Acquisitiveness and Hyper-Entertainment As Fear of Death
It hardly needs to be said that the definition of "success" in this country is directly related to material acquisition. This notion of success goes back fundamentally to its Calvinist-Masonic roots(1), which hybrid-thing seems contradictory in any logical sense, but not in the American mythology which has emptied out much of the dogma in such roots in favor of transvalued meanings.
This new definition of success and the good life is seen everywhere: in our historical founding treatises with their individualistic emphasis, in the kaleidoscopic bombardment of the contemporary visual media, our hyper-entertainment; in countless technological images, memes and words; by blatant attacks on the goods of purity and the commandments, and by every means of positive and negative reinforcement that a nation dashing faster than the speed of thought can provide the herd, like Pavlovian dogs: awards galore, incoherent academic degrees, access for the initiates to the halls of power...
It is this all-embracing mythology which seduces, captures, shapes and bewilders the American psyche, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Religion in the United States, going back to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, et al, is in large part a syncretistic confusion of platitudes, worn with no little pride on the sleeve of the national identity, but seldom critically analyzed by its preachers and promoters. (And I should say up front that to attempt analysis of aspects of all this is not to fail to appreciate the positive aspects of the American political construction).
This becomes all the more interesting in our time as American politics and religion, especially since the 1980's, openly disdains the general philosophical agnosticism of its European allies. Europeans, even at this late date, still seem to take philosophy more seriously than we do---beyond platitudes at any rate--- and will either accept or reject a faith on its perceived merits; or bracket the matter if it cannot decide. It has yet to proclaim new gods or to generate a mythology beyond political realities. France with its Revolution following the American one tried, but soon gave up such extravagant notions.
America, on the other hand, seems more inclined to proudly worship a nebulous civic transcendence, consisting of many currents, a transcendence which makes room for all the gods (called simply 'God') in a kind of new imperial Pantheon, beyond theological scrutiny.
It is surprising then that Christians and adherents of other religions so readily acquiesce to the philosophy struck on every coin ("in God we trust"), for most of these religions on the basis of the law of contradiction and their own religious traditions reject any theologies which would dilute the dogmatic content of their personal beliefs, and subsume all religion into this unknown civic deity for whom people pledge their allegiance and, indeed, their very lives; and which is promoted in every way like a religious faith.
Materialism and the American "Dream"
It is precisely because the American religion can mean almost anything and everything, and owing historically to its Calvinist-Masonic (and later) Unitarian tributaries---which the American myth has absorbed, transvalued, and subsumed--- that materialism has by default become, above all else, a sign of divine approval and election. A civic "god" without analyzable dogmatic content must have something to show for itself, else it has no compelling attraction. Thus "success" becomes that goal, even if only some achieve it to the fullest. This has long been a very strong, steady, and potent current in the life of the country.
And it has devolved into an insulated individualism in our time which indulges endless new forms of entertainment so that we need hardly think much anymore, except for "practical" purposes. Why read, or ponder existence, truth, or virtue when we can lose ourselves in the technologically constructed 'realities' of our own choosing? Who cares that we are destroying the earth in the exploitation of its limited resources, to say nothing of our souls? People who are supposed to know ("social scientists") say it is inevitable "evolution" anyway, and good for the economy! What's not to like?
It is a powerfully enticing myth, which considers a certain agnostic distance from serious religious content to be crucial, even if it has its shadow sides. Just as Catholic missionaries have always risked life and limb to bring the Message of Jesus Christ to all nations, this new anti-Catholic myth (and anti-Catholicism has always been another very strong current in the national religion) has also summoned its own missionaries (too often armies) to do something similar, as this new "gospel" has pressed itself into many nations to "save" them; save them, one supposes, from themselves.
The Poor as Reprobate
Moreover, according to this schema of divine election, the poor must then be the reprobate who have only themselves to blame for their plight. They might be given a turkey at Thanksgiving, the national religious holiday (2), but otherwise they are left outside the Banquet Hall of the Elect.
This is not to say that the United States has not regularly contributed a very small part of its Gross National Product to poor countries, but it is difficult not to see this as a political-missionary endeavor with a view to enlarging the empire, or at least removing potential irritating obstacles.
Yet if the poor are disenfranchised, harassed, and blocked from view to the extent possible, they also represent the guilty conscience of the American psyche. While those "less fortunate" are carefully hidden except maybe at charity times, we know they are there. They surface at the most inconvenient times (e.g., Hurricane Katrina). We know that increasingly the poor and lower middle class are being forced to the unseen margins, living a desperate existence, unhoused (increasingly by design in urban planning), and / or let to die without health care.
McWorld has no place for them. And altrusistic impulses must be kept in check if the corporate rulers are to prosper. It is this greed and the extension of empire which is also at the root of so many wars, so much blood, to this very day.
Love and Death
Our Lord, after feeding the hungry crowd of 5,000 in the Gospel, urging the dignity of simplicity, and sharing with ones neighbor, said,
"Labor not for the food which perishes, but for that food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you." ---(John 6)
This, of course, is madness according to the literalist American caricatures of some of the the nation's most prominent founding "fathers" with their ideologic rival faith.
Reality Proceeds from God
The goal of the Christian is our eternal return to God who "so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16).
The early Christians astonished imperial Rome not just by their monotheism (i.e., one universe created by one God Almighty, not the multiverse of scientism based on some vague distant transcendence or atheism) but they were also known by their Christic altruism which is the opposite of that laissez faire spirit which would pit citizens and even family members against each other as fierce competitors. In the early Church the model is shown, pregnant with principle and Hope:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
This is far too "socialist" sounding for Neoconservatives---who see so many things in black and white laissez faire economic terms--- to focus on with any seriousness. But it is simply the Common Good wherein all, even the weakest, are viewed as family, sisters and brothers.
Because American civic religion is deliberately vague (not vague enough not to kill or die for however) it is "success," the "American Dream," the "free market" which should focus our minds, not all this Jesus talk. For American civic religion, as for Pontius Pilate, this is all impractical. Its understanding of virtue has all but been reduced in our day to 'wear a condom always, strive for "success" and you will be spoken of and remembered well'.
Death: The Uninvited Guest
Reality and the technologically constructed hyper-reality are at odds in another area: death and our spiritual preparation for it. Preparing for retirement is considered wise, but spiritual preparation for death? The culture of greed mocks it, except in the sense of estate planning; death is, rather, viewed as something the elites prefer not think about. This is a profound departure from the Christian faith. For virtue is what matters in the face of eternity, according to Jesus Christ, not the will to power, however Robespierre or Jefferson or Nietzsche would have it.
But death focuses us back on Reality; the reality of our contingency (i.e., the fact that we did not create ourselves and could die at any moment) the knowledge of which afflicts even the most "successful" of human beings when they put their heads on their pillows at night once the many opiates of the culture have worn off (3). Because we are contingent, the saints tell us to prepare, to be ready, lest we are called by God in the very heat of our rebellions. This is why Jesus admonished us to labor not, in the spiritual sense, for things which are passing and not ultimate.
"The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.' But God said to him, "Fool! This very night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ "So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” ---Luke 12:16-21 (emphasis mine)
This is why Jesus also said,
"Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you."
Give! not for gain or favor, but out of love for our fellow creatures. With the same measure we measure it will be measured back. Only in giving is death met without fear, as the kiss of the Beloved.
The human person, being capable of reflecting on his own contingent, precarious, existence, knows with certainty that death awaits, even as s/he tries often to repress the fact or escape from it. This however is to fall for the Serpent's lie that transgression should makes us like gods (Genesis 3:1-10).
In Death as a Constant Companion the American Existentialist philosopher-psychologist, Rollo May, says,
"We run away from death by making a cult of automatic process or by making it impersonal. Many people think they are facing death when they are really side-stepping it with the old “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die”—middle-aged men and women who want to love everybody, go every place, do everything, and hear everything before the end comes. It is like the advertising slogan “If I have only one life…let me live it as a blonde...The clamour of sex drowns out the ever-waiting presence of death…Death is the symbol of ultimate impotence and finiteness. What would we see if we cut though our obsession[s]? That we must die.”
Materialism seems to distract us from this fact at times; but in the end it is a futile distraction. Only the Creator of the universe can tell us the meaning and end of creation, which is our meaning and end.
Created beings had reason to expect that the Creator of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega, would reveal Himself to His own creation, and it is the received teaching of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh (Jn 1:14), that this expectation has not been disappointed.
The scripture says, "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this comes the judgment" (Heb 9:27). Every human being who has ever lived has kept this appointment. For contingency follows the flow of Reality, even against one's will.
We must render an account. Life is not an absurd merry-go-round. It is folly not to think of death and what we have made of our lives, and it is folly not to seek forgiveness for our sins.
Jesus said, "Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls." (Matthew 11:28-30)
How we need His rest! Can the America project be saved? It is possible as with all nations, if under pressure of its own errors it turns away from its messianic mythology and contents itself with being simply a Republic, respecting Catholic wisdom, elect in nothing of itself, yet called, as all are, to put aside greed in the interests of the common good under the Holy Trinity, and if it begins teaching Catholic virtues again, instead of systematically mocking them. For transgression is its own cancer which eats away at us until we collapse in spiritual death. This happens to nations as well as persons. Ancient Rome is the most obvious lesson. The Catholic Faith spiritually conquered the ancient Roman empire remember, and she can do it here if God allows time to go on. We need to be ready to pick up the pieces after the Hard Rain falls. Pope John Paul II said a society will be judged by how it treats its weakest citizens, from conception to natural death, and by how it regards virtue. Then there is this timeless truth:
We must repeat with the utmost energy in these times of social and intellectual anarchy when everyone takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker - the City cannot be built otherwise than as God has built it; society cannot be setup unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City---Pius X, Our Apostolic Mandate, 1910
(1)There were obviously other currents including explicitly Christian ones, but both historical Predestinarian Puritanism / Calvinism and Enlightenment Freemasonry were, despite their differences, dominant since each included an inherent sense of destiny in their world views which contributed to the distinctly messianic American notion of Manifest Destiny wherein American "freedom" was seen with missionary zeal to be exportable, the destiny of the world, following the American divine triumph. The Enlightenment defined "freedom" as "freedom from religious dogma" (See Kant's essay, "What is Enlightenment?")
(2) Christmas on the other hand---with its Christocentric preferential love for the poor as among Christianity's highest virtues--- has increasingly become a "problem" for American civic religion on account of its theological content, which, despite all the persecutions through history, has shown an astonishing tenacity; Christmas represents a rival faith vis a vis the new Pantheon, even if many (especially Fundamentalist) Christians are loathe to acknowledge it, except at times where the tensions become most acute. But the courts have steadily rendered such protests of little consequence, even when compromising.
(3) See George Soros' The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the war on Terror Public Affairs Books, 2006, Pg 41 in the chapter "the Problem of Death". Soros, a financial speculator, stock investor, philanthropist and political activist, is also something a philosopher. He confesses starkly in this book his anxiety in the face of death which he has experienced from an early age, and now especially at age 75, but suggests death must be annihilation which, he says, only makes sense when one's passions are completely spent so that one no longer cares. He worries openly, though, that he still has passions left (some of them noble) and could be overtaken by death before then.