Sometimes, in the welter of lies and nonsense of these overly internetted times, we can overlook core areas of absurdity that need examination. I’m currently reading the literary critic Harold Bloom’s 1992 book The American Religion, the primary thrust of which is that such religion is post-Christian, being both Orphic and Gnostic. By this he means it’s spiritually intoxicated, or auto-intoxicated (Orphic), and based not on doctrines or creeds, theology or philosophy, but almost exclusively on a personal encounter (gnosis) with the sacred.
Personal encounters with holiness are the primary aim of many mystical and esoteric schools. But those schools aim first to analyse the personal aspects of the psyche, before shooting for full-on gnosis. The error that would otherwise result would be what we see in most ‘fundamentalist’ religions: convictions that aren’t to be parsed out or revised after reflection, but which tend to magnify the gnostic’s prejudices and deep-rooted grievances about parents, lost loves, and the human tendency to fail or falter on the road to paradise.
While it’s impossible not to notice the anti-intellectualism in modern North America, religions are a key force in forming such mindsets. I’m not discounting reality TV, YouTube or video games in saying that, but religion is often what really pushes people out of their safe spaces. I can’t bear to type the name of the man I most fear right now, not twenty-four hours after he might be elected to office, but his success is massively due to the general idea of it being okay to arrive at understanding not through pondering a topic, changing one’s mind or considering alternatives, but through an intuitive leap. And so often, that leap isn’t even intuitive at all, but merely comes from an inability to see that hucksters are lying. ‘To Breitbart’ should be a new verb after this ugly slug-fest is over.
A term used by Southern Baptists, a group that fascinates Bloom, is ‘soul competency.’ It means what it says: that the human soul is competent to discern divine truth as one deepens a post-conversion connection to Jesus. This term was invented a century ago by one Edgar Young Mullins, who simply asserted it was so, in a book called The Axioms of Religion. Because it flattered those who had already experienced Jesus, it took hold.
As Bloom makes clear, while those who clutch leather-bound Bibles in their fists constantly quote a small selection of verses, even Baptist ministers are often shockingly ill-read in the two Testaments. The Bible, as Bloom (himself a committed if unbelieving Bible reader) points out, is not “the Word of God.” The Koran makes that claim, because it’s all supposedly the direct statements of Allah. But the Bible is the inspired writing of many men and a couple of women, who are God’s inspired intermediaries. Inspiration, while often wonderful, doesn’t preclude error or imbalance.
“Even as Fundamentalists insists upon the inerrancy of the Bible,” says Bloom (Chapter 14), “they give up all actual reading of the Bible, since in fact its language is too remote and difficult for them to begin to understand. What is left is the Bible as physical object, limp and leather, a final icon or magical talisman. [Fundamentalist clergymen] … are not writing about the text, in any sense whatever of text, or of that text. They write about their own dogmatic social, political, cultural, moral and even economic convictions, and biblical texts simply are quoted, with frenetic abandon, whether or not they in any way illustrate or even approach the areas where the convictions center.”
To deride the presidential campaign of He Who Must Not Be Named as simply a product of the Southern Baptist belief system is absurd. But because of its immense self-confidence, shared with Pentecostalism and many other ‘Gospel-based’ churches, the Convention’s reach far exceeds its grasp. It is, we can hope, close to its last gasp, as US church attendance continues to diminish. But sometimes, dying gaspers last longer than you’d think. And the evil they have done through their unself-critical actions lives after them.