Durkheim for Dummies

Ponticulating in the pews last Sunday — don’t look it up: I invented that word, — a question occurred. Who, exactly, are we worshipping?

Stick with me here. It gets delirious.

Yes, we’re quite clear it’s the Christ (a title, not a name) who rose on the third day “in fulfillment of the scriptures.” And yes, we’re all pointing forward at a big statue of Mary, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to the tamale-like Salma Hayek.

And yet, Emile Durkheim had a better idea. He’s a sociologist, not a theologian, who sifted through the same reports from aboriginal Australia as Sigmund Freud did to mash up his hilarious Totem and Taboo.

Durkheim was more systematic than Freud, and probably closer to the truth. In fact, his theory of religion is one believers should avoid, because it crawls into your combat zone and makes going to church more ambiguous.

What? Durkheim worked in the late 19th century and emphasized the causal role society plays on individual action. Religion, he said, is “an eminently social thing.” His point seems obvious, probably because he told us: People are far more acted upon than acting.

Two words: Baaa baaa!

Australian religions Durkheim knew worshipped “totems,” or symbolic objects representing animals and plants. In itself, the totem is worthless. It is endowed with sacred qualities by the tribe.

Here’s where it gets weird, bros. The tribe’s totem represented the tribe itself, in sacred form. The “cockatoo clan” identified itself with the cockatoo. The totem is identified with the cockatoo, but sacred.

Can you see where Durkheim’s going? Nobel Prize for you! Make it two — you’re a genius.

Take out the rock (or whatever the particular symbol of worship happens to be), and what are the cockatoo people actually doing?

Well? Ideas?

They’re worshipping THEMSELVES! For Durkheim, religion is an elaborate set of rituals whereby a society imbues ITSELF with sacred value. The particular “theology” behind these acts is so much smoke and mirrors: it has no reality.

Wow. If you’re like me, the moment I heard this bad boy, it was like a lovely explosion of yes. It feels like it could be right.

So back to St. Mary’s Basilica in Minneapolis last Sunday. We R.C.’s are looking at a man we are supposed to emulate. That man became us (human). The congregation is explicitly called the “body of Christ.” And we even have a “totem” in the Eucharist. Take out the packaged wafer with the cross on it and what have you got?

A thousand dour Minnesotans worshipping themselves.

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One response to “Durkheim for Dummies

  1. But I don’t think you even have to go to the bird-like totem pole to come to this conclusion. It is said that God created Man in His Own Image. So by worshiping God, we are worshiping Man. You don’t have to look beyond Wall Street to see how true that is. In face, we mostly skip the worshiping God part, and go straight to worshiping Man. (But why not Woman??? That’s what I want to know!)

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