Saturday, September 30, 2017

Dual belonging

Apparently I'm going to be on the radio in a couple weeks. The topic for the radio show is "dual belonging," or how to be part of two groups that differ. I think. Don't quote me on that.

The reason they called me is the essay I wrote a few years ago about being a Quaker and a non-theist. It seems like a difficult divide. And I certainly have run into a number of people who agree that I shouldn't be calling myself a Quaker and an atheist at the same time. But membership in a Quaker meting is decided by each local (monthly) meeting, and the three meetings I've been members of let me in even though I was explicit about my beliefs. They seemed to think it was "rightly led" for me to be part of the group.

Here's the weird thing: I actually feel more comfortable in the group I am in now, that was formed in part to provide a place where more overt scriptural and theistic language was not only tolerated but encouraged. It's my observation that the spiritual life of this group gains focus and clarity when we use less vague language. As I put it when I joined the Quakers in 1997, instead of going to the Unitarians, which I had been a member of with where I lived previously, it feels like there's more of a spiritual spine. There's more "there" there. When I was married the second time, there was always the option of coming up with our statement before the group that were specific to our situation, but I (and my wife) felt really comfortable and happy with simply using the language embedded in our yearly meeting's book "Faith and Practice." The fact that it was a time-tested tradition was not a minus. We were leaning on something large instead of depending on our four spindly legs to carry all the weight.

The phrase I am using this year is that I believe in the experience—religious experience—but not the conventional explanation of why and how it happens. And I believe in the power of some fo the "trappings" of that experience, of things like "scripture" and "prayer" and "congregation" and "sacrament." I think they are very strong juju. I also think that they fill places in us individually and corporately that are not disposable. Even when I do not believe that prayer is "talking with God," I understand that asking a question or expressing gratitude to persons and powers unknown is a really instinctive and powerful and important thing to do. Anne Lamott's book Thanks, Help, Wow is an excellent tool for getting at that. She's unapologetically theist, but also very much understands that prayer is not just about the being being talked to; it's about the shape of that conversation, and it what it does to have that kind of discourse.

So, I believe in the power and reality of what we experience as a group of worshippers, and I believe in the fact that something happens that gets described as a relationship with God. I do not think that explanation is accurate, but I do think it's true. And this is not such a paradox as it sounds. We all think things from fiction are true, just not in the same way that "I have eight eggs in the fridge" is true. No, wait. I went to confirm that hypothesis. There are five. The point is, that dependence on common, confirmable fact is not all we have to pay attention to in the world. And so I can belong among a group that explicitly believes something to be factually real, and not have that be the determining factor in whether I belong with them. I can find a way (and I have) to respect, and hear, and get great value, from their understanding, without making it literal. If I said otherwise, I would be telling my friends their experience was somehow a lie. And it's not.

We had a terrible mess in our group shortly after our family joined. About half of the group left. And there were a lot of things it was about, but one of the things was simple whether we beleived one another. Some of us, I think wanted to believe a promise of sacredness over the clear expressions of hurt and fear we heard coming from other people (Is that vague enough for you?). It took a long time for us to get through to that point, those of us who stayed in the group, but what we came back to was a kind of trust, a thing we needed to have. Believing the essential story people told, even if we didn't believe in the factual details necessarily.

It's very much like what I see in issues around categorical bias: there's believing and believing (for example) women's stories of what it's like to be a woman who is regularly catcalled and harassed on the street when she goes for a run (this is my wife we're talking about here), or black people's stories of what it's like to be black. We keep wanting to turn to factuality, and there is factuality there, but there's something viscerally different about believing a person's personal story abouf her experience.

I remember a few years ago, Ingrid telling me about how she expected (was pissed off at profoundly, but expected) shit from random passers-by, commenting on her body and what it should do. And how she had to very carefully plan her route for safety, in what I think of as a basically safe neighborhood. Because rape is something she has to plan around, and I don't. And that conversation, something clicked. It's not that I didn't know factually that women get harassed and raped. Duh. But knowing it was Ingrid, and knowing that this was her story, moved something internally in me. It really was like a click. The story went from accepted to believed. And believed in a way we've lost clarity about in our language. We used to have a clear set of social constructs described by words like loyalty, trust, truth, faith, obedience, and so on, that descibed a network of who and what was "with" you. Many of those words have been diluted in their meaning as more of our society becomes dependent on formal systems and rules over individual and corporate allegiance and "with-ness." But that doesn't mean the basic function disappears.

And I think that's the root of any "belonging." That "with-ness" (etymological red herring: with and witness are not related), the sense of trusting loyalty and faithfulness, both to one another and to the thing that the group carries in the middle of the group, or that it sees as carrying it.

Saturday, March 4, 2017


I was walking along the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2010, and the group that made this film was grabbing random people off the street to answer questions about why we live here. And I talked a little about how friends from the coasts (the ones who I didn't go to college here) sometimes think of this place in flyover country.

We don't live in a cowtown. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul are the urbane, artsy, funky, cosmopolitan hub for a big swath of the Upper Midwest. It's a city that people from smaller cities come to when their fish pond isn't big enough. But as a professional in a small and shrinking market, I am also well aware that I would be "in the mix" for bigger things if I moved. Many of my genuinely ambitious colleagues work in DC or NY or SF. They are Hotter Places To Be on a global level.

I've been reading about the staggering Brexit vote, and about Trump supporters here in the US. I was particularly struck by this piece by John Harris in today's Guardian. Essentially, it argues that the Leave vote (at least around Manchester) was a vote by forgotten backwaters. And this message, and the splintering of the major parties in both the US and Britain (and elsewhere in the industrialized world, presumably) should be paid attention. Backwaters vote.

People like to blame globalization, and the exporting of jobs is certainly a big factor in the rebel alliances that are making themselves felt this year. But more than that, people in backwaters are tired of simply being ignored. This is the era of flattening social media, but also one of globally concentrating culture and economies. We have ever more efficient markets that consolidate around more profitable production lines, and discard less profitable ones (like business has done since forever). And those efficiencies make it ever harder to live satisfyingly where the money isn't. There is less and less room for those quiet backwater eddies that Tolkien's Shire embodied: happily forgotten and largely satisfied with a closed economy.

Backwaters nest in other backwaters. My friend Derek moved about a decade and a half ago from St Paul to the small town of Springfield, Minnesota, which is maybe two notches back on the backwater totem pole. He runs a business from a room upstairs in a big house (one he couldn't have afforded here in the Cities) that uses practitioners from around the world to make maps. It's a field where he was able to make it work. But if you're a business that depends on local customers, in a field that is seeing internet competition (bookstores, for example, or shoe stores), backwaters are particularly problematic places to be.

Here's the thing I don't see people trying to sort out in the political arena: Lives are always local.

People like to say "all politics are local," but really not all politics are. Politics are built at the scale they cover, and international diplomacy is the least local, even if negotiations are always carried out in places where people are. National politics has always had one leg in a world of finding the best balance for the whole, while letting other places slide. I'm reminded of the kind of predatory attitude London had towards the distant North in centuries past: the press gangs described so heartbreakingly in the Yorkshire song "Here's the Tender Coming" were the tendrils of a careless cruelty. The song was a protest about men being taken away from real, deeply rooted lives like they were weeds, and from the standpoint of strategists at the Admiralty in London, they were like weeds.

Weeds are plants that don't fit your pattern, and human patterning ability focuses on a particular range of scale. And that's really the big problem with trying to organize big human systems and control them. Once we're past a certain point, the people who are that much of a mass, that far away, simply stop being people.

Friday, March 3, 2017

To build the bridge, first survey the canyon.

So there was this video, which pro wrestler John Cena did for the No Labels campaign and the Ad Council. It was released in July 2016.

I'm not going to tell you it's an any way a bad video. It makes the point that a love of country based on a limited view of what makes someone a "real American" is a problem, and it is a problem. It really gets to the core of what many liberals like me see as disingenuous about some of the rhetoric from the right: that Islam is un-American, or black people protesting are thugs but white people protesting are fighting for authentic American values. It pushes back against the idea that it's “American” to use freedom of religion to tell gay people or women or any group that they are not worthy.

And yet, as I look at the right-left split in our country, it feels like something is missing from the ad. It feels good to the left, and I can hear exasperated eye-rolls from the right... and here's where I think the problem lies: Diversity is not enough. Diversity is not the thing that makes us whole. Diversity is not, despite what the video seems to want to claim, the same thing as patriotism.


I had a conversation a decade or so ago with friend Marshall Massey. We disagree on a lot of things, although we are part of the same wider Quaker community. A point he especially wanted to make then, as I was looking at ways that liberal and even non-theist Quakers (yes, there are people who belong to our religious community who do not profess belief in God. It's complicated. In my case you can read more about it here), was that there is something fundamental and important about immersion in a religious tradition—something that in his case made it important that it was that specific tradition. It matters who and what you are faithful and true to. And the repeated return to that object of faithfulness helps train you to have a kind of moral and spiritual spine.

I grew up, as I like to say, nothing in particular. My spiritual touchpoints are all over the map. But I am also aware of and am drawn to that spine. It's one of the reasons I ended up among Quakers, and not just joining a book group. It's one of the things that drew me to Quakers over Unitarians, which is where my parents met and where my fathers parents spend the latter half of their lives. It just felt that there was more of a "there there" among the liberal Friends.

But I also inherited my parents' suspicion and even reflexive allergy to the merest hint of orthodox rigidity. So much spiritual tradition is rooted in faithfulness not just to a teaching but to a teacher. Again, this makes sense: to be loyal to a person is more hardwired into us that being loyal to an abstract idea. But the ways we've seen that charismatic trust betrayed in modern mass society—the demagogues, charlatans, would-be prophets who want power above all—are also hard to ignore. And a lot of a-religious and a-political liberals have learned this lesson as gospel: people with a religious message are trying to sell you something, and that something is probably a rip-off.

And so many of us gravitate to a kind of syncretism, a do-it-yourself judgment of the appropriate materials for a spiritual life. Instead of the Singular Book, we study the library. The whole library, or as much of it as we can manage. The liberal arts as a whole becomes the basis for our faith. And those who value singular faithfulness recoil in kind, and so we are left with this great cultural chasm that's been playing out now for well over two centuries: the universalist, pan-humanists and the Keepers of a bunch of True Faiths.


I think Jesus was way ahead of us. And I say this as one of those atheists I mentioned. Actually, it was my wife who pointed out to me that this divide between straight and narrow on one hand, and broad and all-encompassing on the other, was essentially restating what Jesus said about the two central commandments, in Mark 12:
28 Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving[a] that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” 
29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no other commandment greater than these.”
As Ingrid likes to say, doing these two things, and doing them both at the same time, is damned near impossible. "If I've managed it more than a few minutes in my entire life," she says, "I'd say I'm doing pretty well." And the two are twinned, that pattern repeating not just in our spiritual life, but in any activity in which we need in some way to follow someone or something, or in which we need to open ourselves to the experience of loving the strange. We need the singularity to hold us onto the world, and not let us become loopy floaters in the whatever-sphere; and we need the love of the other to keep us from becoming uptight, pious jackasses about pretty much anything.

It's tempting to try and just put these two into one soup. The video does that in a way. It was specifically written to argue against a straight-and-narrow conservatism that seeks not to "love your neighbor as yourself" but instead just to love "the country." But—and here's the problem—it fails to address that initial patriotism itself. Like so many liberal appeals to diversity, it doesn't really face the value of the unitary and disciplining love of country. It just argues that that unity isn't as unitary as the (supposed) viewer thinks.

And if we look hard, those of us who don't get why it's so important, may begin to understand why arguments over the Trinity end up feeling so important that you might break a church up over them. Without a sense of singularity of focus, of path, of leadership, the first part of the triad loses its power. It stops being as meaningful a counterbalance to loving your neighbor, whoever that neighbor is. And in a sense, that imbalance is exactly what liberals are experiencing when we try to make diversity a defining unitary principle. It's trying to make the yin and yang of this dynamic into a single thing.


So this I think is where we find ourselves as a country, divided into yin and yang, dependent on each other but insisting in large part that we each can be a closed-set solution: that diversity will give us spine, or that our patriotism will be loving and just in and of itself. It's just not so. We need to have a central guiding thingie. "Conservatives" know we need that root source of patriotism, and "liberals" know we need the sense of diversity and openness. What we can't seem to figure out is a kind of strong patriotism that liberals can trust, or a way to frame justice and diversity in a way that conservatives can trust. Without a monarchy, or a unifying religion or language or Ancient Nationhood, without those things that satisfy us that something unitary is in place, our job is cut out for us. But other nations in a sense are living the same dilemma, propping it up with illusory commonalities. We don't have that luxury. That specific bridging of the two halves of our national culture is, I think, our biggest national task.