Photo courtesy of Johannes Zielcke.
(Thinking through the question of religious practice of people who deny the transcendent, which help from E. Herbert Nygren.)
Nygren observes that the secular age does not merely dispense with God but rather makes God utterly immanent: what is lost is not a god per se but rather a transcendent God:
Emily Brunner, some years ago, in his book Revelation and Reason wrote: “The most characteristic element of the present age, and that which distinguishes it … is the almost complete disappearance of the sense of transcendence, and the consciousness of revelation.”
The disappearance of transcendence—this can take us in either of two directions: the total abandonment of God i:n favor of a secular society or the total involvement of God within the secular society.
The former—the abandonment of God in favor of the secular conceded to the physical world the right to exert a controlling force over life. Several distinguishable corollaries are illustrative of this mood. There is a persistent appeal to physical accomplishments, minimizing or even neglecting human needs and values.
The second aspect of the disappearance of the sense of the transcendent involves the total involvement of God in the secular world, the nearly exclusive emphasis upon immanentism. In many instances, the churches no longer make ontological or dogmatic statements about a transcendent Diety. God-talk has been dispensed with in favor of a theological language speaking about Jesus of Nazareth, about human self-understanding, about the “Death of God.” To make religion relevant to the secular society, the supernatural has to be excised, erased, forever.
But this cry for relevance so easily results in religion’s being swallowed up in the secular society.
E. Herbert Nygren, “Secularism—The Theological Challenge,” Ashland Theological Journal Volume 4 4 (1971): 41. The effect of this loss of transcendence is the loss of direction, the loss of purpose:
How suggestive this is of modern man’s dilemma. It lies in his loss of direction; he is willing to go anyplace anyone will take him, and having arrived will do anything anyone asks him to do. It is possible that modern man’s frustrations and dissatisfactions lie in the fact that he has fallen in love with everything and anything rather than with something and someone.
Nygren, 42. Without a sufficient object, the “religious impulse” or the direction of man’s worship becomes corrupt. Nygren illustrates this corruption with the stories of Hosea and Micah in the book of Judges: one exhibits sexual immorality, the other crass materialism.
The worshippers of Baal had lost the personal God of Israel among the nature forces and immorality:
As Walter Eichrodt expressed it, Israel had lost a personal relationship with God by an impersonal entry into numinous forces of agricultural cults. In a desire to make religion relevant, they tried to imitate the mythology of the day, the mythology of the marriage of gods and goddesses with earth by having sexual relations with the cultic prostitutes at scattered shrines.
Nygren, 42. Micah directed his religious impulse toward a god of silver whom he could move — and lose to the more vicious Dannites.
In both instances, the religion becomes a desire for a god whom the worshipper can manipulate. Micah apparently believes an idol and a “priest” who give him the ability to “worship”. The Baal worshippers of Hosea certainly hoped their immorality would bring the blessing of their wholly immanent storm god.
It seem that Nygren is one to something here: the modern perversion of worship seems to tend in one of these two directions: First, there is the physical pleasure, the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll of Hosea. Second, there is the rank materialism of Micah. If anything the decadence of the West has coupled these two into a combination of “erotic liberty” (to use Mohler’s phrase) and material progress (preferably without labor) will bring about happiness: a sort of perversion of Peter’s encouragement: to”rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8b-9).
The worship of this immanent age there must be seen in the subjection of one’s life to obtain this “salvation”. We make a mistake when we think that a religion must solely be focused on some transcendent object: idolatry is by very definition something that can be seen and touched with the hope of bringing about immediate physical good.
Moreover, an immanent religion will be largely invisible, because it will be just the “normal” way one lives.
(There is also the “religious” error of a wholly transcendent religion which merely seeks the escape of this world. Christian cherishes both the transcendent and immanent which lies at the heart of our worship: Jesus the Incarnate Son of God who will raise the dead and restore the world, bringing about a New Heavens and a New Earth.)