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When a writer
criticizes "radical individualism and cultural corrosion," and advocates a return to "a new communitarianism" that replaces "me thinking" with "we thinking," I read on with suspicion. In most cases, I discover that the author's religious faith, which is often not made explicit, decisively informs his or her worldview. Such is the case with The American Paradox--although I should be fair by noting that the author does acknowledge that his "sympathies...are colored by... religious faith" (xiv).
I was not surprised, therefore, by the author's recommendation that today's churches, like monastic communities in the so-called "Dark Ages," "...can serve as outposts of truth, decency, and civilization in the darkening culture around us" (276). And I was not surprised to read statements like this: "Although people of faith, as part of their culture, are often captive to their culture's norms-to individualism and materialism in contemporary America-it was people of faith who built hospitals, brought hope to prisoners, and spread literacy" (276). But Myers neglects to mention that people of faith have also been captive to-and indeed determinative of-other societal norms, advocating slavery (which has been supported using biblical sources), the non-personhood of women, and the torture and execution of "witches" (among others). History also bears out the fact that "people of faith" have often been less the transformers of societies and cultures than mirrors of their existing values, values that did not always include a belief in the equality of all persons or in any of the democratic ideals which we now regard as inviolable and non-negotiable. Religion and society have, in fact, always existed in a mutually dependent feedback loop, each influencing and reinforcing-but not necessarily challenging-the other. For example, the current head of the Roman Catholic church is officially opposed to capital punishment and has made a point of attempting to influence death-penalty cases in the U.S. and around the world. However, for most of its history the Roman church, along with most societies both western and non-western, has been not only a supporter of capital punishment, but has itself actively employed it. Did the Roman church cease to support the practice of execution because the tide was already turning in influential societies around the world? Or did societies begin to reconsider their use of execution because of a change in stance by the church? (The latter option, reflecting the church's decisive influence on society, is what the church would have us believe.) Religious and spiritual values do not exist in a sovereign, autonomous realm independent of culture. Thus, promoting a return to religious and spiritual values as a remedy for the contemporary North American "social recession" and spiritual impoverishment is a rather hollow, question-begging proposal.
The American Paradox is essentially a book of religious apologetics, one that advocates a certain brand of religious values, written under the guise of social psychology. The author, David G. Myers, is a professor and researcher at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. The "paradox" in the title refers to the fact that America's material prosperity seems to have produced "more spiritually deprived, unhappy and depressed people than ever before." The accumulation of wealth that is so much a part of the American dream doesn't bring about the "good life," and the book links the economic and technological expansion that has occurred in the latter part of the last century with a simultaneous burgeoning of divorce and crime, and a simultaneous decline of morality, civility, and community values. The same "prosperity" that brings with it more material possessions and comforts than ever before is linked to the mushrooming rates of clinical depression. "Society has becomes more materialistic since 1960," Myers explains. "Research tells us that people who have the most materialistic values, those for whom the purpose of life seems to be to accumulate things, live with less happiness than those who have more spiritual values." Myers fails to recognize, however, that historically the individuals in any society who could afford to be materialistic usually were. Wealthy people have always shopped recreationally and owned more possessions than they needed or could use. A visit to the United Kingdom, for instance, reveals a host of palatial and sumptuous residences (now open for public viewing), which house a mind-boggling quantity of treasures. Only a small number of people could afford such lifestyles, however. English society between the 16th-19th century was, therefore, ostensibly less materialistic because the acquisition of material goods beyond bare necessities simply wasn't an option for most people. Today, mass-production allows many, many more people to purchase more than they need for mere survival. We are more materialistic because more of us can be. This apparent growth of materialism is not the result of a change in human nature, but in a change in the circumstances surrounding production of goods and buying power.
As the previous example illustrates, Myers, like many advocates of a role for religion in the public forum, promotes an idealistic and a-historical view of what religious values have accomplished. On page 266, he asserts that all major contemporary religions have "transcendence of material concerns" as a "common core." But even a superficial knowledge of history reveals that the pursuit of wealth and religious convictions are not mutually exclusive. Rather, religious leaders have tended to dictate who may and may not accumulate it, under what conditions, and by what means. By contrast, the element of the community of believers that has usually been required to "transcend" its material concerns has been the laypeople--those without authority in the religious community.
Arguing against individualism puts a writer on a slippery slope. In response to such a proposal, one must always press the question of who, precisely, will be empowered to determine the preferred, "communitarian" values. When an individual or group advocates a greater role for religious values in the public forum, they seldom make explicit whose religious values will prevail. In secular, pluralistic societies, who gets to determine what brand of religious values will be decisive? Moreover, "religious values" themselves are not uniform and absolute. If Christian religious values, for example, are to determine society's moral core, the next question that must be addressed is which variety of Christian values? Roman Catholic? If so, should the prevailing values be those of the Roman hierarchy, or of groups within the church calling for reform? Should the dominant values be those of some variety of Christian fundamentalism, or of a "liberal" Protestant denomination? The idea of "religious" or "spiritual" values is itself too nebulous to be at all meaningful. Religions may, in theory, share a common set of moral codes, but the specific, concrete codes of behavior enjoined by different religions vary widely, as do moral positions among variant branches of the same religion. The official stance of the Roman Catholic church prohibits the use of artificial birth control. It regards this as a moral stance, one that would, in an ideal world, be absolutely enforced. Other Christian denominations have no such ban. And a liberal Protestant denomination might have fewer objections to pre-marital cohabitation than an evangelical one. Many Christian, Jewish and Muslim parents regard religious day-schooling for their children as essential for their religious and moral development. Others regard the support of inclusive, public schools as a moral duty and the only truly socially-responsible choice. Are these variations an indication of moral relativism or a capitulation to rampant individualism? Or is it the product of a different line of moral reasoning?
It is not surprising that Myers is critical of what he calls "private and self-defined" spirituality. Most Americans today, he notes, "...believe that people can be good Christians or Jews alone, apart from any church or synagogue" (288). He continues, "Such do-it-yourself piety is not only thinner-less likely to yield compassionate action-it also has contributed to the decline of traditional denominations..." The latter observation is certainly true, but the former charge, that piety apart from an organized base is less likely to produce compassionate action, is completely unfounded. It is also not surprising that Myers is also very critical of "new age" spiritual activity. People are naturally hungry for the transcendent (262), he states, and in the presence of a "spiritual vacuum" may "grasp at...bizarre phenomena that seemingly defy science." Like the belief that a first-century Jewish preacher rose from the dead, perhaps? Or the claim that bread and wine are transformed in their actual substance into the body and blood of this risen Jewish preacher? Who determines what is bizarre and what is not?
As for how we might "winnow spiritual truth from irrational nonsense," Myers advocates a "...scientific approach long ago advocated by Moses for testing self-proclaimed prophets: 'If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true,' then so much the worse for the prophet" (263). This method advocated by Moses (whom Myers refers to as if his historical existence and actions were a given fact) would not be kind to either Jesus or Paul, both of whom preached, among other things, the imminent end of the world. Nor would such a standard bode well for various claims concerning the power of the Christian sacraments to sanctify believers. Like many believers, Myers sets a standard for other belief systems that his own could not fulfill. On page 264, he addresses "the gap between New Age and biblical spirituality." "Biblical spirituality," he asserts, "has cultivated a scientific attitude (emphasis mine) by advocating humility and by its skepticism of any self-important human authority" (265). The contention that the bible cultivates a scientific attitude about anything is, at best, a point that must be substantiated. What is more, an attitude of true humility is not cultivated by religionists, whose beliefs can be neither proved nor disproved and are not swayed by any observable, verifiable evidence, but by natural scientists, whose theories are subject to change based on evidence that must be replicated and corroborated. Finally, it is a perceptible fact that the great majority of religions are very far from cultivating skepticism of human authority. But Myers isn't fundamentally interested in commonplace realities that can be observed.
Myers choice of social role models is a little frightening. "Unlike America, where 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease,' in Japan 'the nail that stands out gets pounded down'" (169). Now there's a goal worth pursuing. Japan is an example of "collectivist culture," one in which confrontation, blunt honesty, and boasting are avoided, and in which members "defer to others, and display a self-effacing humility." Japanese culture surely has many things to recommend it. It is also an almost completely homogenous society that cultivates ferocious competition among its school children and slavish devotion corporate employers, and that demands intense levels of conformity. Thus, the ability of North Americans to "chart their own goals and separate from their parents" is strange to "Asian collectivists," says Myers, "whose parents more actively guide or decide their children's choices...So close is the mutual identification of parent and child that the crushed parents of an errant child seldom discuss their feelings of shame" (170). Is this the model that Myers would have us strive for? In another astonishing statement, Myers refers to China's one-child policy as an illustration of what can be accomplished "when social consciousness awakens and a culture redefines its values and priorities (58-59)." This is an outrageous declaration for a self-professed Christian given the impact this policy has had on often unwanted baby girls-the luckiest of whom are placed in orphanages and, irony of ironies, adopted by North American families. More poignantly, Myers, the committed Christian, seems to forget the impact the policy has had on the selective abortion of perfectly healthy fetuses for no other reason than their gender. And the policy's dependence on a coercive, totalitarian regime for its enforcement seems not to have occurred to him at all. "Where there is a cultural will, there is a way," he concludes. Indeed. And no more so when a government has absolute authority to impose its will. An individual with no religious affiliations or pretensions could get away with making statements praising the efficiency of China's one-child policy (although this is rather like praising Mussolini for making the trains run on time). A self-professed Christian cannot. But Myers' zeal for "communitarian" values, coupled with the muddled thinking that often plagues even very bright religiously-committed academics, leads him to make the most contrary and even ridiculous assertions.
It's too bad, because many of the issues Myers aims to discuss and illuminate are important ones, in particular, the often high level of disconnect between material affluence and happiness. But in a society as pluralistic and as committed to democratic principles as that of North America, the only values that can be brought to bear on the entire society are those that can be arrived at through a process of consensus-building. Believers in different traditions, and even those within the same traditions, will never agree on basic issues concerning the nature of revelation, proper modes of interpretation, and the identity and role of human authorities. More essentially still, religious claims and values, since they are in their very essence non-negotiable, cannot be included in the kind of unrestrained discussion and consensus-building that is fundamental in a highly diverse, secular, democratic society. Myers' identification of certain problems and challenges existing in North American society has some validity and merit. His proposed solutions do not.
© 2001 Naomi Gold Naomi Gold is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Toronto School of Theology. Her dissertation discusses and critiques the way in which psychoanalytic object-relations theory has been used by theologically-committed analytic writers to validate theological belief systems. She has degrees in theology and religious studies, and has an active interest in the history and development of "New Age" religion, religious cults, and the psychology of religious belief.