February 3, 2013

Sunday thought, a day late...

Father Dwight, Materialism, Manicheanism and the Matrix:

(This IS Sunday, to be sure, but I was writing this a day late a few weeks ago. That's my life lately. Running to catch up, never succeeding.)

...The paradox is that as our popular culture has become increasingly sensual, opulent and materialistic, our religion has become more barren, dumbed down and bland. This tendency for everything in church to be big and bland is not just that we’re trying to do religion on the cheap. We’re doing it on the cheap because there is a creeping Manicheanism in the church.

Manicheanism is the belief that the physical world is sinful. Our bodies are dirty and sinful. Sex is always dirty and sinful. Wealth is dirty and sinful. The material world is dirty and sinful. Manichee taught that we must rise above the physical and become spiritual. Underlying much of American Catholicism is this same belief–a kind of strange, below the radar Puritanism. We’re guilty of a subtle and weird form of hypocrisy. We load up our lives with as many rich and lush experiences as possible. Our homes are palaces. Our vacations are luxurious outlays of self indulgence. We spoil our kids, we spoil ourselves. The average suburban American middle class person eats and lives at a level of luxury and opulence a Roman emperor would be impressed with, but  when it comes to religion we do it on the cheap.

I don’t think this is simply because we are ungenerous, but because we really do think that somehow our religion is the  place where we “do austerity” for an hour every week because we have this idea that we should all be poor Franciscans, and that the Catholic religion is otherworldly and poor and that being Catholic means we should be against all that expensive stuff and against pleasure and so the church should be like a bare auditorium–just a place to meet in before we go out into the world.

So, on the one hand, we live like princes, but expect the Prince of Peace to live like a pauper. We distrust the physical aspect of our religion, and this is evidenced not just by the cheap, barren architecture, but also by the sentimental, tacky music, the polyester vestments, the fake electric candles and the felt banners with cliched slogans....

The Church should be sexy. Not in the sense of illicit pleasures, but in the way strong, handsome and lively people spread an aura of warmth and charm and delight. We are exceedingly lucky that our parish has none of those tacky things listed in the last paragraph. Still, there is a sense that life's really exciting and fizzy moments will happen elsewhere.

(Here's a shot of our church, St Dominic's, San Francisco. The Prince of Peace is not treated like a pauper here, but nothing like this could be built today. This is the main entrance, with the choir loft above.) St Dominic's Church, San Francisco

WORD NOTE: I think it should be Manichæism, not Manicheanism...

Posted by John Weidner at February 3, 2013 6:43 PM

I've always thought that Manichæism necessarily had Gnostic aspect....

Posted by: mysterian at February 5, 2013 7:33 PM

It's an old heresy, Mysterian. Our bodies are wicked and polluted but our spirit is pure. Our spirits are drawn upward while our bodies are drawn down to base matter.

Posted by: Terry at February 6, 2013 11:03 PM

Gnosticism is the heresy that there is secret religious knowledge passed on just to a special few. But Gnosticism is often combined with a Manichæan worldview. The Gnosis will enable one to ascend to a higher, more spiritual plane, above the dreck of the material world.

"New Age-ism" fits this pattern.

Posted by: John Weidner at February 7, 2013 9:53 AM
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