January 2008

        THE DESECULARIZATION OF   MAN    

                        BY   Sy Schectman

                             

      A strange new tide seems to be  rising slowly but persistently  in our cultural background.   It is the evident  decline of secularism in the given societal  fabric of our  life,  a sort of neo modernism,  or if you like, a form of religion lite.    Not a heavy mantle of ritual  and orthodoxy  but still a somewhat fashionable fabric of the Other  in some unknowable  form.    This  to be worn somewhat lightly but still incorporating  that code of morality  that our  culture  still holds  firmly,   if not indeed  devoutly ,  as our current episode in Iraq seems to presage,,  where we still are tenuously holding  on,   dubious but  dutiful to our apparent commitment not to quit  the country  until some order and stability are in place.    Not a fanatic compulsion but the practical and perhaps somewhat guilty fact that since  “we broke it,  we better fix it”.  That is,  the horrible lapse in intelligence about the dire threat of weapons of mass destruction,  our prime reason for the initial Iraq invasion.

          The growing diminution  of this secular trend  has deep historical roots, going back to the 16th century among Western Christians in Europe  and their fierce internecine differences about “divinely revealed” politics, which led to years of wars  of blood letting and finally to philosopher Thomas Hobbes  declaring  that the Great Separation of Church and State  was an absolute  necessity  to preserve  social stability.    No more “God is on our side”  and going into battle many times to prove it.   That the rule of manmade convention and  law would  be the final arbiter  in international disputes.    Hobbes  prescription  was not  exactly  a pleasant  pill  to swallow whole,  for he had a dim view of mankind in general  and believed that only  a totalitarian state ----he called it  the Leviathan  state—would impel  the jurisprudence necessary to enforce these  degrees.   Gradually, over the succeeding centuries,  other philosophers  like John Locke   and  Jean Jacque  Rousseau   softened  Hobbes   draconian  views  and brought  into the mix  a democratic influence  where power  ceased  being transferred  divinely--from kings  or the Catholic Church.   And by the late 18th century  the  American constitution  stated flat out that Congress “shall make no law  respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”.   Not necessarily  the complete wall  of separation  that many strong advocates of complete church--state  severance would prefer  but  allowing only for minimal state  aid  for  bus transportation  and books.   

          But in the    over two hundred intervening years  until now,   with the growing acceptance   of  Darwin’s theories on evolution  and the more recent “Big Bang”  theory of the start of our  universe,  the great mass of people have been made more  aware of great  cosmic events  that  may have shaped  their  origins and still may influence their  lives and those of their cherished progeny. These new generally accepted facts  and also the increase material comfort level of many of us due to the industrial  revolution, acted as additional stumulli   to the growing secular backgound  in our culture and many of us   assumed that religion would soon be continually de-emphasized if not totally eliminated. 

          But, of course, man does not live by  bread alone.  Man still seems to have have some sort of  theotropic gene  or hormone that seeks the mysterium tremendum of the eternal.  And the infinite.   Overwhelming in their long term consequences but only incremental in their slow accretion,  but still awe inspiring  to contemplate  in the totality of one’s conscious appreciation  of  life here on planet earth.   Miniscule man in a constantly expanding universe.   Where will it end---if at all?  But besides those ego shriveling realizations  for finite man very long term, -- as in the refrain of that once very popular song,  What’s It All About Alfie?—all of us in that God awful last century were confronted  with upfront  secular slaughter  of well  over a hundred million people who were killed under the sneering  comfort  of Marx’s “religion was the opiate of the people”.  Absent  any hint of God’s wrath or influence.   Only ardent secularism,  it’s own toxic stimulus for boundless  evil.  Among its prime ingredients we had history’s greatest  demonic force,   Adolf Hitler and his Nazi minions and their Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles   and the companion civilization curse,   Communism, and  the worker’s paradise  of Stalin’s Soviet Russia---and the Gulag Archipelago---  and also more than just a footnote,  the   Rising Sun  empire of Japan.   Plus many other smaller current events that rose up seeking the dubious  honor of genocide  alongside the original Nazi holocaust  involving only the Jews.   

          In the middle of the book Night, still the first and still the best book  on the nightmare of the Holocaust,  the author, Elie Wiesel, who is also  the protagonist, renounces God  but at the end is resolved that   the traditional Jewish path is the best for him.   At one point in his many continuing profound ruminations on  this utter nightmare event  he suggests a new addition to the Talmud,  the bedrock foundation to the  explication of the Torah,  the heart of the Jewish faith.   The  sarcasm of heartbreak  at times is evident in his rueful “jokes”,  such  as  of the hunted and haunted  escapee  who finds refuge in an abandoned synagogue and finds other Jews praying  in the basement.    When he finds them    he warns in hushed tones, …“don’t pray so loud  or God will know   that some Jews are still alive here”.  Or,  in front of other students,  the pious chassid states   that God was a liar.   His students demur, insisting that this   was impossible,  that Der Ebisher, the holiest of all,  did not lie.   But  the rabbi despairingly insisted.   Moaning and sobbing  he  declared “He opens his window in heaven  and looks down and declares  “I did not cause this”.    And the rabbi  retorts   “And He would  be a liar”.

          It is certainly remarkable that  in the face of all this justifiable negativity on the manifest inhumanity of mankind  and the absence of a caring, nurturing deity, much less  a miraculous Sea of Reeds  intervention,  that secularism  did not run rampant.    Not that some clergy  of   various  Protestant and Jewish  faiths  did not postulate that God was  dead  and we should accommodate our  theology  to this sad fact.   Rabbi Richard Rubenstein, a Jewish leader in the God Is Dead Movement,  stated that in the aftermath of  World War II  atrocities,  his congregation   should be able to still live a religious live going from the “oblivion  before birth  to the oblivion  after earthly  death” without the fiction   of a caring, nurturing Deity. 

          However, this was not the case.   Even in the small Recon-structionist Jewish  movement,  which mandated originally that God was not important,  that only the rich, millennia old Jewish lore and teachings need be cherished   and studied in prayer meetings,  has changed now to allow God to be an integral part of the service again.   And  worldwide,  the  five  major religious movements---Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish-- account  for almost 75%  of humanity  range  from strong theocentric  belief in most of the Christian   and Moslem religions  to still many aspects of supernatural  and otherworldly  manifestations  in the Hindu  and Buddhist  faiths.  But of course  we must not cheer too loudly the apparent demise of secularism,  and pray for a balance that mitigates the concomitant rise of the fanatics  and crazies of the left and right  who brook no compromise  with people who disagree with their perfervid  ideas.   Most unfortunately there are lamentable exceptions that show that extremism does triumph   and change the course of history----after much bloodshed, war and suffering.  ( Mao tse Tung’s “justice in history flows from the barrel of a gun” is one such grim truth).  Hopefully as we encounter the jihadists of Islam  today some compromise can be effected avoiding more such   Iraqui or Taliban type episodes. 

          Diplomacy or brute force?   The religious burden of   history  seems to be, unfortunately,  that everything is ordained, but  man has free will….and that God is in the wings, waiting for man to do the right thing!   And so we put on the tattered oxymoronic garment of     faith again, dubiously but  deliberately determined to celebrate the miracle of the universe and life on earth once more, hoping “that God is still in the heavens and all’s right with the world.”  And the cruel sardonic retort has often been that “be careful of what you pray for---for you just might get it!”  But what we  have received so far  has been boundlessly good, whether due to divine providence,  good fortune, or astute human planning. 

          Long may it continue!   And may the divine mix of God, luck and human reason  be always in play.