We live in a spiritual age. According to a recent Harris poll, some 31 percent or 48 million Americans believe in astrology; 31 percent of Americans believe in witches, and 36 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the Word of God. Furthermore, about 80 percent of Americans believe in God while 68 percent of Americans believe that the soul never dies. Meanwhile, 27 percent of Americans attend church regularly. This string of statistics is just that—numbers, but they can be suggestive. For instance, the percentage of Americans who believe in astrology (31 percent) is the same as the percentage of those who believe in witches. But I would like to know how many of those Americans who believe in astrology and/or witches also believe in God. The Pew Research Center found that “more than 1 in 5 U.S. Christians believe in reincarnation, astrology and in the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects… many also consult psychics….” Thus, it would appear that fully 20 percent of American Christians embrace aspects of the occult as integral to their Christian Faith. There are a number of possible reasons for this shocking syncretism. The Harris Poll reveals that only 36 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the Word of God. It appears that the bulk of Americans who believe in ‘God’ do not consult the Bible as a guide to truth. Postmodern Christianity is more eclectic and far more elastic in terms of personal preferences and needs than its modern predecessor. The rule of the subjective self in our culture means that anything can be true if it fits my current need, and, conversely, nothing can be true when it fails to meet the minimum standard of my need.
But a secondary question should be posed: to what extent are all Christians--even those of us who reject astrology—culturally inclined to seek out answers to life’s difficult questions through the avenue of the Self? If one out of five Christians seeks to understand God’s will for their lives through astrology, how many Christians, who would never consult the stars, try to discover God’s will through a pseudo-prayer life which, in effect, functions in precisely the same way as horoscopes do? To put the question more forcefully, to what extent do we try to discover God’s will for our lives through prayers that enable us to avoid exercising faith, submitting to God’s revealed will, or avoid doing what we don’t want to do? I am not trying to say that, formally, this is the same thing as practicing astrology, but I am interested in the possibility that even though we practice what, on the surface, appear to be biblically sanctioned methods for ascertaining God’s will, it could be that in our hearts, we are trying to use God in the same way others try to use the stars—that is, as a substitute for faith, godly reason and biblically informed decision making. In this vein, I found a website that advertises online courses on how to start an Astrology business. In the introduction, the website identifies why so many Americans have become clients of professional astrologers: “clients want Astrology as a tool to get clarity about important issues in their lives.” This quotation is not especially profound except that it reveals a number of cultural assumptions that we Christians need to be aware of:
- Astrology is a tool: astrology is merely a means to an end. This is the key aspect of all false religions. The pagan and occult faiths offer their adherents so-called tools as the primary inducement to discipleship. In other words, astrology is a means to an end and the end is personal knowledge which, in turn, is supposed to lead to personal happiness and security. Astrology is not an end in itself—only a tool. The real god in astrology is the self. By learning what the stars tell you, you become better equipped to lead your life with more direction, more purpose, increased knowledge, and better judgment. You become, in effect, your own god. As confidence in the secular model wanes, Americans turn increasingly to the spiritual; however, the spiritual they turn to functions in much the same way as their secular ideology did before they lost confidence in it. In short, these spiritual tools serve only to keep the self and the human in the position of absolute power. Like the idols-makers of old, we worship what we have made in order to maintain the illusion that we are gods.
- Americans need clarity in their lives: this second element in the quotation states the end or purpose of astrology. Postmodern Americans do not know how to live, they are not sure how to make decisions, they feel confused, and they no longer believe they can live a good life through the now largely discredited means of secular reason or common sense solutions to life’s problems. They seek clarity—that is, they want to see things more clearly than they do now. Astrology seems to offer a vision that comes from outside our limited sphere. This is a god-like perspective that humans cannot achieve from within the limitations of temporal existence, but, ironically, it remains a perspective which we control, since the stars only predict and shape our lives in ways that help us feel powerful without God.
The astrology website later assures its would be clients that, “you do not need to believe in Astrology to make a lot of money as an astrologer.” The same could be said of any person who decides to make selling religion his career: you do not need to believe in God to sell religion, since, after all, many postmodern individuals seek pastors for the same reason they seek astrologers—to use religion as a tool in order to achieve clarity in their lives. What, then, is the difference between God as God and God as a tool or, indeed, prayer as prayer and prayer as merely a means to personal satisfaction? That question, I submit, has not been asked in our churches; nor will it likely be posed, since to ask that question runs the risk of subverting the entire religious apparatus as we know it.
Many of us, even conservative iterations of us, employ a version of Christian prayer that has all the hallmarks of astrology: we use prayer as a tool, and we use prayer merely to achieve personal clarity (emphasis on personal). In fact, the Biblical conception of prayer may offend us, since we have become so secular in our religious pretensions that we hardly recognize the Bible, itself, as anything more than a tool for the endorsement of our personal needs. Actually, in the Bible, prayer functions more like a tool applied to us than as a tool to leverage God, and there lies the rub. To be sure, God expects us to ask and ask again--not because He has to be persuaded, but only because until we venture everything on faith (as informed by the Bible) we have not prayed at all. I may never consult my Horoscope, but I may pray merely in order to bless my own will, control a situation, or enter a proviso into my spiritual contract with God, so that if things do not go well, I can always attribute my failures and mistakes to God, who, after all, affirmed my poor decisions to begin with. The seemingly devout also employ prayer in order to avoid making tough decisions: I will pray, and then God will give me a powerful emotion or impression in lieu of my having to take the risk of actually deciding what to do.
Prayer, it seems, may become one of the most powerful weapons of the truly godless in the church, since Christian prayer now enjoys almost universal popularity, not least because most prayers that I hear ignore the plain testimony of the Bible: we pray for health and healing while we feed our addictions; we pray for the Holy Spirit to lead us at the same time we entrench ourselves in secular lifestyles; we ask God to protect us in our cars even as we expose our children to eternal hazards on the television and the internet; we pray that Jesus may come soon, as we spend our fortunes on toys; we pray for others around us to be converted as we refuse to give up our own idols. We do all this in the most sincere guise: the fervent Christian prayer. It may be the single most revolting aspect of the emerging postmodern liturgy—prayer as the pious expression of unmitigated self-worship. Its very sanctity makes prayer a deadly element once it has been allowed to work free of its biblical moorings, and that, I submit, has already happened.
The other day, while walking my dog around the airport at my campus, I happened upon some kind of hand-held digital device lying on the ground. Eager to return it to its owner, I pushed a conspicuous button and discovered the owner’s email. I quickly scanned the list of messages in hope of finding who owned the device, but I soon discovered that one specific type of email predominated: the owner’s daily horoscope. I eventually contacted the owner, and he turned out to be a young man from a good Adventist home. He was very grateful to have his device back; I wonder if he felt lost without it.
What we may not yet suspect is this: the current generation of Adventist youth and college age students are quietly and persistently forging a new Adventist syncretism in which previously antithetical categories may now happily coexist. We need to realize that they may be praying at Vespers and reading their horoscopes on Sabbath morning without the least tincture of guilt or unease; this, as it happens, is the simply the end of a long process of typical Adventist inculturation, or the adaptation of doctrine to fit the culture. This may shock some Adventist adults, but it should not: we taught them to do this. Here is a test: the next time you pray, ask yourself if you are not merely consulting God as your personal insurance policy, rich uncle, much abused therapist, or, worst of all, your ghostly doppelganger. Do you pray to understand and submit to the will of Almighty God as revealed in the Bible, or do you pray to bend the will of a weak and indulgent God to your will as informed by your desires? This test is not as easy as it seems; in fact you may have to pray for God to show you which you are--now that would be a real prayer.