The American Myth and Its God

Stanley Fish, university professor and NY TIMES editorial columnist in his 3 May 2009 piece, Think Again, offers comment on British critic Terry Eagleton’s new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution.”    While Fish and Eagleton offer much food for thought, I want to draw attention to and comment on one of Fish’s paragraphs:

…  “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”

Oxford and Washington are metaphors for academia (the infallible brainchild and savior of the Enlightenment ideology) and modern political power (for Washington and the U.S. are the progeny of  Enlightenment values).  Eagleton has Oxford and Washington both thralls of “the false idols of wealth, power and progress.”  

That is worth pausing to think about.   For we might ask what is wrong with wealth, power and progress?  Aren’t these in fact the greatest, most virtuous goods which modern Western and particularly American society have spawned?

Eagleton sees them as being false idols and superstitions.  

Just think about the recent world wide economic collapse.    The world’s economy was growing at this unprecedented pace, and the world’s financiers and American politicians were so awed by the growth that they could see it as nothing but human  progress and the triumph of American values.  It was our god/idol which was worshipped by all the powers that be, but who were blind to the fact that it all was a bubble, not founded upon anything solid or real but based in the economics of capitalist psychology.   It felt so good, who cared if it was a delusion?  

It was indeed an intoxicating vision which caused many to become drunk on its seemingly endless powers.  It did turn out to be a false god who could not deliver on its promises.  Read Revelations 18 about Babylon where merchants grew rich on the wealth of her wantonness but whose wealth was lost in one hour as no one buys her cargo anymore.  How quickly we forget when we ignore the Scriptures.  We have been warned but just can’t believe it  would be us and our generation who would be decieved by wealth!   Shouldn’t our much vaunted human progress have saved us from self deception?

It could not resist false Idol of  limitless and infinite wealth expanding and growing throughout the universe.  It was unbridled human progress – trickle down economic wealth was finally dripping down to the lowest levels of society from the ever expanding but vacuous balloon.   Wealth. Power. Progress.  The Trinitarian gods of American idealism and ideologues.

SerpentEdenBut it was a false god, an idol which had forgotten the Genesis mythology of the Fall of humanity, Eden’s clever but deceiving serpent, and the existence of evil in the world.  It was an American paradise, retelling the Genesis story by exorising any mention of a serpent and totally trusting in American ingenuity to complete what Adam and Eve failed to do:  fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over it.

Genesis – that great myth telling us about why life on earth is not paradise – turns out to be a truth about America and Americans as well.   Who’d have guessed?

(In the Lucas Cranach painting that is not John Chapman offering us a tempting but delicious apple!  America’s mythology about itself as paradise excludes the serpent, but in so doing proves the truthfulness of Genesis 3).   America very much belongs to the same earth as the rest of the nations of the world.

6 thoughts on “The American Myth and Its God

  1. iotadelta

    I can understand how wealth and power come from progress, but wealth and power certainly aren’t the goal of progress. That’s probably why I have a problem with those three ideals being seen as the trinity of American secularism or Academia.

    Academia certainly interests itself with progress; it attempts to find the truth and move mankind’s understanding of truth along. Academia attempts this by analyzing and breaking down the world around us; from human social conditions, to exploring the depths of human emotion and the human condition, to understanding the physical laws of our world. The purpose of this is to better understand the situation we are all in so that we can better exist in it.

    Wealth and power do not bring knowledge, but they come from it. And they certainly aren’t the objective of it. If that were true, the most knowledgeable men would also be the most rich and powerful. And we all certainly know that isn’t true…

    1. Fr. Ted

      I think Fish’s take on Eagleton is that modern Western society upholds wealth, power and progress as its greatest accomplishments. Eagleton thinks there is someting deceptive about upholding these as the true accomplishments of modern enlightened people. They are not answering the most important questions of humanity but rather are false idols which we come to worship. In this view as long as we are becoming wealthier, making human progress in this world, and becoming empowered, we are being successful. Eagleton thinks there are even more important questions to be answered, and wealth, power and progress are all about our world sans God. The Enlightenment promised human progress by liberating humanity from its past (from history) and by liberating humans from aspiring to anything greather than themselves (from God). My point is the recent economic collapse revealed how empty the claims of wealth, power and progress can be. They in fact do not help us to know what is means to be human.

      1. iotadelta

        I guess my problem with the analysis is that you can be modern, secular, and part of the post-enlightenment world and still pursue ideas greater than yourself without pursuing god. What happened in Western Society during the Enlightenment that fundamentally altered it wasn’t throwing God away, it was setting God aside.

        Instead of blindly accepting the “ultimate view of reality” as proposed by various religions, Westerners began to isolate that perspective and those values, and instead started to develop different lines of reasoning and understandings.

        At first they were very parallel; scientists searched for “natural laws” that they believed were put in place by God. But over time they began to search for understanding apart from religious motivations.

        As a result most Westerners have two perspectives, two competing ideologies. One based entirely on a dogmatic, unchanging set of principles, and another based on rational discourse, scientific principles, and practicality. In many ways, what sort of Westerner you are can be defined by how you balance those dual perspectives. For example, you can predict what political party a person is more likely to belong to depending on which they value more.

        Personally I embrace the reason and reject the dogma, but that doesn’t mean I’m closed off to the existence of god. Should my pursuit of greater understanding (which in my opinion is a component of progress) lead me to conclude god does exist, then I will believe in the spiritual. But the pursuit of that understanding itself is a goal greater than humanity which you claimed that secularism doesn’t have.

        All secularism really is, is not blindly accepting previous answers and trying to derive them for yourself. And some ultimately come to the same conclusion that the spiritual do. And who knows where progress will lead us as a whole?

  2. Fr. Ted

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts. I overall do not have a disagreement with what you wrote. Perhaps what is questionable (unreasonable?) to me is in your final paragraph where in your definition of secularism you are really saying that truth and the confirmation of truth in being derived by the individual makes the individual greater than anything else, even God since only if I decide God is of any value is God important. It places the self as not only the center of the universe but as its judge and the sole arbiter of truth. I do think this is a basic premise of the Enlightenment and how it endeavored to free humans from history and from God. But it posits a problematic thesis which cannot be objectively proven and that is not “reasonable” but in fact is a philosophic assumption: namely that the “self” can be freed of all social and historical and ethnocentric influence and therefore can be “objective” and capable of deriving truth and then judging its value.

    I think the “self” is in fact a social construct – we conceive of it in a certain way because of the Enlightenment, but our understanding of it is exactly determined by Enlightenment assumptions, so we may not be “blindly accepting previous answers” but we can then “blindly” accept current answers because we believe we do not need to critique them from other points of view. The assumption is that current thinking is always superior to past thinking – we are lovers of the new (neophilia) and assume what is new is better. This might work in terms of inventions but it is not necessarily the case for poets, artists, dancers, architects, philosophers or theologians.

    The Enlightenment showed that one can actually take a position “above” denominational debates and look at all these perspectives as being “relative” but not objective. This becomes the position America’s founding fathers took in relationship to religion – the state should be neutral/above such discussions. But that then assumes that such a position is in fact neutral/objective and that one cannot get “above” that position and see it as only one of many alternatives, not even necessarily an objective one but rather representing a very particular and narrow point of view.

    1. iotadelta

      I don’t think I did a very good job of explaining exactly what I was trying to say, nor am I sure if my view on scientific and rational progress are exactly in step with modern secularism. I was trying to describe my view of progress and in my last paragraph I sort of derailed.

      What I was trying to say is that during the Enlightenment they stopped letting religion “conclude” thought. Religions claim to have all of the answers of importance to us. They tell us where humans came from, where we’re going, and what we should value in life. If you believe in religion powerfully or fundamentally then focusing on secular accomplishments is essentially a waste, as all that happens on earth is but the blink of an eye before an eternity of spirituality.

      And I don’t think it’s that westerners rejected religion with the Enlightenment, as much as it is that they isolated it within their own minds. They use it as a source of inspiration and comfort, but they don’t allow it to dominate their life. The more devout followers might see this as hypocrisy or lack of commitment, and that may be, but it’s undeniable that this shift has proven “useful” in many ways.

      But back to my point, I think when the first scientists began their work, they were attempting to understand natural laws that they believed god put into place. Back then scientists tended to view god as a master-clockmaker, and all they were really trying to do was dissect the clock a bit and understand how it works. In that way science was almost a spiritual exercise in and of itself.

      Today, not all scientists believe god is the one in that seat as “master clockmaker.” Some think that the seat is vacant, the universe is without grand design, and evidence of randomness within quantum mechanics and theoretical physics betrays the true nature of the universe which is devoid of a deeper meaning.

      I would agree that progress for these people is a false idol; scientific progress for them only proposes a greater capacity to adapt and survive, which itself only leads to more adaption and survival. It’s a perpetual cycle that reaps no greater rewards of understanding because ultimately there is no greater truth to understand. But personally, I cannot understand how anyone can ascribe to such an unromantic view; but some certainly do.

      Then there are others who believe there is some ultimate truth at the helm of science. We do not necessarily think that it is god, but it is deniable that there is a certain degree of elegance to the construct in which we all live.

      Mathematics is a set of basic principles which when coupled with logic becomes a reasoning system capable of modeling the behavior of our world. e and pi; I find them transcendent in more than the mathematical definition. There seems to be something intrinsic in them, that they are a statement about our reality, some invariant property.

      Ultimately I think human progress may shed more light on the nature of knowledge, science, mathematics, and our place in existence from a point of view that is not based on faith. That’s essentially what I was getting at.

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