Religion’s contemporary forms are a mere shadow of the former glory of “The One True Faith”. Once upon a time, Popes anointed kings, armies “liberated” heathenry, and peasants couldn’t read the scriptures. A poor man on a cross was the rich man’s God.
Today, the rich men only need God to keep the masses obedient. Or so it seems to revolutionaries and atheists. Science has replaced myths, theaters replace sermons, and money replaces values.
Jana Riess bemoans the disappearance of tradition, community, and the challenge to become a loving self-sacrificial person that she identifies with the Christian religion. She never asks deeply why those things have become rarities in our time. The superficial suggestion is that it comes down to personal choice, a narcissistic decision.
In contrast to such a viewpoint, Michel Foucault advanced a critical perspective on the modern experience of individuality as the result of power relations. He writes in an essay “The Subject and Power” that
“this form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life and which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects. There are two meanings of the word subject: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to.”
The very possibility of a narcissistic decision is itself a product of power relations. The collapse of community is a systemic symptom of societal impoverishment. No personal choice to go back to church can undo this institutionalized alienation, however much religion may give solace to the faithful.
Karl Marx called religion the “heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.” Even with his atheist rejection of faith, Marx knew that the forms in which religion persisted were an indicator of social deformation, and that deformation couldn’t be overturned by simply rejecting myths for science. Nor can it be overcome by a greater immersion in religious community.
The rewards of deep interaction with others in a spiritually-rich interpersonal communion is indeed among the greatest of all life’s experiences. However, this, too, can be a narcissistic consumer choice. Religious community in itself is powerless to change the social conditions that have deformed and degenerated it. In fact, for religion to have any future, it must align itself with even more radical opposition to modernity, rather than simply creating fragrant oases of subjective interrelationship.
Religion must become part of a larger social dynamic of resistance to the dehumanizing forces that dominate, exploit, repress, and oppress everyone. Such a religion may no longer bear much resemblance to the anachronistic forms in which it has outlived its ancient origins. However, it may rediscover its original reason for being, its initial birth in emancipatory passions.
Moses didn’t undertake his vocation of freeing Israel as an exercise in interpersonal community and upholding tradition. Pharaoh’s domination of the chosen people was a direct imposition of suffering and ending that suffering was the core motivation for the prophetic work of Moses. This originary event of rebellion and emancipation is the defining narrative for both Christian and Jewish religion.
Rather than scolding alienated humans for choosing personal mysticism over corporate tradition, a truly pastoral concern for souls would raise a prophetic cry against the darkness of the suffering world. Marx’s communism isn’t the antithesis of religion, but one of its most flattering imitations. Every vision of heaven ultimately rests on an earthly desire for freedom and wholeness.