• on January 23, 2020


Maybe you are working on new resolves to eat better and work out more in this new year. I know that I am. It’s interesting how such considerations are today fraught with all kinds of odd baggage. For many who don’t have a spiritual home, it can become an immortality project. The buzz of exercise endorphins now becomes the ultimate spiritual experience.

I remember journalist Ellen Goodman’s theory here. She claimed that health gurus have supplanted the priesthood, and healthism is our typical modern religion. “The old taboos were religious,” Goodman writes. “Ours are medical. Our ancestors talked about risks to the soul and we talk about risks to our bodies. They kept faith with tradition; we put faith in the ‘best scientific evidence.’ But our focus on these matters is religious in its intensity.”

Hmm, there’s more. Goodman wrote that “under the eye of our new medical priesthood, we have adopted proscriptions more rigid than those of a Moslem or Hindu. . . Instead of memorizing the saints or gods who have power over our troubles, we learn by rote the ingredients that will that will lower and reduce the chances of heart disease or cancer.”

The medical and health establishment “argue over interpretations the way medieval rabbis argued over the Talmud…As lay people, we worry about these arguments between scientific sects the way our ancestors worried about the struggles of the Reformation…How much freer, then, is our tribe?…It turns out that we share something with our ancestors: a thoroughly ancient and thoroughly modern desire to cheat fate.”

Similarly, William Willimon says the more we tout human potential as unlimited, the more afraid we become: “We must keep repeating the litany of self-sufficiency. We must keep assuring ourselves that we can save ourselves, all by ourselves. We must keep affirming that, deep down, given the proper environment and right education, we are basically good people making progress. We must, because if you and I don’t get it all together, who will?”

All people of every age would cheat fate, I suppose. Still, it’s curious how the debate has shifted away from the will of God toward the merits of canola versus olive oil, the optimal length of aerobic training. Is this really progress? In a day when our first concern has shifted from spirit to body, are we improving our lot? Do the new questions make us any freer? Have we moved forward when staying alive replaces becoming more fully human? Interesting questions. Of course, has it occurred to anyone that we could attend to both?

Our society is today of redefining so many areas of our common life. My own reading is that the pendulum is ready to swing back from healthism to faith. People are ripe to seek out God as the center where all things are held together and where we find our whole-ness. So enjoy that carrot juice and spinning class. And I’ll see you in worship on Sunday.

This Sunday we hear from our laypeople about what their favorite hymns mean to them.

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