You Gotta Serve Somebody

Article excerpt

Beyond Idols: The Shape of Secular Society, by Richard K. Fenn. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Global Backlash: Citizen Initiatives for a Just World Economy, edited by Robin Broad. Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Richard Fenn's Beyond Idols repeats, in a more or less intellectualized way, a claim that has appeared and reapgeared in the West since the Jewish prophets' critique of religious formalism and in the East since Buddha's rejection of an arcane, inhumane, and unspiritual Hinduism. The heart of this critique is the idea that religious institutions, rules, and authorities, while claiming to give humanity expertly controlled and guided access to the sacred, really obscure and limit that access. There is, Protestant theologian Richard Fenn tells us, a sacred reality which necessarily escapes institutional and social objectification of all kinds. "Every system limits the range of possibility," he argues, "and most systems do so in a way that preserves a particular distribution of power and authority."

Fenn's goal is a "secular" society in which each individual is free to experience the mystery, wonder, and unpredictability of life without being limited by any group, church, creed, book, place, or idea. Like the "religionless Christianity" of the original Disciples of Jesus, Fenn's "secular society" would allow each person to find God in private and would reject public proclamations of piety and the establishment of religious authority.

Fenn's book has much truth in it. One needn't go far in the world of religion to see practices which, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said of American observances during the fifties, "had everything they needed except one thing: life." Nor, in a world of resurgent fundamentalism, is it hard to see painful and frightening examples of "civil religion": places where those possessing a (self-proclaimed) monopoly on the sacred mix of theology, violence and public policy. From Saudi princes and America's Religious Right to Hamas and the Greater Israel crowd, many folks on the contemporary scene could benefit from Fenn's book. Thinking that some party or nation has a monopoly on the divine is pretty dangerous stuff.

Yet Beyond Idol's truth is really only half a truth, and a lack of balance and perspective deeply mar this book.

Fenn, like others who reject the past and say that only they can judge what is truly holy, ignores a fundamental dialectic of religious life. It is true that free spirits periodically try to break the boundaries of restrictive and ossified tradition. Yet periods of freedom often give rise to a desire to read tradition anew. The explosion of unfettered spiritual energy in the 1960s was followed by an enormous interest in ... tradition!

Fenn writes as if it were not possible that a fourteenth-century monk or a sixth-century BCE prophet might have insights that remain valid, crucial, significant-sacred-for our time. Yet, what Fenn objects to as the institutionalization of the sacred is in part the record of such permanent insights. The "free spirits" of the Sixties have tapped into Jewish mysticism, Buddhist meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Sufi's mystical version of Islam, and medieval Christian mystics because they contain authentic and perennial values, albeit values that have to be experienced and interpreted anew. That people continue to return to tradition is one strong indication that it is neither possible nor desirable for each individual to invent the world-or the sacred-from scratch.

What these permanent insightswhat tradition-can teach us is the inescapability of certain aspects of all human life: desire and frustration, vulnerability and the threat of violence, mortality and embodiment, joy and sorrow. If certain aspects of sacred discipline are inflexible, that is a teaching too. If we want the Torah's wisdom, we have to study it slowly and carefully; if we want the insights of Buddhism, we'd better meditate relentlessly, even when it's boring or frustrating. …