Occasional Poem Number Three: A Tribute to Winter
Published on: November 29, 2009
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  • Gary Novak

    Berger writes that “it is useful to reflect about the relation between any specific faith and the civil religion affirmed in [the Boston] service.” Following Grace Davie’s suggestion that, in times of collective grief, established churches may become the official
    mourners of the nation, he notes that, in America, “all the [unestablished] denominations together serve to legitimate the civil religion that can be embraced by all citizens.” And, by and large, Berger regards this arrangement as very successful.

    Lusvardi seems to regard it as somewhat less successful. I think he is correct in noting that civil religion ain’t what it used to be. The transcendent dimension of civil religion has been replaced with “therapy, social activism, ethics, agnosticism, or all
    four.” In his 1966 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah described civil religion as “a genuine
    apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in . . . or revealed through the experience of the American people.” And he added, “’God’ has clearly been a central symbol in the civil religion from the beginning and remains so today. This symbol is just as central to the civil religion as it is to Judaism or Christianity.” Presidents have always referred to God (and, Bellah argues, it was not simply meaningless window-dressing). “But could we have an agnostic president? Could a man with
    conscientious scruples about using the word ‘God’ the way Kennedy and Johnson have used it be elected chief magistrate of our country”? If Obama is not going to invoke God at the Boston services, when will he—only when warning against those who cling to God and guns?

    Here is how a recent introductory sociology text (John Macionis) defines civil religion: “a quasi-religious loyalty binding individuals in a basically secular society.” To realize how little religion there is in this “quasi-religion,” consider Macionis’ explication: “Civil religion involves a range of rituals, from standing to sing the national anthem at sporting
    events to waving the flag at public parades. At all such events, the U. S. flag serves as a sacred symbol of our national identity.”

    But if Bellah’s civil religion has been secularized, why would Berger acquiesce in an arrangement that liquidates the transcendent. How could he report on
    Obama’s “inspiring” sermon without laughing out loud? Recall Berger’s answer to the question why
    there are no humanist funerals (Jan 10, 2013)—they don’t work. “[Religion] offers a community gathered
    around the message that death is not the final word about an individual life and nothingness not the final destiny of the universe. At any rate this is the message shared by the Abrahamic faiths that came to Newtown. Whether this message is true or not, humanism in the sense of ‘no faith’ cannot offer a plausible alternative.” Not in Newtown; not in Boston.

    Berger describes the spontaneous (as opposed to official) memorial—with its crosses, candles, teddy bears, and running shoes—where people stood in a prayerful attitude—as having a “clearly ritual, quasi-sacral character.” THIS “quasi-sacral” event, however, unlike Macionis’ quasi-religious flag-waving, was NOT “basically secular.” The people
    were quite able to find signals of transcendence everywhere—even in Obama’s sermon! (Let me save Lusvardi the trouble of adding the omitted fifth signal of transcendence—humor.) In other words, civil religion, even when it is appropriated by secular humanists, cannot be secularized, because signals of
    transcendence guarantee the return of the repressed.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The Boston Marathon bombings eerily bring to mind bombings of a street parade by two teenage terrorists who trained in Belgrade, Serbia some 99 years ago. The parade brought together Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim participants in a territory recently annexed by a larger state on a policy of irredentism (annexation on grounds of common ethnicity or history). “National Defense,” an offshoot of the Black Hand, trained the bombers underground on how to throw hand made bombs. They also acquired a Browning semi-automatic pistol.

    What was in vogue at that time was the assassination of state leaders, not innocent parade bystanders (Boston), school children (Newtown, Conn.), or theatergoers (Aurora, Colorado). There were no signs or messages of religious, ethnic, or territorial conflict brought into the public square of the parade. To the contrary, the parade watchers brought large portraits of those venerated in the parade.

    The event I’m describing was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne of Austria and his wife in an open car in Sarajevo, Serbia by 18-year old Gavrilo Princip. His co-conspirator was 19 year-old Nedjelko Chabrinovitch, among others. They plotted their murder in a coffeehouse in Belgrade, Serbia 99-years ago.

    It is interesting to note that the surname of the Boston bombers -– Tsarnaev – brings to mind a rough street English translation of “naïve Czars” or “young punk gangsters.”

    As described in historian Sean McMeekin’s wonderful new book – “July 1914″ – this assassination set off a series of events that was capitalized on for political purposes resulting in World War I. Austria’s foreign minister had tricked his Russian counterpart in an agreed quid pro quo between the nations. The Russian ambassador was humiliated and tried to live down a resulting reputation of cowardice. He eventually exacted revenge against Austria when he reappeared as the Russian ambassador to France. Later he helped form a coalition of France and Russia that triggered a world war.

    Not one foreign royal figurehead or statesman came to Vienna for the funeral of Ferdinand, including even the failure of Austrian Emperor and King Franz Joseph I to attend, for fear of fanning the flames of ethnic or religious violence in the public square. Foreign ambassadors all sent condolences except for Russia. Emperor Franz Josef I had refused to modernize the ancient Austrian Empire and thus there was no “secular” vocabulary to bring into the public square (at least as McMeekin describes it).

    McMeekin points out there were calls to go to war against Serbia just as the ancient Roman Cato the Elder ended all his speeches before the Roman Senate with: “Carthage must be destroyed.” There are no calls for Chechnyans to be mass deported or revenge to be exacted, in part due to America’s moderated Civlc Religion, which Prof. Berger has aptly pointed out.

    (Note to Dr. Gary Novak: Berger’s fifth Signal of Transcendence– humor — which I negligently omitted in my first comment above, brings to mind the saying: “man plans, God laughs.”

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I should have added at the end of my second comment with regard to humor as a signal of transcendence: it was widely reported that Boston police had announced to the Marathon crowd that there would be a simulated bombing for training purposes before the actual bombs went off. Call this a signal of dark humor (“man plans, God laughs”) that reminds humanity of its official follies and the adolescent puerility of the perpetrators that they would be undiscovered.

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