Secular Sainthood Is a Bad Idea

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has come and gone. The “I have a dream” speech was played and replayed as if it were on an MP3 player’s endless loop setting. The more adventurous media aired some of his other, more ecumenical orations in opposition to the Vietnam war or the evils of unleashed capitalism. To the best of my knowledge, no miracles were attributed to Dr. King, but his birthday was celebrated in a fashion very much like that of a Christian saint.

I suspect this kind of memorial would displease him greatly. If he was half the man we make him out to be he would be appalled that the result of his life’s work has come to focus so much on him instead of on what he stood and died for. No doubt he had his weaknesses, possibly even one for public adulation, but he cared too much about the goals he had for his nation to want any serious distraction from them in the way of personality cult or hagiography.

But personality, real and imagined, rather than what they said and did, is what we prefer to focus on in our great social and religious figures. How much of Christianity is devoted to worship of the man – or god-man – Jesus rather than to his words? The itinerant rabbi who may or may not have believed he was the Messiah but preached a precious, perennial message of hope and love with deep Jewish roots going back to the prophet Isaiah was turned into a Greek deity through whom and only through whom we must seek to save ourselves from eternal hellfire. Protestants believe they can achieve this by a deep act of faith accepting a still-living Jesus as their personal savior. Roman Catholics believe they can only do so by obeying the precepts and availing themselves of the sacraments of what they consider the one true church.

There seems to be no cognitive dissonance for either Protestants or Catholics to have a deep and abiding faith in this Jesus and then go and behave in ways that would surely have appalled him. Catholic soldiers can receive what they believe to be the flesh of God into their bodies and then slaughter men, women and children not just with impunity but with divine approbation. Protestants, themselves no slouches when it comes to slaughter, can tease out of the gospels assurance that their material prosperity is promised, indeed guaranteed, by those same gospels.

It’s as if we would rather have the vessel than the contents, rather the man or superman constructed out of our own personal desires and imaginations than deal with the truths he espoused and the imperatives that flow from them. Jesus knew enough about human nature to predict we would react this way when he said that few in any generation would hear his message. Dr. King was perhaps more hopeful, or at least he spoke and acted as if he was, insisting we could find justice in this life if we wanted to. But the message was not the man in either King’s or in Jesus’s case. The message is neither enhanced nor diminished by the virtues or foibles of the messenger, though it’s only human nature to see it as being so. And the message is certainly not identical with the man or woman him/herself, especially when a cult of the person results in distraction from the content of the message.

It does not take a divinity or even a saint to speak truth – if Einstein had been a total reprobate, a moral slug, instead of the compassionate man he was, would his Theory of Relativity be less valid? – but it does take an open mind and an open heart to hear that truth and something more as well to act on it.

About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on February 1, 2017, in Other Thoughts, religion, Social Issues and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post ever since you sent it. I’ve often thought that sainthood was the RC version of celebrity — which as a child I was going to strive for in the same way people strive for fame — until the whole world view on which it was based became untenable for me.

    But I never thought of the process of canonization in the way you describe it here. And it seems to me you’ve put your finger on a different perspective that is critical. Yes, how much easier to honor the person than to live by their words. It makes us feel as if we share in their goodness without having to inconvenience ourselves with listening to what they say and trying to implement the same values. Oh no, I’m not that good!

  2. I can imagine that, if the church was in charge today the way it was a thousand years ago, we would have fan magazines devoted to the saints. They were the movie stars of their day, weren’t they. And the great athletes too — spiritual athletes. That’s how I saw them in my youth, as heroic figures who could make touchdowns and hit home runs for God (though the sports metaphor never actually occurred as such; that would have been a sacrilegious thought). We venerated them, prayed to them, just as we seek the autographs and seek the advice of the great sports figures. We contemplated their sufferings and sometimes martyrdoms. We could aspire to be like them, but it was a kind of pride as well to think so. And so, we went back to leading our sinful lives, thinking that great acts like defying emperors and founding religious orders were not ambitions for common people like us.

    Likewise, we venerate MLK and others, but think great deeds are for the Chosen, not for us. We think all we can manage is to go into a voting booth every couple years and select a name from among those that have been chosen for us by those wiser than we are. Some of us go out and demonstrate, which is itself a kind of theater, isn’t it – theater for those who will never actually stand on a real stage, certainly not a political one. We put on T-shirts and think we have changed the world.

    The media cooperate by running those endless loops of MLK’s dream speech, not his talk on economic injustice which is at the heart of “racial” injustice. There’s no sense envisioning a world where everyone is judged on their character and not on the color of their skin if the color of their skin is determined by their economic disenfranchisement (The Making of Ferguson: So, we end up voicing the usual platitudes every year, just as we do on Presidents Day or the Fourth of July, more to reassure ourselves that everything is as it should be.

  3. We are emphatically on the same page.

    But as I was growing up, I didn’t think that wanting to be a great saint was a sin of self-deceitful pride. In fact, I was named after St. Therese the Little Flower, which I thought was an infuriating mistake. I wanted to be like St. Theresa of Avila who gave advice to popes. Yes. I’d say I wanted to be the RC version of a celebrity.

    I am now quite pleased to celebrate the little things. The entire universe is made up of particles which gradually join together to finally comprise everything, including you and me and everything we know and love.. We are all very small parts in a great universe, and we are each essential. The excuse I made until well into my middle age was not to realize how important it is that each one of us do our small part. That is the greatness of it.

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