One sign of our times is the large number of books dealing with America’s political rhetoric. Perhaps the most surprising convergence of opinion concerns the nation’s spiritual life. Sociologist Wayne Baker presents evidence from the World Values Surveys to examine the culture war thesis, currently part of this rhetoric. But in his concluding chapter, he deals with mythology, and favorably mentions the New Age Movement. He suggests the 60’s were the beginning of a Cycle of Awakening and that such cycles normally result in cultural revitalization. Poet Frederick Turner, in an essay for “The National Mall: rethinking Washington’s monumental core,” welcomes the symbols found in the pilgrimage sites of classical antiquity, such as sacred groves and oracles. He doesn’t seem to be calling for a new state religion, only for a symbolic–and slightly more female–balance to the Capital’s current bluster and hubris.
Christianity doesn’t seem to be seriously discussed by any of these writers as a guide to the future, although Christianity has been influential in American history. To begin this discussion, I want to be clear that the Christian question will demand clear answers; its demise is not inevitable. Also, the fear of pagan symbols in American culture is genuine, although it can be argued that such fears are based on a misunderstanding of antiquity, and of Christianity itself. Christianity does have a mythological core, but it has been quite some time since American theologians exhibited an awareness of this fact. Robert Bellah wrote in the 70s that “the last Protestant theologian before the twentieth century to have in his control the entire imaginative resources of the Christian tradition,” was Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was three years older than Benjamin Franklin. Since that time, Christianity has been used to justify the pursuit of wealth, militarism and consumerism. Many worry that in its present state, it lacks the ability to contribute succinct thought, or express transcendent potential.
On the other hand, the new openness to pagan or nature symbolism in American culture also needs careful thought. It seems clear that Frederick Turner focuses on Classical symbolism. (I base my comments about Turner only on his essay. For a list of his books, please see his website.) But many writers, even ancient writers, do not distinguish between types of Paganism. References to church father, Tertullian, mention that he was a pagan before his conversion to Christianity, but apparently it is not considered important to specify his religion. Isn’t it likely that hailing from Carthage in North Africa in the second century AD, he would have worshipped Mithra? Mazdaism, according to Franz Cumont, was a Persian religion, which was spread by soldiers and officers of the Roman Army. Originally, women were not allowed to participate, even as members. Mazdaism was probably the most vibrant form of paganism before the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, and in the pursuit of universality it eventually formed an alliance with the cult of Ma, the Great Mother. Thomas Boslooper assumes in his book “The Virgin Birth,” that Tertullian’s approach to Christian theology was simply a too-literal interpretation of Christian doctrine, but this religious background would explain a lot. Tertullian furthered Christianity’s literal condemnation of women, holding them equally responsible with Eve for the death of Jesus Christ.
Also relevant to a discussion of American spirituality, is a statement in Baker’s conclusion, where he depends on Joseph Campbell. Apparently Campbell said the old myths are known to be lies. This is in contrast to Bellah, who clearly called for the development of a new American mythology tied to American geography and history, rather than to the ancient world. I will argue in future posts that the underlying principles of antiquity, which can be found in its myths, can also befound in Christian thought at its best. These principles must be part of America’s future. If Campbell really said the myths were lies, and if we believe him, we are truly lost.
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1. “The National Mall: rethinking Washington’s monumental core.” Ed. Nathan Glazer and Cynthia R. Field. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2008. See also: Turner, Frederick. “Frederick Turner’s Blog.” 10 Feb. 2011. Available: http://frederickturnerpoet.com/.
2. Bellah, Robert Neelly. “The Broken Covenant: American civil religion in a time of trial”. Seabury Press. 1975
3. Baker, Wayne E. “Americas Crisis of Values: reality and perception. Princeton University Press. 2006
4. Cumont, Franz. “The Mysteries of Mithra.” Dover Publications, New York. 1956