LETTERS FROM THE GLOBAL PROVINCE
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GP17Dec03: Celebrating Tomorrow
Cancelled. Once upon a time, out on the West Coast, down near San Francisco Bay, someone stole Steppenwolf, the title of a Herman Hesse novel, to name a very banal bar whose hanger-ons had none of the gravitas or metaphysical resonance we then attributed to the author and his works.
Equally surprising, the men’s bathroom was a scatology-free zone, sporting, instead, some graffiti of uncommon good wit. One was particularly mordant and memorable: “Tomorrow has been cancelled due to lack of interest.” The contradiction here, of course, is that good one-liners like this make life terribly interesting, turning despair into an occasion for a smile.
Opiate of the Masses. Marx, contemptuously, called religion the opiate of the masses. But, think about it: the masses and the classes need something to soothe their nerves, and religion is a very legitimate opiate. Its central purpose is to make us believe in tomorrow, no matter how bewildering things are, even if the world is telling us to get off the planet. In America now our economists tell us the gulf is widening between the rich and the poor, digital stress is mounting for everyone in reach of a cell phone, and our plans for the future become ever more confused amidst a global order and technological possibilities that have outrun our social and political systems. The stressed-out American requires durable belief to carry on and not be cancelled out.
Wired for Belief. Just after 9/11, scientist and author Jerome Groopman published “God and the Brain” in the New Yorker (see September 17, 2001). “Each morning,” as he said, “as the sun rises I pray.” He more or less says we cannot divine the presence of a god in the workings of the brain, but that it does appear that we are all created with a spiritual dimension, God or no god:
“The possibility that we are intrinsically wired for spirituality cannot be dismissed; the complexities of the cultural forms we know as religion may well grow from blueprints in the brain that have evolved over the millennia. But, as has been the case with all past attempts to ‘prove’ the presence or intent of God, SPECT scans and cerebral anatomy fall far short of doing so.”
This is nothing new. David Hume and others have done as good a job at showing that it’s a reach to argue that we can see God’s design in any part of nature. But a host of bright people from several disciplines have achieved reasonable certainty that man’s spiritual capacity is real and will express itself in one way or another. The religious impulse is there, so it depends what we are going to do with it. It’s a resource for dealing with life’s bleak moments, but it’s also a flame for putting men atop Mount Olympus so that they can do heroic deeds.
Where Religion Is on the Rise. It’s in the developing nations, in the Southern Hemisphere, where religion is really on the rise. Christianity is flourishing, and the Moslem faith is not far behind. Phillip Jenkins has discussed this widely both in articles and an interview in The Atlantic and in a new book, The Next Christendom (2002). Christianity in Africa, Latin America, etc. is generally more traditional in nature, not as open to the serial amendments that modern times have brought to organized religions in developed lands.
Europe, on the other hand, is de-Christianizing at a rapid rate. The U.S., among the rich nations, is the staunch exception where religion is stable or growing, with 75% of Americans either practitioners or somewhat religious, according to one survey. Half of all believers apparently do not feel strongly tied to any organized religion. They apparently prefer dis-organized religion, since the established varieties do not seem to provide answers to the global puzzles of modern life. Nonetheless, anyone wanting to launch major social or political reform of any kind in the United States must link up with this religious sentiment or be doomed to failure, since it has such a hold on the population. Jenkins refers to one pundit who says the world is split between Swedes (non-believers) and Indians (passionate believers), and who thinks we are a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.
Even with the strong franchise Pentecostal religions enjoy in the United States, the locus of growth and power of the Christian religions is shifting to the Southern Hemisphere, and probably it is religion with its charismatic appeal to its followers, rather than government, that will most help those nations achieve economic development and a truly national community. Religion, even more than pop music, has been the West’s most successful export, but we are fast coming on a time when the people of the Southern Hemisphere will regard all of the West as missionary territory ripe for converts.
Religion and Business. There’s some dispute about the impact of religion and belief on business. Historians feel that Europe’s economic engine did not really get going until the protestant princes broke away from the catholic church and the Holy Roman Empire, unchaining their nation states to thrive in commerce and war. Those who track the Moslem faith claim that it took a strange turn several centuries ago when it became alienated for all time from modern economic enterprise. In this view, the roiled estate of Moslems today stems from that very antagonism.
Most recently, two economists have tried to gauge the impact of religious belief and practice on economic growth. Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary at Harvard have looked into data from 59 countries. In general they hypothesize that belief in an afterlife often stimulates an economy, but church attendance is either a neutral or a negative, dragging churchgoers away from more productive activity. See The Economist, “God, Man and Growth,” November 13, 2003. Belief helps; religious practice, at least in a formal setting, hinders.
So where does this leave us? We would argue that the “people’s opiate” does play a salutary role in modern life. With mental depression in developed countries rising at an alarming rate, we suspect that it may well play an expanding role in people’s lives, since our health systems have nothing to offer that’s better than spiritual medicine.
Moreover, in proportion, religion seems to be a positive in promoting economic growth in developing and developed countries. In fact, British historian Niall Ferguson, now at New York University, thinks the decline of religious activity in northern Europe can be directly correlated with the economic malaise affecting the region.
Of course, we have not catalogued here the several ills promoted by religions gone astray. They divide one man from another, create faction, and turn any community to meager ends. Our task in this letter has been to fathom how religion, of the right sort, helps, not hurts, the community.
Building Cathedrals. At its best, however, the religious impulse lurking in the hearts of men has a larger raison d’etre that reaches well beyond peace of mind or the eternal quest for Mammon. People of conviction and belief do big things. In the Middle Ages they built cathedrals. Individuals who suppress their spiritual dimension get caught down in the weeds. They become micro-men who spawn subdivisions.
Perhaps the Cathedral at Chartres is Europe’s most splendid example of the fusion that can occur between heavenly purpose and man’s capacity, when inspired, for great works. Its spires and stained glass are renowned. According to the assorted histories, cathedrals have been built on the hill of Chartres for seventeen centuries, dating back to the Emperor Constantine, but the present great structure found its origins in the twelfth century after fire in 1194 destroyed its predecessor, and it has survived fire and worse since. (See www.chartres-csm.org/us_fixe/cathedrale/histoire.html.) People all about France in every walk of life contributed to its rebuilding, and even Richard the Lion Hearted of England, whatever his disputes with France, donated generously to its resurrection. It has so affected men down through the ages that it is forever commemorated by America’s Henry Adams in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904). The cathedral was part of an age when it was understood that greatness was inextricably bound up with fealty to the eternal.
In this regard, we recommend to you David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, which some take to be his very best book. Indeed, one feels that this historian has a much better feel for the whole of John Roebling, the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, than for Truman or John Adams. He captures what drives a practical visionary, the sort of man our country requires now.
Roebling emigrated to Pennsylvania from Germany, but not before he was mentored by the great German dialectical philosopher, Georg W.F. Hegel. For the rest of his life, his one real hobby outside of work was philosophy, which we would claim, is simply highly distilled religion. Along the way, he also indulged himself in a little mysticism. He was a nominal Presbyterian, although McCullough notes that the family pew was vacant more often than not. In other words, he was a man of Hegelian, giant-size metaphysical beliefs, but had no time to be a parishioner.
Just last week we read in a computing magazine about strategic innovation where consultants aplenty gave their prescriptions as to how valuable creative things happen. Mysticism, religion, and philosophy were not part of their formulary. We would suggest that tomorrows don’t happen and innovation never arrives if spiritual strength is not husbanded, cherished, and turned to account. The poet Keats always asked whether his outpourings were the fruit of divine madness or simply the ramblings of an insane man. The same question is applicable to computer code, and it’s divinity we’re after. A good thought for the holidays.
P.S. Our very best for the holidays. We will make our next additions to The Global Province in 2004, right after the New Year.
P.P.S. We also recommend to you the NORAD website on Santa Claus. You can watch his progress in 2003, catch some Christmas music, look back at some previous trips (www.noradsanta.org/english/radar/pastHighLights.html), and generally catch up on the Great Giftgiver.
Copyright 2004 GlobalProvince.com