On the right to ask religious questions

September 11, 2007

In my previous posting, I made the curious assertion that, in America, “everyone has the right to exist, no one has the right to ask religious questions.” Some of my readers may well wonder what I meant by this. Perhaps I was not entirely sure myself when I asserted it. On consideration, however, it seems to me that what I meant was something like this: the ability to ask questions is not a foregone conclusion, nor are all questions possible under all circumstances; the kinds of questions one asks when sitting in a library or alone on a beach are generally not the kinds of questions one asks when standing at a checkout counter or walking through a mall. My claim is that America, in its culture, encourages certain kinds of questions and discourages certain others. It is very fond of questions that can be answered by assigning a monetary value. It is uncomfortable with questions that are not at all expressible in terms of material consumption.

One of these questions that defy material analysis is the question of the holy. For most of us most of the time, the holy has ceased to be a question at all; it is drowned out by the noise of the culture, like a still, small voice in a thumping discotheque. Our freedom to ask the question remains, but it is an increasingly abstract freedom, like the freedom of non-millionaires to run for president. At one point in the distant past, people in America were not allowed to buy and sell on a certain day of the week; that restriction was meant to allow for a space in which other freedoms might take root, like the freedom to ask the question of the holy. In a concrete, practical sense, we have traded that one freedom for the other.

For myself, I am sorry that that occurred; I think it was a poor exchange. It was one small step in the direction of that consumerist monoculture in which we now live and which we seek to promote globally, a culture in which what is consumed is not only things, but people.

St. Augustine long ago recognized that freedom is a very peculiar thing: all of us are in some sense free to choose; most of us, nevertheless, make bad choices much of the time. For Augustine, the fact that we make these bad choices indicates that we are less free than we think we are; although technically free to choose, we are, in practice, enslaved, driven by the weight our desires, by our habits of consuming and being consumed. This kind of consumerism, he says, is really the opposite of freedom. Religious language designates this condition as “sin,” a radical missing of the mark of life; and it is a state from which we cannot escape on our own strength: we need to be liberated.

Our fundamental right to ask religious questions is based, in the final analysis, upon God’s right to ask questions of us. Where societies or persons fail to respect that divine right, they become totalitarian and begin to die from within, however much “choice” they ostentatiously flaunt. In any case, I would like to prove my own previous statement wrong, by exercising in this blog the right to ask religious questions.

P.S. May the souls of those who perished six years ago in the attack upon this country rest in peace.


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