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Altars to Unknown Gods

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

In the book of Acts, Paul pities the Greeks’ vulnerability rather than praise their open-mindedness for having an altar to an unknown God. The well-educated Greeks were schooled to resist narrow truths, as if something in Truth itself was intrinsically accessible and wide. Altars to vague deities were all the rage, and “open-mindedness” the code word among the intelligentsia. Anyone attempting to make claims that were too provincial were automatically suspect. As such, the Greeks were prodigiously tolerant in matters related to love, worship, sexual preference, etc.

It is from this intellectual and philosophical milieu that democracy was born, which championed an openness to other perspectives.  The consensus omnium (valorized by both the Stoics and Epicureans) was assumed to be the criterion of truth: Vox populi, vox dei. The only trouble with this arrangement, however, was when the will of the people went wrong, as it has countless times from antiquity. Of course, democracy held out much promise. It gave minority opinions a right to be heard, and this was its claim to fame (and a good claim to make). The problem with a de facto tolerance, however, was its naive anthropology. A democracy will eventually go wrong because people eventually go wrong. A too-high view of the human species always leads, ironically enough, to human atrocities: to lynchings and genocide, to slavery and sex-trafficking (and to elective euthanasia and abortion, but that’s for another posting).

Give us enough room to hang ourselves and we’ll end up hanging others. Which isn’t to say that democracy should be abolished, but only that it can never be worshipped (which, I daresay, some of our more conservative brethren fall into the trap of doing). It must always be held in tension with tradition, which in its former days it always was: with the tradition of the Church. The two were meant to be a check and balance for each other. Give one too much power, and things were bound to go wrong. But of late, religious claims have been relegated to the periphery (where many feel they belong).

And what are we left with? A democracy of uneducated ingrates who wouldn’t know real culture if it slapped them upside the head (and by “real culture” I do not mean to surreptitiously indicate some elitist notion of euro-centric artistic merit. I mean an appreciation of beauty, of an aesthetic taste, that knows no cultural boundaries but only loves good work; which, yes, implies the ability to pass judgment, a very necessary and basic practical disposition ~ a habit of the practical intellect, Jacques Maritain called it ~ that has also been left to the dustbin of history by that misplaced humanitarian impulse we call “political correctness”).

A sympathetic open-mindedness almost always leads, if left unchecked by conviction, to an inability to commit, since it is always much easier to sit on the fence than take a stand, particularly if you find yourself in a culture that values fence-sitting when it comes to issues of morality and justice and truth (indeed, ambiguity in one necessarily entails an attendant ambiguity in the other two: who am I to demand what is right or wrong, true or not?) And so we are tempted into building altars to all of our apathies, which we confuse for our open-minded tolerance. But toleration implies a moral compass: it suggests that you are willing to live with something you don’t agree with. But lately, toleration has morphed into meaning nothing more than moral apathy; an “it-just-doesn’t-matter-ism” that denudes all pretense to compassion and forces us to bury our collective heads in our hand-held devices and their glittery screens.

After all, what is an altar to something unknown if not a sign of the ultimate disconnect? An altar is erected for the sake of worship and adulation, but how can one worship something one doesn’t recognize and cannot name? Unless, of course, one is worshipping ambiguity itself, which is precisely what the modern condition has wrought: a valorization of ambiguity, the new ultimate virtue: Your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth.

Which takes us back to Paul, who rightly understood that when moral laxity becomes a virtue, ignorance becomes neglect. It is impossible to worship something half-heartedly, since worship connotes a deliberate commitment of one’s whole being. It is impossible, in other words, to value mystery for its own sake and to hold it up as the highest value. And yet that’s precisely what we post-moderns have done, and in so doing, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to every intellectual and religious and philosophical and cultural wind of doctrine that blows through. We make altars to all of our unknown gods, and in the process, end up worshipping ourselves, as we no longer know who we are (since we become like that which we worship), which begets an endless cycle that drains into oblivion.

Many of us, self-proclaimed believers and atheists alike, are really just agnostics worshipping at the altar of an unknown god. And we pride ourselves for our open-mindedness, our moral tolerance, our willingness to just all get along and be fashionably skeptical of all claims to Truth. What is lost, though, in this existential surrender to ambiguity (or “mystery”) is our very selves. We no longer give a damn because there’s nothing left to give. We have become a self-less people as opposed to a selfless people.

In the words of C. S. Lewis, we have become men without chests. People without conviction. We’ve reduced Truth to a vote and made it subject to public opinion, and then held our heads high as champions of democracy. But Truth was never meant to be answerable to the majority. That’s the scary thing about it: it is true whether you or I believe it or not. The challenge then becomes to have the requisite spiritual sensitivity and moral attentiveness to grasp it, and then to teach others to do the same. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set ye free.

Or maybe not. Maybe there is no such thing as Truth. In which case, I have an altar to sell you.

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