prosperity. Follow my rules, fill my offering plate and you will prosper. And, if you had any doubts, it is the American way: Life, for the rich; liberty, for the rich to extract all they can from anyone they can; and the pursuit of happiness, for the rich alone, regardless of the expense to others or the looming collapse of the ecosystem.
Its stock has been booming, to the point that it is now clear that we have two very separate economies. One economy paves the way for the rich to get mind-bogglingly richer, and the other, aptly named the service economy, offers just enough for the inconvenient servants of the rich to avoid starvation.
Recent events are beginning to expose the doorposts of our temple to this modern become postmodern god. What we find there in large golden letters is Narcissistic Nihilism. In its most subtle, though not least destructive form, it fills the hole in our hearts with the distraction of smartphones that spew only the messages we think we want to hear, while Google algorithms are there to meet our every need before we can even name it ourselves.
We have witnessed in recent days what I pray to be hints of a turning, the beginning of a death rattle of this nihilism’s most blatant form. But reactionary movements seem prone to violent ends.
Whether in dying modernism or rising postmodernism, the 20th Century ended with one certain truth, a single offering for the hole in our hearts. That offering is the question mark. God was clearly ruled out along with a cynical position that any answers were only provisional, relative to the situation and at best temporarily useful. And if that bothers you, hey, text, tweet, Instagram, repeat. It’ll numb you through, at least until the next new iPhone comes out.
Jackson Browne captures so powerfully the yawning emptiness and despair that underlies all of this.
So why has the church – mainline and evangelical – failed? How did they let this monster creep up and so thoroughly overtake them? I’ll tell you. In their distracted battle about faith and works, they were duking it out over the entirely wrong question. The question at the bottom of their fight was, how do we receive salvation. Is it by grace through the blood of Jesus or by the good works of copying what he did?
Jesus never posed that question or presented either of those choices as the answer. Jesus time and again just pointed us to the God we had forgotten. And when we forget, there is a hole in our heart that cries to be filled. We can stuff it with all the wrong things, or we can let it be healed with faith – faith that we were spoken into being and are part of, one with, the infinite and eternal source, beauty, and power of everything.
You and I have a tremendous opportunity in this time. The old gods – the gods of bloody sacrifice, the gods of just say my name in time to avoid getting sent to hell, the gods of work a little harder, do a little better, we’ll decide in the end if it’s enough, and the massive horrendous deadly god of scientistic materialism – they are all dead or at least dying.
We have, we hold and when we are faithful and willing, we offer the one thing that truly satisfies the hunger of the ages.
- There is a Spirit, a Creator with intention.
- While It can never be adequately named or fully known through our limited consciousness, we have learned that Its essence is love.
- Our embodied selves are a material expression of that Spirit.
- We have been gifted a certain consciousness and free will to act.
- When we rest in, trust and act in connection with that Spirit, we are one with the creation of amazing things and beautiful relationships. And there is enough, enough for us, enough for our neighbor, enough for our world.
- When we are not connected, we are bound tight within the confines of our isolated and very hungry ego. We delude ourselves with arrogance in relation to creation and to others.
- When the bluff of that arrogance is unmasked, we find death staring us in the face. And we believe, we actually have a sick and twisted kind of faith, that our lives mean nothing, progressing only to a vacuous nihilistic and purely material demise.
- It is no wonder that our response is anger, addiction, violence, greed, hoarding and abuse of relationships, individually, globally, environmentally.
I invite us, as individuals and together to abandon the question mark, especially the one at the end of the wrong question. It’s a hard lie that seems so real but remains a despairing charade, a sharp-edged misfit for the soft borders of that hole in our hearts. Connected love is the perfect fit, the eternal word and light of creation, acknowledged and affirmed by all the great traditions. We cannot see it. We cannot grasp it. And yet, its light leaps within us and enlivens us with the knowledge of eternal relationship and the power of all creation. We know it by faith.
Never has it been more important to be more true, clear, and invitational in the sharing of that confidence.
For faith is indeed the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The act and embrace of faith answer the God-sized hunger underlying the questions of the age. And the narcotic of nihilistic material narcissism can never still the tooth that nibbles at our soul.
© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden
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