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Sunday, May 6, 2012

America's Religion (2)

Mircea Eliade, the great historian and philosopher of religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, identified in every religion a creation myth and its axis mundi. The center or axis of the creation is represented by the place, usually a high point, around which the world is ordered, often a sacred mountain or tree.  Creation is celebrated each year in a reenactment of the myth, a ritual that descends first into chaos and then moves to order around the high spot or a tree or a pole that represents the point of creation.

In ancient times temples at high points in the cities were used to represent the axis mundi.  In medieval times cathedrals and mosques spiraled up to show the link between heaven and earth.  Many have pointed out that skyscrapers, often bank buildings, are now the highest points in the city.  It is significant then that the American New Year comes after a night of reveling with the dropping of the illuminated ball at Times Square.

Here are some of the elements of the creation myth of America (which can be found in all popular histories of the United States and most American history text books).
  • Christian groups led by Divine Providence flee oppression and separate themselves from the old countries in Europe (or Missouri in the case of the Mormons) to start a new nation under God, with freedom to acquire land and forge for themselves.
  • The colonies unite to declare freedom from England, its monarch and its taxes and found a new nation that will allow free commerce and unlimited growth.
  • The country expands (manifest or divine destiny) so that civilization can overcome savagery and paganism and so that industrious individuals and families could stake out on their own.
  • The nation maintain its union through a Civil War to end the backwardness of the South, overcome agrarian slavery, and increase industry and technological progress especially into the West.
  • The nation grows economically by taming and accumulating of land, by harvesting natural resources, by invention and development of new technology, by efficiency in organizing capital and corporations.
  • America becomes the Global Power through which it overcomes evil empires, becomes the beacon of freedom to pursue wealth through industry, and is the protector of free industry from dark forces.   
Where is the axis mundi or holy center in this creation story?  There are many in a progressively expanding horizontal culture.

I now live in the Holy City--Washington, DC, where the Washington Monument is the point around which all the beautiful public buildings, memorials are organized.  Many Americans make pilgrimages to the holy city each year.

I already mentioned Times Square, but really the skyscrapers of New York, mainly those that organize trade and finances (emulated by all the major cities and especially Chicago as the nation spread westward), are centers of the American Religion.

I grew up in Cleveland and Detroit--probably the most important of industrial cities right after the civil war (which made Cleveland) up through the World Wars (which made Detroit).  No longer of course.

I worked in San Jose, Silicon Valley, which became the informational technological center, wiring the whole world with its products and information.  When you are there you know that really the center of creation is Stanford.

The American religion in an expanding nation has many centers. And because it is a religion without community, without moral core, without objective values, perhaps it has no center.

Next: the ten commandments and the churches' role in the American religion.

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