By Jonathan Balmer
James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, says secular liturgies aim to change us.
Liturgy may just seem like the order of a Church service to most of us but they are actually formative rituals which wish to compel us to accept a “vision of the good life.”
Consider any commercial or advertisement. In them, we encounter happy, elevated, super-humans: virtual Saints of materialism. They show us, in thirty-second time slots, the road to the full life: which just so happens to the product they are selling. We are shaped often by non-human institutions and influences.
In Ephesians 6, St. Paul writes “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
A corporation, contrary to popular belief, is not a group of people. It is more akin to what Paul speaks of: a Power. It is a machine designed to make money and, like any machine, is meant to operate as efficiently as possible.
Anyone who argues that a CEO should not be paid as much as they are because they do not work as much as another worker fails to realize that the CEO is not being paid for their work; A CEO is paid for a patent on a money making machine. Like any machine, it is optimized for efficiency.
These Powers affect our everyday life. Some decisions which seem unthinkable for one individual, ruthlessly cutting payments, denying struggling single mothers healthcare or sweat-shop conditions, are possible when the machine works.
Very small businesses do not perform the same evils, probably not because they are especially moral, but because it is difficult to dehumanize those you see daily.
Any larger entity is optimized; the longevity of the machine itself is ensured. Its optimization cannot account for one’s hopes, aspirations, or happiness (including those of its employees).
The machine will not care on its own. It requires the active and serious intervention by a large number of convicted and active people.
St. Paul’s problem, as is ours, is how, if and when to “Rage against the machine” (so to speak) and make the world a little bit of a better place. Some of us are burdened. Many of us are blessed beyond imagination.
There are, in the Christian tradition and scripture, times where the faithful have advocated stoicism and forbearance (in putting on the full armor of God) to face daily the oppression of these outside Powers.
There are also times for more deliberate action when cries for the poor and least of these rise from those convicted by a spiritual, not just a practical, calling. In extreme circumstances, we see how jarring these decisions are: our nation in its greatest pivotal moment, the Civil War, showed all the signs of a Theological crisis.
With today’s headlines presenting everything from the Syrian crisis to a government shutdown to social injustices of every sort, it is difficult to know in what way to act.
We can start by thinking of our consumptions and what “liturgies” shape our lives and, perhaps, how to limit their influence. Many of us benefit extravagantly from the Powers among us.
As at many other times in the history of our college and nation, whether it is in the lives of those who work for us daily or the plight of adults and children across the globe who work for our comfort unseen, we are complicit in an unseen Power’s grip on lives untold.
It is a task of a lifetime to realign what liturgies shape us and in what ways we feel led, and are able to, sever ourselves from the ties that bind us to all sorts of non-human controllers.
There are no clear-cut answers I can give. But I can say with certainty: it will take soul-searching. And Georgetown College, if you allow it to, certainly provides ample opportunity to soul-search.