Thursday, October 14, 2021

A New Religion With A New Sacrament? | The Heidelblog - by R. SCOTT CLARK

John Calvin (1509–64) famously wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (Institutes 1.11.18).

What he meant is that since human beings are irrevocably and naturally religious and, after the fall, profoundly corrupted by sin, our religious inclinations do not disappear but are misdirected. The question is not whether humans will be religious but how? Yesterday on Twitter Jules Diner posted a quotation from a certain Thomas Sheridan, a writer hitherto unknown to me:

The ‘Pandemic’ has been a kind of religious event for most people. For the first time in [their] entire existences they had something meaningful to live for. It gave them rituals, fear of damnation, and hope for redemption and salvation with the vaccine[s] being the keys to ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ They could point fingers at heretics and unbelievers like their ancestors did back in the Middle Ages. [Ed. note: revised for punctuation and grammar]

I do not know if this is an original analysis but it seems true. There is a religious quality to some responses to the pandemic (and to other crises too). Consider the global cooling [1970s]/global warming [1980s–90s]/climate change [2000s] crisis. There are reasonable grounds for questioning the claims being made about anthropogenic [man-made] climate change but increasingly debate on this issue is being silenced. By definition science operates on the principle of doubt not trust. Anyone who knows just a little about the history of science or even its most basic principles knows that it operates on doubt, questions, discussion, and even debate. When scientists publish their results the first thing that happens is that other scientists try to replicate their methods and results to verify them. Science does not trust. It doubts and tests. Anyone who tells us to “trust the science” is advocating a dogmatic, unreasoning religion not science. Christianity, by contrast, has dogmas to be sure but it is not unreasoning. It is grounded in historical claims. We claim that the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is a historical event the evidence of which (i.e., Jesus of Nazareth) was witnessed by hundreds of people. We have written accounts, produced by sane, reasonable people of these historical events. Further, we claim that there is more evidence to come: Jesus will return bodily and there will be more bodily resurrections.

It has been observed that lab-coated scientists are the priests of Modernity. They are the clerics who diagnose the ills of our bodies (e.g., medicine) and souls (e.g., pyschiatry) and it is they who prescribe the cure of bodies and souls. Steadily through the Modern period their pronouncements have become unquestionable and dogmatic. So, the turn of the culture, during the pandemic, to lab-coated priests is understandable. It is interesting that Dr Fauci’s NIH staff photo shows him in a lab coat. The lab coat, of course, is the vestment for the new priesthood and Fauci is arguably the new pope of the new priesthood. Consider why Dr Fauci would have his lab coat on for his staff photo? It is not because he had just stepped out of the lab for the photo. He has been an administrator for years. His actual working uniform is a business suit not a lab coat. My grandfather, who was a farmer, did not wear his overalls for the family photo. Fauci wore his lab coat for his staff photo for the same reason a priest wears his vestments for a photo: to signify his office.

Yesterday afternoon my better half was remarking on the comments she was reading below a story in the New York Times about the airline strikes and the vaccine mandates. As she described the tenor and language of the comments I was struck by how much they reminded me of the angriest of witch-hunting medieval mobs. This is quite striking because I imagine that the subscribers of the NYT think of themselves as enlightened and tolerant but there was precious little of either evident in the comment box.

The pandemic is a religious event for many people or perhaps we might say that it has given rise to a new religion or a new manifestation of the the new religion. This religion is dogmatic to the extent that it forbids questions of any sort (except when, where, and how to comply). Nevertheless, there are reasonable and fair questions to be asked about the development and efficacy of the vaccines and the treatment of the virus generally but anyone who asks such questions is immediately branded a heretic. That is not the language of science of the most unreasoning and reactionary dogma. I recently heard a talk show host, whom I respect and admire, denounce critics of the vaccines as “diabolical” and the moral equivalent of Satan leading Adam and Eve astray in the garden. This commentator is not a man of the social, political, theological, or cultural left. He is firmly on the right in each of those categories. If one finds such rhetoric on the right, how much more vitriol and irrationality does one find on the left? Sheridan is correct. The pandemic has given post-Christians and neo-Pagans in America a sense of purpose that transcends mundane existence. It gives them an identity and a religion. They “believe the science.” Anyone who dares to do what scientists actually do, i.e., question, doubt, test, and wait for more evidence, is denounced as a heretic. It is remarkable that it is the “enlightened” who are the most dogmatic about the vaccines and the “unenlightened” who are denounced as the late-modern equivalent of Copernicus or Galileo. It should surprise us, however, when self-identified Christians lapse into the rhetoric of the neo-pagans.

To understand the neo-pagans it is instructive to know something about the original pagans. The Romans were, for example, in their way, deeply religious in the early years of Christianity. It was not that they all believed in the Greco-Roman pantheon but they did believe in conformity. They authorities and the people did not care so much what one thought internally or whether the the Roman religion was really true (Greek philosophers and Roman scholars had been raising doubts for hundreds of years). What they valued was conformity. So it is now. People who could not tell you the history of the corona viruses or how the virus behaves, who can transmit it and how, and why or how the vaccines are supposed to work or how they were developed and what are the difficulties in tracking efficacy and adverse reactions are demanding conformity as the price of belonging to civilized society. In that regard, the new religion is a blind faith in the priests of our age. Christians, however, took a different approach to conformity. To the Corinthians the Apostle Paul set certain boundaries regarding conformity and allowed liberty on other things.

The ancient Christian distinction between the sacred and the secular is valuable, even essential. It was the pagan Romans who rejected it and who insisted on a state-cult and outward conformity to its rites. The early Christians begged for liberty to participate in Roman society as a secular matter but to be allowed to pursue the Christian faith as a sacred matter. More than anyone it is Christians who should be best able to see the value of distinction between the sacred and the secular and medicine ought especially to be regarded by us as a secular matter and not a sacred or religious matter. Of course the pagans elevate medicine to a religion. That is the sort of thing that pagans do. They carry idols in their pockets and in their hearts. We, however, who believe in Jesus, have been delivered from idolatry. Thus, John wrote to the churches of Asia Minor,

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:20; ESV).

Calvin was right. Our hearts are idol factories and some Americans have made a new religion, instituted a new orthodoxy, a new priesthood, a new inquisition, and a new sacrament. To Christians, during the pandemic, I have been appealing to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians. To those who refused to wear a mask in church or take basic steps (e.g., sanitation) to prevent the spread of the virus or respect the concerns of their brothers and sisters, I appealed to Paul’s instruction regarding the weaker brother. To those, however, who would make the vaccine a test of the new orthodoxy, I would appeal to Paul’s instructions regarding meat. If one is disposed to receive the vaccine without raising any questions of conscience, let him do so (see 1 Cor 10:27). If, however, one has scruples about the vaccines and/or concerns about the efficacy and safety thereof, he is also entitled to his liberty before the Lord.

So, for us Christians, let vaccines be vaccines and not sacraments. Let science be science and not a new religion. If something may not be questioned, however, it is a religion and not science.

©R. Scott  Clark. All Rights Reserved.