Sitting here behind a desk, doing rather ordinary work on the computer for a tool and equipment rental company, I listen to the radio. Mostly I listen to either CBC or Radio-Canada. CBC has the advantage of being broadcast in four different time zones, so I can catch programs I miss, or even listen to them a second time.
Today, I heard an interview with Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress. I heard the Massey Lectures he gave a couple of years ago and was pretty impressed by his thesis. Now that the environmental drumbeat has become audible and even the most recalcitrant deniers of global climate change seem suddenly to have found out that there is truth to these rumours, his voice is one of those that is well worth paying attention to.
Wright is a historian whose first area of study was the Mayan civilizations in Central America. Although he started out by analyzing the downfall of the pre-Columbian civilizations to imperialist forces, over the course of time, he came to recognize that some of the Mayan civilizations collapsed under their own weight at the very height of their development. Just when they were building their greatest architectural marvels, they were destroying their environment--chopping down their forests, urbanizing their farmland, devoting their energy to overconsumption and useless megaprojects. This pattern, he observed, has repeated itself over the course of human civilization, at every step: the success of hunting, he says, brought about the end of hunting as a way of life. The arrival of human beings into virgin territory inevitably resulted in the extinction of many species, starting with the largest and easiest to hunt.
Of course, this self-destructive phenomenon has never before attained the proportions it has today, and it seems that almost everything about modern civilization is built around the foolish idea that the wasteful lives of consumption can not only be maintained in the rich countries, but exported to the rest of the world. Now those unwashed who have been holding the signs on the streetcorners that say, "Repent, for the end is nigh!" are suddenly looked upon as prophets. I must have heard the words religion and conversion tied in to environmentalism ten times last week.
I was not going to bother posting this, but I just happened across a couple of articles about current Christianity, at least in its evangelical manifestation. In an article about the upcoming Superbowl, The Church of Football, Robert Lipsyte quotes the infamous leader of America's "Moral Majority" Jerry Falwell saying, "Jesus was no sissy. He was tough, he was a he-man. If he played football, you'd be slow getting up after he tackled you."
Falwell hoped, apparently, that someday Notre Dame and Liberty, his evangelical college, would meet for the national championship, thus showing the nation that "the Christians are here, we're not meek and we're not going to fall down in front of you. We're here to stay." In another brilliant statement quoted by Lipsyte, Falwell says, "If ever you adopt a philosophy that winning is not important, it's how you play the game, you cop out. This is America. If you're not a winner it's your own fault."
Out of this develops Lipsyte's thesis, which is that football is the "real" religion of America, which replaces "Love your neighbour" with Lombardi's "Winning is not everything, it's the only thing." Rajo-guna religion if there ever was such a thing!
In 1955, Will Herberg wrote a significant book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, which greatly influenced the sociology of religion in the U.S.A. His argument was this: that in the USA, certain values had so imposed themselves on the society that they were accepted by all religious denominations. This consensus more or less rendered them indistinguishable from one another, or at least nothing more than variant forms of "Americanism." Peter L. Berger picked up on this in another influential book about the sociology of American religion called The Sacred Canopy: American values themselves are sacralized and mediated through secular rituals, and all religions have to compromise their claims to be the ultimate moral arbiters and bow to the symbols of the American nation. It would be dishonest to say that this does not happen anywhere, but the strength of it in the USA is powerfully evident to most visiting foreigners, even Canadians.
To make blanket statements about the religious groupings in the United States and political leanings is fraught with danger--as are all generalizations--but it is generally assumed that evangelical Christians support the right, even to extremes, while Catholics and Jews tend to be on the left. But what is interesting is the phenomenon of religious compromise and bandwagon jumping.
In a sense, this is inevitable, and we are all guilty in some way or another. We live in the world, and religion has the function of giving meaning and value to the lives we live. If our lives are dull and meaningless, religion will find a way of rationalizing that too as God's will. But religion also seeks power and success and piggybacks on that, too. Falwell's argument looks a lot to me like an evolved reaction to the critiques of Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer, about whom I said some things in the last post. Nietzsche laughed at Christians for their weak ways--imagine thinking that love was the solution to anything! "Be supermen!" He shouted at humanity, and got Christians thinking (again) that they should hold the strings of power. And so Falwell and his ilk are characterized by some as potential reincarnations of the Nazis in their desire to make the world fit for Christ's second coming. (See for instance Christianists on the March.)
And all this is tied in with consumerism and the consumer culture--the real religion of our age. Prabhupada said it, "Work hard and enjoy sense gratification." And the kapata religion justifies that: "Christ said he came to give life and give it more abundantly!" And just as every empire of the past had both its conquistadors and its padres, the American empire has its preachers of the consumerism gospel in outposts around the world.
Of course, I would not be doing justice to Christianity if I did not recognize the great many Christians of all denominations who recognize the vapidity of rampant consumerism, who recognize that God's giving man "dominion over the earth" did not mean that he was given freedom to rape it. Wright debunks the myth of native cultures living in harmony with Nature--many of them did not. But certainly the time has come to cast off the macho religion of world domination before it destroys us all.
We were taught in Krishna consciousness to live simply; it seems that life in the West trains us up to admire opulence and to feel like sinners if we do not become rich and ostentatiously parade our pecunia. This is a deep samskara. Gaura Keshava once said that in the West, we really have no choice but to transform our religion into one that justifies the "good life." A doctrine of austerity does not win converts in Svarga.
I personally don't believe that we all need to wear sackcloth or cover ourselves with vibhuti and live naked in the Himalayas, but it seems to me that the days of consumerism are nearing their end. Whatever religion we follow, we must adopt values that are commonsensical in the current situation--even those that have been pushed through by men and women of good will in every walk of life, whether atheist or belonging to another religion.