German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) once asked: What religion would a free people have? His answer to this rhetorical question was that religion had to divorce itself from the absolute certainty of divine revelation because it could not be accepted in a democracy. The United States, which prides itself on religious pluralism or what can be described as the right to believe in everything or nothing, is a democracy that personifies the Hegelian query. Americans fear any religion that suggests a trace of absolutism.
One of the underpinnings for this revolt against orthodoxy and moral absolutism revolved around the fundamental nature of American life. Americans live in a society that stresses communal individuality. They may relish large public gatherings, but inwardly, Americans like to march to the beat of their own inner drummer. Americans tailor their homes, clothes, and social activities to fit their individual desires. The frightening world of Frankenstein genetics promises designer babies for people who want children that will reflect their lifestyle. Their approach to religion is no different.
Millions of Americans, especially young people, are susceptible to the idea of a designer religion. As the New York Times proclaimed 13 years ago, Americans seek a faith that fits. Theirs is a consumerist approach to religion that reflects America’s prevalent materialistic attitude. They apply the same pleasure principle to religion as they do to their bodies. If it feels good than it is must be true for them, like greasy food, frequent sex, a new sweater, or a skiing trip.
It is not about worshiping God but about getting their emotional needs addressed. It is a numinous inversion that extracts the spiritual from the sacred. Materialistic America’s new religion will not inspire guilt for refusal to change an immoral life style. A designer religion does not genuflect before a god that preaches sin, judgment, and Hell.
With the decline of moral absolutism and the belief in a transcendent God, Americans had to build a new paradigm of belief to fill the conscious void in their lives. This indifference to or denial of God has had lasting consequences. Americans have lost an irreplaceable source for meaning. As I have mentioned in a previous post, this fact contributes to the great increase in suicides in the 21st century.
The frailty of human nature led them to search for meaning in all the wrong places. Darwin found his meaning in the godless theory that reduced God’s creation to a meaningless accident. Freud, Kinsey and Hefner found meaning in the liberation of humans beings from restrictions on sexual behavior.
The underlining tragedy of this situation is that psychology has replaced theology as the instrument of counsel. Freud, Kinsey, Watson, and Jung became the source of spiritual comfort, not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But with the changing of the emotional guard, a queasy feeling of Angst filled the void that revealed religion once occupied.
The need for a personally designed religion did not just happen. The early Christian heresy, Gnosticism, lies at the root of any debate on the modernist approach to religion. The Gnostics denied the wholesome unity of the spirit and the body. Only a certain elite had the gift of spirituality, described by some as a spark of the Divine Being. With ideas such as enlightenment and the identity of the divine with the human, Gnosticism revealed a perceptible kinship with the religions of India and the Far East.
A derivative of this Gnostic spirituality emerged during the early days of the 19th century in the United States. It was called Transcendentalism. It first appeared as an outgrowth of Unitarianism, which was a liberal religion that believed in the basic goodness of mankind. The Unitarians were forerunners of the secular free-thinkers who opposed the need for any type of revealed religion. While the Unitarians announced that man’s human nature was excellent, the Transcendentalist found it to be Divine. Though as a theological counterpart to democracy, it lacked passion. Unitarianism served as an incubator for the new American spirituality would replace all organized religions. It aimed to liberate America spiritually, as independence and democracy had liberated her politically.
The great apostle of the evolving American religion was renowned essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an endless seeker for whom Christianity ceased to have meaning. He believed that all forms of ministries were anachronisms. His spiritual uneasiness lead him to the Far East where he immersed himself in the meditative thought of the Orient, not unlike Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, would do over a 100 years later. Oriental religions never think in terms of eschatology. Emerson embraced the alien idea that there was no sin, heaven, or hell, just an endless cycle of birth and rebirth. This was the perfect fit for what would be the new American religion.
Emerson’s celebrated legacy to American religious and intellectual life has been to generate a new era of good feelings. Feeling good about oneself is the essence of his spiritual legacy, which is more about man than God is. His new religion traded sanctity and devotion for spirituality and mysticism. While traditionalists kneel in the quietude of prayer and adoration, Emerson’s faithful stand tall in the shadow of their own reflection. Modernist religion is fueled by a metaphysics of subjectivity. Their mores have become entangled in a net of narcissistic individualism, working for the end of organized religion, just as their forbears in the French Revolution had attempted.
The sense of the sacred that had once been reserved for religion has been transferred to the human body as a sacred temple. Like the moneychangers in the temple, the Holy Spirit has been chased from the body’s temple and been replaced by a den of materialists selling sensual pleasures and existential thrills. The metaphysical implications of this materialistic preference have underscored such issues as abortion, in vitro fertilization, cloning, organ donations, and a host of other ethical and legal questions. In effect, secular man has effectively humanized the divine.
At the heart of the sovereignty of self, is the notion of choice. The supremacy of individual choice fuels the think tanks of social change in American life. Individual choice runs unbridled through the fields and valleys of a designer religion. It has been the linchpin of the abortion defense for the past 20 years. The act of choosing, whether it be a new outfit or an abortion, not the moral right or wrong of what is chosen, stands as the sole deciding factor for a modern woman.
This new religion has reduced the Divine to a human level and deified men and women’s wills through their ability to choose how to live their lives, despite morality, tradition and sometimes even law. Their new spirituality will not frustrate their will nor hamper their appetites with a list of rules, restrictions, or commandments. Under the rubric of freedom of conscience, anything goes.
The lack of a sound moral basis can lead to an ethics of discussion, where moral issues like abortion, assisted suicide, and embryonic stem cell research are relegated to voters and lobbyists. The new custom-fitted religion dictates what is right and wrong with help from the pollsters and leftist talk shows.
No one serves as a better model for this modern search for spirituality than Oprah Winfrey. Through her massive media empire, she urges her millions of listeners and readers to relax and feel good about their lives. While the megastar TV talk show host promotes many good works on literacy and helping the indigent, they emanate from a secular humanism independent of God, or any structured religious thinking. Her spirituality is conveniently fostered on an emotional now with an electric aura of good feelings without the need for teaching about sin, judgment, eternity, or Jesus Christ.
Oprah’s personal spirituality selectively feeds her soul in a way that does not focus on her chosen alienation from traditional morality. Her designer religion is a false attempt to silence the pangs of a 21st century conscience that has been dulled by a steady barrage of conditioning about exercising existential freedom in her moral choices.
In their search for a religion that speaks to them personally, many Americans have advanced into esoteric religions, such as Islam or Scientology, and even the Kabbala, a system of mystical theosophy, which has played an important part in Jewish religious thought. At one time it claimed many of Hollywood’s glitterati, such as Madonna, Demi Moore, Mick Jagger, Barbara Streisand and Shirley MacLaine.
In their mystical search for their inner divinity, these seekers encounter not God but their own human divinity. Their search for the meaning of life is found in helping others, not worshipping God. This same impulse has characterized Christianity for centuries with the exception that God is the focal point of the process. Theirs is a secular form of enlightened self-interest, which strokes the ego.
In his book, Man Made God: The Meaning of Life, published 16 years ago, French author Luc Ferry called this an eclipse of the vertical dimension of the sacred. The self is not really emptied, as it usually is in Christian good works, but filled by its self-indulgent good feelings, derived from assisting humanity.
According to Father Thomas Williams, writing in The Catholic Register, the notion that religious truth really does not matter is a child of the Enlightenment. Neither the French Revolution nor 150 years of Darwinism have been able to explain away the religious impulse.
In the 21st century, most Americans sense the need for religion but they do not want one that is too demanding or that will require them to change their way of living. They want a religion that will adapt to their chosen life styles.
Everyone wants good health but few want to diet or discipline their appetites. More than a half-century ago, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen preached that it is hard to say no to one’s desires. As a result, American society has evolved into a hedonistic society that encourages people to say yes to their every personal demand without concern for consequence. True religion starts with one’s self, which must be emptied to allow God’s love and his grace to enter. If the ego is present it is difficult for a bona fide religious fervor to enter one’s soul.
Detachment from material things is essential for attachment to God. According to Sheen, the human heart is like a stream that loses its depth as it divides its waters of affection into many channels. A patriot cannot serve more than one country, and a truly religious person cannot serve both God and Mammon. This is the choice that a designer religion will never make.