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Issue 14 – Christmas 2022


The Last God

On the cult of health.


Today we respect the great goddess health. Health-care spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has more than doubled in the past fifty years. The health food industry has grown apace; David Brooks at the turn of the millennium already noted that selection of organic foods in the grocery store is a “barometer of virtue.” A visible class-based geographic separation emerges based on how much surplus wealth can be spent propitiating the vague sense of living a healthier lifestyle. A Pret A Manger sandwich, perhaps twelve dollars, “prices in” natural ingredients and an employee who exhibits Pret Behaviors such as being “happy to be themself.” Across Middle America, up goes the “Breadmother” who personifies the proprietary sourdough starter used in Panera’s baked goods, and who symbolizes the company’s mission to make a healthier and happier world. A friend enjoys relating the part of his training video that describes Panera’s corporate employees performing a “bread homage,” where they share a baguette and wipe tears from their eyes describing what they love about bread. Then, unto this already health-worshiping society and especially its aging founders, came COVID-19.

When the virus came, survival became the only imperative. Giorgio Agamben calls this bare life. (Readers of The Lamp will be familiar with his testimony, written at that time, that we are witnessing the apogee of a medical religion.) Hospitals forbade priests from performing the last rites, valuing the health of bodies absolutely above the consolation of the dying and aggrieved, even above the salvation of the soul. I expect every Catholic has heard these painful stories. Gesundheit is a jealous goddess. Churches were shuttered. When they re-opened, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer took the place of hymns and holy water. Occasionally, Church leaders protested that churches remained shuttered while shopping malls were allowed to open, as in the case of the bishops of Minnesota. Often, however, the ministers of the Church were only virtually present when they were needed most. In a moving homily that laid bare his prayerfulness and moral seriousness, our pastor apologized. I wonder if he should have. Where is the ever-shifting line between right reason and the fanaticism of fear as our modern society faces a novel epidemic?

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About the author

Robert Wyllie

Robert Wyllie is assistant professor of political science at Ashland University and a contributing editor at The Lamp