Me and MPC: “Christianity Lite” and the Death of the Spirit

For the purposes of this “dialogue”, I’m going to personify the doctrine that I see (on websites) and hear (in services) coming out of contemporary Methodist and Presbyterian USA congregations as MPC.  I will also lay as a ground rule that we will not bandy Bible verses.  I freely concede that I would lose such a tennis match to anyone who has spent years in a seminary… but I find, in any case, that bending Scripture into heated discussions is equivalent to wrangling over whether an Inkblot Test portrays a dog on a chain or a prickly pear cactus.  That kind of exchange isn’t very edifying.

ME: My thumbnail definition of Christianity would run something like this.  Every human being has a soul, and all souls are unique and precious to God.  They are constantly called toward closer union with Him, and that coalescence becomes a state beyond time that discovers utter fulfillment.  Yet souls resist the call as they pass from earthly childhood to adulthood, and they may be lost when the ends of this world replace the higher, inexpressible ends that work through this world’s matter to make themselves more visible.  Hence a radical reorientation in the adult—a “birth from above”—is required to lift his nose out of the glittering muck.

MPC: Yes, of course.  God calls upon us to serve others… and we fight fiercely against that duty as we busily feather our own selfish nest.  It’s a shock to us to realize that we’re often not living life even when we are busiest—but we busy ourselves with the wrong things.  We are immersed in life, but not in living it. For we must act in the here and now in order to serve others.  Airy pieties do not feed the hungry, cure the sick, or clothe the poor.  The way to the Kingdom is through energetic activity.  We must give generously of our time and possessions.  We must fight on all fronts against worldly forces that starve the less fortunate or hold them in chains: that is our high calling.

ME: Is it?  In a way, certainly… but your explanation appears to me to risk confusion.  Isn’t part of our calling also to dissuade other people from surrendering their lives to utter immersion in worldly affairs?  Yet if I will achieve my high purpose only to the degree that I fight poverty and injustice, then it seems reasonable that I would spend every waking hour soliciting donations or filing motions; not only that, but I should probably also amass a maximum of wealth so that I might devote it to those worthy causes.  And it would also seem that the impoverished and the unjustly imprisoned cannot live fulfilling lives without the intercession of energetic, wealthy benefactors like me.  Yet I personally find that such people are often light-years ahead of their “benefactors” spiritually.

MPC: Which is precisely why we must assist them rather than standing by in idle complacency.  They’re our brothers and sisters!  We would readily recognize the common humanity in them if we did not allow social convention to insulate us from the greater need, the higher calling.  Our membership in the arbitrary socio-economic communities into which we were born keeps pulling us down into a torpid, “us/them” mindset that paralyzes us.

ME: Yes, I’ve often noticed that you’re an inveterate enemy of social convention.  You don’t like settled communities, do you—except those church communities of your own design, some of whose orders of worship and representations of duty can be… pretty inflexible.  Somewhere in all of your “replacement conventions” is the line one crosses into introductory cultism.

MPC: That, of course, is an invidious portrayal of our mission and not deserving of a response.  Yet it is true that we must labor tirelessly to loosen the glue that holds people inactive because they believe their brethren to be only among those who speak their language, wear their kind of clothing, and live in their kind of neighborhood.

ME: Well, there’s no condescending generalization at all in that portrayal, is there?  But let’s stipulate that human communities (your communions, too, by the way) tend to brainwash people—for I see no need to mince words: we’re talking about behavioral conditioning.  Do you not find it perfectly absurd to maintain that any human being can mature healthily and successfully in a cultural vacuum—an environment where the day has no tendency to rhythm and social interaction no predictable niceties?  People would go paranoid en masse!  They would live trembling under rubble like the survivors of Troy after the city was sacked and burned.

MPC: And this, brother, is just why our communions groom that “cult” of worshipful daily life at which you sneer.  People need organization—and how better to organize their lives than around acts of loving concern and ritual sharing?

ME: You have now negated the moral value both of loving and of sharing, though you have blundered into a very honest description, I believe, of your objectives.  What I see in all this is you of the priestly caste prescribing virtuous behavior to your… flock, shall we call them… and they obeying mindlessly in the confidence that their prophets know better than they what is to be done.  You will tell me, perhaps, that playing Moses to the herd is an onerous burden, and one that you would willingly have rejected if not impelled by a higher voice.

MPC: Mock on, brother.  We are not strangers to persecution.  But the sad truth is that the oppressed would remain in chains and the poor sit starving in their hovels if all were such as you.  Yes, people require leadership.  They must be organized.

ME: Organized to accomplish the bare necessities of living, yes—but their will must be left free!  Look: is your objective to enter the figure “zero” in the Homeless and Starving categories, even though you have to program the populace rigorously to reach that end; or is it to facilitate the discovery of a passage to God among individual souls?

MPC: This is more of that airy speculation which, if indulged, would indeed leave thousands of people homeless and starving.  We promote action, not “feel good” formulas.

ME: I consider that very, very debatable.  But let’s stay at the practical level.  Do you dispute that even the bluntest pagan will share food with his starving neighbor out of primitive decency?  In fact, small tribal societies are the most generous in the world at this kind of thing.  Yet you say that vast communities of givers must be orchestrated to maximize the efficiency of the relief effort (once again casting yourselves, I notice, in the role of the unit’s collective conscience).  Shouldn’t your calling, rather, be to awaken people far and wide from their fixation with mere physical survival, and beyond that from their determination to strike a admirable pose before the eyes of the masses?  If you can do that, then they will embellish their rudimentary decency with higher service—perhaps with less money-making and more dedication to playing with their children or cultivating trees that survived the developer’s bulldozer.  If you awaken people to indefinite ends, that is, you may just find that you get most of the definite results you want.  A man who pauses to notice the stars is at least as likely to play Good Samaritan as a robot programmed to change tires for stranded motorists.  But no!  Not good enough!  You’ve hopped several squares at once in this board game, as it were: you’ve directed everyone just how to be concerned and where to give.  You’ve created efficiency.  Your gospel might as well be a Stalinist five-year plan.

MPC: Oh, yes—it was bound to come to this sooner or later, wasn’t it?  The “c” word, the “s” word.  We’re communists, then… we’re socialists, is it?  Well, I know you don’t like to hear the Gospels quoted… so let’s try a different citation.  As a matter of fact, the plan that Jesus lays out for human society is essentially a socialist one, and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have uttered, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

ME: Ah, yes: Saint Karl!  But let me shift this… discussion… to a different footing.  Let’s grant that the Christian’s high mission is to feed the hungry and clothe the poor.  And let’s say that the mission is accomplished, as it may indeed be.  Obesity is already reaching epidemic proportions even in some Third World nations—and look at the so-called refugees pouring into Europe who are sporting Nikes and Land’s End workout suits.

MPC: The poor are always with you, brother… but pardon my slip of the tongue!  I quoted Scripture!

ME: No harm done—you happen to have quoted it very ineptly.  Christ utters those words exactly to underscore that the objective is not a smooth-running social machine.  But say, if you can possibly imagine, that one day you awaken to find no hungry to feed and no naked to clothe.  You’d be done, wouldn’t you?  Your church would have no further reason for being.  You need the needy!  You desperately need them.  You need them to be needy.  If they didn’t exist (as Voltaire quipped of God), you’d have to invent them.  Your purpose, your direction… it would be gone.  Your god would be dead.

MPC: How puerile!  How pitiful!  And all of this just to justify your sitting on your pile of loathsome lucre instead of helping your fellow man!

ME: Not an answer… and, by the way, you have no idea how I live or what my income is.  We can compare homes and cars later, if you like.  But okay, let’s stay with your new theme of rationalizing an egotistical choice with hifalutin motives.  Let’s talk about justice for a minute—a word you strain with even greater overuse than “gift”.  You exhort your congregation not to go to bed at night if the day hasn’t included some step toward bringing more justice into the world.

MPC: And, no doubt, that disturbs you for some strange reason.

ME: Yes.  It disturbs me because… how do you know?

MPC: How… do we know what?

ME: Where the just course lies?  How do you, miserable human being, know that a boy’s life of relative poverty isn’t preparing him for an adulthood of noble, enduring, invincible accomplishment?  You haven’t even visited the boy’s home!  How do you know that the dark-eyed alien facing twenty years for child-molestation isn’t actually a child-molester?  You haven’t even reviewed the case against him!  You cram individuals into sweeping categories that fit your script—and then you proceed with the script, ignoring specific circumstances and significant evidence.  You have no time for details: you have to create a fairy tale in which you play the plumed hero on a white charger!

MPC: Whereas you, once again, would just leave the boy mired in poverty and the disenfranchised suspect rotting in jail while you interminably dig for “further evidence”… all so that you don’t have to move a muscle.

ME: You’re claiming that I rearrange reality to favor my complacency—yet you can’t so much as conceive of the possibility that you do the same, at a much worse level, by brushing over details in generating just the little drama where you can play the hero, the true believer.  You never seem to harbor the slightest suspicion that perhaps what you call “justice” is a very simplistic reading of a complex situation.

MPC: Yes, everything must always be complex, mustn’t it?  Complexity is always an excellent excuse for doing nothing.

ME: And doing nothing is usually a better alternative than doing the wrong thing—such as destroying initiative in young people to have them be the little victims you pull from the fire, or releasing a mass-murderer upon the public who has been cast as someone wrongfully condemned by a racist jury.

MPC: My goodness!  We wouldn’t be speaking just a little bit stereotypically there, would we?

ME: No!  Not typically at all!  Specifically!  I speak of specific cases that get nudged aside in your stereotypes… and you refuse to allow the reality of exceptions to your rule.  Anyone who questions your categories is “stereotyping”!

MPC: I can see little hope for discovering common ground in this conversation.  I’m afraid the action of the spirit must precede any such exchange if significant compromise is to be reached… and the spirit has simply not touched you.

ME: What spirit, precisely?  For that’s the final point I would have made, the endgame.  What in your system, finally, is spiritual?  What you project forward into the “eschaton” is the truly perfected human society, where nobody does anything he doesn’t want to do, where all have their needs utterly fulfilled… and I don’t see where God fits into the picture, except as the architect of the whole thing: a boy with an ant farm between two pieces of glass who wakes up one morning and finds that his insects have finally figured out their tunnels.  The ultimate purpose of the human soul is to crawl happily about in human tunnels, visiting a friend here, a friend there.  Nothing but friends, everywhere!  But no God.  Where is the fusion with God’s mind in which the Christian is supposed to hope and to which he is meant to summon others?  Where is God’s mind?  Where is the intersection of the galaxies, the music that plays outside of linear time?  I see nothing in your miserable utopian prison but human architect ground out by very human minds.  It sickens me!

MPC: Peace, brother.  We’ll all pray for you.  Struggle can be fertile.  Our doors are open to you whenever you wish to enter.

… And so it goes.  Please view my brief new videos, The Perverted Concept of Justice in the Secular-Utopian Church and The Perverted Concept of Giving in the Secular-Utopian Church, if these subjects interest you.

“Virtue-Signaling”: Toxic to Spiritual Growth and Ruinous to Political Health

When I was barely seventeen, I left everyone I knew in the world for the first time in my life and packed it off to summer school at William and Mary, 1,500 miles away.  I hadn’t been in my strange new surroundings a week when something happened that lifted me high in my young eyes (very young, since I had graduated from high school a year early).  In working my way through the cafeteria’s dinner line, I had forked four slices of ham onto my plate, thinking I had only three—and paying for only three at the register.  In the middle of my lonely meal, I discovered my error and promptly returned to the checkout woman to correct it.  She was so visibly amazed and delighted at my punctilious honesty that I basked in the glow of her smile for days.  What a fine young man I was, after all!

So thrilled was I by this good news about my soul that, not more than three or four days later, I dropped a quarter back into the register’s draw, insisting to a different checkout attendant that she had overpaid my change.  She wasn’t amused.  Instead of the earlier smile, the look I got expressed shock and a little outrage.  I went away with a lot more to chew on than green beans and mashed potatoes.

For even if my math had been better than hers (and it probably wasn’t), I knew in my heart that I was seeking an artificial re-ignition of virtue’s fires.  I wanted to feel good about myself again… and in my theatrical, self-centered clumsiness, I had left the attendant in a very awkward position.  I had tried to buy a higher opinion of myself at her expense, not only casting her competence in question but also, very likely, throwing off the receipts at day’s end.

For a boy of seventeen to be as deeply mortified by this incident as I was—and to learn as much as quickly from it as I did—was probably higher praise of my maturity than I knew at the time, or would realize for years to come.  In fact, only recently, as I see “virtue-signaling” at epidemic levels all over the place among people all the way up to my present age, have I understood that some of my neighbors will never grow up.  They’re forever dropping dollars and dimes back into the cash box in the service of some superior cause—only the money is seldom their own, but has been volunteered by them, rather, from the pockets of fellow citizens who require the influence of big-brotherly duress to “do the right thing”.  Meanwhile, the cash box’s contents become so poorly reconciled with proper calculations that planning grows impossible and pilfering rife.  No one can say where those dimes end up… and it’s all thanks to the “good people” who stepped forward to act as society’s conscience.

The idealism that spurs us to stifle self-interest and to strive after a new and higher reality redeems us from a squalid animal state.  It is our finest, noblest characteristic.  When an observer of human affairs like Ayn Rand attacks this uplifting motive as, instead, the most debasing impulse of our species and savages Christianity (for instance) as an emasculation of heart and mind, the reasoning seems insane to me.  (It becomes fully so, in Rand’s case, when she insists on identifying artistic realism with the emasculated Christian mass and romanticism, contrastively, with heroic egotism: Ayn, meet Friedrich Nietzsche.)

That said, I’m afraid there is most certainly a fine—and very perilous—line between genuine, functional idealism and self-aggrandizing delusion.  The “visionary” or “dreamer” who would have us pool all of our resources together so that everyone has equal amounts of everything doesn’t deserve the name of “idealist”, in my opinion.  All true idealism is morally good—and all moral growth requires that the individual struggle and learn.  Insulating a child from the painful lesson of the hot stove by banishing all stoves whatever from his presence only ensures that we have on our hands a permanent child, a foolish brat who, at sixty-five, still won’t tie his own shoes.  This kind of vision is not compassion or social conscience: it is gross self-indulgence—an arrogant parasitism of the soul that gorges itself fat on preempting the challenges necessary to the health of other souls around it. The ostentatiously, sloppily “compassionate” among us are a huge tapeworm in our society’s gut.

Even the rare “dreamer” who uses his own money to sustain others in a state of spiritual anemia remains a saboteur rather than a philanthropist.  And, yes, there are too many of these within the ranks of people who style themselves Christian, though I would have hoped that someone of Ayn Rand’s intelligence might have distinguished between fool’s gold and real coin.  Genuine charity, like all forms of selflessness, is hard.  You don’t throw cake from the window of your coach: you have to figure out how the farmer can grow a healthier crop with his own hands.

When I was teaching literature (always the happiest time of my roller-coaster classroom career), I found Don Quixote a uniquely puzzling work in this regard.  I’ve no doubt that Cervantes wanted us to think the grand old madman not quite as big a fool as he appears to various road agents, pickpockets, prostitutes, and shysters.  In fact, the two “working girls” whom he addresses as fine ladies in his original sally end up being deeply grateful to him.  It costs us little enough to treat our fellow man somewhat better than his deserts, as Hamlet advises Polonius.  Yet our “knight’s” idealism strays far off target when he saves the poor lad Andres from a brutal master only to leave the bully to redouble the blows once a “gentleman’s assurance” has sent him cantering merrily away.  And surely Cervantes didn’t approve of La Mancha’s withered champion when he freed a party of convicts to resume their predations upon law-abiding society….

So where does ennobling idealism end and self-debasing folly begin?  We need hardly doubt that a world without idealism is a jungle, be Ayn Rand’s “romantic” heroes ever so rugged in their individualism; but a world saturated with self-indulgent, virtue-signaling idealism is a morass where might makes right beneath a slimy overgrowth of hypocrisy.

We can demand that our fellow taxpayers pony up the cash to buy health care for the entire planet’s grandmothers… but in the process, we will conveniently have overlooked that there isn’t enough loot in the solar system to fund every state-of-the-art procedure that every person with a pain might want.  We open the gate, rather, to a system more elitist than ever, where the happy few have private doctors on their staff while the many line up to receive aspirin, and where determinations are inevitably made about who is “more savable” or is likely to have a “more useful” lifespan.  (Hint: Grandma will be first to get nudged from the waiting list to the graveyard.)  In ushering in such horrors, we will actually have collaborated in creating a great evil.

We can demand that “refugees” be admitted from nations all over the world on the ground that fleeing a bad economy is as valid as fleeing a murderous dictator.  The populace we admit, however, will bring with it an inclination to flee from, evade, or deflect existential problems of any sort rather than stand and face them—an inclination that, in political terms, translates into a habit of looking to paternalistic rulers for long-term solutions while creating a mess of impromptu, under-the-table quick-fixes.  (Try counting the number of illegal TV cable hook-ups that spill like spaghetti from the power poles of large Mexican cities; blackouts and fires sometimes result.)  Our “charitable” disdain of borders will prove, all too soon, to have assisted in creating a one-world order dominated by an aloof, omnipotent oligarchy and peopled by scurrying ants without moral resolve or civic dedication.

Be sure to reckon at its true, full value the cost of posing your soul in a virtuous light for a loving snapshot.  While you’re hugging the portrait in its gilded frame, you may have to step around a few corpses.

The State Must Collapse When Self/Other Recognition Dissolves (Part II)

We have a growing problem.  Urban crime was bad in the Eighties, terrorist attacks were no minor annoyance as the millennium turned over, and Mexico’s gang violence has steadily percolated even through small-town neighborhoods… but will the future’s greatest physical dangers be posed by our own children?  Our college campuses have become nurseries for pathological introversion and extreme incivility (including overt violence).

I wrote last time about the dissolution of self/other recognition, which might meaningfully be characterized as a morbid slide back into early childhood.  Certain young people, especially—but also many old enough to know better—cannot distinguish, apparently, between a source of personal distress and a global crisis.  Their preferred method of bridging the gap from the near side of the ego’s deep chasm to the wide world’s busy traffic is, perversely, to lay upon that world the responsibility for a weak will or for poor personal judgment.  Thus everyone around them must tread eggshells if they are “unfriended” on social media; all males everywhere are responsible if they wake up without their memory and their panties after a wild party; and mainstream society is positively un-Christian—as a sudden burst of pious inspiration seizes them—if laws impose a minor inconvenience upon their need of a “hygienic procedure” for cleaning out the uterus.

Again, my position is that “they” are “we”, or at least are our children.  “They” would not exist in this degraded form if we were not creating and sustaining a degraded environment.  What, exactly, are we doing to bring this twilight of insanity down upon ourselves?

I can think of a few things: four, for sure.

1) Contemporary life is too soft on us: it excuses us from confronting basic realities.  We all know what a debilitating obstacle is posed to us by a little fluctuation in temperature.  Now that our central heating and air-conditioning have groomed us to dwell within a “comfort spectrum” of about ten degrees, any intrusion of forceful weather upon that meteorological safe zone must indict some epochal catastrophe like planetary climate change.  So for other aspects of modern living: success has emasculated us.  I hear proponents of the MAGA persuasion crow all the time (in ironically rugged, robust language) about the high-tech atrophy of our vigor as if it were a measure of our civilization’s triumph… and I suppose it might be, from a certain perspective.  “We don’t need to conserve fuel,” they bluster.  “We have shale oil!  And look at how free the car has made us, and how many jobs it creates!”  But such lavish “freedom” has also made us prone to yearn for or demand frivolities—and even corrupt pleasures—with a passion out of all proportion to the worthiness of what we desire.  The rebellious children of the “bring back progress” voting bloc are, of course, still more addicted to imaginary “rights”.  Not having an iPhone appears to be a social injustice tantamount to slavery for some people, and catching a few scowls for sporting spiked purple hair is the equivalent of having to wear a Yellow Star.  Come on, will you?

2) The cause of highest impact in our collective crisis of incivility, I’m convinced, is the Internet, in all of its “social media” ramifications.  A generation of young people has now been reared without an adequate degree of integration into broader society, but seduced, instead, into artificial worlds inhabited by various “human tokens” (profiles, avatars, selfie-plated façades) that may or may not reflect faithfully the real beings projected in them.  Retreat into such fraudulent communities is so general that it absolves even passers-by on a sidewalk of having to look up and say “hello” (or to avoid physical collision).  It is not beyond the pale of possibility that many college students know no one in the conventional sense.  Hence they haven’t learned how to suppress certain utterances that will not be of communal interest or are not cast in terms appropriate for a mature audience.  Their “feelings”, naturally, are the source of whatever concern happens to consume them today; and people who do not share this concern are callous and brutal (since everyone in the online group, of course, acknowledges that each personal grievance belongs at the top of the Cosmic Crisis list).

Unfortunately, the electronic god that giveth also taketh away.  A spat with an e-friend—or, Heaven forbid, disgrace before an entire e-community—can send the young person’s world into a tailspin.  All is over.  Life is no longer worth living: the future is sealed.  Nothing remains but to pull the plug.  We hear or read all too often about teens committing suicide because they have been “flamed on SM”—and the moral of every such tragic story is supposed to be that we must fight online bullying with more seminars, more “awareness”.  Malefactors guilty of over-indulging their slanderous thumbs have even, I believe, been prosecuted, sometimes successfully.

Am I the only one who identifies the greater problem here, and indeed the only substantial problem, to be the “victim’s” woeful failure in developing a functional, resilient, mature ego thanks to a brief lifetime spent hypnotically before a screen’s glare?

3) I will surely be derided for volunteering this further point—and readers familiar with my “obsession” concerning the subject will likely roll their eyes… but I’m convinced that we spend far too little time in physical activity.  Exercise.  I could immediately ramble off the names of three or four major spokesmen for the American Right who routinely scoff at physical fitness as if it equated with some left-wing, New Age adoration of yoga or veganism.  To these “philosophers”, unnecessary activity seems to imply a rejection of technological innovations like the elevator or a voice-commanded Siri or Alexa.  It’s anti-free enterprise!  It’s un-American!  Eventually (and sooner rather than later), our rugged-individualist cream puffs are going to have to decide if they want artificially engineered organs replacing vital portions of their abused and malfunctioning bodies… or if they believe that such engineering may intrude upon the spiritual territory that they claim to hold dear.  Many will work out some kind of compromise in their thoughts, which will naturally spill into their jabber within minutes; and virtually none of them will notice that, in the process, their worldview has fused with that of their enemy-unto-death, the utopian progressive.

Indeed, there may be no more graphic and more specific case of “conservative” America ideologically plunging into the swirl of young-progressive socialism and dehumanization than we find in this contempt for the body as it is—as God has given it to us: a delicate ally whose proper care and maintenance teaches us a discipline of the soul.  In fact, speaking of a bridge from the internal subject to the social object… your body is a dress rehearsal for building such bridges, is it not?  Yours but not yours, obeying but betraying your commands, it needs to be flattered, bullied, cajoled, and overruled at various moments so that your true intent may translate into an undistorted action.  It doesn’t belong to the World Beyond… but it is the ambiguous doormat of that intimidating mansion.

Much of our present misery appears to spring from an utterly inept identification of body and soul.  You are what you look like: your sex, your height, your racial or ethnic characteristics.  No wonder so many young people grow suicidal when they peer into the mirror, or else struggle to maintain a false visual persona on the Internet!  No wonder we all seem so preoccupied with having our DNA tested!

And then, when the verdict cannot be finessed as we would like, the gush of anxious hormones within us is responsible for our mood.  Pills, bring us pills!  Political Left and Right apparently select from different menus, but everyone places an order.  The face in the mirror isn’t responding when we tug the reins: we must stir some magic potion into its feed.  Whether you consume legal or illegal anti-depressants, however, you are addressing the cracks in your soul’s temple by hanging pictures over them.

I’ve often been shocked at the number of young people being treated in some fashion for depression.  I ask them if they exercise at all—if they bike or play tennis—and the answer is always negative.  The electronic black hole into which they have been sucked causes much of the paralysis, as does the broader servicing of all wants and needs by gadgetry: in other words, this crippling flaw in our culture is actively nourished by the previous two. I might add (if doing so will not make a socialist of me to eyes that see only in black and white) that Numbers One and Two above are themselves fueled by the “creative genius” of the capitalist spirit—which, while powering our mainstream like a mighty dynamo, does not appear to have found a reliable source of profit in our eternal spirit.

4) This brings me to my final culprit: the collapse of our culture’s spiritual scaffolding.  I am not going to write anything so insipid as that Americans don’t attend church with their erstwhile regularity.  That would be the parent’s explanation of what has happened to his child—but here I am suggesting that the parent look to his own practice.  What, exactly, is this “church” whose negligence is so often cited as the reason for our degeneracy?

The contemporary American church disdains none of the digital sophistication that riddles other aspects of our life as it woos visitors—especially, yes, young visitors.  The services I have observed at my son’s church (a very prosperous one) impressed me on two scores.  First, the expertly manipulated lighting and the music seemed to lure participants into subjective fantasies of ecstasy normally attributable to drugs in the harsh brilliance of day.  Second, the purpose or “mission” of the church was very distinctly oriented to social welfare: relief for the Dominican Republic, offerings for underprivileged school children, and recruitment of racial/ethnic minorities for the church’s membership.  Not necessarily bad objectives… but when did the church become an appendage of our paternalistic central government?  At what moment did this high-tech service encourage reflection—honest and intense self-examination—during a sustained silence?  I witnessed various opportunities for writing checks and for feeling good with a little “go, team” fist-pumping.   When was death stared in the face? Where was the message that our mortal life doesn’t really matter except as a proving ground for and a window upon the transcending life of the eternal spirit?  Where was the discussion of how poverty is sometimes to be embraced, or how the gift of sympathy may be worth more than material largesse?

Such an interpretation of Christianity renders it very hard to distinguish from other varieties of collectivism—and collectivism isn’t a successful integration of self and other.  It is a complete absorption, rather, of the former by the latter.  Yet at the same time, “religious experience” of this order seems almost solipsistic.  The other has to exist so that the self may feel worthy by serving it; and an other that needs to be waited on hand and foot like a mute paraplegic is a mere egotistical construct, not a distinct human creature who will prosper spiritually from the encounter.  The term I hear frequently used to designate such clumsy gestures at social conscience is “virtue signaling”.  Precisely.  You’re telling the world in semaphore that you are a marvelously decent, caring person: you’re not perceiving, assessing, and addressing specific realities with respect to their full impact on your neighbor.
My son isn’t much interested in this particular church, for which I am grateful… but I’m also distressed that he may not find a better option.  I have rarely succeeded in doing so myself, in our land of plenty.

Dads and Moms, if you want to know why your bouncing babes are now overturning squad cars and demanding that wealth be confiscated and redistributed, maybe it’s because of the morally bankrupt “social justice” sermons you made them sit through during their formative years.  Or maybe it’s simply because they nonsensically conflate violence with peace as they struggle to find a script that projects them as concerned adults.  When the chasm between self and other is negotiated with disastrous ineptitude, such whopping contradictions are not unusual.

Getting back on track is going to require effort of a kind and magnitude that seem well beyond human capacity… but through God, all things are possible.  American mainstream practice is not that god, though it was once kept helpfully on the straight and narrow by a more mature spirituality.