Marc Etlin: Do we really want to return to the monoculture of Christianity–especially since we’ve never quite left it?

[ed. note: This morning, I got about 800 emails from my friend Marc, who should have been doing his (day) job (and me, too). Anyway, I’ve tried to piece them together here, because they form an interesting secular humanist response to Paul’s Christian humanist response to my modernist lament.]
It seems to me the secular goal of fame fills the same psychological placeholder as hoping for a future in Heaven. They’re equally competent mechanisms for staving off anxiety, if you’re good enough at psyching yourself into subscribing to them. There’s nothing more neo-Romantic than the Messianic– a perfect complement to the solipsism of the postmodern “reality” obsession that you’re writing about.
In a secular culture, in which time is compressed and sped up, fame becomes the escape hatch for recognition by others (if not a Big Other like God). Religious psychological functions don’t go away, their metabolism just changes, with the dogma and theology diluted.
So one doesn’t even need to grow nostalgic for the old Western Christendom!
About Orwell, his SECULAR nostalgia for Christianity–the usual “I would never be religious, but if others were it’d keep them in line”– sees faith as a regulator, instead of a more personal spiritual experience. It’s so easy and yet false to say, “From the standpoint of today’s self-indulgences, we need a wholehearted moral straightjacket for everyone, so culture will work.” I cannot think of a less refreshing way to rejuvenate what we care about.
The secular version of this–“If we don’t shape up now (global warming, nuclear proliferation, SUVs, etc.), there will be an apocalypse”–doesn’t charge art either, it charges paranoia.
The point is not to be good for Heaven, but to hold something sacred for oneself–to cultivate something special, which one can sublimate into something great for others. The best way to move beyond the culture of “reality” television and its celebrity envy is not to hail the return of organized piety but to go invisible and create something under the radar.

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