“When people cease to believe in God, remarked G.K. Chesterton slyly, they come to believe not in nothing, but in anything.” Christopher Hitchens, For The Sake Of Argument: Essays & Minority Reports.
|Coffee shop at the University of Chicago Divinity School.|
It is Hitch who is remarking slyly, here: Chesterton never said this — not so succinctly, at any rate. But the sentiment is Chestertonian enough to qualify (note the canny absence of quotation marks). And I gratefully use it as a helpful entry-point for this post.
“They come to believe . . . in anything.” More particularly than “anything,” I wonder if the Default Setting for human consciousness isn't Paganism.
Paganism has an innate logic, from a pop-psych POV. From birth to late adolescence we see our parents as gods. In benign families the child's consciousness morphs from “How did she KNOW I was going to pilfer that cookie?” to gradually discovering some of the tricks behind this perceived omniscience, to the young-adult motivation to prove oneself not just equal to the parent, but superior.*
Plurality produces a manifold awareness. Even in happy families, children witness their parents in conflict. The gods rage! I displeased them with that third cookie! They rage against me! In FUBAR families the children adopt strategies to become parent to the parent — usually an admixture of deceit, distraction, and recognized emotional supplication. Daddy calms down when I cry and say “I love you!” Again, this happens in healthy families also, albeit with less trauma.
Here we have the basic template for standard modes of religious supplication. It is currently, I would offer, THE template for Evangelical worship, with its emphasis on childlike chorus-cycles and incantatory prayer.** Often even when one deliberately steps away from a particular religious community such as this, the primal expectations that gave rise to these communal call-and-response rituals remain very much alive and at work in the individual consciousness.***
What the intrepid pilgrim discovers out in the larger world is, in fact, a multiplicity of call-and-response communities and rituals. Navigating these is exceedingly tricky work. Among the more popular options, the rituals and rigours of science are indeed commendable. But when it comes to appealing to the collective consciousness about a communal concern as baseline fundamental as the survival of our species, the scientific community is at a demonstrably significant loss. One reason for this, I suspect, is that our species is not possessed of a singular collective consciousness, but rather a multiplicity of collective consciousnesses.
Since I've already committed myself to the realm of rainbows and unicorns, I'll go the distance and make it personal: to all intents and purposes, I conduct my life presupposing that Pagan Narratives are spinning themselves out in the Cosmos — or at the very least on this planet. More than that, I suspect everyone else does, too,**** and that arriving at some wisdom regarding which of these impulses are healthy and which are detrimental is one of life's most formidable challenges.
If that seems a bit rich, coming from the gormless Christian in the back pew, I'd suggest that one of the more palatable lenses through which to read the Bible is as a cumulative butting against Pagan Narratives, without and within — before finally subsuming them all under one Predominant Cosmic (and comic) Narrative.
At this point my thoughts scatter like marbles on the floor. Some of those marbles are brighter than others; hopefully in the next few days I can point to a few of them as they roll under the couch/fridge/stove.
No Unified Field Theory from me, in other words. Instead, I'll revert to my lazy-bones norm, and point toward the cogent thoughts of others for your perusal. Here’s a short bibliography of works that nudged me toward this POV:
Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism In The Age Of Information.
Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, And A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. (A note: the enlightened among us take these men-in-tights stories seriously, but it is safe to say Morrison's enlightenment on this score is of a vastly different plane.)
Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium.
|"We're all Neo-Pagans now, Henry."|
*Hm. “Individuation as monotheistic paradigm”? Thoughts for later.
**Liturgical communities attempt to sidestep or subvert some of these expectations by adapting the Jewish practice of Prayer As A Reminder Of Our Place. Job Shrugs: “God is God. What are you going to do?”
***The frustrated apostate: there is no God. Life is evidently cruel. Who to blame? And why?