Sunday, January 30, 2011

Postmodern Self Help: New Opiate for the Masses

Checking out at a discount store yesterday, I had a few minutes while waiting to peruse the magazine covers near the check-out counter. One particular cover caught my eye because of the promises it made: "Shortcuts to Bliss!"  "Happy Healing"  "No More Tiredness" "Melt Away Pounds!"  It occurs to me that these kinds of promises of self-help quick fixes offered by various gurus on fitness, happiness, etc. are the current opiate of the masses rather than religion. (as Karl Marx famously wrote: "Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes"). Times have changed, Herr Marx.

Having just read Father Dwight Longenecker's well-articulated post "The Collapse of Cultural Catholicism" in which he laments the dwindling number of people who take their faith seriously enough to show up for church, largely because they think they are good enough Christians on their own and have no use for the Church, it struck me that there is a relationship.

We are a society that not only thinks it is all about us, but that we can fix anything if we only try this or that system of behavior, or think positively enough. The Prosperity Gospel evangelists promote an attitude that if you are not rich, happy and leading a perfect life, it's your fault because you are not praying hard enough for those good things.  The New Age version of this comes from guru Eckhart Tolle - made famous by Oprah Winfrey's choice of his book. He would say that if you are not happy, it is because of your negative attitude. The "universe" wants good things for you - all you have to do is plug into the positive energy.  Supermarket self-help magazines direct people to the Self-Help aisle in the bookstore - which seems to get larger all the time, to find the latest books about systems for fixing everything about the human condition. Only around the corner are the corresponding New Age spirituality books which promise to fix your soul.

Organized religion is rapidly being rejected by people who have no use for what they do not understand - because it is not all about them. What we have is a failure to evangelize. Because they do not understand what the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ really has to do with their everyday life, they turn away and look for love "in all the wrong places" - depending on their own ability to follow somebody's "system" for happiness and fulfillment. The Church is not doing well at communicating the relationship of Paschal Mystery to everyday life. For that, I have to put some of the blame on the clergy - in my 24 years as a Catholic, I have only heard one homily that even mentioned it.

Jesus Christ has the ultimate system for self-improvement: his teachings and his example of life, submitting his will to that of the Father. Until people who call themselves Christian acknowledge that and stop turning whichever way the popular wind blows, we are really living in an era of "anti-Christs" - people who draw people away from Christ with promises of happiness. We live in a time where people no longer are addicted to religion, as Marx postulated. Instead, they are addicted to self-help, and to the latest system that promises health, wealth and happiness... until something newer and better comes along. No wonder few of them attend church any more.


  1. Some good thoughts about Catholicism and our culture. You shared that: "The Church is not doing well at communicating the relationship of Paschal Mystery to everyday life." That may very well be many people's experience, however I think the Church is doing many great things to help integrate faith and culture.

  2. Yes, there are some good initiatives out there... however, since the number of Catholics attending Mass regularly keeps declining (in spite of the huge boost in numbers from the incoming Hispanic population) we are barely treading water. Much more needs to be done.

  3. Are you aware of some good initiatives that are having success?

  4. Good initiatives? Here is what I have direct knowledge of:

    * Some of our local parishes are using the "Alpha in a Catholic Context" program as pre-inquiry for RCIA, along with "Catholicism 201" - also from Alpha, with some success.

    *About 1/3 of our parishes are using some variation of inter-generational learning (it all started with Generations of Faith). These seem to wake up some adults and put them in a more open stance for conversion.

    *The tried and true things like Cursillo, Christ Renews His Parish... these are still having an impact on leading some adults to conversion.

    *There is also one based Rockford, Illinois called Light of the World Evangelization Ministries ( that a few of our parishes have had, which seems to have great potential.

    *Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association programs like Awakening Faith and Seeking Christ ( are beginning to show some promise.

    I am sure there are many more, but these are those I know of that are being used in our area.

  5. "Organized religion is rapidly being rejected by people who have no use for what they do not understand - because it is not all about them."

    Thus the present success of entreprenurial churches which do "make it about you."