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.


Alphabetty said...

1. Thank you. 2. Send apolitical liberals my way so I can try to convert them into political liberals :-) 3. If we can agree on the golden rule, and live it, isn't that spiny? Tell me again why we need the first great commandment? I'll reread your post. 4. Jesus is awesome �� says this atheist 5. I think you are pretty awesome too

forrest said...

It's been a mistake to turn "syncretism" into a term of abuse; every religion that's ever been has been a syncretic construct ever since God created a second religion... while before that, I doubt you could find two holy-folks who weren't talking shop and learning from their disagreements.

Likewise, from a straight atheist position you won't understand why Jesus put those two 'commandments' together and said the second was 'like the first.' They aren't "damned near impossible" to do together; neither is possible without the other. They become possible when you recognize that your neighbor is yourself, and that God is the very life that takes shape as each person.

As for what "patriotism" might mean, all I can think of is a certain illusion that took me many years to shed, having grown up thinking we were the Good Guys (and wondering why our actions so often fell short of the ideals I'd been told we embodied.) The love of a few ideals we once claimed, plus that old familiar loyalty to "Our Gang". But it really isn't 'ours', you know.

natcase said...

1. You are welcome.
2. Good luck, and politics is not the only thing needed.
3. I think humans need faces. Even Buddhism ends up telling stories about the Buddha to get us to look at the pretty severe and abstract ideas that make up his teaching. The anti-religious Marxists, in order to make things stick, created cults of charisma. And so on. I don't think the Lord God we love with all our heart, the singular force, is necessarily anthropomorphic. But that sure does seem to be a gravity well in human history. And I think having a focus and discipline allows a richer tradition in a collected group to emerge. Pastry chefs and people who play the oboe for years and years develop a deep appreciation for the specialty they are working within than people who dabble in all kinds of food and all kinds of instruments. But of course some crossover is also good if you're going to not be stiff as a board, creatively speaking. So it really is both as full equals.
4. Jesus is pretty impressive as a figure. If you haven't read Reza Aslan's book Zealot, I highly recommend it. Very nice, rich portrait from a different enough perspective to shed (to me at least) a lot of interesting light.
5. [blush]

natcase said...

I think the charge against syncretism in and of itself is a mistake, but I also think the sense that syncretism is the sole path to goodness has some roots in the most liberal end of religion (including liberal Friends) that is also a problem. The balance you describe is certainly one good approach. I really like Richard Kelly's essay "Truth as a Moving Target on a Local Train" on the subject:
The notion that because it works to put God and love of neighbor together in a self-reinforcing loop, means that that is the only such loop that really makes sense is to me a big problem. But it seems to be part and parcel of how we humans do loyalty: once you have established a relationship with a particular person or group or idea, that idea becomes centered in the universe you live in. And that's just how we are. And that secularists are often scared of this often fierce loyalty and try to argue against it is a problem. But it's also a problem to be in that it often ends up fighting the "love your neighbor" piece. Not in every case, but that slope also seems pretty common. And I don't think it's as simple as "well, then, you're loving God wrong or incompletely," although that maybe is a way of putting it.

forrest said...

"You don't do it through intellectual processes. What you do is you telepathically tap in to the one great world religion,
which is only one,
which has no name,
and all of the other religions are merely maps of that."

[Stephen Gaskin]

That one religion is not 'syncretism' and it isn't any of the other maps. One map may be good for seeing the contours of the landscape, another one better for finding yourself a gas station.

Likely we'll always have some map in our head. But when I can [occasionally] look from that "How things is" level, that's where the meaning Jesus' words fit into makes the most sense.

natcase said...

Forrest: That's lovely if you can do it, but I mistrust the purported universal story or religion. We are creatures of specificity, and we tend to have different specificities one from another. That's why I like actual historic myths with names and places over Joseph Campbell's monomyths. And I think often because we demand specificity, when all we are presented with is that universal, we draw it into our own context anyway. Working on an essay now about how we tend to make our mountain the center of the universe. Anyway, thanks for commenting!

Unknown said...

Jesus was never about religion. He was about relationships. See the Shack or read the book. There's no reason to get too deep on the subject.