“You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a business man or some high-degree thief
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are
You’re gonna have to serve somebody….” Bob Dylan, Gotta Serve Somebody[i]
Before we explore where “Freedom From Religion” is leading us to, we might ask what is it leading us from? Human beings are by our nature religious, and we will find a religion irrespective of our denials that our orthodoxy is orthodoxy. Even if it is secular progressive atheism or a version of Star Wars Manichean dogma, we are hard wired for religion, and we gotta serve somebody. If our determination for postmodern marginalizing of ancient faith is the goal, what will we do to fill the gap in our center? And without doubt there is a hole in our hearts, an existential alienation and loneliness that we try to avoid thinking about with distractions, entertainments, and busyness.
The concept of “praising God” is a starting point to examine what we are leaving behind.
The derivation of words and their original context are worth understanding. The Hebrew “halal” means “praise.” From it is derived “Alleluia!” or “Praise God!” Christian belief is that rightly ordered praise is the true end of our liturgy and our lives. What does that mean? God is not an easily dismissed straw man: the old, bearded man on a remote throne so rightly derided by the new atheist. True God does not need our praise. God, Who is “ipsum esse,” the very act of “being” itself, does not need our anything.
So why would He require that we praise Him? Since He only wants our good, then rightly ordered praise must rebound to our benefit. We find a clue in the derivation of the Hebrew word “halal.” The original pictograph on the left in the figure shows the image of a man pointing upward at something amazing. (Remember that written Hebrew reads right to left.) The repeated figures represent shepherd’s crooks and were used to indicate “pointing the way.” The figure in the middle of the graphic shows the pictograph evolved into ancient Hebrew, so “praise” derives from “directing us to something amazing.”
Thus, we may ascertain that “praise” has more to do with pointing us in the right direction than obsequious flattery and telling God He is great. And what might that direction be? To diminish our frail and foible prone egos and center our lives on one thing: there is a God, and I’m not Him. And to know this is to know everything.[ii]
“Jesus said to his disciples:
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.
But store up treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.’” Gospel according to Matthew
What substitutes will plug the hole in our heart? Most of our efforts are not evil in themselves, indeed most of our substitutes are goods raised above their station. Distractions, entertainments, diversions are among them. Playing and watching sports or theater or music are good things, unless they wedge their way into becoming our focus, our center, the primary occupier of our attention and time. Perhaps one of the four Thomas Aquinas wrote about: honor, power, pleasure, and wealth can rise to the occasion and fill the gap. None of these is inherently bad. Acting in a manner to be liked and respected is a positive; craving the approval and praise of others is not. Accumulating sufficient power to achieve good ends, to influence others in a positive way is a good thing, but as Baron John Dalberg-Acton famously remarked over a century ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Seeking comfort for self and family, a warm house on a cold day, the solace of another human body held close, a great meal with friends are good things; hedonistic obsession is not. Wealth can be used to provide for ourselves and our families, to fund charitable good works, all of which are good things in themselves. It is when they become the center, the center falls apart. In the end, they all can become mere addictions that require ever increasing doses to achieve ever more diminishing highs.[iii]
Another word for “praise” in this context is “worship.” Rightly ordered worship means putting what alone merits being at our center in our center. From the Old English ‘weorthscipe’ to the later English ‘worth-ship,’ meaning worthiness or an acknowledgement of worth. What is at our center? What is of prime importance to our heart? Where do we seek solace and peace?
“The leper here stands, not so much for the socially ostracized, but for the one who has wandered away from right worship, the one who is no longer able or willing to worship the true God. What’s so important about worship? To worship is to order the whole of your life toward the living God, and, in doing so, to become interiorly and exteriorly rightly ordered. To worship is to signal to yourself what your life is finally about. It’s nothing that God needs, but it is very much something that we need.” Bishop Robert Barron writing about Jesus healing the leper.
Arguably the first of the two most grievous victims of our post Christian culture are the dignity and intrinsic worth of each human person, including pre-born human beings. The second is the concept of sin itself with individual responsibility, which has escaped our thinking entirely. The former will take more than a blog post, but perhaps the latter can be explored or at least the discussion begun.
Our times are dominated by subjective and emotive decision making, a radical materialist philosophy with its attendant aggressive secularism that countenances no dissent, and what Cardinal Josef Ratzinger famously called “the dictatorship of relativism.”[iv] These have left us with the belief that the important solutions are only found in ideology, science, or by social and government intervention on behalf of one of the many splintered constituencies of grievance politics. Capitalism and free markets will solve all our problems if given free rein. Socialism and the advantaging of the disadvantaged and oppressed will bring us justice and peace. Science will answer all our riddles and provide all the wisdom we need. Despite all evidence in the last century that none of these will serve, our arguments cling to one or more of these assumptions whispering error into our ears.
Prior to the cataclysms of the bloodiest century in human history, the seeds of the secular and materialist revolution that transformed our society were already well planted and sprouted in earnest. In 1910, when G.K. Chesterton was among the most respected writers in the Western world, the Times of London sent out an inquiry to many of those luminaries asking one question. An essayist of peerless skills, Chesterton famously responded with the shortest essay of his life, two words to answer the question, “What is wrong with the world today?” The ‘prince of paradox’ answered, “I am,”
Without sin and acknowledgment of my personal responsibility for my own pride, selfishness, my utilitarian use of others, seeking my own advantage to the detriment of others, then my attempts to address the plight of the group which we want to benefit will remain rooted in my own ego, self-focus, and helping myself to feel superior to the ignorant un-woke guy who fails to see what is so obvious to me. Christianity from the beginning means that our own weaknesses are beyond our ability to fix and that we need a Savior to remedy them. A profound Pelagianism informs our culture and our thinking: we don’t need help, we can earn our salvation however we define it here and now or later, and we can become our best selves by our own efforts and our own self will. “I’m basically a good person, right?”
Therefore, by the wisdom of our tired world, the mercy of God is unnecessary. A serious look inward and honest assessment is uncomfortable and “I’m OK, You’re OK” anyway. So, jump up to the podium, grab a sign, march to City Hall or the Capital, post our wisdom on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, and together we can resolve the injustices of the world. Would that this were possible, but until I address the rottenness at my own core and turn to the only possible remedy for them, my efforts, however commendable, will remain a “noisy gong.”[v]
The Good News is that the remedy is at hand, and that salvation can’t possibly be earned. “All the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.[vi]” Redemption, filling the hole in my heart, peace, joy, and true freedom is free for the asking. [vii] In the end, it is only necessary to ask one question. “Is this true?” Everything else follows.
“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” St. Teresa of Calcutta
[i] Gotta Serve Somebody, Bob Dylan
[ii] Psalm 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (New International Version translation) Not obsequious trembling and fear, but reverential awe: perspective, not cowardly groveling.
[iii] “With this there grows / In my most ill-composed affection such / A stanchless avarice that, were I king, / I should cut off the nobles for their lands, / Desire his jewels and this other’s house: / And my more-having would be as a sauce / To make me hunger more” Macbeth, William Shakespeare
[iv] For a beginning analysis of what a “dictatorship of relativism” effects in the culture, read Roger Kimball’s introduction to a symposium in New Criterion in 2009: “The Dictatorship of Relativism: Who Will Stand Up for Western Values Now?”
[v] 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 13 “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” New American Standard Bible 1995 translation.
[vi] Piers Plowman, William Langland 1332-1384