In Law We Trust, or The Tie That Binds Spiritual Hippies and Religious Preppies: Hey! Don’t bring Hippies into this…
By JDK,mbird.com – In an attempt to put the election season in an eternal perspective, I’ve been listening to a wonderful (if not somewhat depressing) podcast from PBS called “God in America,” which chronicles the entire complex history of American self-identity with respect to religion. Repeated throughout the show is the argument that America–through its unique blend of religious piety and baptized self-reliance (infant and adult)–has become “the most religiously diverse nation on the planet.” However, despite this outward diversity, over the six hours of listening , what struck me was how uniform the underlying American religious impulse is. Sure, there are countless denominations and churches and religions, but deep down, are they really that different? I’m not so sure.
400 years or so before Jesus, Aristotle argued that hard work, determination and the cultivation of the virtues would result in a new hexis—a new state of being—that would result in eudemonia: “your best life now.” This cultivation, otherwise known as mimetic participation in the good—practicing a pleasant expression, for instance—would actually create this good within you, and was the key to happiness.
Therefore, when Jesus is read as a good Aristotelian, his otherwise damning pronouncement in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” becomes the great cosmic finish line in the sky, thus setting the boundaries for our so-called “Faith Journey”(or some other similarly meaningless phrase). And, since this Greek word that is often translated as “perfect”—telos—can be understood as an end, culmination, as the “acme of perfection,” it is almost universally argued, that Jesus is pointing people towards the end, towards Dante’s Beatrice and the Beatific Vision. The Good Life, then, becomes a process of progression towards that goal. What looks like religious diversity is really more of a disagreement over direction and emphasis, but within the same system of eudaimonistic salvation, the same religion: faith + works=happiness.
Today, it seems as if the main distinction between many competing Christian denominations, not to mention other religious institutions, is not found in contradictory ideas about the way God and humanity are related, but only disagreements about the telos. For Spiritual Hippies, the end will be realized in community and inclusion, for Preps, purification and cleansing, but they both agree on one thing: (Here JDK makes a HUGE jump) we participate with God so we can become something: better, cleaner, more loving, less judgmental, less materialistic, more spiritual, more holy, less individualistic, more aware of our brokenness, more hospitable, less angry, etc and so forth and so on—ad nauseam.