[38.0] people are corporations too (saints are insurance)
fear-based decisions and the evolution of theological economies
For millennia before the trolley problem or “railway spine” existed, humans knew that horses could gallop very quickly. Riding horses, I imagine, functioned as an organic precursor to late-night-drive frivolities—cruising down the Silk Road eating, praying, loving; or humming sweet sea shanties to yourself as you decamp from one village to another.
Despite the many allures of equestrian transport, though, riding horses could, in analog times (like now), still be terrifying when shit hit the (hand-operated) fan. You could be robbed or your horse could be hijacked! You could get drunk and fall off! Your horse could get startled by wolves and throw you!
Premodern life clearly entailed encounters with danger. (To say the least: There was no OSHA! Think of all the occupational hazards…) In The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400 – 1580, historian Eamon Duffy describes Medieval Englishpeople’s many run-ins with peril, which drove victims and onlookers toward religion as a safeguard:
The miracle stories associated with the shrines of the saints in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England opened a window of hope on a daunting world of sickness, pain, and natural calamity. Men and women fled to the protection of the saints from a world in which children fall from trees or tumble down wells, crawl into fires, or jump in play onto sharpened sticks or untended metal spits. Workmen are crushed or ruptured by heavy loads or blinded by branches, women die in the agonies of prolonged childbirth. We catch glimpses of a whole gallery of devastating diseases—bone cancer, gangrene, epilepsy, paralysis—of homes wrecked by insanity, and entire families or villages decimated by plague or famine… Even for the healthy pilgrim, drawn to the shrine by an itch for travel, by simple devotion, or by the desire to obtain indulgences, the ranks of crutches and fetters, boats and legs and hearts, and the sight of the sick themselves, waiting with varying degrees of hope or impatience, were an assurance that God was in his Heaven and the Devil did not always have the last word.
Duffy’s book outlines the history of popular religion in England right before the Reformation. He proves that the Catholicism of that era wasn’t some hollowed-out theological prison in need of Protestant rescue, but rather a theo-political force that, in part through the proliferation of saint-worship and pilgrimages to local sites of religious importance, enjoyed popular support and devotion. Many of these saints were lay figures not formally recognized by the Pope, but who covered and protected people from relatively niche issues (e.g. saints curing people of genital disorders).
Given the hazards Duffy details above, pilgrimages to local saints, and devotion to them, were a kind of insurance. In addition to the larger practice of purchasing indulgences, which would protect the recipient from having to spend time in Purgatory for the sins committed after absolution, local adherents traveled to local saints’ shrines (and paid money to get and stay there—tourism!) to secure the protection of the saint or to cure some ailment.
David Graeber’s canonical Debt: The First 5,000 Years moves our focus to the Indus Valley and the early Vedic poems, which are now considered foundational texts in Hinduism. Verses therein describe worshippers needing to be liberated from debt, as well as gamblers who “wander homeless, in constant fear, in debt, and seeking money” (emphasis added). In other passages offering context, Graeber concludes,
Anyone, then, who lives a proper life is constantly paying back existential debts of one sort or another; but at the same time, as the notion of debt slides back into a simple sense of social obligation, it becomes something far less terrifying than the sense that one’s very existence is a loan taken against Death. Not least because social obligations always cut both ways. After all, once one has oneself fathered children, one is just as much a debtor as a creditor.
In the terms familiar to them, people across time periods and geographies have limned theological, economic, and moral practices together, creating frameworks to understand their lives and exchange value—both monetary and existential—with each other. Hello, paying for your sins!
I am loath to talk about Dimes Square and yet the Gray Lady made me do it: Perhaps you saw this week’s screed de la semaine, a New York Times OpEd titled “New York’s Hottest Club Is the Catholic Church.” In it, Julia Yost argues something (tbqh the essay is so confusing lol) about a micromovement of former NYU students who
want you to know who their dad is,
congregate a few clicks south of the Tenement Museum in New York, and
are known geographically and collectively as “Dimes Square”
and have begun adopting Catholic rituals and aesthetics as a form of counterculturalism, right there with wearing MAGA hats un/ironically. Think TikTokers sporting rosary beads, podcast debates about papal authority, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et cetera, ad nauseum.
While acknowledging that external judgment of whether this Catholic meme is “authentically” religious or not is a Protestant bias, Yost kinda goes “not to be Protestant buttttttttt” and concludes with a discussion of authenticity anyway. Speaking of a post-Roe landscape, in which Catholic doctrine has stripped US residents of their reproductive rights, Yost concludes:
Real-world events will confront young urban Catholics with the full implications of Catholic doctrine, making it hard to view the rosary as a fashion statement. Over time, these developments will sort the converts from the LARPers.
Which like, maybe me belting “Take Me to Church” by Hozier on a late-night drive makes me Catholic (to return to horse power: emphasis on the pray in eat, pray, love)??
But in all seriousness, among many variables in Yost’s essay that made me need to take a nap and then submit this draft to this newsletter’s editor, Vanessa Rae Haughton, wayyyy past deadline, is that the OpEd makes no mention of economics! Dimes Square counterculture has landed in the goshdarn New York Times as a collective ~*movement*~ to be named and analyzed and “growth hacked” by attracting the ire and clicks of NYT-reading cynics in Schenectady or something; let the Patreon tithes flow, by Jove! Taking deeply familiar and entrenched religio-political beliefs and rituals and #branding them in your own fashion, forming micro-economies, worked for the horsie people pre-OSHA, and it works today, too.
The aesthetics of opulence that these youth channel help convert “ethical consumption” discourse into literally holier-than-thou practice. Indulging in godly things. Copy-pasting the dresses you see Andrew Garfield ogle at in the unfortunate Hulu series on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but then sporting them on the Bowery. Ditching your Vetements wardrobe for, err, vestments. Purchasing accouterments. Spending time (which is money) pondering transubstantiation.
Granting space for Yost’s analysis, and, by extension, 24 hours of discussion on Twitter among New Yorks’ twenty- and thirty-something media professionals, who then will talk about it with twenty-something media professionals in Seattle, who will then talk about it on their newsletter (hi!), is a form of insurance.
A guarantee to somehow be relevant and ogled at—to get the attention they never got from their dads :/
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.