Wednesday, April 20, 2005
The Naked Emperor
This morning I meandered over to see the Monoxide Madonna for myself. I'm not a believer in such things, but I was curious. Anyway, I had no way to get to the gym this morning because I left my car down at Huron and Wood last night and took the El to the Loop for a fundraising event. So I took a walk and checked out the commotion. Over the past couple of days pilgrims have been bringing votive candles, cards, photos of the Pope (John Paul, not the new guy who used to be in the Hitler Youth and later the Wehrmacht*). There's a shiny red balloon with "I Love You" written on it. It's touching. The growing shrine is cordoned off by police barricades and a couple very bemused cops. At 6:30 in the morning there were only a handfull of pilgrims, perhaps a dozen including myself.
And there's no Mary. Amazing though it may seem, the picure above actually makes it look more like Mary than it does in person - to me, it looked like a yellow water stain on a cement wall. Others are saying their faith enables them to see her. But we can convince ourselves of a lot of things that aren't true, if we want to believe enough. It gives people comfort and peace to believe that they're being visited and watched over by a personal, spiritual power.
It seems to me people use these beliefs to help them feel a sense of importance and meaning in their lives. And new experiences and miracles could be a positive development - If people are assured that God is present in their everyday lives, it may be easier for them to develop new ways of relating to the divine which are appropriate for modern life, as opposed to the hidebound idealization of past ways of living. Maybe the rest of us would find religion more relevant if it found our daily lives more relevant.
Then again, maybe not. This sort of thinking have led to the "contemporary" feel of new evangelical megachurches, which seem to embrace every aspect of modern American life except for its sexuality as a godly way of life. My beef with religion has always had more to do with what it accepts than with what it condemns - for the most part, churches have seemed content to stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressor against the oppressed.
So I'm of two minds about this. I'm amazed by the mystical faith our neighbors have brought up with them from Mexico in a Holy Mother who appears among her flock from time to time to guide them. But I wish she did more to call them to arms against injustice, rather than offering mere comfort. And I still don't see a thing under the Kennedy. To be an unbeliever in America is to see that the Emperor has no clothes, but to know you are unable to convince the crowd of his nakedness.
*I don't mean to imply that Benedict is a Nazi, he's clearly not. However his wartime behavior doesn't reflect someone willing to challenge authority at the risk of his skin. Indeed, he attacks relativism and modernity without seeming to understand why kids these days are questioning authority, revealed truth and inherited ritual and tradition. The horrors of Nazism were one cause of modern scepticism. The priest child abuse scandal is another. Historically, Ratzinger's response to these horrors has been a retreat to tradition and dogma. Nothing suggests to me that the man is prepared to deal with the very real challenges facing his flock. An uncharitable observer might add that the rigid, enforced conformism of his youth has had a permanent impact on his relationship with reality. . .