The Gods of the Moment

IN the constant discussions about the failure of Christianity to function in the modern world, there is a usual assumption that the typical man of the moment has no religion to speak of. Therefore, it is said, either the Christian Church must be unusually stupid or its message must be hopelessly outgrown. Otherwise it would surely appeal winningly to these spiritually hungry souls. This seems a curious delusion. Our world is not spiritually empty. We are absorbed in sacrifice to gods which seem to us rich and satisfying. We may conceivably be devotionally poisoned, but we are not spiritually starved. In point of fact, some of us are becoming positively fed up. It may be that in this last circumstance alone lies ultimately the chance for Christ and Christianity.

A professor of sociology asked me not long ago if I had ever noted that the Christian religion has usually made strong appeal only to rural, simple, and Arcadian peoples or else to those who were urbane, sophisticated, and disillusioned. The more one thinks about this interesting generalization, the more nearly true it seems. ‘Observe,’ he went on, ‘the day into which your religion was born. Compared with it every succeeding age seems a bit crude. Into its making had gone centuries of Greek thought, Egyptian mysticism, and Roman political efficiency. Travel was easy and general. The externalities of life were highly civilized. Men were mature, wise, shrewd. They had tried almost everything once. This blasé order in almost no time was worshiping a new god nailed to a gibbet. But before it found that new god the old gods had been tried out and discarded.’

‘You mean Pan?’ I ventured.

‘Pan? No!’ he thundered. ‘The Grreco-Roman world was not pagan, had not been for centuries. To be a pagan one must be a poet. I mean the gods worshiped by successful citizens of the world with common sense. It was these which had been found nonsensical. A world very grown up gave the Apostles their chance. But,’ he concluded, ‘Jesus has no appeal to a new civilization. Its deities are more obvious.’

Whatever may be the faults or virtues of our social order, no one can deny that it is new — and that not merely in America. Every summer hundreds of thousands of our countrywomen and a somewhat less number of our countrymen sail to the Old World in search of lost romance. Since most of them rush about so rapidly that they see Europe not as it is but of necessity as their imaginations make it, perhaps they gain the desired emotional release. They see the Tower and Westminster Abbey, but rarely Brixton or Manchester. They visit Eisenach or steam down the Rhine, but never notice the Ruhr. They are so absorbed in Potsdam that they fail to observe industrial Berlin. They see Rome in terms of the Cæsars, Florence in terms of the Medici, and Venice in terms of the Doges; and ignore the industrialism of Mussolini. They look the Parthenon over and overlook modern Athens. The real Europe of to-day is not old or urbane, but almost as young and crude as we ourselves. The culture that grew through the ages has, for good or evil, been paralyzed by the power machine. Our social structure, in philosophy, motivation, and method, is only about a century old. Our Occidental culture is indeed new.

We are also new-rich. Despite the wasteful riot of the war, it remains true that even in Europe the thing that would most astonish one who might rise from the grave of a past generation and look about him to-day would be the astounding wealthiness of everybody. If the resurgent soul saw America, this feature of life would strike him deaf, dumb, and stupefied. Never was a time when so many people had so much money.

New-rich ages are apt to be like new-rich individuals. Indeed ‘an age,’ ‘a civilization,’ ‘a period,’ are all merely ways of talking. The reality lies in the constituent individuals. We as a new-rich culture are making the same two characteristic blunders that the new-rich always make. Almost every man who very rapidly makes a great deal of money supposes that his mere possession of wealth is an index of his worth. He also is apt to imagine that he can with his means buy for himself happiness. These mistakes commonly seem folly to an oldrich man, one who was born to property, whose father was bred with it. He knows that merely because he or his friends have it they may not be worth it, but are quite commonly the contrary; and he has learned through experience that money is not really very valuable stuff. Happiness, which is what all men desire, cannot be purchased, but is an illusive something not for sale. The old-rich know these things well enough, but the new-rich never discover them, except by miraculous interposition of the grace of God, until they too have grown accustomed to their possessions.

Ours is an age of new-rich people, crass, crude, well-washed, all dressed up, sure that certain easily perceived goods will make life full and satisfying, and ready to pay heavily for their attainment. It is unintelligent to call such an age godless. A god is a way of talking about a good. We may not propitiate our gods adequately in words; but we sacrifice to them our lives and our children. For what more can any gods ask? Ours are not new gods. We are not really an original or imaginative people. Our deities are very, very old. The Christian Church ought not to find them very puzzling. She has been dealing with our pantheon so long that she has stereotyped names for those who sit upon its altars. We worship the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. To say this is not to be a bigot or a Fundamentalist or a Puritan or a Victorian or a mediævalist or any other dreadful bogieman. It is merely to describe, calmly and with charity, in terms of motivation, our scrambling hurly-burly of a century.

By the World, Christianity has always meant, not the glorious creation of sea and field and mountain and sky, not the beautiful relationships of men and women and children in homes or in creative labor, but rather the sordid nonsense of supposing that externalities possessed ennoble the owners, that a full fist is index of a fine spirit. That this egregious nonsense is believed today, that for the most part we sacrifice to it ourselves and our progeny, needs little demonstration. A casual perusal of some of our most widely circulated periodicals will reveal it. Therein and from our daily press and over the radio — sometimes, one regrets to say, in the pulpit, too — sound forth the beating of the big bass drum and the blare of the trumpet in glorification of the man with money. All the wealthy are good, and all good little boys will be wealthy. Beauty, quiet, serenity, poise, a sense of humor — let us sell them all and purchase this pearl of great price, the Cash. It would take a man incurably sentimental to deny that we are worldly.

Most of us are. Some of us are getting a little tired of it. This moneyworship, this kowtowing to the successful man, — by which we mean the wealthy man, — seems not so much wicked as merely a bore. To none does it seem more wearisome than to many a wealthy man, tired of being regarded as a perambulating pocketbook, lonesome for human affection. Some of us are becoming at least a little bit like Saint Francis. We have not quite the courage to embrace Our Lady Poverty; but we find Our Lady Riches a most unstimulating spouse.

Our second deity is the Flesh. Her worship among us takes two forms — the apotheosis of appetite and the cult of comfort.

All appetites are mighty, says our modern world, and to be sacrificed unto; but chief of all the appetites is sex. We are so naïvely delighted in having discovered that the Eternal made us male and female that we sometimes seem to be forgetting that He made us anything else. Our stage, our music, our dancing, our books and magazines, our billboards, our dress, strike strenuously the note of sex appeal. We positively rejoice in nudity and naughtiness. The advertising sections of our most popular periodicals contain columns of advice to women about how, for a small sum, they may become beautiful and fascinating enough to attract male attention. Occasionally there is an advertisement telling men how to become handsome and garrulous enough to be popular with women. We have even devised a popular moral philosophy based upon the supposition that if one refuses to submit to his appetites he will contract a dread horror known as ‘a complex’ and be in danger of the madhouse. Of course no reputable psychiatrist gives any such advice to his clients; but we go for our psychology not to him but to the editor of the tabloid newspaper and the erudite creator of spicy fiction. Increasingly we are soaked in sex; and the people love to have it so.

But not all of us. There are those, some older in years, and many not so old, in whom imagination supplies the place of experience, who have arrived a little beyond the peep-show morbidity of adolescence. We do not yet, perhaps, embrace the way of the Virgin, but we find Astarte very stale.

As for comfort, we twentieth-century people are soothingly immersed in it. Ours is a steam-heated, well-lighted, cunningly upholstered, warm-bathed era. With almost incredible ingenuity we ward off the bumps, plane the sharp corners, ‘escalate’ the heights. From twilight-sleep birth to narcotized death we insist upon ease. It is that without which all else is intolerable. Only to exceptional people has it yet occurred that the whole cult is petty, ignoble, unworthy of human nature. Few have as yet asked whether it can be possible that, since our primeval ancestors millions of years ago crawled from the slime of the sea, first the animal world and then the human race have struggled on, at the cost of pain and travail and tears and death, merely that we may sit down and be comfortable. There are some who are in revolt against this enervating softness, demanding hard things to be endured, crying out for a god who loves not padding; but they are few. The last of the greater gods is the Devil. It does not matter much how we picture this demonic deity; whether or not we think there is actually such a person. In the Devil, religion presents the epitome of pride. In the old legend Satan, for pitting his small brain and will against the infinite intelligence of the Omnivolent, was expelled by Michael’s host from the courts of heaven, whereupon he came down to vex the gullible citizens of earth. It is hardly arguable that, if Satan is the personification of conceit, ours is an age of Devil-worshipers.

The cult of cleverness is so developed that often one prays fervently that one may meet a man contentedly dull. Like those proud ancients, the Greeks, we are exceedingly witty and almost wholly void of humor. The difference between the two is that the witty man is conceited and the humorous man is humble. See, also, what we have done with æsthetic criticism. It should be in the hands of reverent men who realize that in estimating the arts they are criticizing those activities whereby man would clamber from the beasts to play among the gods; but we have given it over predominantly to groups of clever young persons who in avowedly clever weekly papers attempt as cleverly as possible to talk about one another’s cleverness. Most serious of all, what can be said about that which passes for the scientific method of arriving at truth save that it too lacks the saving salt of sane humility? The reference is not to the thought and activity of the dwellers on the scientific Olympus, but to that more characteristic phenomenon, science as understood by the man of the street, the man who says, ‘I will believe in nothing which I cannot understand and prove,’ and thinks that thereby he has shown himself the soul of modern wisdom. Who would live in a world so petty as to be understandable by the human mind? No real scientist. No man blessed with a sense of humor. Nobody not demoniacally possessed. It is the things beyond the intellect which make life worth while, which engender poetry, romance, awe, reverence. Our day minimizes these elements of life, content more and more to live within the dull limitations of the understanding. And some of us, a bit sophisticated, have found that petty world grotesque. We have begun to laugh.

The twentieth century is sacrificing itself to goods and appetite and comfort and conceit. As long as it continues to do so, as long as these seem satisfying ends to its new, crude, and suddenly wealthy citizens, it is unlikely that any more subtle religion can make much headway. Jesus of Nazareth is an enigma to the moment. Occasionally we find somebody trying to dress up the Christ in modern terms, presenting him as a go-getter, a country-clubber, a master of advertising psychology. There is no god but our gods. We will make Jesus into our image. Popular though this sort of thing may be, it is of course not Christianity. Whatever else Jesus may mean, he is, in historical religion at any rate, the antithesis of all that our day deems most worth. He is poor when we would be rich. He seems to regard chastity as normal and healthy. To him comfort matters little one way or the other. He is the incarnation of humility. It can hardly be expected that he should be the chosen god of an adolescent civilization intent upon the hungry search for superficiality.

Christianity must wait for a slowly emerging maturity and urbanity. There are those who, wearied with strident clamor about nothing, repelled by the clash of battle for things of no particular moment, have, usually by chance, discovered Jesus as he hangs alone upon his silent crucifix. He is poor, not because he is too weak to gain wealth, but because his strength is needed elsewhere. He is chaste, not because he is too emasculated to feel the pull of passion, but because that passion has been sublimated into something which includes the soul. He is emancipated from slavery to luxury and ease. He is humble, not because he is too ignorant to be proud, but because he is infinitely too wise. We have adored, as our fathers adored, and we have to our own astonishment discovered that in the light of that adoration the modern world is like a pageant produced by rude mechanicals. Reality lies elsewhere, at an altar where Jesus gives to disillusioned souls a peace which is not as the world gives. As civilization grows more experienced, there will be more and more such persons. Meanwhile, it is absurd to expect Christianity to appeal to the modern world. Can babies know beauty?