Everything’s on Sale: Appropriations of Religion

A sighting of the unseen forces of religion at work during the holidays and what they tell us about this age

By William Schweiker|December 23, 2019

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

The famous lines quoted above are from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and they seem oddly appropriate for the year that is passing away. So do their inversion: our times seem the worst of seasons and only then the best of times. The vacillation in Dickens’ appraisal of his age was meant to enable the reader to see its full ambiguity. What to say at the end of a tumultuous year in every domain of social life (economics, politics, education, genocide, climate change, media, family, social life, and so on)? What is the force of the contemporary year’s passing, even decade’s passing?

The reach of the age’s tumult is fantastic. It ranges from “reeducation” camps for Muslims in China to a presidential impeachment at home; from the confusion of Brexit to the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong. We have witnessed the emergence of a post-truth culture alongside a vast array of scientific discoveries. On the planetary scale, millions of young people protested for their future while the United Nations could not reach a firm accord on climate change. And religion was, of course and as always, everywhere: the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, a Nativity scene in Claremont, California with the holy family as refugees in holding cages, mass murders at too many houses of worship, evangelical Christians proclaiming Donald Trump a new King Cyrus, and the division of denominations over questions of sex and gender, just to name a few of the more obvious examples. Does anything other than the vacillation of best and worse, belief and incredulity, make sense of things?

Sightings columns are interested in, well, sightings of religion, here and around the globe. What is not so obvious is how some appearances of religion might actually be concealed in social and cultural forms, like the marking and naming of times. Sightings authors often have to wrestle the unseen from the seen, make manifest religion otherwise concealed. This is more difficult when the season is awash and aglitter in the trappings and sounds of religion: colors, candles, presents, concerts—Bach and Handel, of course!—Santa Claus, and the parade of commerce pandering for our attention and our dollars. Yet it is the evaluation of times that is the topic of this end-of-the-year Sightings column. Dickens was, of course, facing the traumas and turmoil of the French Revolution. We face decidedly different upheavals of time in terms of their religious meanings. 

Some of the leading theologians of the last century (H. Richard Niebuhr; Paul Tillich), sociologists (Max Weber; Emile Durkheim), philosophers (Karl Jaspers; Hannah Arendt) and many others saw, in different ways, that the brutality of two world wars was nothing less than a war among gods previously suppressed in modern rationalized societies but let loose to pillage the earth. Niebuhr spoke about henotheism as the reign of many gods opposed to radical monotheism, which is not the sole possession of any tribe, nation, or people. The idea was that people need one center of value, one ultimate concern, if the warring gods are to be stilled. 

That was then, and now is now. Today, oneness and centers seem to be the problem rather than the answer. The “monotheistic” pretenses of globalization as a single differentiated process have fallen to the regional gods of nation states, people, language groups, and even differences in sex, gender, and class. Eurocentric civilization has given way to polycentric societies even as those nations have seen a backlash against cultural diversity. The ancient logical form of the One and the Many seems less logical—and so less rational—and more conflict ridden than ever before. It would appear that we are watching the flux and reflux, as David Hume called it, between polytheism and monotheism in social forms. Tribal gods are at war with each other (now called Trade Wars and Immigration problems) and with a supreme God (populist movements attacking global commerce and politics). And this flux and reflux is a dynamic found working, historically, in very different ways within the very different world religions. People stake their values—and often their lives—on these competing forces and find meaning in doing so.

If we fixate on the flux and reflux between and among gods and God, we are apt to miss the religious dynamic at work in our age. As Dickens says, it is simultaneity, not alteration, that marks human ages. How is that so?

Students of religion know that the emergence of a “new” religious form often—usually—appropriates and alters the rituals, places, symbolic forms, deities, and stories from the “parent” religion folding them into itself. Each is then simultaneously present, albeit in different registers. The Romans took over Greek gods; mosques are built on the sites of temples, and vice versa; the Vatican sits atop a Roman circus; Atman is subverted from its Indian origin by Buddhists; American Buddhists are, unsurprisingly, American Buddhists, laying over their culture on the Dharmma; Muhammad is the seal of the prophets while Christians hold the Christ is messiah, a Jewish hope, and not a prophet. And so it goes. The religious dynamic repurposes ideals and values for new purposes and for new people. And yet the repurposing leaves open the possibility of the return, the resurgence, of the appropriated. It is not the case that the power of appropriation and transformation is somehow a-religious or non-religious. The dynamic of appropriation and transformation designates the social power of religion and its capacity to elicit commitment and socialize people into specific forms of identity. 

The question is, if we accept Dickens but move beyond him, how is this religious dynamic not only ambiguous but also calling for some evaluation? Does the religious dynamic of simultaneity through appropriation at work in a society actually respect or demean life, enhance or destroy common life?

There seems little doubt that the greatest force of appropriation and commitment transformation in contemporary society is not within the historic religions or politics or cultural movements but within commerce and economics. Money is the universal medium and measure of value, or so it seems. It enables people to imagine that their preferences are freestanding, not formed by the commercialization of human attention, although, of course, they are. This is well known. The Christmas windows at Macy’s in New York and Chicago, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” the colonization of German Christmas markets by trinkets produced in China, and eggnog and office parties, are all long-standing artifacts of the commercialization of Christmas. So what is different now?

What we see now, I suggest, is a second-order appropriation and simultaneity—and so a religious dynamic—that bodes ill for us. The first order dynamic was the appropriation of traditional religious forms into consumerist ones. But the second-order dynamic is the cheapening of even the first-order dynamic. And each is layered over the other as the Season of Life and the Season of Darkness. We live in a rabidly anti-idealist age where every high aspiration is brought low, when the better angels of our nature flutter into chat rooms just to be debased, when Christmas sweaters depict “sleazy Santa” and drunken elves, and when beastly forms of hatred parade themselves as marks of justified ethnic or racial or sexual pride. In a word, the religious dynamic at work in our society and world is cannibalizing older ideals and not repurposing them. The problem—I hasten to add—is not the market or economics. Those are merely the means for the working of the religious dynamic among us. The problem, again, is that the religious dynamics are a social force that repurposes prior religious practices, beliefs, and symbols to new ends in the formation of social identity. Sometimes the repurposing even seeks to demean and destroy those prior forces. And so it is with our winter of despair and decadence.

But hope is not thereby dispelled. The angels too remain present, if hidden. Ideals of dignity and worth do not surrender so easily. In this situation, not just Sighting columnists, but, much more, people must wrestle the unseen from the seen and so make manifest living resources that elevate our lives with the hope of wisdom.  ♦


The author wishes to thank Kris Culp, Associate Professor of Theology and Dean of Disciples Divinity House, for conversations about Sightings columns and other theological matters.

Sightings is edited by Joel Brown, a PhD Candidate in Religions in the Americas at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


William Schweiker

Columnist, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.