Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Folk Religion in America

Most Americans believe in God. What is the percentage, like 80%? I'd peradventure, however--and I'm just guessing here!--that most of that percentage is concocted of an image of God informed more by the American culture's ethos and pathos than any concept derived from an institutional church, a denominational creed, or a theological paradigm. Go to a local bar or NASCAR event, walk the aisles in the Wal-Mart or sit in the stands at a local ball game, and most people will tell you they believe in God. And they usually mean with a big "G," because don'tcha dare spell it with a small one. "My God is a big God and he's the only one." So, the concept of God in the mind of most Americans who are not informed by the aforementioned systems of thought and inculcation, usually have their own preconceptions about who this God is, and what he is like (most Americans don't have a problem with the masculine pronoun, either).

Now of course, because this concept of God is not informed by a description of doctrines derived from a sacred text, denominational creed, church or theology, it moves in the category of kitchen table philosophy and tends to meander around American pragmatism, individualism, and romanticism. It is pragmatic in that "whatever works for me" and it is individualist in that "My God is like such-and-such," or "My God would never do thus-and-so," (emphasis on "my"). It is romantic in that "I'm a good person, and God wants me to be happy. When I'm not happy, then I ask him for a blessing."

A prime example of this is fleshed out in the pithy statements some well-meaning friends throw around, when life has got a person down. Just today, I noticed someone on facebook whose status stressed a great deal of distress over failure to get ahead in life either at work, or with family. The response from a friend was...

"Just be true to yourself."

Now, my first temptation in reading this response is to decide whether to curse, or puke. But then I remain calm and try to just analyze it, because that's what I earned my degree in, so I might as well put it to good practice (you can be the judge on whether I fulfill my perceived duty). The cursing option is out, per my previous posts on cussing (yes, it's titled, "On Cussing"). Right.

"Just be true to yourself," is a load of poo. Or should I say, It is an American, sentimentalist, pithy bit of nonsense that takes for granted the emboldened prize of self-aggrandizement at the cost of eliminating any sense of the inherent nature of humans made in the image of God and who are desperately void of any present union between God and man. "Just be true to yourself" can only come from the American Transcendentalist and romantic notion that man is essentially good and the the real problems are "out there" (think Emerson and Thoreau). Well, if the real problems are "out there," aren't you included yourself in what is "out there?" After all, you're not the only person with problems. "Just be true to yourself." Do you know who was true to himself?

Adolf Hitler was true to himself. His methodical, rationalistic madness haunts the dreams of many to this day.

Joseph Stalin was true to himself. The blood of Russian peasants still seeps into the ground of cold tundra, and in fields at the edge of town.

Pol Pot was true to himself. 2 million Cambodians rest in the earth long before their time.

Hugh Hefner is true to himself. His hedonist lust for pleasure wreaks havoc in the mistreatment of women by the millions, having popularized and made glamorous the idolatry of the female body put to use for nothing more than men to use themselves. Women don't have souls, they are mere images.

The homeless man strung out of the most powerful mind-altering and addicting material known to man is true to himself. He gave up his family, his job, his
health, his mind, his life, in order to pursue his desires for pleasure, escape and fulfillment.

Shall I mention the politician who gets paid off by corrupt officials and dismisses justice? Should I bring up the professional athlete who holds out for just a few million dollars more on a 95 million dollar contract and is exhausted with disappointment when he doesn't get what he wants? Or, we could discuss the woman at home who leaves her husband because she's "not having fun anymore," and vice versa.

So much for Idealism. "Just be true to yourself" is absolutely human, not just American. It is absolutely human because it denies the reality of sin, the guilt of sin, and the corrupting power of sin. "But your sins have separated you from you God. He has hidden his face from you, so that he cannot hear you," (Isaiah 59:2). Rather, the proper response of us who believe in God should be "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, acknowledge him in all your ways, and he will make your paths straight," (Proverbs 3:5-6). My recommendation to you is to not "Just be true to yourself," because "the heart is treacherous above all things and desperately sick, who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).


Jonathan Erdman said...

Chris: "Just be true to yourself" is absolutely human, not just American. It is absolutely human because it denies the reality of sin, the guilt of sin, and the corrupting power of sin.

HHhhhhhhmmmm.....I kind of take issue with this post, just a bit.....I don't think that this is actually the way most "folk" intend the phrase. And I know that it is certainly not the intention of the more studied and intellectual who use this phrase to support a spiritual idea that human beings need to return to "the true self." I also would further suggest that many Christians can responsibly hold to a doctrine of "true self" and can implore others to "be true to yourself" with biblical and theological integrity.

The suggestion that one needs to be true to one's self implies that it is so easy to lose ourselves within the flow of events in the world. Hitler and the other examples you cite clearly would illustrate how one can not only lose site of one's true self but also eventually wreak havoc on all of humanity.

Theologically and biblically, I have a hard time subscribing to a dogma of original sin when in fact the Hebrew Scriptures teach that we were made in the image of God. But to deny that we are born evil does not deny the existence of evil in the world; it may simply suggests that our sin develops as our psyche forms itself improperly toward our environment.

I'm not really advocating a "just be true to yourself" philosophy; I have my questions. Nor am I suggesting that the population at large is thoughtful and reflective about their philosophical and religious perspectives! I'm just saying that you seem to be arguing fallaciously: using a popular slogan as a basis for dismissing a very thoughtful and reasoned spiritual/theological position.

Ultimately, I see theology as going two ways. 1) we are basically good when we are born and our defensive psychic development results in harmful actions toward others. Or 2) that we are basically evil and bad but that we are/will be transformed through a spiritual experience, a life of dedicated spiritual practice, or a supernatural change to our nature.

I don't know that the biblical evidence honestly really decides between these two options. Further, I wonder if there are not better options out there. I've got no particular position on the issue, really. I just see it as fairly complex and complicated. It's an issue of deep psychological and spiritual complexity.

chris van allsburg said...

Hey Jon,

Thank-you for commenting on "vanallsblog," the greatest blog in Taylorsville, NC! :)

Well, maybe you are right in that I am building up a straw man here--if I read you right. But I wonder how you would analyze the cultural milieu that manifests itself in these pithy sayings. Do you think they have any real meaning, or are they meaningless drivel, uttered to set the mind at ease through some pseudo-hypnosis? Like a "power of positive thinking" but without any real clout?

As far as original sin is concerned, and the two options:

1) We would have to discuss original sin in another venue. I've taken that for granted. I do grant that it takes case-building, there's no doubt about that. Jesus did call his disciples "evil," in contrast to God, who is good, so I think that's a good place to start.

The other two options you give I think may have a resolution in the doctrine of common grace?


chris van allsburg said...

On Original Sin, the options are

Pelagianism: we are wholly capable of obeying God because we still have good in us, to the point that Adam's sin hasn't affected us at all. We are born with pure souls, and only culture and environment produce sin in us as we imitate them.

Semi-Pelagianism: a denial of the necessity of prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit for salvation. The will is weakened, and not totally corrupted by sin. Our souls are sick and weak, prone to the desires of the flesh.

The Remonstrants, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholic views on human nature tend toward this semi-Pelagian view, to varying degrees. (True Arminianism does acknowledge the necessity of prevenient grace).

Then there is the Reformed view, that our sin is inherited from Adam, as well as our guilt. Paul spells this out quite plainly in Romans 3, 5, and 1 Corinthians 15.

Even Jesus says that the person who sins is a slave of sin. Paul says in Eph 2 that we are dead in trespasses and sins. Seems there is strong biblical warrant for the Reformed view on original sin.