For most of human history, religious faith has been central to the life, economy and government of virtually all societies. Babylon, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome, all of these empires explicitly traced their authority from heaven, the gods, or other transcendent concepts that can only be described as religious. Religious acts were political acts, and vice versa. To challenge the status quo of the ruling authorities was to call into question the religious authorities, as well. Expressions of faith were serious business.
For over a thousand years, Western Christianity was the theological glue that held European society together. We can still observe remnants of these former times in the civil religion of the United States. Even today, presidents invoke the name of God during speeches. Prayers are spoken before sessions of legislative bodies. New citizens and government employees are required to swear oaths of loyalty to the state. Our civil structures still bear traces of a time when Christian religious concepts were deeply intertwined with government.
For the most part, however, theistic religion is being pushed steadily out of our civic life. Sure, politicians still make vestigial reference to a non-descript, America-blessing deity; but theological considerations play almost no role in how our mainstream culture is shaped and our society is governed. Many Americans today believe that our civic society should be free of religious influences, allowing each individual to practice their own religion – privately. Many others are just as convinced that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that the rise of secularity is an enormous threat. Whatever side of this debate we find ourselves on, almost no one believes that America today is a society with a shared religious basis.
But what if we are missing the point entirely? Could it be that the ground has so shifted under our feet that we have failed to recognize that a new religious system has supplanted the old Christendom, uniting the whole Western world in its powerful mythology?
I would like to suggest that we are indeed living in a new religious order has that has nothing to do with Judeo-Christian ideas about the deity, but instead is grounded in another invisible power altogether. This power is invoked when our high officials talk about how the markets are reacting. We pay homage to this new religion when our economic and intellectual leaders speak of the need for economic growth. This religious system has its clergy and high priests, managing the inner sancta of stock exchanges, the Federal Reserve and central banks around the world.
This new faith provides meaning and orders the systems that affect our daily lives. Just as with the old religions, its dictates and logic are inextricably intertwined with the workings of government and the privileges of the elites. Only now, our civilization no longer even pretends to be ordered by a loving God of mercy and justice. Our society now orbits a different star altogether.
For decades, most of us – including much of the Christian community – have been quietly adapting ourselves to this new reality. We can sense that traditional religious faith no longer provides a useful intellectual framework for public discourse. Our faith convictions – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or otherwise – have become a strictly private matter. Like practicing yoga, playing volleyball or holding membership at a gym, participation in a faith tradition is seen as a supplemental, optional enrichment activity. If it works for you, go for it – but don’t expect your faith to have any impact beyond your own personal sense of meaning.
The state religion of the economy, on the other hand, is inescapable. Whether you believe or not, if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, you will be impacted. If the numbers flitting across computer screens in the New York Stock Exchange decline dramatically, you might lose your job. If your passion and giftedness lie in areas outside those which the money system values (for example: musicians, caregivers, ministers, community organizers, artists and creative writers), you can expect to pay much more than a tithe to gods of the market. In all these ways, and many more, we are directly impacted by the strictures of the new religious order.
In this context, what is the value of traditional religious faith? Has faith in the God of Abraham become so irrelevant that all it can provide, at best, is a secondary source of meaning – something on par with ethnic heritage or membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution?
Yes, it probably has.
It pains me to say this, since I myself have gained a lot from this traditional kind of faith. Though I mourn the mounting irrelevance of modern Christianity, it seems likely to me that Reformation-era religion is nearing its expiration date, if not already past it. When I am honest with myself, I can’t really blame most of my friends who do not go to church or participate actively in a faith tradition. Most of these traditional communities really don’t have much to offer beyond some inspirational thoughts and comfortable community. If that’s all there is to the Church, why not just check out an inspirational book from the library and then try to build community with people you already interact with on a daily basis?
Given what most of the Church has become, the gods of the market seem a lot more powerful than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. While the market gods seem to control life and death, prosperity and poverty, the God of traditional faith comes across as heartwarmingly trivial, at best.
Still, I haven’t lost hope. I have discovered in my own life that Jesus is more powerful than any of the prosperity gods that our mainstream culture offers. The gods of the market promise wealth and security based in fear, but the God of Abraham leads us into a true life of love and beauty, in community with others.
How can we embrace this life of beauty, justice and compassion in ways that speak directly to our present-day conditions? Rather than taking refuge in the dying structures of traditional religion, what would it look like to embrace a faith that directly challenges the gods of the market and offers an alternative way of life – an economy of love and a community based in gifts rather than barter? In an age that is obsessed with wealth, security and personal privilege, what would it look like for us to release everything – even our safe and comfortable religions – to follow Jesus?