From THE VN/VO:
This last week, my humble town of Chicago, Illinois was in the miracle-generating crosshairs of The Almighty himself. I am not entirely sure if it is a sign that my metropolitan-area neighbors had done good or evil, but nonetheless, we were blessed with a salt stain, in the apparent image of The Virgin Mary herself, on the wall of an expressway underpass. People are flocking to it, camping out, buying it flowers, you name it. Its become easy fodder for talk radio humor, late night television, all as one would expect.
While any rational person can look at the image and realize the foolishness of the theory, and we all get a laugh out of a mass of people going to such extremes- the episode is, indeed, a significant representation of how centuries-old religions play out in twenty-first century America.
You see, while from the outside, if the image is not obviously anything more than random patterns in salt, the pros and cons, at the very least, weigh in at “iffy.” But to those captivated by it, such questioning does not- and possibly cannot- occur. There are no pros and cons, nor possible and probable, with religion. It is simply just true- above all science and logic. It serves a different purpose than science or logic. And, stripping away the comedy of it, it exposes a most telling partition in American culture.
Religion, descendent from myths, was invented for two purposes. For one, it helped explain- and humanize- the unexplainable. As a people, we require some form of elucidation to everything we observe. Science obviously grows a lot slower than our ability to simply observe events, and thus mythical reasoning takes over. As well, such explanation is always formed in the model of humanity. For the masses, God is never an alien. Sure, there may be spirits and mystery involved, but the end result is always human-centric.
Secondly, religion has always served to control the masses. Sometimes malevolently and sometimes not, but the notion has always been that a populace that believes in absolute and unconstrained autonomy is a dangerous one. To some degree that is correct- restrictions, even if illogical on the surface, have played a part in our progression as a race. To some degree such restrictions are- to put it bluntly- foolish.
Throughout history most of the advancement of thought and understanding has happened despite religion. Or, maybe it is more fair to put it this way: religion has almost always served to fill in the gaps until science and logic provided a better clarification.
Religion is funny like that. They are supposedly the word of an all-knowing, omnipotent God, yet they evolve and change alongside the logic of mere humankind. You would think it impossible, but indeed new religions materialize all the time. (Of course, every new religion seems to come with the caveat that all religions and Gods before it were the wrong ones, and this one is the real deal. Just like one would script it.)
One does not even have to absorb eras of the history of all humanity to see the dichotomization of religion and reason- it is happening at present, as different nations are concurrently at different points of their own evolutions. As third-world nations move from pure, all-encompassing poverty into a culture, religion is adopted as the primary source of judgment and wisdom at a rather accelerated pace. In longer-standing cultures- old-world Europe for example- religion, while never eradicated entirely, often takes a back-seat to science, economics, and philosophies of logic as the primary foundation of rationale.
This transition from pure need, to faith, to science plays out in nearly every cultural evolution. That is, except one culture: Modern America.
American culture differs from practically every other Western, first-world society- and practically every past “superpower” state- in one key manner: it continues to embrace religion as a central tenet to all intent and purpose. We’re not just talking amongst its lower classes, which are populated mostly with new immigrants, presumably from less developed cultures where religion as a tenet would historically be expected. Rather, religion- while certainly not the driving force for every individual- permeates government, ethics, and the fundamental ethos of the land to a much greater degree than one would expect, given historical logic as a predictor of such things.
There are certainly intellectually-sound justifications: advanced cultures are morally strong cultures, as well religion is a conduit for some undeniably correct structures of right and wrong. However, the first question becomes: is religion necessary for such structure? I would argue that with the irrational baggage always accompanying religion, this is a precarious pillar on which we rest our culture.
In America, we like to draw divisions between people in an effort to pinpoint problems and imbalances, as well assign responsibilities and faults differently. We search through divisions of the rich and the poor, whites and minorities, women and men. Most often the results only come somewhat close to describing the cultural condition- it is rare that we find a true and absolute divisions that make sense in terms of pinpointing dilemmas and injustices. Maybe these divisions are not the ones that actually matter.
America is not an island. This is becoming increasingly more obvious as America is being forced not only into the economic exchange of the world as a whole, but also the cultural, intellectual, and philosophical exchanges of the world. And, to boot, the rest of the world is evolving to a place where, at one time, only America stood.
The particulars of current, localized events are irrelevant here. Specific issues and specific players of today’s world will, of course, fade away. As such, in the future, we may find America slowly losing its world-wide power for the same reason many nations and cultures lost their grip on world-wide power: because the true division between cultures which succeed and those which fall from success is often the division between those who hold to antiquated, mythical beliefs and those who progress beyond such beliefs.
I am not about to say any individual does not have the right to hold any specific beliefs. I would never claim that there is or is not a God, or higher power if you will, of some sort. Religion and God are two very different things.
That being said, when we look at those who have made the pilgrimage to an expressway underpass in Chicago to worship a salt stain, we see a microcosm of the American belief system. Its humorous when it takes place in an unexpected location (an urban underpass), and when it involves something we generally think of as non religious (street salt). But its really no different than the leaps of faith the religious sector of America takes in everyday life.
We can look at the people gathered in front of salt stain and proclaim such a thing to be, at best, a waste of energy on an individual-by-individual basis. But we, as a culture, can’t seem to extrapolate the irrationality to a magnitude of and entire nation.
While certainly being fuel for humor, those who worship a vision of The Virgin Mary in a salt stain aren’t necessarily fanatical outsiders. They are, indeed, symbolic of America.
View story at THE VN/VO:
Our Lady of the Salt Stain, Patron Saint of the Future of America