The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits
[This paper was originally given at Mercy Center in Burlingame, California, at the first Festival of Spirituality around 1987. It was subsequently published in "Monastic Studies 9". It was then revised for presentation at Keele University in the UK, and this version, which appears below, was published in "Vox Benedictina", Vol. 7 #4, and again in their ultimate issue. It begins with a long quotation from Umberto Eco's "Adventures in Hyperreality".]
The Human Experience of God at Turning Points:
A Theological Exposé of Spiritual Counterfeits
“The striking aspect of [Hearst Castle] is not the quantity of antique pieces plundered from half of Europe, or the nonchalance with which the artiﬁcial tissue seamlessly connects fake and genuine, but rather the sense of fullness, the obsessive determination not to leave a single space that doesn’t suggest something, and hence the masterpiece of bricolage, haunted by horror vacui, .... The insane abundance makes the place unlivable, just as it is hard to eat those dishes that many classy American restaurants...offer the customer as evidence of his own situation of ‘afﬂuence’: steaks four inches thick with lobster (and baked potato, and sour cream and melted butter, and grilled tomato and horseradish sauce) so that the customer will have ‘more and more,’ and can wish nothing further.
“...the Castle of Citizen Kane achieves a psychedelic effect and a kitsch result not because the Past is not distinguished from the Present ...but because what offends is the voracity of the selection, and what distresses is the fear of being caught up by this jungle of venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild ﬂavor, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sensual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass. It is like making love in a confessional with a prostitute dressed in a prelate’s liturgical robes reciting Baudelaire while ten electronic organs reproduce the Well-Tempered Clavier played by Scriabin.
“But Hearst’s castle is not an unicum, not a rara avis ....
“The poor words with which natural human speech is provided cannot sufﬁce to describe the Madonna Inn. To convey its external appearance...we can only venture some analogies. Let’s say that Albert Spear, while leaﬁng through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli. But that doesn’t give you an idea. Let’s say that Archimboldi builds the Sagrada Familia for Dolly Parton. Or: ...Chopin’s Sonata in B ﬂat minor sung by Perry Como in an arrangement by Liberace and accompanied by the Marine Band. No, that still isn’t right. Let’s try telling about the restrooms....
“...Disneyland...is presented as at once absolutely realistic and absolutely fantastic.... The Main Street façades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing.
“Disneyland not only produces illusion but—in confessing it—stimulates the desire for it: A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands....Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.... ...imitation has reached its apex, and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.... And for a Californian, leaving his car means leaving his own humanity, consigning himself to another power, abandoning his will. Disneyland is also a place of total passivity. Its visitors must agree to behave like its robots....
“The problem ...is [that] accustomed to realizing the Distant (in space and in time) through almost “carnal” reproduction, how will the average American realize the relationship with the supernatural?
“If you follow the Sunday morning religious programs on TV you come to understand that God can be experienced only as nature, ﬂesh, energy, tangible image. And since no preacher dares to show us God in the form of a bearded dummy, or as a Disneyland robot, God can only be found in the form of natural force, joy, healing, youth, health, economic increment (which, let Max Weber teach us, is at once the essence of the Protestant ethic and of the spirit of capitalism....)
“The ideology of this America wants to establish reassurance through Imitation. But proﬁt defeats ideology, because the consumers want to be thrilled not only by the guarantee of the Good but also by the shudder of the Bad. And so at Disneyland, along with Mickey Mouse and the kindly Bears, there must also be, in tactile evidence, Metaphysical Evil (the Haunted Mansion).... Alongside the Good Whale [at Marineland] there is the restless, plastic form of the Bad Shark [of JAWS]. Both at the same level of credibility, both at the same level of fakery. Thus, on entering his cathedrals of iconic reassurance, the visitor will remain uncertain whether his ﬁnal destiny is hell or heaven, and so will consume new promises.”
With the advent of Euro-Disney on the last large plot of open landscape left in France, Umberto Eco’s prophetic vision of an America possessed by the demonic has become frighteningly fulﬁlled on this [the UK] side of the Atlantic as well. Western culture has continued to devolve into the neo-gnostic dualisms to which Eco points in his essay, the illusion that technology can give us more reality than nature can, and the simplistic, tamed and sanitized version of the violent shadows of the depths within us from which we ﬂee. If we look at the toys we give our children, we have an unsettling glimpse of what the future holds. There are, for example, those innocuous-looking military amphibious vehicles, which, at the touch of a button become space-gun ﬁring monsters of tortured ugliness. They are called “Transformers”.
The name alone is a counterfeit of the process by which our turning to God enables grace to change both our selves and the world around us. The “Transformer” symbolizes a Faustian covenant that enables the demonic to take on concrete form. Such toys convey the message that our marketplace culture can buy salvation, that salvation resides in technology’s terrifying mutants, whose fell progenitors are deceit, and what is most monstrous in us.
Indeed, the so-called spirituality movement is now largely just one more consumer item in the self-help supermarket, generating millions in sales as it purveys the illusion that making yourself feel good is the same as the search for God. Meanwhile, so-called academic theology is limping the last few steps around the cul-de-sac of the German rationalism that two hundred years ago deluded by the grandiose claims of scientism, attempted to divorce itself from either common-sense experience or the practical mysticism—from which all true theology proceeds; that is to say, who prays is a theologian, and who is a theologian, prays.
But while Eco holds up a useful mirror using the classic prophetic tools of bawdy humour, sarcasm, and incredulous outrage, what he is showing us is neither new nor exclusively American. The seeds of death were spawned equally by religion and rationalism, whose hybrid, ghastly ﬂowers have decorated our mental garden paths on the way to genocide, and commitments to new and more subtle forms of tyranny. The whole range of contemporary problems from the ecological crisis to nuclear weapons to AIDS spirals ever tighter in a vortex of common questions that centers on the choice between reality and hyperreality.