March 9, 2012

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Faith in God helps us to rise above self-interest

Cynthia DewesFor a long time now, I've thought that many of the societal problems we face today are due to the decline of religion in our culture. Apparently, I'm not the only one as I discovered recently while reading a review of a new book by Alain de Botton titled Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion.

The book claims that worldly and material success is now the most important value in our society. People are defined by the nature of their work, and by what they gain from it in money or status. When they meet others, their first question is, "What do you do?" and the answer immediately assigns a degree of value to them which may or may not demand respect.

De Botton may not be religious, but he realizes that material success should not be the arbiter of who we are. His thesis is that people today have lost the sense of community, found in religion, which assures us of our worth, no matter what. He thinks we might regain this community by secular means, using religious "techniques." And he praises the Catholic Church for employing these ideas so well.

He admires the Church's use of a special setting for the community, as in the church building itself, and says most churches are "sumptuous" in their beauty and thus attractive to us. He likes the "rules" of a liturgy which order our behavior at Mass, and presumably our inner order as well. And he considers the Roman Missal a clever rule book for the occasion.

Unlike the wider society, the Church embraces people of every age, sex, race, education, class or economic level. De Botton hopes that creating a secular community similar to the all-embracing religious kind will help society to improve its character. People will be judged, not by their income or whatever, but by their intrinsic value as human beings.

De Botton identifies the agape (love) feast of early Christians, which led eventually to the eucharistic meal at Mass, as the very heart of the religious community. He suggests the re-creation of such an agape meal in a secular setting known as an "agape restaurant." There, folks would be seated with strangers on an equal basis, and encouraged to socialize and learn what's really important about each other.

This seems to me a noble idea, but it has a fatal flaw called human nature. Self-interest has been the human condition ever since the Original Sin. The reason that the eucharistic meal creates community is not because of beautiful buildings or liturgical rules or socializing or even joyful meals, although they certainly contribute to it.

Rather, it's because the Mass is a connection with God. It's the place that we go to share with fellow believers the hope of heaven and the inspiration to follow God's will in opposition to what our human nature urges. We do this by sharing in the mysterious nourishment of the Eucharist.

Without faith in God, self-interest is the only reasonable way to live. As sorry as I am to disappoint him, I believe that de Botton's feeling that our society's values are wrong comes from his innate religious sense. It's that inner longing to be whole, that nagging voice in our hearts that we all have, whispering to us what is good and what should be.

Whether de Botton believes it or not, it's that darn Hound of Heaven at work again.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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