A Little bit on the Gospel and Culture

I found the following selection from Simon Critchley‘s recent op-ed in the New York Times entitled “the Gospel According to ‘Me'” to be a particularly acute diagnosis of some popular spiritualities today (read it all here):

In the gospel of authenticity, well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself. The stroke of genius in the ideology of authenticity is that it doesn’t really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life and baseline well-being. In this, one can claim to be beyond dogma.

Whereas the American dream used to be tied to external reality — say, America as the place where one can openly practice any religion, America as a safe haven from political oppression or America as the land of opportunity where one need not struggle as hard as one’s parents — now, the dream is one of pure psychological transformation.

This is the phenomenon that one might call, with an appreciative nod to Nietzsche, passive nihilism. Authenticity is its dominant contemporary expression. In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now.

Here Thomas Merton writes several decades earlier in a way that I think illumines a Christian response:

All over the face of the earth the avarice and lust of [people] breed unceasing division among them, and the wounds that tear [them] from union with one another widen and open out into huge wars.  Murder, massacres, revolution, hatred, the slaughter and torture of the bodies and souls of [human beings], the destruction of cities by fire, the starvation of millions, the annihilation of populations and finally the cosmic inhumanity of atomic war: Christ is massacred in his members, torn limb from limb; God is murdered in [humanity].

From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of God who delivered himself to the cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of his own creatures out of pity for them.  In conquering death God opened their eyes to the reality of love which overcomes hatred and destroys death.

Humanistic love will not serve.  As long as we believe that we hate no one, that we are merciful, that we are kind by our very nature, we deceive ourselves; our hatred is merely smoldering under the gray ashes of complacent optimism.  We are apparently at peace with everyone because we think we are worthy.

To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion.  To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.

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