Narcissism, Religion, and Unfreedom: The Politics of PostModern Disconnectedness

“…faith happens best in communities, in groups of flawed but striving people who resist the lure of a narcissistic DIY spirituality in favor of something richer…”  Jana Riess, “The Inadequacies of “Spiritual Not Religious.” Flunking Sainthood blog at Beliefnet.

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.

2 thoughts on “Narcissism, Religion, and Unfreedom: The Politics of PostModern Disconnectedness

  1. Getting to this well after the date of original posting… but the issues are so basic as to be timeless, and of course important.
    I’ve engaged in plenty of Marxist/power/economic analysis of religion and scripture myself, and you’re on-target, as usual, in your historical and present-day social discussion about basic cause-effect. Religion (or supra-rational belief, mysticism, prayer… we can go in several directions here)– with *or without* God or Jesus or individuality or community or personal relationship– has always had both a personal and a social usefulness (along with the potential and all-too-common oppressiveness in religion, in the wrong hands).

    What I question, though, is whether the core of this connection/disconnect is simply *human frailty*… i.e. a result of the Judeo-Christian principle of sin. Should we leave God out of it, in other words.

    That one would choose to subject oneself to God, or the common good, or even to one other person, can still be an authentic act of love with no intention of setting up some power/obedience situation.The relationship between anarchism and individual moral choices is also at issue here. Can we –whether rich or poor, attached to the physical world or wholly enlightened… be trusted to take care of each other effectively, *without outside help*? I have serious doubts. Of course, we’ve done a lousy job of it even WITH the outside help (help I am assuming, on faith, as a Christian, but a faith based on what I hope is legitimate firsthand and historical evidence).
    So beyond complaining about this doggone “human nature”, I don’t have much that’s very constuctive to offer as a “solution” (though complaining does create community, too… or else NAACP and the neo-Nazis would have no power at all, and blogging would not have taken off as it has).

    Good post… despite all the big fancy words… as is your wont…

    Take care, bud.

    1. Mark! Very cool to have an old friend comment on here.

      As we share some experience of community, I think we also know where it’s powerless. Although Foucault doesn’t name capitalism as the culprit, for his own reasons I suspect, that term will do as shorthand for the alienating dynamics of late modernity. We can’t form deep and rich relationships since we have to put in 40+ hours of every week in an impersonal system, and who has time or energy for any authentic connections outside our nuclear family, or often even within it.

      To your raising of the human nature specter, I’d say even a post-Christian like me sometimes wonder how the mess got started? Some vestigial primate aggressiveness that made fathers neglect their boys’ emotional potential? That’s as close as I’ll get to a theory for now.

      The more interesting question for me is whether we can rise above this alienated world? Do we need a factually verified ontogenetic account of where the bad stuff started, or can we look around at the shimmering moments of rich possibility in people like Gandhi or Dr King or the Paris or Jerusalem Communes for new models of being? I believe with all my being that we can.

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