Last night’s memorial at the University of Arizona appeared to be the Un-memorial Memorial. I’ll leave political commentary to others. Instead, I want to look at the spirituality of the moment. Last night we may have witnessed the 21st Century’s first spiritual gathering in which our political leaders become High Priests too. There were no Jewish rabbis or Catholic and Christian clergy who represented the faiths of those who actually died or were terribly maimed. Instead, the University of Arizona offered up secular political leaders to serve as our spiritual leaders. They were the ones who were there to salve our wounds. They were the ones to quote from the Old and New Testaments, to cite from proverbs, psalms and other scriptures. We witnessed a national secular religious event. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, welcome to the New World of religious secularism. We may be seeing the “new normal” of a religious ethos being born before our very eyes: Government becomes the new church.
It’s possible these ruminations may someday be seen as quaint, as someone from an older generation who recalls the experience of traditional memorial services. For the young people who filled the sports stadium, it was a moment for cheers, whistles and wild applause. There were signs of discomfort from the older audience members including President Obama. This seemed to be theater, a show arranged by a Dr. Robert Shelton, a scientist and the university president who seemed to enjoy serving as Master of Ceremonies.
And the only truly religious figure that was allowed on stage was Dr. Carl Gonzalez, a Native American. He is a university professor of the near extinct Yaqui Indian heritage who self-identified his roots with the tribe’s original location in the Mexican northern state of Sonora. In a secular glimpse into the future, he was permitted to be the only safe priest who could lead the service. After all, he was an individual who had no religious connection to any of the dead, to any of the surviving families or to the nation that tuned in. He didn’t impinge on any one’s cultural sensitivities. He was the ultimate PC spiritualist.
My PJ colleague Charlie Martin reminds me of the connection between the Yaquis and the hippie cultural icon Carlos Castañeda, who claimed his experiences were under the tutelage of a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan Matus. Castenada, by the way, ended up living with three women he called witches.
Aside from Dr. Gonzalez, is it possible that we caught a glimpse of the New Spirituality of the 21st Century where government serves as guardians of our spiritual health as well as our physical health? Did we see secular new priests emerge who ready to supplant our traditional Christian-Judaic clergy? And indirectly, did we also get a peek into the culture of our modern universities and of the kind of the values that are being imparted to the next generation?