It’s a fortunate coincidence, I think, that I happen to be reading Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues while the controversy around a recent clip of Victoria Osteen is making the internet rounds. Particularly, I’m on the section about the Profane and the Sacred — P and S as McCloskey labels them. It only just now clicked for me that the Profane-Sacred paradigm fits the Osteens’ message, hence the title of my post. No, Ms. Osteen didn’t say any “bad words”, but profanity means making something sacred profane — taking something transcendent and treating it as if it were mundane, earthly. That’s why we call taking the Lord’s name in vain “profanity.”
The profanity of the Osteens is not in taking the Lord’s name in vain (although in a sense, they are doing that when they misrepresent God); it is in turning God’s pleasure in us and our pleasure in God into something merely earthly and temporary. Ms. Osteen claims that when we are happy, God is happy. When you feel satisfied, so does God. When you feel affirmed, so does the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth. In economic terms, we might say that God’s desire is humanity’s utility maximization. Taken to its end, “God” becomes merely shorthand for human happiness, accomplishment, wealth, and comfort.
McCloskey might say that the Osteen definition of faith has nothing to do with the virtue of faith. Ms. Osteen has succinctly declared that in America, belief in God and spiritual participation are merely prudent. They have nothing to do with a love for God, or hope in God, or faith in the work of Christ, or seeking justice in God’s kingdom, or supernatural courage in the face of persecution, or Spirit-led temperance in all things. No, even religion can be boiled down to prudence. Theirs is a God for the material age.
Fortunately, Professor McCloskey is right, I think. People are not driven by prudence alone. There is more to life than self-actualization or collective utility. The virtues are real, even the transcendental ones like love, hope, and faith. Man does not live by bread alone.