the idols and the true God

As I argued in two earlier posts, here and here, the smartphone is an idolorum fabricam, a perpetual idol-making factory. I want now to juxtapose that argument with something that might seem unrelated, the thesis articulated by the sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues that the de facto religion of Americans, especially young Americans, is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or MTD. I want to call attention here to one of the key (though often unarticulated) principles of MTD, as described in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs — especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved…. For many teens, as with adults, God sometimes does get involved in people’s lives, but usually only when they call on him, mostly when they have some trouble of problem or bad feeling that they want resolved. In this sense, the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs. (Chapter 4)

Here’s the chief point I want to make is that the combination of idol-worship and belief in a selectively-available Creator is an ancient one, and indeed is generally characteristic of non-Abrahamic religions. Consider this passage from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane:

The phenomenon of the remoteness of the supreme god is already documented on the archaic levels of culture. [There follow two pages of examples.] It is useless to multiply examples. Everywhere in these primitive religions the celestial supreme being appears to have lost religious currency: he has no place in the cult, and in the myths he draws farther and farther away from man until he becomes a deus otiosus. Yet he is remembered and entreated as a last resort, when all ways of appealing to other gods and goddesses, and ancestors, and the demons, have failed. As the Oreons express it: “Now we have tried everything, but we still have you to help us.” And they sacrifice a white cock to him, crying, “God, thou art our creator, have mercy on us.” (122, 125)

A few interesting and (I think) important points emerge from these juxtapositions.

  • The worship of idols in preference to the Creator is deeply embedded in the human mind: idol-worship is as it were the default religious position of homo sapiens sapiens;
  • Such worship is the default because for most people religion is in essence a practice of solutionism;
  • Since digital technologies are also primarily solutionist in orientation, they quite readily step in as substitute (new and improved!) idols;
  • If it is true, as Eliade says elsewhere in The Sacred and the Profane, that “To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds in doing away with with religious behavior” (23), then it makes sense to consider at least some of our technological behavior as fundamentally religious in character;
  • The primary goal of the makers of the idols, or New Gods (in their software and hardware avatars), is to ensure that we continue to turn to the idols for solutions to our problems, and never to suspect that there are problems they cannot solve — or, what would be far worse, that there are matters of value and meaning in human life that cannot be described in solutionist terms.

I might also add that the only strong alternative to this whole complex of fears, hopes and aspirations is the quite different model of religion that arises in Judaism and is then continued in Christianity, the model that bypasses intermediary Powers in favor of a direct encounter with the Creator, and on grounds that are not strictly solutionist in character. “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.”


“As things developed, she [Oedipa Maas] was to have all manner of revelations,” we are told in the first chapter of The Crying of Lot 49, and as Edward Mendelson pointed out long ago in an essay I’ve already mentioned, the language of the novel is relentlessly religious.

Here’s a passage from Chapter 2:

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant….

She gave it up presently, as if a cloud had approached the sun or the smog thickened, and so broken the “religious instant,” whatever it might’ve been….

And a little later, when she sees a commercial for a housing development that her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, had invested in:

A map of the place flashed onto the screen, Oedipa drew a sharp breath, Metzger on the chance it might be for him looked over. But she’d only been reminded of her look downhill this noontime. Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead….

As Mendelson comments, Pynchon seems to have borrowed the term “hierophany” from the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, who writes in his book The Sacred and the Profane: “To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany…. From the most elementary hierophany — e.g., a manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree” — or a printed circuit, or a map of a housing development — “to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.” That is, there is no possibility of accounting for what has been revealed within the structures of everyday experience, no means of domesticating what has shown itself. “We are confronted by … the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (p.11).

Another way to put this is that the hierophany happens within ordinary space but suggests something beyond ordinary time, something that belongs to or comes from a different temporal order. Therefore, “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (p. 70). Eliade claims that such experiences are “inaccessible to a nonreligious man” (p.71), which would suggest that Oedipa is a religious person — and yet she shows no evidence of participating in any “rites,” any communal worship. This may help to explain her obsession with the possible existence of the Trystero as an organization, a secret community, that bears and transmits revelations of the sacred. Oedipa, like her namesake Oedipus, thus becomes a seeker of truth, a pursuer of religious possibility — a homo religiosus, and perhaps even an anima naturaliter christiana, in this respect not unlike Psyche in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, following her blurry vision from within a kind of cloud of unknowing.

Eliade taught at the University of Chicago for many years but was a native Romanian, and as a young man was an enthusiastic advocate for Romania’s fascist Iron Guard — a fact he later took great pains to obscure. A decade ago Joseph Frank summarized Eliade’s story, along with those of his countrymen Eugene Ionesco and E. M. Cioran, in an essay-review that’s very much worth reading. Here’s a key passage:

Sweeping aside all the ideas of the past that had been destroyed in the carnage of World War I, Eliade wrote: “The myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism, all this has been shattered to pieces in every area in which it has been contested.”

Frank goes on to argue that Eliade’s belief that the fascists alone had the power to overcome the secular “myth” and “faith” of modernity led him to endorse anti-Semitism, not just politically but also intellectually:

Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade’s postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which “sacred time,” the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive “sacred time” because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of “the eternal return” by linking God with linear time. “The Hebrews,” he writes, “were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God,” and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world.

It’s not clear to me that this is correct: In The Sacred and the Profane Eliade emphasizes the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, especially in contrast to other world religions (p. 71), and says that Christianity “goes even further” than Judaism “in valorizing historical time” (p. 110). But I don’t know that much about Eliade, and we need not settle that matter here; I just felt that I needed to acknowledge the possibility that there is an even darker side to Eliade’s thought than I know. And in any case the tendency of religious people to accept authoritarian political figures as bulwarks against secularism has a certain currency.

But: What matters for my attempt to make sense of Pynchon is that the Christian model of time — “The Christian liturgy unfolds in a historical time sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God” (Eliade, p. 72) — effectively repudiates “the myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism.” To reassert the power and validity of hierophany is at least to begin to emancipate oneself from the claims of technocracy to account for and then govern the whole of behavior. (It is vitally important here that governance and control are the key terms of cybernetics.) It may seem odd that someone as concerned with emancipation from governance as Eliade was would endorse fascism, but presumably he held some analogue of the Kirkpatrick doctrine: a distinction between authoritarian regimes that, as Auden put it, “leave the self alone” and totalitarian ones that leave nothing alone — secularism and technocracy being on Eliade’s account totalitarian.

In any case, hierophany is ungovernable — and in this sense is the counterpart of the anarchic Brownian motion of the Whole Sick Crew in V. We could say that the Whole Sick Crew are living in a kind of permanent carnival — which means, as Bakhtin never tires of explaining, that they are not living a true carnival at all, because the healthy and vigorous carnivalesque never rejects and indeed is wholly dependent on the religious structures that prompt its laughter. And indeed this is why the Crew are “sick” instead of vital. They evade technocracy but (and this is the perennial problem of anarchy) have no alternative structure of meaning and value with which to replace it. They have the community but not the hierophany; Oedipa has the hierophany but not the community. The Crew and Oedipa alike enact signs of contradiction, but what they signify is partial, incomplete. Eliade would suggest that lived Christianity, especially in its liturgy, is the truly effectual sign of contradiction because it unites hierophany and community. Pynchon has not stated his views on this topic.

However, what seems to be held out as possibility in CL49 is something other than either pure anarchy or formal organizational structure. Jesús Arrabal of the C.I.A. — the Conjuración de los Insurgentes Anarquistas — says that a miracle is “another world’s intrusion into this one,” which clearly invokes Eliade’s definition of hierophany, but then he explains what happens when such a miracle occurs: “revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul’s talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself.” I spoke in a previous post about the cyberneticists’ interest in the simple rules from which complex behavior emerges without being planned or directed, and Arrabal envisions what we might call spiritual emergence: anarchy is for him not the goal but the precondition for spontaneous and therefore genuine order.

And isn’t this reminiscent of what happens in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends to empower “the soul’s talent for consensus” among the variegated disciples of Jesus the Christ? I think of W. H. Auden’s comment on that passage:

The Christian church came into being at Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift of tongues, but it might equally as well be called the gift of ears…. As writers, readers, human beings, we cannot speak to or understand each other unless we are first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility of ear.

And I think it tells us a lot about Pynchon that the closest approach Oedipa Maas makes to experiencing this emergence of spontaneous order from anarchy does not involve either tongues or ears, but rather when she stumbles into a group of wildly, incomprehensibly dancing deaf-mutes.