Awe, Purpose, Golden Calf - John Samuel Tieman

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Axar.az presents an article "Awe, Purpose, Golden Calf" by John Samuel Tieman.

The number of Christians in the US will likely drop to below 50% within the next half-century, according to a study published by the Pew Research Center in September. In the 1970s and 80s, Christians were about 90% of the population. For the moment, however, I'm not as interested in the what. I am interested in the why of all this. Why is there a religious decline in the US? The greatest threat to religion today is not disbelief. The greatest threats are the loss of authentic awe, the loss of religious purpose, and something no one likes to discuss – idolatry. I'm no theologian. But I know a golden calf when I see one.

Religious awe is transcendent. Such awe transcends the immediate. You hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel's “Messiah”. The awe begins with beautiful music that takes you beyond the music. The listener transcends that artifact and contemplates God. This awe is ineffable, intangible, transcendent. Now consider one contemporary religious movement. In recent decades, we have seen a revival of the “gospel of prosperity”, a kind of religious materialism. The emphasis isn't on transcendence. The emphasis is on comfort. The “gospel of prosperity” says that the worship of Jesus leads to the pleasure and contentment brought by wealth. Joel Osteen, a prominent televangelist, preaches that “It's God's will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty.” I suppose that makes the dollar bill an icon. There exists a $100,000 banknote. If I held one, I'd be impressed. But would I feel religious awe?

My second point is the loss of religious purpose. Perhaps the most profound mystical experience is that of limitless belonging, limitless oneness. In practice, this leads to a question. How can we be one with each other? More specifically, how can we be one with the poor? In metropolitan St. Louis, our largest Catholic parishes are far from the inner city and its poverty. St. Joseph in Cottleville is the largest church in the St. Louis Archdiocese. It has 18,000 congregants. It's 35 miles from St. Louis. Cottlesville is 93% white, according to the 2020 census. No household reported speaking anything but English. Most own two cars. The median property value is $348,400. The homeownership rate is 85%. I am not saying that these people are evil. I am saying that distance from the poor makes it easy to ignore their poverty. Think globally. The typical Catholic is a woman of color. She's poor. She's not European. Closer to home, 35 miles east of Cottlesville, in the City of St. Louis, more than 40% of folks live in poverty. My general rule is this. If you want to help the poor, you have to go where the poor people live. To isolate yourself from the poor is to blunt a major characteristic of religious purpose. To quote St. Oscar Romero, “Many people would like the poor to always say that it is God's will that they are poor. It is not God's will for some people to have everything and others to have nothing. This cannot be of God.”

My last point is idolatry. There are many ways to think of idolatry in modern America. I already alluded to one, materialism. Working 60 hours a week with no purpose other than the worship of the dollar, there's another. Then there's the worship of science. In this, we cling to the illusion that we hold the power of God over nature. Then, of course, there is pride. We worship at the altar of self-aggrandizement, to the exclusion of others and their needs. One manifestation of this is in self-indulgences like alcohol, and drugs. But we also see it, for example, in movements toward white nationalism. Then there's Trump the messiah. Since 2020, a controversial painting has been posted all over the internet. The painting shows Donald Trump crucified like Jesus. There's an American flag serving as the loin cloth. The artist intended to parody. However, it's posted and reposted with earnest piety by MAGA folks. While many of Trump's followers have not gotten their COVID vaccines, they do have full immunity to parody.

2023.05.08 / 09:53
John Samuel Tieman
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