Hallo again to all.
Somehow it pleases us that we can't quite recall the name of the well-known British atheist who a few years ago was speaking on religion in a well-publicized forum. It might have been Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or someone similar. He explained to the audience that religion was an invention of ancient people that helped them deal with fear born of ignorance, and that modern science had eliminated that ignorance and had thus eliminated the fear that was the core of the need for religion.
We shook our heads, wondering what world he lived in, in which modernity had conquered fear. Oddly, the words of the Rodgers & Hammerstein show 'Oklahoma' came to mind:
Everything's up to date in Kansas City
Oh yes, modern science really has eliminated ignorance. We do indeed know everything. And the elimination of ignorance has done such a good job of eliminating fear that, indeed, no one is afraid any more and so no one needs ancient belief systems that were supposedly created to allay fears. As lyricist Rodgers might have said, 'fer sure!'
We won't comment on the amount of ignorance remaining in the world despite the great work of science to dispel it. A total eclipse of the sun is now cause for happy amazement and not cold terror. We know that scientific progress in the last century or two has been breathtaking, and we're sure that if you named a dozen ways in which modern science had improved the world and we also named a dozen ways, that our lists would hardly overlap.
But fear? We will always have fear. Technologies born of science have added as much fear to the world as knowledge born of science might have removed. Fear of the unknown — fear of the dark — will always be our biggest fear. And in this internet-connected televised jet-airplane world, there will always be unknowns and darkness. Imaginary darkness is just as dark as ocular darkness. Is the fear of a monster lurking right around the next corner really any greater than the fear of the high-tech virus lurking just beyond the next click? Wondering whether your laptop is possessed of a computer virus is often just as anxious than wondering whether your friend is possessed by a demon.
When we read sermons from past centuries, we understand why the term 'fire and brimstone' is often used to describe the preachers. The congregation didn't need to be told to fear the Devil, because they already did. Genuine, real, palpable fear of a genuine, real, lurking Devil. The Devil who was out to get you, out to trick you, out to fool you, out to hurt you and steal your soul. And many a preacher believed that fear of the Devil was one reason so many attended church.
We can count on the thumbs of one hand the number of sermons about the Devil we've heard in church in the last decade. Old Beelzebub isn't a relevant topic any more. There's not as much thundering from the pulpit as there once was*, perhaps because there's no longer a primary and diabolical topic to thunder about. Worrying about the Devil is so last-century.
And yet if the Devil is gone, where is all that fear coming from? Why are we afraid of the darkness in our computers? Why does the internet or Facebook frighten so many people? Why are we afraid of genetically engineered food? Swimming in the ocean at night? Bungee jumping? Afraid of governments eavesdropping on our telephone calls or Google eavesdropping on our online lives? Afraid of lifts or aeroplanes? Afraid of being deposed in a lawsuit? Lady MacBeth, fearing that there is still blood on her hands and washing them obsessively, has nothing on the people who open a new email account every week and abandon the old one to keep 'the stalkers' from finding them. Or those who defragment their hard drives every morning or clear their computers of cookies every evening before they go to bed. Oh yes, the Devil is still quite real, but has learned that we are more afraid of crashed hard drives and GMO's than we are of burning in Hell. So the Devil has adapted. Find a fear and fan it.
In this modern world of science, technology, and global information no one can know everything. This means that everyone is ignorant about something. But the old-fashioned Devil is much easier to preach about. Jonathan Edwards preached** that God has never promised to save us from the Devil, except for those contained in Christ through the covenant of Grace. A quarter of a millennium later a preacher might thunder that God has never promised to restore our crashed hard drive if we don't have the grace to make daily backups. Which of those messages is more memorable and more universal? We're afraid to ask. But isn't it the same Devil, with the same strategy but new tactics?
See you next week.
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