|Secular Jesus has all the answers for the angst in modern spiritual seekers.|
The following is an excerpt of an article Rob Dreher wrote for the American Conservative in response to a NY Times opinion piece written by Russ Douthat, entitled 'The End of a Catholic Moment'. Douthat's article is a lament for the loss of influence of Roman Catholic thinking in both US political parties. It's an interesting read in it's own right, but I found Dreher's response much more fruitful. Hence I have taken some paragraphs from the last half of his post because I think he makes a very important observation. This is an especially important observation for all mainstream religions, but maybe particularly for Catholicism.
Leaving Benedict’s resignation aside, who will argue with O’Neill that our culture is hostile to the idea of vocation — and, more broadly, with the idea of sacrificing individual desire to higher truths, or causes? Our entire culture is built around the apotheosis of the Self, of the self’s will, the self’s desires, the self’s autonomy. This has required a progressive liberation of the Self from rules, mores, institutions, and customs that bind the Self. We are well within a cultural era in which truth is believed — whether or not people recognize it — to be determined by emotion far more than reason. (I would rephrase these sentences. The self has been liberated from external norms which had previously been taught and enforced by external authority. In many cases the self's freely given acceptance of norms is not only based in 'emotion' but from an intellectual pursuit of rationality not based in an ill defined 'faith'.
I don’t entirely condemn this, because in some cases, it has resulted in a more humane condition, and in any case I am as personally formed by and implicated in this condition as anybody else. (Me too.) The point here is neither to condemn nor to praise, but simply to recognize it for what it is. This is not something temporary or sudden, but rather the culmination of centuries of social development in the West. Philosopher Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, writes of the rise of “expressive individualism” as central to our collective understanding of the moral order now embedded in our culture. Taylor observes that the emergence of expressive individualism — that is, the emancipation of the Self — has been a gradual process in the West since the Enlightenment, but really took off after World War II, and, with the Sexual Revolution, became general in society. “This is obviously a profound shift,” he writes. He describes the religious manifestation of this shift thus: (It's not just a profound shift, but indicative of an evolution in how man sees himself in relation to virtually everything heretofor taken for granted as it was passed on from the culture to the child.)
The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. This takes us farther. The choice of denomination was understood to take place within a fixed cadre, say that of the apostles’ creed, the faith of the broader “church”. Within this framework of belief, I choose the church in which I feel most comfortable. But if the focus is going now to be on my spiritual path, thus on what insights come to me in the subtler languages that I find meaningful, then maintaining this or any other framework becomes increasingly difficult.
The end result of this process has been the severing of what was widely considered to be the necessary connection between faith and civilizational order. Taylor says religious conservatives still assume this connection, and much of their (our) political anxiety is a reaction to this cultural revolution. (This most certainly seems to be true for Pope Benedict who consistently preached civilization will fail without recognizing it's foundation in religion--specifically Catholicism for European civilization.)
This is why, on same-sex marriage, both sides talk past each other. We religious conservatives believe that the secular order must be dictated by the sacred order, however attenuated. Many others — most others, I would say — believe that there is no such thing as a sacred order, at least not one knowable to and share-able by all. The desiring Self is the sacred thing — something I say not as a criticism, but as an observation. In this worldview — which I believe is thoroughly mainstream — to deny the legitimacy of the Self’s desires is felt as a denial of personhood, and of rights. The moral order, then, must be built around the ongoing expansion of individual rights, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality, because Truth emerges from the individual’s heart, not from an external source of authority, such as the Catholic Church. We can’t have a meaningful conversation because we cannot agree on the source of moral order. (I'm not sure 'self desire' is how I would phrase this process. I think for many people the better expression would 'self discernment'.)
I appreciate Dreher's piece for a number of reasons, one of which is he gets to a real problem in communication between religious conservatives and progressives. We really do talk at cross purposes because we are starting from different places. If Dreher is right about conservatives needing to place a sacred order on civilization and progressives needing to put the rights and dignity of the self as foundational for civilation, then we need to really define the terms 'sacred' and 'self'. It may not be that these two terms are oppositional and necessarily lead the spiritual seeker to completely different end points. Another question one might ask is why has the evolution of human thinking led to prioritizing the rights and responsiblities of the 'self' over and above traditional ideas of the 'sacred'? Or in my lexicon, why is self discernment replacing externally derived truths?
I think it's because we are beginning to intuit some of the right questions about ourselves as self aware conscious beings. One of the teachings of Jesus that has always intrigued me is why He boiled down the 10 commandments to two and these two commandments are recorded almost verbatim in all three Synoptic Gospels. The following is Mathew 22: 37-40.
37 He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and the first commandment. 39 The second is like it:* You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
What I find interesting is Jesus does not reference anything about our physicality. He is expressing his greatest commandments in context of our self aware conscious attributes--mind, heart, and soul. He does not teach from the perspective of humanity as essentially physical beings. He teaches from the perspective of humanity as spiritual beings. The original 10 commandments however, have their basis in humanity as physical beings and deal with how humanity should correctly order that physical expression in a material reality. It is in the ten commandments that we find restrictions in acting out our physical existence and it's not surprising two of them deal with the utmost tangible expression of our physicality--sex--and how that needs to be ordered for the good of civilization.
Jesus' two great commandments place the spiritual reality of the self and it's ability to express love as the transcendent commandments which encompass and fulfills all the rest. His starting point is the eternal spiritual nature of humanity and not it's physical expression. We may be experiencing a physical existence, but we need to bring our truth, that we are eternal spiritual beings, into this reality and make it a sacred place based in love--to bring the Kingdom to earth, as it is in heaven. Spiritual consciousness communicates in and through love and that does not change because spiritual beings become physical--unless we choose to let the unique problems of physical existence triumph over love. And we have for eons because physical reality presents it's own unique set of circumstances.
I also think Jesus went to some lengths to place His teachings in context of living a coherent Way. This Way was intended to minimize the 'unique set of circumstances' that make physical reality so challenging for inherently spiritual beings, and whose biggest challenge is how that self awareness necessarily develops in a biological reality. It's not so much about a mythical original sin as it is being born in the real truth of original ignorance, totally dependent on others for both physical and social survival.
I think the loss of influence for mainstream religions will continue as long as they persist in teaching a paradigm that humanity itself is moving beyond. They need to stop defining humanity as finite expressions of a corrupt physical existence and start teaching from the truth. We are eternal spiritual beings who happen to find ourselves living in a material reality. Jesus most certainly showed the Way to deal with this and it's our choice as to whether we ever find the truth in what He taught. It would make things easier in this discernment if our religious leadership understood most of us don't need reams of rules on how to negotiate this reality when only two would do the trick. What we need is more leaders who understand those two and actually live them.