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
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.