Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 12, 2017

the idols and the true God

As I argued in two earlier posts, here and here, the smartphone is an idolorum fabricam, a perpetual idol-making factory. I want now to juxtapose that argument with something that might seem unrelated, the thesis articulated by the sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues that the de facto religion of Americans, especially young Americans, is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or MTD. I want to call attention here to one of the key (though often unarticulated) principles of MTD, as described in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs — especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved…. For many teens, as with adults, God sometimes does get involved in people’s lives, but usually only when they call on him, mostly when they have some trouble of problem or bad feeling that they want resolved. In this sense, the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs. (Chapter 4)

Here’s the chief point I want to make is that the combination of idol-worship and belief in a selectively-available Creator is an ancient one, and indeed is generally characteristic of non-Abrahamic religions. Consider this passage from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane:

The phenomenon of the remoteness of the supreme god is already documented on the archaic levels of culture. [There follow two pages of examples.] It is useless to multiply examples. Everywhere in these primitive religions the celestial supreme being appears to have lost religious currency: he has no place in the cult, and in the myths he draws farther and farther away from man until he becomes a deus otiosus. Yet he is remembered and entreated as a last resort, when all ways of appealing to other gods and goddesses, and ancestors, and the demons, have failed. As the Oreons express it: “Now we have tried everything, but we still have you to help us.” And they sacrifice a white cock to him, crying, “God, thou art our creator, have mercy on us.” (122, 125)

A few interesting and (I think) important points emerge from these juxtapositions.

  • The worship of idols in preference to the Creator is deeply embedded in the human mind: idol-worship is as it were the default religious position of homo sapiens sapiens;
  • Such worship is the default because for most people religion is in essence a practice of solutionism;
  • Since digital technologies are also primarily solutionist in orientation, they quite readily step in as substitute (new and improved!) idols;
  • If it is true, as Eliade says elsewhere in The Sacred and the Profane, that “To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in doing away with with religious behavior” (23), then it makes sense to consider at least some of our technological behavior as fundamentally religious in character;
  • The primary goal of the makers of the idols, or New Gods (in their software and hardware avatars), is to ensure that we continue to turn to the idols for solutions to our problems, and never to suspect that there are problems they cannot solve — or, what would be far worse, that there are matters of value and meaning in human life that cannot be described in solutionist terms.

I might also add that the only strong alternative to this whole complex of fears, hopes and aspirations is the quite different model of religion that arises in Judaism and is then continued in Christianity, the model that bypasses intermediary Powers in favor of a direct encounter with the Creator, and on grounds that are not strictly solutionist in character. “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.”

1 comments:

  • I might also add that the only strong alternative to this whole complex of fears, hopes and aspirations is the quite different model of religion that arises in Judaism and is then continued in Christianity, the model that bypasses intermediary Powers in favor of a direct encounter with the Creator, and on grounds that are not strictly solutionist in character.

    What about the Buddhist alternative, which (at least in one secular/Western reading) bypasses intermediary Powers in favor of a direct encounter with creation, on grounds that are not at all solutionist in character?

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]