Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Though we may pride our nation for its foundational principles of equality among all human beings and a mutual respect for and among all persons so implied — at least in theory — practice and experience show this challenging to achieve. Though division and intolerance may seem of late to be on the rise, and disunity a sign of the times, the seeds of disharmony may have been planted earlier in our national history than we often imagine.

Friends and families feel the pressure and tension of contradictory views of humanity that grip the nation, indeed the world, with many ideological and political polarities, lacking any surety of a saving commonality that promises peace. Allegiance to one’s passions or convictions is so tightly held these days that silencing is the only peace offered the challenger: play by my rules or shut up.

Absent a common reference point — only a confident ignorance about one’s own righteousness — the tyranny of the ego has usurped the sovereignty of God. As a result, we have not one, but too many gods, too many idols, each claiming influence and loyalty. When everyone is right from their own point of view there is no common ground for order. Basically, might makes right, that is, the power to assert one’s interests and enforce one’s claims based on nothing else than the passion for one’s own holy cause.

This is a posture historically featured in religious persecutions, evocative of various cultural revolutions and the worst atrocities of the Inquisition and the Crusades, backed by retributive violence and the sword. Sadly, this domestic and universal strife seeps into our church communities as well where words, traditionalist and progressive, take on exclusionary connotations. Who and for whom we are is superseded by what and whom we are against.

The breeding ground for this view of the human person as an individual who is, as it were, a law unto oneself, was actually present in some of the religious views our founders held. While they may have averred that a Creator started the engine and put Nature’s laws into action, the deity was not deemed to be actively engaged in human affairs.

In keeping with this Deist theology, Thomas Jefferson himself was impressed by the figure of Jesus as a moral teacher and an outstanding human being, but saw little use in affirming his divinity. He even edited a Christian bible so as to expunge all apparent supernatural references. One looked to Jesus, in his perspective, as a model, not a savior. In short, morality or ethical living, is primarily an individual venture, a self-product.

Religion in American culture had always been seen as, by and large, a private matter. Congregations and churches may have served to provide community services and a sense of social solidarity, but dogma, doctrine and belief were not the substance of public discourse. Many people of faith are alarmed by surveys showing a sharp decline in public religious observance and affiliation with “organized” or “institutional” religion. What is not being polled so much is the strong passion and even violent conviction with which people, especially the young, are asserting their beliefs with a zealotry often attributed to religious fanatics.

The question may not be so much, what religion do you belong to, as what god (cause? theory?) do you arise and organize for. By “god” I would include any idol or ideology, not necessarily supernatural, as in the case of belief in transcendental beings and forces, like angels and devils (Satanism), but a movement or ideal, group or individual, for whom one might give or sacrifice just about everything else.

It is no secret, that some of our contemporaries live, quite literally, for money (material wealth), power (political, star or seductive), fame and praise, or sensual gratification (food, sex, drugs, etc.). This is an ancient spectrum of human desires, often called paganism. What all have in common is a worldview that recognizes no reality beyond the material. It would be, I think, less than accurate, and maybe a bit arrogant to dismiss them all as purely atheistic. Each has a “god” or ultimate reality, but that reality is not a being outside of their own desires who has its own reality. There is no sense of transcendence or the mystical.

We live in a culture where there are actually too many “gods,” too many altars on which human lives offer themselves and even their children perhaps, believing in perceived earthly goods for which life may be worth living for a while. For some that “god” or good might be freedom from or the absence of pain. If that be the goal, then the end of one’s own life — or the elimination of inconveniences, including certain sentient beings — might even be desirable. Suicides are on the rise.

Many people, of course, do believe there is a transcendent God — or gods — with a reality beyond themselves or their own imagination, who has a claim to be acknowledged, adored and worshipped, even loved. The way a culture or society views and esteems its god has enormous consequences for its sociopolitical order — or lack thereof.

Right now, our culture does not know one God, but many gods, often unique (tailored?) to each person. Can all these gods be true? It is difficult to envision how we can be or become “One People” if our understanding about what ultimately matters is so divergent. We will likely continue to fragment and disperse into our parallel diversities, our universes limited by the range of our self-defined passions and “identities.” Some call this a reversion to tribalism in which our sense of who we are is defined by ever smaller, ever tighter clans or gangs.

Jewish and Christian perspectives are different. “The Israelite conception of God is fiercely monotheistic and hence it excludes any diversity or syncretism at the level of basic belief,” Bishop Robert Barron recently wrote. Joseph Ratzinger, he adds, once commented that the opening line of the Nicene Creed, Credo in Unum Deum (“I believe in one God”), is a subversive statement because it automatically rules out any rival claimant to ultimate concern.

In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus prayed that we may be one as he is one, he and the One he calls Father, whom Christians, with Jesus, address as “Our Father.” We still do, perhaps nostalgically and somewhat euphemistically, think of ourselves as “One Nation Under God.” If taken seriously, this has enormous consequences for a sociopolitical order — or the lack thereof.