April 15, 2006

FROM THE ARCHIVES: LITTLE GOD AND BIG CHARLIE (via Robert Schwartz):

God isn't big enough for some people (Umberto Eco, 27/11/2005, Daily Telegraph)

Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death. We in Europe have faced a fading of organised religion in recent years. Faith in the Christian churches has been declining.

The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.

G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

The "death of God", or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church -- from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.

It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God. He said: "No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something greater." Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency. The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret "container" with his or her own fears and hopes.

As a child of the Enlightenment, and a believer in the Enlightenment values of truth, open inquiry, and freedom, I am depressed by that tendency. This is not just because of the association between the occult and fascism and Nazism - although that association was very strong. Himmler and many of Hitler's henchmen were devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies.


The most successful of the occult beliefs likewise proceeds not from lack of faith in God but disappointment in Him:
There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

Or, as a modern disciple put it:
The moral design of nature is as bungled as its engineering design. What twisted sadist would have invented a parasite that blinds millions of people or a gene that covers babies with excruciating blisters? To adapt a Yiddish expression about God: If an intelligent designer lived on Earth, people would break his windows.


[Originally posted: December 3, 2005]

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2006 11:39 PM
Comments

Somewhere buried in the writings of Cicero is an explanation for the virtue of piety. (I have forgotten just where: it has been many, many years; perhaps some kind soul will know the citation.)

Cicero really didn't place too much stock in the popular religion of his day, flights of birds, entrails--that sort of thing. In his philosophical writings and dialogs "God" often got the singular--"Deus."

But popular religion, he held, right down to the lares and pennantes, was a prop for the mos maiorum, and is not to be dispensed with. This is exactly because the Chesterton quote holds, and people will believe in anything.

And for us, even if we have not been granted the grace of faith, let us walk in the ways of the ancestors, shunning possession by elemental urges, not worshipping gods with heads of aniimals, and not making a holocaust of our children.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 3, 2005 9:10 PM

"Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book."
I believe it is Da Vinci's Last Supper which is at the center of The Da Vinci Code, not the Mona Lisa.

Posted by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 3, 2005 10:05 PM

How sad. Because you cannot fathom the mysteries of the divine you then deny the divine. And then to find that your replacements fare worse than the original. How sad. How...Episcopalian.

Posted by: Mikey at December 3, 2005 10:26 PM

Very well said Lou.

As for Mr. Eco, I hope he recovers his faith.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 4, 2005 2:24 AM

jd,

"I believe it is Da Vinci's Last Supper which is at the center of The Da Vinci Code, not the Mona Lisa."

They both are.

Posted by: creeper at December 4, 2005 3:04 AM

Thank-you, Lou. Compacted wisdom, for sure.

He said: "No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something greater."

It is truly depressing to come to realize that, in far, far too many cases, all the glorious, inspiring rhetoric of rationalism and the Enlightenment, of libertarian freedom and the pursuit of happiness, of the earthy mysteries of paganism, of self-esteem and popular psychology, of socialist brotherhood and even of the deification of material progress comes down to little more than the assertion of an absolute right to lead a completely self-focused, inward-looking life and beggar thy neighbour.

Posted by: Peter B at December 4, 2005 6:34 AM

Peter:

Think of it as a reprise of the sin of Gomorrah:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” Charles Williams likes to call Hell Gomorrah: the place beyond the city where I seek the mirror image of myself (Sodom), where I may be altogether alone with no one to get in my hair. It is, he later clarifies, the sin of Gomorrah -- worship of that which cannot be had, of what is empty, of the self.

Posted by: Arnold F Williams at December 4, 2005 8:06 AM

jd,

"I believe it is Da Vinci's Last Supper which is at the center of The Da Vinci Code, not the Mona Lisa."

They both are.

Posted by: creeper at April 20, 2006 6:32 AM
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