Friday, June 30, 2006

Sen. Obama's Imprudent Speech

I have hesitated to write about this; I mean, three postings in one day? Don't I have anything better to do? Actually, I do, and I have done several of them. I still feel it necessary to say a few things concerning a speech Illinois Senator Barack Obama made earlier this week on religion and politics. Some have praised it; others have panned it. I have criticized the panners on the secular left. Now, while I hate to do so, I feel it necessary to criticize it from the sectarian left.
A few notes on background. First, while initailly impressed with Obama, I felt that the Democratic Party was telegraphing more than a bit by putting him out front at the 2004 Convention. He was only a candidate at the time, and while there is no doubt that he is a very good speaker with more than a modicum of presence and charisma, i couldn't help but feel uncomfortable. It seemed as if the Dems were announcing, as loudly as could be, "Here's an acceptable black man!" It was racist, demeaning, and I feel that Obama could have done better things than give a keynote address. Like run for office.
His election pretty much assured, Obama entered the Senate with much promise. I, along with many Democrats in Illinois, was happy with my vote for him. He has yet to return that vote with anything like the confidence with which it was cast. He is, without sounding insulting or demeaning or attempting to impugn either his political character or his motives nonetheless feel that Obama is a Clinton Democrat - long on rhetoric, short on delivering the goods when it's crunch time.
His speech before a group at National City Christian Church this past week (personal note; I used to work with a woman whose husband was an associate pastor there) on the religious values of progressive politics was warmly received by those present, but less so by some commentators on the left. Writers to the website, the DialyKos, Markos Mouritsas' vanity site, jumped all over him, and today on HuffPo, Michelle Goldberg took him to task with the usual suspects accusing Obama of muddying the waters with that faith nonsense.
My problem with Obama's speech is quite different. I feel he is no different from Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John McCain, Gary Bauer, and any number of other Republicans who work the reilgious right. He is just approaching from the other side of the street. I, for one, do have a problem with religious groups in any shape or form using school property and school funds to exist. I for one do not like the use of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I for one am opposed to a creche, or a menorah, or any other religious symbol in the city square. I for one do not want politicians of any persuasion, especially a persuasion close to my own, coming and telling me and others who think like me that he understands and wants to be a voice for me and us and mine and our concerns. I am more than capable of speaking and voicing my concerns on my own. I do not want a poltician, in Washington, in Springfield, in Belvidere (the county seat in Boone Co., IL where we live), attempting to use religious language to govern. Use political language. Use progressive language. Do not pander to me and say that you are on my side, because as far as I am concerned you are no different than the Republicans who took the very real, very heart-felt religio-political concerns of conservative Americans and pissed on them for a generation for crass political gain. Do not tell me you are a politician of faith and then say you don't care whether or not prayer is said in the public school. I care a great deal; I do not want organized prayer of any kind at any school event. I and my children are harmed when others, epecially those in positions of state authority, take it upon themselves to instruct my children in a religious fashion that may, indeed most likely will, be at odds with my own. And not just mine, but many others, some of whom I would disagree with as well.
I do not trust the motives of a very green Washington politician going to a group of liberal Christians and essentially giving them a nod and a wink in order that he can count on their support at some later date. I do not want a Washington politician to tell me that he isn't concerned over matters of Constitutional importance, as we have enough of those in the White House as it is. I do not want a Washington politician to tell people of faith that their voices matter. All voices matter; for a politician to tell a group that is pandering, pure and simple. Had I been in the audience, I would have felt, not elated, but insulted by such a paternalistic attitude. We Christian progressives must find our own voice, and recognize that we have no king but Jesus and no leader but the Holy Spirit. I would have told Sen. Obama, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Of Secular and Sectarian Progressives

Over at Faith in Public Life - Blogging Faith (click the title to check it out), I am in an ongoing discussion over my frustration with secular progressives and their attitude towards people of faith. The issue is a complicated one, and it is not the less complicated because I feel that I am acting cowardly by refusing to endorse some kind of outreach towards secular progressives. I am aware that part of what is going on is, quite frankly, that I had my feelings hurt, and I would rather not play than allow my feelings to continue to be hurt. Of course, it was not just once, but many, many times that I had my motives questioned, my words twisted, my intelligence and my rationality questioned due the fact that I am a Christian. I am well aware of many secular progressives who are open to all sorts of alliances with people of faith; my problem is with a wider bigotry toward the expression of religious faith (although I still endorse Richard Rorty's position that people of faith need to do more than simply appeal to their faith when taking a position in a public debate) in public life. Too often it is expressed with what can only be called hatred and disdain, a sense of superiority that is, without any irnoy, couched in terms of being open and progressive. Those who do so are clueless as to how ridiculous any claims to being progressive and open are as they also express a haughty dismissal for people of faith.
While the folks at Faith in Public Life are well-intentioned, I still feel that any attempt to create a broader progressive movement including both secular and sectarian leftists will fail precisely because we are not wanted, and our voices are not wanted, and our positions are seen as better argued for from positions outside those of faith. I do not dispute that we must work, in our own words, out of our faith commitments, for many of the same things that secular progressives support. We must resign ourselves, however, to being marginalized within any broader progressive movement as we are simply not welcome.
Until and unless the major media - ignorant, largely, of the complexities of theology or even the sociology of religion in America beyond certain unquestioned statistics - see that Americans of faith - Christians Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Anabaptist; Jews Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox; Muslims Sunni and Shi'a; Baha'i; Hindus; Buddhists; Sikhs - are a variegated lot whose social and political views cover the spectrum, a spectrum hardly recognizable by the (largely outmoded) left-right, conservative-liberal spectrum of popular culture. Until we as people of faith are willing to go on the offensive against those who hijack the faith(s) for contingent, partisan political gain we should expect to be treated as pariahs by those who do not know any better. Until we are to honestly assess not just the politics but the theology of the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Tim LaHayes and James Dobsons (I am unschooled in other religions, so I leave those questions to those who know more) and insist that, not only do they not speak for Christians, they are not in fact Christians at all, we forfeit any reason to complain that they unnecessarily politicize the faith. We must fight fire with fire; the whole question of who speaks for the Church, in a disestablished, multi-denominational, post-ecumenical world is a tricky one, but we do have a great cloud of witnesses from the past to draw on to declare that some things are simply not representative of honest Christian faith.
At the same time, we must be careful not to commit the same mistake our more conservative brothers and sisters have done, and equate Christian faith with progressive politics. Our political commitments are reflective of our faith, but the formula is not to be reversed. Our faith is much larger than any transient political concern, no matter how vital or even valid. The Kingdom of God is greater than America or American progressivism. If we can walk that fine line - and fine it is, far too many of a variety of political persuasions have fallen and seen in our great land the promised Kingdom of God come to earth - we may yet have a role to play in renewing our country. If we do not do all these things, if we fail to be brave enough to demand an accounting not of politics but of faith from those who claim to speak in the name of Christ, if we do not insist that ours is a more genuine expression of the Christian faith because of our love and selflessness, if we do not do all these things and do them simultaneously, we not only will forfeit our place at any progressive table, we will have deserved such forfeiture.

Horace Bushnell's Gift

We possess only a mixed individuality all our life long. A pure, separate, individual man living wholly within and from himself, is a mere fiction.
Horace Bushnell
quoted in Gary Dorrien,
The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805 - 1900, p. 136. Italics and exclusive language in original

Another entry courtesy of Dorrien's dense, wonderful history. Most people think of Horace Bushnell, if they think of him at all, as an advocate of, and pioneer theorist in, Christian education. Indeed, the quote above is from his classic Christian Nurture. Reading Dorrien's long, complex chapter, however, I can see now why he calls Bushnell the greatest American theologian of the 19th century. His was a mediating theology, indeed, although perhaps not in the way Tillich used the phrase. Tillich saw mediating theologians as those who worked the apologetic angle, between modernity and Christian thought. Bushnell walked a different, but no less dangerous route between the Unitarians and conservative Congregationalists and Presbyterians. That he was reviled by both during his lifetime for what is, upon any reading, progressive theology should inidicate that he was on to something. That he didn't recieve the recognition during his life that he probably deserved only shows that prophets have no honor in their own land.
I shall leave aside, for now, his reactionary views on women, race, and culture (they are, of course, relevant, but must wait for another day and time and more thought) and simply consider the quote above in contrast to the Emerson quote from yesterday. While Bushnell's target was not Emerson, but rather the Calvinist doctrine of original sin and human depravity that kept children away from the altar until they were deemed ready for it, i.e., to consider the depth of their own sin and the consequent need for God's grace, this theology, too, worked from an atomistic notion of the individual no different from Emerson's heroic idea. It should be noted, indeed, that Emerson merely flipped that particular coin over and saw, rather than evil and damnation, power and possibility. Bushnell cut through all of that and stated, clearly and succinctly, that both ideas are based upon a fiction.
If Bushnell had neither written nor said anything else during his life, this sentence alone would deem him worthy of remembrance. It clears the table of the myth of the individual quickly and with precision. While Bushnell went on to do work in philosophy of language, the Trinity, and atonement theology, without a doubt, it is here, right here, attacking a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of human beings that lies at the heart of American culture and thought that he deserves our thanks. While it would be a later generation of social gospellers who would reap what Bushnell had sown, there is no mistaking the truth that he shot an arrow at the heart of our national delusion.
As I personally, and many together, struggle with the place of progressive Christians within the larger bodies within which we live - the church, local and denominational, the community, local and national - it is good to remember that one hundred and fifty years ago a man was brave enough to speak the truth about our connectedness, about our need to remember our connectedness in order to hold one another up. We are, all of us, together in this wonderful, terrible thing we call life. We are, all of us, together in this beautiful, horrible struggle to make for ourselves, and bequeathe to our children, a place in which to live lives worthy of being called human. I can think of no better thing to remember, no better thought to keep in one's mind, than that we are all of us linked by all sorts of bonds, and we must do what we can to nurture and strengthen those bonds so that all of us can do what we are called to do by God.
Thank you, Horace Bushnell.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Ralph Waldo Emerson and America's Romantic Vision of Religion

Why should each new soul that is launched out of God into Nature be wrecked at the beginning of the voyage by following the charts of its mates instead the compass, the stars, and the continents?
Ralph Waldo Emerson
quoted by Gary Dorrien
The Making of American Liberal Theology:Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900, pp.70-71

There it is; in a nutshell there is the American protest against "organized religion". This is self-reliance on the grandest scale there is - we face the world a tabula rasa, able through sheer will and intellect to chart a course our forbears not only do not, but could not, know. We are strong, we are free - by free here, Emerson clearly means unfettered by tradition, reason, experience, any of the guides we would normally use as authorities for our lives. Emerson dismisses tham all in a plea for the power of the individual to make a world; not just to discover but to really make it for him- or herself. After all, if we are not to fllow, perhaps we shall go where none have gone before?
To see human beings as "wrecked" because we may follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us; to weep over the soul fettered by history, by tradition, by a penchant for trust in authority - this is the romantic vision. This is the American vision. There are versions of this repeated all over the country all the time.
That such a vision is anti-intellectual, unreasonable in the extreme, and the source of so much of our troubled and muddled thinking on matters of religion and faith is undoubtedly true. That it seems unanswerable, unassailable in our age of rights and freedoms, goes unchallenged by either secular or many sacred thinkers. Sadly, it would seem a challenge to this heroic vision (according to Cornel West in The American Evasion of Philosophy, which I need to finish at some point, Emerson was greatly admired by . . . Friedrich Nietzsche!) would be an attack on Americanism, a certain cultural ethos that is only now starting to lose its grip, at least at an intellectual level.
Of course, it is all nonsense. None of us can stand alone, "self-reliant". None of us are cast alone into the world, witho only our wits and our will to guide us in our struggles. It is not the hero who goes forth alone, blazing a path where none have trod. That is more the mark of the sociopath, or the imbecile. The true hero recognizes his indebtedness to those who have gone before, what the Church refers to as "the communion of the saints", that great cloud of witnesses who have passed before us. To them we owe our very existence, our grasp of the world around us, the food in our pantries and on our plates, the roofs over our heads, the words that feed our minds, challenging us to think, to argue, to wrestle with the angels and demons of this and the next worlds.
It takes a family, it takes a village, it takes the whole history of humanity in all its manifold diversity to raise a child, to nurture and educate, to give room to grow and challenge as well as strictures to discipline the mind and body as well as the will. We owe to families and friends, some we may know intimately and some we may never have an inkling of all that we have and are. We owe to God the breath on our lips, the song in our hearts, the fear and love and joy and sorrow that is our life. Those who find in Emerson something to emulate, someone to revere, ironically, do him a disservice, for he would clearly wish for them to follow their own lodestar. Alas, and alack, those who are not heroic themselves too often need heroes to guide their feet.
I would rather we rid ourselves of our need for heroes. I would rather we rid ourselves of our desire to be heroes. I would rather we lived in humility, aware of our debts to those who have gone before, hopeful and faithfully for those who will come after, chastened by what we have learned, cheerfully anticipating what is to come. This is a better life, this is a more human life - sacred or secular - than anything Emerson has to offer. That Emerson's ideas are deep within the American psyche is undoubtedly true. We can overcome them, not heroically, but rather anti-heroically. We can overcome this desire to chart our own course by surrendering to the world and to God in the knowledge that we are not the masters, but are eager students of all that God and the world have to teach us. Equally romantic? Perhaps; one finds it difficult at best to escape the framework within which one thinks. It is, I believe, more realistic, and more able to offer something living and true and beautiful to us.

The First Word to Get Rid of

I have a confession to make. I'm a hypocrite. I admit it. There are scads of things I believe are right and true and good, that I tell other people are right and true and good, that I insist we all should do to make our lives and our world better. I do not do them. In fact, sometimes, I go out of my way to not do them. I am blatant, glorying in my failures. I confess, I ask for strength to try again, and, sure enough, I fail. Yet, rather than stop telling other people to do what I am clearly not doing, I go right on, talking and talking, and not doing.
I have a confession to make. You do the same thing. And you. You there in the back, smirking at me, you do the same thing. Hey, lady, stop trying to sneak under the desk, because I know for a fact you're a hypocrite. Truth be told - we are, all of us, hypocrites. To call another person a hypocrite is the easiest charge in the world, because it is true.
Our political and social and religious discourse is overwhelmed by charges of hypocrisy. It is not helped by the fact that one of the chief charges Jesus threw at the religious leaders of his time was hypocrisy; that only seems to embolden people, including people who are a-Christian or anti-Christian, to throw it at those who profess to be Christian. It is tossed around because it is the easiest charge in the world to make stick. It is only an indirect indictment of a persons character; it only says that he or she is not acting in the manner he or she insists others should act. It isn't like calling someone a liar, or an adulterer, or unpatriotic, or a fascist. These are all questions of character, or at least conduct that, even by normal standards of proof are difficult to prove. You shout, "Hypocrite!", however, and something is bound to stick.
This is exactly why I am so sick and tired of it. Of course we are all hypocrites. Of course none of us live up to the goals and standards we set for ourselves. Of course we all fail, sometimes spectacularly, some few people do it publicly, but all of us fail. Unless, of course, we don't set ethical or moral guideposts for ourselves, and we simply do what we enjoy doing without any sense of responsibility for ourselves or others. Some of these people call themselves libertarians. I prefer to call them self-centered egoists. When taken to an extreme, this is also called sociopathy - the inability to consider the feelings of others, or to even grant to others an equal status to us, thus they have no feelings for which we need have any consideration. I am not saying libertarians are sociopaths; I am just suggesting that those who insist loudly that they can do what they want, when they want, without regard to the consequences for others are, well, a bit odd.
Most people, however, do consider the feelings of others. It's just that, well, sometimes, we think to ourselves that such-and-such is too good to pass up. Or such-and-such feels so good, even though it's bad, we just can't help ourselves. In other words, we get weak. For some people its as harmless as an extra chocolate bar. For some its the more insidious picture of naked women or men. For still others, its the chance for that illicit affair, perhaps, or skimming off the top at work. Or it might not be as serious as a legal or moral crime; it might just be we tell our children not to smoke, then go light up ourselves. Or we insist that we all need to contribute to some charity, or church or synagogue or mosque, or whatever, yet fail to give anything ourselves. It could be we demand that others display exemplary behavior precisely because it is part and parcel of some ethical, moral, or religious teaching to which we adhere, and then we are caught failing to live up to one or more of the tenets of that code.
I, for one, admit that I fail frequently to live up to the demands of the Christian life. I can cuss like a sailor when I want to. Once or twice I had sticky fingers at different places of employment. I enjoyed the company of women before I married. Worse than any of these simplistic moral failings, I have insulted and neglected those who are most vulnerable in our society. I have stood around and listened to people refer to African-Americans as "niggers" and have remained silent. I have far too many frills in my life - books, CDs, DVDs, this computer - on which I have lavished not just money and time, but physical and emotional energy, diverting resources that could have saved a life somewhere, perhaps right here in Boone County, Illinois. I have used awful, hateful words towards those I care about, and let my wife and family down in numerous ways that have been very painful for all of us. All this, not only when I know all these things are wrong, but when I have spoken publicly and often about them as evils.
Rather than get bogged down in either a round of guilt and self-pity, or suffer the slings and arrows of the accusations of others shouting, "Hypocrite!", I will admit to these and hundreds more infractions of the laws of God and human beings, and keep on going. I will keep on speaking and teaching that there is a right way and a wrong way to live, to be for others. I bet you anything I will fail. I will keep on going, though. Perhaps, if enough people stop listening to the cry of hypocrisy, admit what they have done, and keep going, the cries will stop. I can hope, can't I?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I Give Up

Last night, I handed in my resignation to the Huffington Post. I checked back this morning, just to read the headlines, and the same crowd was doing the same thing: going round and round and round, calling names, getting filthier and filthier as they did so, no one listening, no one seeming to care that unless we pull together we are all sunk. At first, I enjoyed the fact that there was a site that not only allowed people to contribute, but invited people to debate the issues. I learned over time, however, that there are tacit rules (I should have known this, but the fact is for the past several years I have spent my time cultivating my own approach to public discourse; to learn that most people haven't moved beyond fifth grade in their approach to an argument wasn't so much a surprise as it was a disappointment) and I continued to break them:

1) Don't try to understand what the opposition is saying, just attack them for being stupid, or ignorant, or sheep, or evil (sadly, I fell into this trap myself on a few occasions). When all else fails, call people trolls.

2) All Christians are mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging, uneducated rubes who believe in a fairy-tale world of a hero god (the small "g" is on purpose) and angels and devils. They refuse to think for themselves, they are unaware of critical thought, of the superiority of science over their medieval ways of thinking.

3) If you can insist your opponent is a repressed homosexual (while revealing one's own repressed same-sex erotic longings in the process) go for it. For a group that is supposed to be open-minded about sexuality, the biggest insults are still to label your opponent gay.

4) Never concede your opponent has a point; never concede a right-wing public figure, in either politics or the media, may have a point. Never try to dialogue. The point is not to work together to come to agreement, even if only on one or two issues. The point is to prove how much smarter/more patriotic/more - ethical/moral/educated you are than the other person or people with whom you are engaged. This isn't about republican dialogue; it's about being RIGHT, absolutely right in a world where it is impossible for such a thing to exist.

For all these and a whole host more, I have decided to let them spend all day calling each other names, not achieve anything of substance, and feel superior to the rest of the world. I shall return to my blog, my books, and my own life. It is much more satisfying than wading into that morass of filth day after day.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Art, Science, and Reality

A big part of the debate I was in over the weekend concerned the whole question of "reality". My opponent took the position that science was superior to religion - and other forms of "knowing" - because it gave us "reality". I responded that, in fact, it no more gave us reality than did other ways of "knowing" because science wasn't about knowing in any substantive way. The whole quesiton of reality, of truth, is meaningless precisely because there is no substantive definition of reality that all persons and all times and all places could agree upon as operationally, ontologically, ontically, and noetically valid (I suppose that is a high bar to reach; the point, however, is that is the assumption the person with whom I was debating was making). We went round and round about it, but in the end, I simply said, "We will have to agree to disagree".
In the course of the debate I mentioned art as a source of understanding. While never responding directly to the point I was trying to make, he actually confirmed what I was trying to say by saying, in response to my mention of poetry, "Do any two people interpret a poem the same way?" Of course not; and two, contradictory, interpretations may both contain huge elements of truth without either eliminating the other. In other words, there may be different ways of coming to an understanding of the world, sometimes contradictory ways, that (a) are equally valid; and (b) do not involve science or the scientific method.
I was thinking about all this when I came across a web log here at blogger produced by a woman from Portugal. She isn't a photographer herself; she simply puts one or two photos she likes up each day. I am extremely impressed with her eye. She manages to capture something both surreal and sensuous. Unlike the early surrealists, she does not focus on the grotesque but rather on the power of images to evoke a sense of wonder at the beauty of the world.
Yesterday, she posted - in juxtaposition - the painted face of a china doll and the lower half of a woman's face. I was immediately struck by the force of this justaposition; who is the model, which is the ideal and which is the result of trying to copy the ideal? Which is more real? Which represents reality? These are not just philosophical questions, but aesthetic questions, social questions, cultural questions, quesitons of gender relations and power and the dehumanizing force of the human quest for perfection. All this from two little photographs, one sitting on top of the other.
I wondered, after some thought, what my interlocutor would have said, not only about the photographs, but about my musings concerning them. Are these legitimate questions to ask? Am I putting far too much of my own baggage into two pictures that were perhaps posted for no other reason than the person who put them there liked them? Do my questions address the issue of reality at all? Does art? It is precisely here, at this very point, that I realized that what I said about the question of reality being meaningless was in fact true; art addresses itself to our perceptions, forcing us, when it is great or even good, to question them. Science does the same thing, only using a very different method. They are both approaches to understanding. Rather than force us all into one mode of thinking (rather totalitarian, that) art releases us from being drudges, and shows us beauty and horror and sublimity and, occasionally, truth. It never shows us reality, it just forces us, sometimes against our will, to ask questions about our reality.

To access Cristina's web log, just click on the title of this entry.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Real American Religion

I have started to read Gary Dorrien's history of liberal Protestant thought in the United States, and I can't help but think about it in two different contexts. The first, of course, is in reference to current theological and general religious trends. While people like William Ellery Channing, Emerson, Horace Bushnell and the rest certainly created a uniquely American understanding of the Christian faith, and it was both more spiritually demanding and intellectually freeing than much of what passes for religion today - who wants to try and decipher the Trinity, anyway, right? - I find it both heroic and irrelevant for today. Heroic precisely because it tried to carve a unique path for itself, tried to throw off European thought, European customs, European ways of being the church and truly be American. It was a long struggle, and it lost to the Germans because the Germans added a certain glamour of intellectualy respectability to the questions the American liberals were asking. We became, and remain to a large extent, an outpost of German liberal, then neo-Orthodox, then political theology. I would much rather than we continue to ask our own questions, and search for our own answers, in our own way, out of our own history. I know this is what Douglas John Hall tried to do, but I believe he failed miserably for a variety of reasons, explaied in an earlier post. We still have far to go.
The other context is literary critic Harold Bloom's book, The American Religion, in which he argues that much of what passes for Christianity in America, especially the America-spawned denominations, are inherently and ireetrievably gnostic. Further, he does not see this as a bad thing. While I have much disagreement with Bloom, there is more than a kernel of truth to what he says, not least in both the generally gnostic and specifically American tendency to seek to escape history. We want so much to rid ourselves of all the human baggage that comes with being alive. In that way, despite many differences in style and substance, I see little difference between Channing's Unitarianism and Whitman's poetry, say, or even the literature of the frontier such as Mark Twain. Like Whitman, we want to be all thing to all people; like Huck, we would rather be damned for doing what we think is right than go to heaven for doing what everyone else is doing. For example, Channing wanted to chart a middle course between the radical abolitionists represented by the fiery William Llyod Garrison and those who might sympathize with the cause but were put off by Garrison's style (there are times I struggle with this as well, by the way). The problem runs deeper than style, obviously, and Dorrien doesn't explore too much the whole issue of class; nor does he ask the obvious question of whether there is a way to deal with the abolition of slavery without getting a bit over the top? Yet, Channing sought, not so much a both/and as much as to have his cake and eat it, too. He wanted to have a diginified discussion when lives were at stake. He proclaimed a pox on all houses, thus satisfying no one, and nothing but his own troubled conscience. Happy with that, he retains a certain gnostic quality thereby, resting concent in his own spiritually significant righteousness, rather than engaging with the substance of the question.
This is a difficult issue, and it should be obvious I have yet to think through much of it, but Dorrien's book is dense and wonderful. I look forward to reading it, and the second volume, which covers the first half of the 20th century.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

. . . Is Over

I suppose I have my wife to thank, at least indirectly. More like I have the Holy Spirit to thank, working through the words and actions of my wife. Today's lesson was David and Goliath. She used it as an allegory for fighting those things that seem insurmountable, unbeatable, terrifying in their lust for destruction and disdain for life. Lisa keyed in on, as she has for quite a while, David's words to Goliath that he has the living God of Israel on his side against the armed might of the Philistines. It is this remarkable statement of faith, of confidence in victory against overwhelming odds, that was the entry point for her exposition.
It was also the entry point for me to end my struggle. Of course, being angry and arrogant is counterproductive, and I need to watch for that whenever it rears its ugly head. If this incident has taught me anything, it is that I am aware I am being baited (even if the person doesn't realize they are baiting me), and I simply need to struggle against that and respond, even if forcefully, in love and out of the Spirit's bounty.
Even more than this rather personal, internal struggle is the issue of whether or not to respond, to deal with the issue as I have. In the end, all I can say is, I find it necessary to do so, i feel as if I have accomplishd something by doing so, even if I haven't convinced anyone, the words are out there, the thoughts are out there. I have to admit I react with more than a bit of fear when I read critical remarks about something I have written; I'm afraid of responding out of anger and allowing that to lead to me to make an ass out of myself. I am also afraid I won't have a response, and then I will look stupid. At the same time, I do not want to hide behind either false modesty or deny the reality that there is something I can contribute, in a very large way to these issues. Thus, I created a false either/or, as I intuited yesterday. It is both/and, always.
I, we, the Church, must take and make our stands when and where appropriate, unafraid because, like David we have the power of the living God who raised Jesus from the dead behind us. We must also make sure we seek the forgiveness of those we have wronged through our very real arrogance, our very real pride, our very real venality, and our very real ignorance. The two must accompany each other, always.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Struggle . . .

Here's the thing. On the one hand, I was and am very moved by Donald Miller's stirring account of the "Confession Booth", as reported below, or above, or however, in a previous blog. Not only am I moved by it, I understand it to be an authentic Christian response to the world. If confession is to have any meaning, it must be more than simply saying "Jesus is Lord" over and over again. If confession is to have any meaning whatsoever, we Christians had better be willing to take more than few hits - very legitimate hits - for our monumental failure to live up to our calling. I accept all this, and want to live it out.
On the other hand (I knew even as I decided to write about this that this whole "On the one hand/On the other hand . . ." thing was a massive cop out; I feel like a true ass, perhaps Balaam's ass) I got into it yesterday on Huffington Post over the issue of science versus "religion", and the relative merits of each, etc., etc., one of my pet peeves, and I got all arrogant with one person who criticized me. I knew I shoudln't have allowed it to press any buttons of mine - claiming I was "scientifically illiterate" - but I did, and now I regret it all. While I had the best intentions in the world, viz., trying to show that scientific arrogance is no different in the end than fundamentalist Christian arrogance, I should have kept my keyboard silent and saved posting for something important.
Yet, this is an issue I feel very passionate about; how do we Christians engage with the world without throwing our arms up in the air, surrender, saying, "Yes, I'm guilty of imprisoning Galileo, how could I have been so ignorant?" How do we deal with larger questions, questions of what is, and is not, the proper role of science and religion - and whether or not that is even the question at issue - without committing many of the same sins for which I am, and all Christians should be, heartily sorry?
I cannot pretend to have any answers to this. I know it is an issue for prayer; I know it is an issue for careful study. Perhaps it is not so much a balance (that dreaded either/or I wrote about and against not too long ago) as it is both/and. Why can't we both confess our guilt and still insist that we not be denied a place at the intellectual table because contemporary Caesars (to borrow N. T. Wright's imagery; I hope he never stumbles across my site, he might think I was an obsessed fan or a plaigiarist!) have declared us intellectually bankrupt? Simply because some scientist somewhere says that science and faith are incompatible does not make it so. Repeating it over and over again makes it no more true.
Yet, still I struggle, because this is a real issue; an issue of humility, an issue of integrity, of honest commitment to the calling of Christ. This is a struggle to be not bullied, to be true to God and to what God has made me, as a person, as a member of the body of Christ.
Any suggestions?

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Darkside

Pop some popcorn, pour yourself a drink, click the link and watch.

Let's Back Up . . .

I have been hashing and re-hashing this whole meta-political idea, running over and over it in my mind, and I have come to the firm conclusion that . . . this is nothing new. I am, rather, making a distinction between Christian Discipleship and Christian ethics, a distinction that renders the latter a specific instance, highly concentrated and conditional (even situational!), of the former. I am saying that Christians need to be about living out their vocations, and intervening in transient political concerns only when it crosses their paths, and only to the extent that they make clear the distinction between their own views and thoe views of those engaged in controversy.
This highly limited understanding of Christian ethics is straight out of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose fragments on ethics I first read in September of 1991. That was also the last time I read them. It isn't so much plaigiarism as it is the ideas have been benging around inside my head, like a piball, finally missing a flipper, going down the whole and out into my conscious mind again, appearing here on this blog. I am not suggesting that my ideas have no weight because they are not original; rather I am suggesting (more to myself than anything else) that the idea itself, while certainly of much merit, needs to be thought through a bit more carefully. I am still wrestling with it, and I do not wish to make either more or less of it than it deserves.
Having said all that, I want to make clear that in calling the view I am expounding here "limited", that is just a theoretical, definitional way of making a distinction between the ethical demand to speak and act in a particular situtaion, and the broader claims of the Gospel for Discipleship. In reality, the Church finds itself beset on all sides by political and social ills that directly and indirectly impact its action in and for the world. We Christians are faced with racial hatred, sexual crims and gender and sexual bigotry, the horrific consequences of the current class war against the poor and middle class, indeed the whole criminal structure of our current political system and the Administration in charge. To speak, to act in faith in these situations brings the danger of charges of "religion taking sides", of "partisanship". Actually, the only side the CHurch should take is the side of Jesus, for and with those who suffer because of evil in the world. Because Republicans happen to be in charge right now, they bear the brunt of responsibility for our current travails. This is not to say that all Republicans are guilty; it is only these Republicans who bear responsibility (and a few Democrats as well who have aided and abetted them).
This is a digression. The point is - the truth is - there is still much thought and description and prayer that needs to be done in order to put flesh on the bones I have sketched here, so perhaps I shall lock the ol' brain back up for a while, letting this particular pinball bounce around some more. I do believe I am describing an old insight in a new way. I also believe I have to be very careful that I keep the Gospel before me, and not my anger at our current, contingent political situation. THe truth is, I need to remember what I said at the beginning, and make sure that I am not repackaging my own, transient political beliefs in a different vocabulary to make myslef sleep better.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Christianity as Meta-Political Part III

I was led to St. Paul's letter to the Ephesian church through N. T. Wright (a constant source of wonder and insight). In re-reading it, my eyes were drawn to the following verses in chapter 1, 19b-23:
His mighty strength was seen at work when he raised Christ from the dead, and enthoned him at his right and in the heavenly realms, far above all government and authority, all power and dominion, and any title of sovereignty that commands allegiance, not only in this age but also in the age to come. He put all things in subjection beneath his feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church which is his body, the fullness of him who is filling the universe in all its parts.

Here we have, in a nutshell, what I mean when I call Christianity meta-political. The living out of this reality, of all earthly powers subject to the power of God in Christ, is the confrontation between Christ and the one called "the lord of this age". It is here that the Church meets with persecution, with the temptation to succumb to the same temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. We encounter the adversary precisely where power meets powerlessness. We must never forget that it is this dimensionless point that is the focus of all the contest in this world and the next. It is here the Church finds itself to be truly the Church, the body of Christ.
The challenge, then, is not to give in to the temptation to see in each fleeting controversy, each instance of corruption and oppression and death-dealing the vile hand of the adversary, but rather to stand true and be willing to confess Jesus as Savior and Lord even in the midst of the evils of this world. The human wastage of this age is horrific, but the Church must not mistake the desire to resist death for following the command of Christ. The two can coincide, but only when a particular instance of human tragedy and evil action is a specific instance of the more general sinfulness against which the Church must stand. In other words, we must stand against evil, but not call individuals, or even groups of individuals, or other religions, or other nation-states, evil. It is the Evil One who is the adversary. Those who act on his behalf are as much victims as those against whom they act.
We must, to paraphrase Karl Barth (again!), never claim to be good, but must always live and act as if we were good. That is what it is to be meta-political.

Christianity as Meta-Political Part II

I want to make some things perfectly clear. First, by claiming Christianity is meta-political, I am not suggesting it is apolitical. I am only saying that it is both above our transient political concerns, and also sits as both the limit and horizon for all possible politics (God, doesn't that sound like Karl Barth?). Living a Christian life puts one both beyond categorization and also deeply within the conflicts of the day; by deeply, if one is living one's faith, one isstruggling at that one little point where, as Luther put it, Satan and Christ are wrestling. It is, indeed, one small point, but it is the pivot point, the fulcrum, the place that matters most. We are contending for nothing less than God's creation.
Second, by claiming Christianity is meta-political, and byb saying that Christians are (or should be) above contingent categorization, I am certainly not suggesting the Church should not take sides. It should simply do its work as faithfully, humbly, and prayerfully as possible, and let the political chips fall where they may. Following on the freedom that comes with being a disciple of Christ, we can rest assured that we shall be wrong as often as we are right, but it is the attempt - especially when w laugh at our own errors, admit them, then pick ourselves up off the ground, and try again - that matters. This is not an excuse beforehand for either confusion or error. It is simply the truth - the Church is a human institution, and we are not perfect. But we must live out our calling faithfully, prayerfully, yet boldly.
I have thought a great deal about this in reference to the early Christian martyrs, a subject brought back to my consciousness by reading N. T. Wright. The early church, between the Apostolic era and the Constantinian era, was beset on all sides by hostility. The most potent hostility came from representatives of the Empire. It wasn't so much that the Empire hated Christians; it wasn't that the early Church was actively subversive. When push came to shove, however, many Christians simmply refused to give the oath to the Emperor required by law. That this led to torture and death was of little consequence. That the entire Church received the ignominy of being labeled anti-Roman was of little concern. They became dissidents by accident - the accident of living faithful lives. This is the best example of what I mean by meta-political.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Christianity as Meta-Political, Part I?

God wants the world to be ordered, to keep evil in check, otherwise wickedness simply flourishes and naked power and aggression wins. But the rulers of the world are themselves answerable to God, not least at the point where they use their power to become just like the bullies they are supposed to be restraining. Meanwhile, God is working out a very different purpose, which will result in the vincdication of his peple and the judgement of the Pharaohs and Babylons of the world.

N. T. Wright
pp. 68-69
emphasis added

I have been searching for quite a while now for a way through the morass of opposing ideologies and theologies, all insisting that (a) the Christian Church and its Gospel are inherently political; and (b) the particular politics envisioned and endorsed by this political Gospel happens to coincide with the political views of those who endorse such a political gospel. So, in the past generation, we have had a pacifist Jesus, a revolutionary Jesus, a gay, black, and female Jesus, a Jesus who loves the fetus more than life itself, and a Jesus who hates gay people. We have a Jesus who endorses killing those of other faiths, who endorses political candidates, who speaks to Presidents, and a Jesus who finds all these things and those who claim them abhorrent and anathema. In other words, moving the Gospel into the political realm has reduced it to one more partisan chess piece, and we can insert our favorite soundbite into Jesus' mouth because what's really important is winning, not being faithful.
For too long I accpeted this as par for the course. Lately, however, I have come to see the terrible toll politicizing the Gospel, at least in the United States, has had upon both believers and that which they claim to believe. I have nothing but sympathy, even pity, for "conservative Christians" whose political power has been hijacked by Party whose interests are far different from theirs. While I do not share the political concerns of these Christians, I feel bad for them that they have been duped, used by a group of people who remain in power at the expense of those whose electoral support put them there. Once I realized that I felt bad for the Religious Right, I knew something was wrong with the way religion and politics was mixing in the United States. The problem, of course, was what exactly was the problem.
I have come to the conclusion that politicizing the Gospel, insisting on an irreducible political dimension to the message of Jesus, reduces the Gospel to sloganeering and posturing, pitting believers against non-believers, Christians against non-Christians, with those claiming the cross for their side feeling not just self-righteous, but claiming ultimate legitimacy for their own, fleeting, political agenda. I do not care whether one brings up abortion or gay marriage, peace or war, social welfare or race relations - the Christian Church does not have a position on any of these issues, nor should it claim to.
The problem was I had no way of moving from this simple declaration to an argument for its acceptance. That is, I felt intuitively that I had stumbled onto something, I just wasn't sure how to move from this intuition to more solid ground. Then, in the past week I read, first, Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, and I saw, especially in Miller's chapter on confession (outlined in a post previous to this), that by ignoring the "political", Miller came upon the true power of the Gospel in a world of competing ideologies, all clamboring for "legitimacy" and a voice. When the real Gospel meets the world as it should, in true humility, in true confession, with the powerlessness that comes from the crucified and risen Christ, political agendas and all the nonsense that goes with politics crumbles away.
Now, in British New Testament scholar N. T. Wright's book on Paul, I have found another key - and it is precisely at the point where Gospel meets Empire, where it would seem most political, that the meta-political nature of the Gospel comes to the fore. That is, politics as we understand it, the rule of others and the use and abuse of power, is contained within the Gospel exactly as it is critiqued and overcome by that Gospel. There is no salvation in politics; there is no salvation when we endorse one candidate over another. There is no hope in Democrats and liberals. To the Church and its Lord do our loyalties lie; in the Church and its Lord do our politics and our politicians meet their true limit. In the Church and its Lord await freedom from the tyrannies of our transitory ideologies and their hollow promises and empty threats.

The "H" Word

I ended yesterday's post on the Presbyterian Church debate over the Trinity with the words "heresy" and "apostasy". Tomorrow, if I remember and am not distracted by something else, I shall tackle the "a" word, but for today, I want to talk about the whole idea of heresy, and why I think it needs to be revived, although not in the way some fundamentalists and other traditionalists might want. My proposal, both modest and (he says without any trace of humility) radical, is that we revive the idea of heresy to rid ourselves, once and for all, of those who abuse the Christian faith to further other, sometimes political, sometimes religious, ends that do not have anything to do with the Gospel of Christ.
I think it is necessary, first, to talk about what heresy is. In its simplest terms, heresy is the way the Church, historically speaking, has defined the limits of acceptable belief. It should surprise no one that the Church found it necessary, very early on (indeed, reading Paul one gets the impression heresy was born with the Church!), to define what it believed, carving a niche for itself in a larger world of religions. To insist that there are things that are not acceptably Christian is hardly revolutionary or horrible.
Part of the problem the whole idea of heresy ran into is that, in difficult cases, where is the line drawn? For instance, with the recovery of Gnostic texts (including the recent release of a translation of the Gospel of Judas, a text known only through reference before now) we are forced to ask about the limits of Christian belief where the lines are not clear, where there is a mixture of that which is pretty clearly mainstream (a term I prefer to Orthodox, which, in our day and age, has a wholly different connotation) and that which is heretical. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were?
The question is further complicated once we start applying a hermeneutic of suspicion to the development of the canon and ask uncomfortable questions about those rejected texts and those who used them as a basis for faith. What role did the desire for power have in marginalizing those who did not believe as the majority dictated? What role did Imperial politics play in defining heresy, and limiting the canon to those texts approved precisely by those in power? These are difficult questions, uncomfortable questions, and any honest answer to them would begin by saying that, in fact, power politics, the politics of Empire, most likely had a great deal to do with defining heresy, although by the time the Church became the religion of Rome, the Church had been dealing with heresy for three centuries, so the issue is far more complicated than Imperial preference. Precisely because the idea of heresy - again, the idea that there are limits to acceptable confession of Christian faith - had been around for quite a while, the early Councils and Synods that had Imperial approval (indeed, the first Council of Nicaea was called by Constantine) were able to deal with the issue in a pretty straightforward way.
Problems arose, of course, in the ensuing centuries, with the marriage of the state's power of the sword and the Church's power to decide what is a correct and what is an incorrect declaration of faith. Those whom the Church defined as outside the acceptable limits of belief, and unrepentantly so, it handed over to the "secular arm" to execute. Because heresy had become part and parcel of a whole host of other ideas, as well as the political union of the Church and state power, it was the only acceptable solution of the problem of unrepentant heresy.
With the coming of the Enlightenment, and its derisive dismissal of all ideas Christian, heresy came under attack as well. I will not for one minute defend the murder of those who think differently than the majority. I will, however, insist that the rejection of the whole notion of heresy is a danger. We who are now living in the first century since the real end of the Enlightenment (which died, shell-torn, gassed, insane, bayoneted, and machine-gunned on Flanders Fields in 1914) have yet to return to the notion of heresy as it really functioned. We are mouthing platitudes we no longer believe when we reject heresy as outmoded. All of us search out heretics, of course - political heretics, social heretics, cultural heretics - it is the endless quest for the "Other", against whom we can define our own, acceptable being-as-human. When we deny to the Church something we use all the time - when we insist that the declaration of heresy is itself heretical - we have entered far past the territory of hypocrisy into repression.
My own feelings about a revival of heresy are actually quite simple. While I believe that the Christian life is about just that, about life, not some body of intellectual statements wo which we humans give either a "Yea" or "Nay" vote, it is nonetheless incumbent upon the Church to define, as clearly as possible, what is and is not acceptable belief and confession. Should we excommunicate those who refuse to accept what others would see as the broad stream of Christian faith? As a matter of fact, I do believe we should, for the simple reason that they have, in fact, already removed themselves from that stream. I do not believe in shunning, and certainly not murder, but we must return to some idea of what is an acceptable lmit of belief, or else belief itself is of no value.
Ironically enough, I would find fundamentalists and dispensationalists, those who crow the loudest about correct belief, to be outside what is acceptable. Both are very recent products of Christian faith's dialogue with the world. Neither results in anything like the freeing, saving faith in God offered in Christ through the Holy Spirit. I would rather follow Leonardo Boff, the excommunicated Jesuit from Brazil, than Jerry Falwell or John Hagee, precisely because Boff, as much as I may disagree with him, is more in line with the broad stream of Christian faith than the fundamentalist Falwell or the dispensationalist Hagee.
I would not silence them; I would not forbid them to speak. I would support their right to say whatever silly ideas they wanted to espouse. I would just insist that the Church publicize the truth that these men, and those like them, are not and never have been Christians, or representatives of the Christian faith. At every turn, I would insist the Church had a duty to dissociate itself from their vile, erroneous proclamations.
Heresy is in and of itself not a controversial idea. The application of it, in our day of free speech, free thought, open communication, may seem, well, downright heretical. Nonetheless, I think a revival of the idea is necessary precisely as we enter an age where religious ideas, including Christian ideas, have much more currency than they have had for the past several hundred years. We must ensure that we define, for ourselves, what is and is not truly Christian faith.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Jean Calvin spins while the Presbyterians Debate

The headline was enough to make me do a spit take all over my laptop. The Prebysterian Church - heirs of Jean Calvin and John Knox, partners with Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann - are debating new ways of expressing the Church's faith in the Trinity. Some of the formulas were unintentionally hilarious, like "Mother, Child, Womb". Others were historically accurate to the extent they were analogies used by theologians in the past, such as "Lover, Beloved, and Love" which was the formula St. Augustine used in his treatise on the subject. The problem, of course, is such a debate begs the very serious question (for Christians, it should be serious, indeed central) - what is the Trinity and why do we proclaim it?
The admittedly masculine formula of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is used for a very specific reason - it reflects the way in which the God Christians confess has seen fit to be revealed. The first two persons are relational within the Godhead itself, i.e., Father and Son reflect the way in which Christ Himself described His relationship with the God of Israel. It is thus Biblical in the deepest sense of the term (as opposed to Emil Brunner's contention that the Trinity was not in fact Biblical), and while heavily dependent upon a certain understanding of a very specific philosophical vocabulary, easily grasped once one understands that these persons do not stand alone, but in fact act together, love together, ARE together always. The Trinity is the mysterious, inadequate yet nonetheless accurate expression of the Church's understanding of how it has come to know the God in whom it believes.
To change the names of the Divine Persons, to argue that "some people" are offended, or "some people" might not understand because of bad relations with a human father, or that Trinitarian language is metaphorical anyway, so what's the difference is to miss the point by a mile. In the first two instances, I am always wondering who "some people" - let them come forward and speak for themselves. Let them explain exactly how calling God Father hurts them, or oppresses them, or keeps them from personal fulfillment. This is an old argument over language, and one that we need not get into right now, except to say, if you really believe that calling God "Father" is oppressive, you need to talk to some Central American or South African Christian about real oppression - and listen to them casually speak about their Heavenly Father who protected and delivered them. For the record, I only call God Father when reciting the Trinitarian formula, and that is because it is precisely here that we are dealing with God as God is for us and within the Godhead as well. Otherwise, I try not to anthropomorphise God.
Language is not metaphorical. This is another old argument I had thought long over. Language is very specific, it attempts to convey reality, to translate experience and thought into an intersubjective medium whereby two human beings can reach some sort of consensus on what exactly "reality" is. Never perfect, sometimes failing horribly, language is nonetheless the attempt to capture something "real" and give it to another. To argue that the Trinity is a "metaphor" begs the question - for what? For Divine Revelation? Yet that is exactly what the Trinity captures in its very confusing, self-contradictory way. So, we are back to the Trinity again, not as a metaphor, but for what it actually is, a declaration of faith in the God incarnate in Christ and believed in through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Presbyterian Church, historically, has been the most intellectually rigorous and deamanding of the mainline Protestant denominations. As such, it is sad to see it forgetting its heritage and flirting with heresy and apostasy to appease an overly sensitive, and largely silent, minority.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Great Commoner or Chief Boob of the Booboisie?: A Response to Ronald Steel's review article fo Michael Kazin's "A Godly Hero: The Life of William J

(A note: I just have a knack for long titles. Sorry about that.)

One wonders where to begin. There are so many flaws in Steel's review article in the June 22, 2006 edition of The New York Review of Books - of style, of content, of historical analysis - an even longer piece could be done challenging him. We shall stick here to Steel's characterization of the Populist movement (for that effects the course of the entire article) and his discussion of the Scopes Trial. I have not read Michael Kazin's previous work, revising views on the Populist Movement at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, so perhaps I may be repeating some of what he said without being aware of it. Suffice it to say that Steel may have to read that work in order to understand both how and why Steel is reconsidering Bryan's career and legacy.
The most notable thing about Steel's article is, beyond a few nods in its general direction early on, the piece hardly mentions Kazin's work. Steel gives a synopsis of Bryan's career without once mentioning how his interpretation might differ from kazin's, or why such differences matter. Indeed, Steel seems to be suggesting by the tone of his piece that his is the definitive interpretation, a corrective to some error in Kazin. This tone, at once dismissive and patronizing, can be highlighted by certain passages:
Certainly the most colorful, arguably the most exasperating, probably the most absurd - and yet in some ways perhaps the most guileless and inherently well-meaning - of our presidential candidates, Bryan framed and dramatized issues that are quite contemporary. Piety, patriotism, and populism infuse our national life today just as they did in Bryans' day. It is the American way.

His gracefully written portrait brings a nearly forgotten figure to life. Yet what emerges is a flawed and self-infatuated, though charismatic, man who led a crusade whose potential he never fully understood or developed.

[Bryan's speech to the 1896 Democratic convention, the famous "Cross of Gold" speech] was melodrama. It was demagoguery. It was pure theater verging on camp.
Kazin tells us approvingly that Bryan "burned only and always to see religion heal the world" and "became a hero to peoplpe who believed that politics should be a moral enterprise and that religion should purify the political world." But that was a good part of his problem. Successful political movements are built not on love, but more often on resentment and anger.

Populism has often been characterized as the rural equivalent of urban Progressivism, the movement that gave us Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and the optimistic political movements and agitation of the 19th/20th century cusp. In fact, however, populism was far different. Its roots lay in farm and ranch protests against the railroad conglomerates stealing land for right-of-ways, charging exhorbitant fees for transporting commodities, and buying banks to leverage - quite literally - recalcitrant farmers. The Grange movement was the initial manifestation of not so much rural as agricultural discontent. It wasn't a know-nothing rebellion against modernity as it is too often portrayed, but rather a very real, substantive economic protest against exploitation and the enforced impoverishment of an entire class of business people.
Populism embraced the graduated income tax, cental banking, the direct election of Senators, and prohibition (originally called temprance) because they were understood to be weapons useful against those whose economic and political power were thwarting economic progress on the farm and ranch. It might seem odd to lump prohibition in with other reforms, but it was of a piece, because not only the use, but production and sale, of alcohol was a large part of the profits of many of these conglomerates. This was striking a blow at the profit centers of Big Money. Populism embraced these reforms before urban progressivism precisely because these were reforms that could effect real change where they lived. Progressives were more concerned, at first, with urban blight and the plight of industrial workers, no less important, but more urgent than the agrarian reform movement to which they became wedded after Roosevelt took over the Presidency.
Progressivism was, as stated above, an urban reform movement. It was modeled on the emerging social sciences, relying upon them for information on the depth and scope of the problems facing the country, and very often paternalistic and dictatorial in its approach. All one need do is consider the governing style of Woodrow Wilson, whom all considered a progressive Democrat, to see what is meant by that. Bypassing Congress whenever possible, Wilson used his eminenc gris, Col. House (the Karl Rove of his day, only not quite as ruthless) to rendezvous in New York with various elites to develop and form policy. One of the most important aspects of Progressivism was its elitism, its disdain for rural America, which it neither appreciated nor understood. Viewing the South and the Midwest as vast tracks of ignorance, destitution, and petty bigotry, Progressives, relying on statistical data showing the United States becoming an urban nation, increasingly sought to "modernize" itself, and as it became more and more successful, attempted to throw off its rural counterpart, that part that gave it its most successful ideas and policy initiatives, and its most lasting legacy.
Populism was, as the word implies, a popular movement. There were local, even state, heroes. There was, however, no national leader to give voice to the concerns of agriculture, to be a spokeperson on the national stage. Dominated by the South from the end of the Civil War until the Great Depression, the Democratic Party became the mainstream voice of an outsider group. Bryan spoke the language of agricultural discontent because he understood it, he lived it with his neighbors in Nebraska. It is not demagoguery, as Steel calls it, to insist that policies that give banks advantages over those to whom they lend money should be altered when circumstances change; the first "Great Depression" of the 1890's was raging at the time, and banks were calling in loans when no one had any money. It was not demagoguery or a lack of understanding, but a real political proposal, to challenge the banks with a proposal that, while perhaps inflationary, would have allowed the farmers to repay their loans. It could also, perhaps, have led to alternative forms of debt relief, if such a discussion had been allowed. Alas, it was not.
The implication throughout Steel's article is that these economic issues were far too esoteric for Bryan and the Populists to understand. The fact that Bryan would go on to assist in the prosecution of John Scopes in Tennessee only shows how ignorant such Populism really was. In fact, however, Bryan's objection to the teaching of evolution rested as much upon democratic principles as they did upon religious principles (to give Steel his due, he does point this out in his article). The problem with Steel's analysis, alas, is that he sides with Walter Lippmann (the subject of a Steel biography) who had nothing for disdain for popular governance. His book, Public Opinion, was a discussion of the dangers of unfettered democracy and the necessity for a governing class educated in the social sciences. Modern states are far too complex for traditional forms of state action. This is government of the bureaucrat, by the bureacrat, and for the bureaucrat. It is the natural progression of Progressivism, its paternalistic attitude towards the masses it was trying to help, and its disdain for political action it saw mired in the messiness of the urban machines that, while efficient deliverers of service, were often corrupt money-making ventures for those in charge.
Steel's final shot, ripping a quote from the Bible out of context, shows that he is not so much interested in giving Kazin praise or blame in his work as he, once again, trying to show what an ignoramus the Bible thumpers are. Bryan, too often portrayed as a posturing, pompous demoagogue, in love with his own voice, just does not get the fact that anger is more powerful than love in politics. This is Steel's parting words - Bryan was ignorant of certain political realities and thus ultimately ineffectual as a political figure precisely because he did not get these political realities. I would insist that Bryan did understand them; he just tried to change them. That he failed is no black mark against his name. That he tried is his great legacy to us today.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Nobody Expects the Liberal Exposition!

It's a goofy title, I know. It requires explanation. I like it, though, even if it is obscure and unfunny, because it precisely captures the way Donald Miller and a group of his friends went about confession, as described in his book Blue Like Jazz:Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. By turning every expectation upside down and inside out, Miller shows the truly radical nature of the Gospel lived, and the power of true witness rather than simple apologia. He also forces all of us Christians to confess our own failures at true confession.
The story is quite simple, really. Miller and his friends attend a secular college in Portland, OR. The college is quite liberal, and many of the students are overtly hostile to any expression of Christian faith. Among the school's traditions is a festival where the students are allowed to run free, get drunk, get high, basically loose all social mores. In the midst of this pagan bacchanalia (I suppose that is a redundancy; are there Christian bacchanaliae?) Miller proposed to his friends they set up a Christian Confession booth. He immediately realizes that this is not such a swell idea, but as he has already told some friends about it, and several are keen on it, it is too late.
"Okay, you guys." Tony gathered everybody's attention. "Here's the catch." He leaned in a little and collected his thoughts. "We are not actually going to accept confessions." We all looked at him in confusion. He continued, "We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them."
All of us sat there in silence because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit the table with a thud. We all thought it was agreat idea, ad we could see it in each other's eyes. It would feel so good to apologize, to apologize for the Crusades, for Columbus and th genocide he committed in the Bahamas in the name of God, apologize for the missionaries who landed in Mexico and came up through the West slaughtering Indians in the name of Christ. I wanted so desperately to say that none of this was Jesus, and I wanted so despoerately to apologize for the many ways I had misrepresented the Lord. I could feel that I had betrayed the Lord by judging, by not being willing to love the peoplpe He had loved and only giving lip service to issues of human rights. p. 118

It was that simple, really. A confession booth. A Christian confession booth. A place for Christians to confess that they had failed, the Church had failed, that we had not loved, we had not done as the LORD required, we have been more concerned with making sure people knew how holy and pure and good (and liberal) we are rather than making sure people heard the message of the gospel, seeing the love of Christ in our acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visitng the prisoner, befriending the lonely. We have been so busy making sure people tried to see the differences between us and those "bad" Christians, we have forgotten that we are bad Christians, too, and we are just as responsible for non-Christians seeing us in a bad light as all those "fundamentalists".
There is no mission or vision statement here. There is no committee approved plan for ministry. There is no resolution voted upon and publicized to show the Church is doing something productive. No. All there is is a group of people saying, "We are supposed to be followers of Christ and we have failed. For two thousand years we have failed you, and Jesus, every time we turned our back on those in need, we killed or silenced or failed to love in the name of God. We confess that while Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, we spend too much of our time being a club, restricting our membership to those like us, and to those we like." This is living the Gospel in a radical way, exactly as Christ would have us live - in fear and trembling for the judgement of God, acknowledging the grace of God precisely in the very act of our responsibility for the horrors of this world.
This is what confession should be. This is what Church could be, if we allowed the Holy Spirit to live and breathe and move among us. Think about the possibilities inherent in this! This is about being the people of God, no more and no less. Isn't this cool?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The (Re)Birth of the Cool: Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz"

I had been raised to believe there were monsters under the bed, but I had peeked, in a moment of bravery, and found a wonderful world, a good world, better, in fact, than the one I had known.
Donald Miller
Blue Like Jazz
p. 215

Every year, now, for several years, I purchase a few new books at the beginning of the summer, and they start off my summer reading. I allow the books to lead me, although, to be sure, I have already chosen them for one reason or another. It is more reciprocity I am looking for. I am saying, "OK, I plunked down x amount of dollrs, show me what you got." Last year I purchased a book I had hoped would lead me to sharpen certain questions I had about the state of Christianity in America, especially Christianity's disastrous relationship to politics. While I did find those questions sharpened, it was more out of argument than anything else. While I find it refreshing to be challenged (my reaction to N T Wright, written about earlier is the best recent example), I found in this particular work less a challenge than a haughty superiority, a sense that arguments have to be conducted by Marquess of Queensbury Rules. Except, of course, you never bring a knife to a gun fight, and this particular author's more-than-flirtation with a species of American gnosticism (Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick) I found to be very misleading.
I came across Donald Miller and was intrigued by the title. I purchased it as a last-second add-on to my rather large pile of summer reading books. I am not challenged, except in some small details, by Miller's book. I am, however, gratified, because in reading Miller discuss his own spiritual journey, his discovery that the Christian life is about just that, living, and living freely - that it is like jazz, free, about freedom, and like freedom sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, sometimes sad but never dull - I hear my own thoughts sent back to me, albeit in different, much prettier words.
Unlike the writer from last year, Miller does not pretend to have a map for figuring it all out; he doesn't provide a guide through the mysteries of American literature and history that point to God. Rather, Miller shrugs, confesses his own failings and missteps, and says the best thing is we get to keep on trying, because it ain't over till it's over, and maybe even then it won't be over. Unlike the previous author, Miller sees the meta-political implications of the Christian faith, its non-partisan nature if you will, being a source of power-in-weakness. Those who seek power try to bend and break the faith, setting up barriers and conditions to the free and gracious love of God. The community of which Miller is a part not only loves those shunned by the fundametalists, but loves the fundamentalists, too. That is a radical love. That is the gospel.
There is something I believe unintentionally poetic about Miller's writing. By poetic, I mean a beauty and bepth and power in language that only poetry can provide. I say unintentional because I believe Miller doesn't know how beautiful a writer he is. For example:
One night I watched the sunset till the stars faded in and, while looking up, my mind, or my heart, I do not know which, realized how endless it all was. I laid myself down on some grass and reached my hand directly out towards where? I don't know. There is no up and down. There has never been an up and down. Things like up and down were invented so as not to scare children, so as to reduce mystery to math.

Do you see what I mean? Only a poet could write that. Only a Christian poet could write it and mean it.
Miller is an undemanding writer, in the sense that he asks very little from us, except for perhaps our indulgence as he relates various parts of his life to us. We do not have to study, we do not have to lay aside our prejudices, because Miller is much more concerned with making sure we are clear he has prejudices, and more important, he knows he has prejudices and is trying to set them to one side. That is called confession. One of the most beautiful chapters in this book contains a little story about confession, and it may surprise you. I know it surprised me.
Miller also makes sure we know he is not providing us with answers, arguments, or proofs. On page 103 he writes:
My most recent struggle is not one of intellect. I don't really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don't believe in God and they can prove He doesn't exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and the can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it's about who is smarter, and honestly I don't care.

In refusing to play a game that has raged in a particular fashion for five hundred years, Miller is throwing down the gauntlet to all those on all sides who have a vested interest in getting things right before we move on. Miller is telling us we have to surrender our vested interest and get about being what God called us to be. It is a challenge to live. It is a threat, too, to all those who actually believe Bacon's dictum that knowledge is power.
Most of all, Miller explodes all those stereotypes we use to pigeonhole people - he is, without a doubt the most cool indivudal I have read in quite a while, and he is cool precisely because his struggle is to not be cool. Isn't that what Americans love? An individual who doesn't follow the pack, who challenges the status quo (or perhaps, to be properly Latinate, stati quo)? Except we don't, not really. Miller shows us that, too, our very unlovely herd mentality, whether it is a herd of fundie right-wingers, or a herd of crazed college students tripping on mescaline. Yet Miller never stops loving them, these herds that would rather hate and divide and feel superior. He doesn't care anymore. Isn't that cool?

Some closing thoughts on Harry Potter

As I try to close out this nearly month-long relationship I have had with Harry, watching him go from a small, beaten-down, helpless boy of eleven to a courageous, strong young man of sixteen, I cannot but think how I shall miss him. But not juest him; Ron, Hermione, Fred & George, Neviile, Luna, Prof. McGonagal, newcomer Horace Slughorn, even the pathetic Dursleys, the horrible Severus Snape, Remus and Tonks, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Ginny, and, of course, the Dark Lord himself, Tom "Lord Voldemort" Riddle. I shall miss them all because they all grow and change (even the bad characters), or become more clearly defined. We see them meet new challenges, face the ever-changing reality of the world, sometimes poorly, sometimes with cunning, sometimes fatally, as with Sirius and Dumbledore.
The most interesting chapter in this series, in many ways, was vol. 5, where we see Harry, now a strapping fifteen-year-old, fresh off his fourth encounter with Voldemort, and witnessing the death of Cedric, facing the reality of a community and bureacracy unwilling to accept a harsh truth. Harry is 15 and both ignorant of the reality of the world and naive about the motives that drive human beings to act the way they do. Incredulous at the excessive paternalism of Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix (as a side note, this is a very British thing; it appears also in Tolkien, where Frodo and the Hobbits are, despite all necessity and evidence, treated as inferiors by Gandalf and others. An American author would never even think of treating charactgers in this way) on the one hand, and the pettiness and politics of the Ministry on the other, Harry ends up in a state best described by Stephen King in words he used about one of his characters - "he's got a good case of the I-hate-most-everybodys." While this is one of the few places I think Rowling overplays her hand - there is no build up to Harry's moodiness in vol. 4, and it all but disappears in vol. 6 - she nonetheless captures a significant part of adolescence. It is usually dismissed as angst by those who feel themselves above it all, yet it is actually the very real frustration of those who are discovering that even those with the best intentions, and with positions of great responsibility, are sometimes incapable of acting in their own best interests, or in the best interests of those they are supposed to represent. It is not just anger, or adolescence, but the beginnings of a righteous anger that is the necessary first step to changing the way things are. It is also, as Dumbledore points out to Harry at the end of vol. 5, an indication of Harry's very real depth of feeling, a depth that is his most potent weapon against a foe who sees only power and fear as real.
I have enjoyed my month in British wizard territory. The nice thing is that I know I can return anytime, and shall return again someday, if for no other reason than to prepare myself for the final installment. Some have said, "Why bother?", as if knowing that Harry will encounter Voldemort is enough, similar to my complaint about Titanic (a movie I have never seen) that I know the boat sinks. Actually, with Dumbledore's death, and the fact that he dies at the hand of Severus Snape, it seems to me all bets are off. As Harry realizes himself (again, Rowling overplays her hand here a bit; most of her readers, I think, understand the implications for HArry of Dumbledore's murder), there is no protection, anywhere, not really. Those veils of security we lie about to ourselves to help us sleep at night are just convenient illusions that allow us the comfort to close our eyes. Harry's eyes are no longer closed, and while he is afraid, he is also resolute. I await with great anticipation the final chapter in this wonderful series. The only sad note is that, in fact, it will be the end, and we shall no more see Harry and his friends, acquaintances, and enemies as they go through life to face lesser, but no less real, challenges.

Wanting to be Dumbledore, Fearing I'm a Dursley: One Reason I Love Harry Potter

The title really doesn't have anything to do with what I am about towrite, except I am going to write about the Harry Potter books. I was trying to think of something clever, adn failed miserably, but at least, if you are a Potter fan, you might get pulled in.
First, on a personal note. I first read the books several years ago, immediately after the publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire because another minister (not my wife, obviously) in the town we then lived in was speaking out against the books as a force of wickedness in children's lives. While opposed to cendorship of any kind, and opposed to ridiculous ideas specifically (as if there were such things as magic and wizards and witches and trolls and evil warlocks like Lord Voldemort), I still felt it incumbent upon me, if I was going to defend the books properly, I should read them. I went out and bought the first three, and felt quite silly I might add, being a grown man purchasing such nonsensical children's drivel. Within an hour of arriving home, however, I repented of those feelings and have been a dedicated fan ever since. Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince I ordered far in advance and purchased on the day of publication; I loved the latest installment so much I read it, the re-read it immediately. I can find almost nothing bad to say about these books, and eagerly await the final installment, I hope next year (fingers are crossing, J. K. Rowling, if you happen across this site!).
While it might seem indecent to do so, I want to say a few words here about the structure of the series (so far). The first thing I recognized immediately upon reading Volume 1 was that here Rowling was setting out, among other things, a template for how the stories were to go. First there was the backstory chapter, followed by a bit of the Dursleys. The trip to Diagon Alley was followed by the trip to Hogwarts itself. The school year interspersed classes with those elements of adventure necessary for a good story. The climax, as always, comes at the end of the school year, allowing the characters to debrief on the train-ride home. This framework has been followed pretty closely ever since, with some parts brought out, and others played down as the story might demand it.
Also, if you look at the chapters in Volume 1, each is almost self-contained. There are elements of back story in each chapter, there are elements of plot and character development in each one, there are adventures both little and big in each one. The minor character are allowed to breather and grow - Neville is a sympathetic klutz, Percy Weasley is, in that wonderful British phrase, a "smarmy git" from the get-go, we have, of course, the inevitable Quidditch match-ups. With Volume 2, it is as if Rowling says, "You saw the framework in Vol. 1; here is how we develop these ideas and create a larger picture." The power of Rowling is that she does all this effortlessly; the story elements come together, no pun intended, like magic, and we see our characters live and breathe and grow and even - like Dumbledore does in Vol. 6 - make horrible mistakes.
There are also discernible patterns between volumes. I take vols. 1-3 as a unit, with 4 being a natural break (there being 7 planned volumes all together). Having said that, consider Vol. 1 and Vol. 5: (a) both begin with characters searching for news about Lord Voldemort (in 1 it is Prof. McGonnagal; in 5 it is Harry); (b) in vol. 1, Harry discovers in Hogwarts a place where he can be himself, he finds hom, while in vol. 5 that is turned on its head as Prof. Umbridge (what a great name!) almost ruins Hogwarts for Harry; (c) Hagrid nearly gets himself and the others thrown out of Hogwarts, first over a dragon, then over his half-brother Grawp. Finally, there is the presence of Voldemort, suddenly appearing at the end of both books, first out of the back of the head of Prof. Quirrell, then into Harry's head, in both cases thwarted by the same power DUmbledore insists is key to Harry's strength over the Dark Lord, love.
These patterns continue in a comparison of 2 and 6. We have the diary in 2, while in 6 we learn (a) that it is most likely a Horcrux used by Voldemort to protect himself against mortal death; and (b) we go further along and learn more about the boy Tom Riddle we first met in the chamber of secrets, a boy defeated by Harry Potter. Indeed, in neither 2 nor 6 (nor 3, for that matter) do we encounter Voldemort as he is, either in his weakened state or fully regenerated and powerful. We are engaged, in both instances, in Voldemort's backstory. Of course, there is the incident with Aragog, and Aragog's death in 6. These are just a few structural points I would like to highlight, structural points I find both intriguing and giving a clue as to the power of Rowling's storytelling.
She is a gifted writer; in retrosepct, one wonders how even vol. 1 could be considered "simply" a children's book. These are, as a body of work, a body of literature, among the most powerful compositions in the English language. They are more than stories; they are little gems that all together create this wonderful morality play that my great-grandchildren will love and read and make their own. My one hope is they come to love Harry and Hermione and Hagrid (all those "h" names!) and Dumbledore and, yes, even the Dursleys and Snape and Voldemort as much as I did.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Freedom, Radical Contingency, & God

Doesn't that sound like the title of some philosophy book no one would want to read? I hope that is not the case here, as I shall try to discuss something near and dear to my heart: most people don't get what it is God is offering us in Jesus Christ, and that includes most Christians. In fact, I had to read a non-Christian moral philosopher before I got it (see the previous entry on Isaiah Berlin). Here, we shall expand some insights, and offer a way out of what has usually been considered either a hopeless contradiction, or at the very least, a challenging conundrum.
First, it is important to remember a couple themes from earlier postings: it is freedom, real freedom we are offered in Christ. It isn't about rules; it isn't about hating gays and lesbians and people of other faiths; it isn't about making sure fetuses (feti?) make it to gestation, then forgetting about their welfare once they are out of the womb. Being a Christian means we are free. We no longer have to accept societies rules as to how we are to live and shape our lives. We no longer have to fear for the future, because we recognize that it is in God's hands. We no longer have to worry about whether or not we are "good" or "bad", because that is a trap sin sets for us to suck us into a neverending downward spiral of doubt and shame and fear. We can just Be, live, laugh, love, make mistakes, hide behind masks, yell at our spouses, laugh with our children, cry with our parents, make love in candlelight, in moonlight, in the halflight of dawn, listen to hardcore, hip-hop, Black Sabbath, Casting Crowns, Led Zeppelin, Dred Zeppelin, pray, throw rocks at the windows of abandoned buildings - we can do all of this because this is what people who are alive, really ALIVE, do. We no longer need to be self-conscious, concerned each and every action, each and every choice, may lead us to hell, because we are no longer treading that path.
In that freedom lies the secret of contingency, that horribly frightening and exhilirating idea that things could be otherwise very, very easily. In fact, there is a theory in quantum mechanics, Bell's Theorem, that states that because we can never determine before hand the state an elementary particle will be in, our reading of it after the fact may be incorrect. The implications of this theory, which many phsycists have worked out, even though they vehemently disagree with it, is that there exist a potentially infintie number of universes that are the result of the different actions of elementary particles, these differences being as real as what we experience as reality. This is, in essence, a physical descirption of what Paul Tillich called eternity - the eternal now, the sum total of all experience being present in a single instant. The most frightening thing about Bell's Theorem is the implications for our lives. Contingency, then, is part and parcel of the physical universe - we are freed from the agony of destiny and fate, that sense that existence is outside our control, not just by grace, but in the very particles that go to make up reality. We are in a very real way created free.
This is not an argument for God. This is not a physical "proof" for God's existence. One is a theo-philosophical discussion of the nature of human life under God's prodigal grace. The other is a description of some theory of physics. There are those who have made much of the link, saying that in fact this shows that, despite Einstein's dictum, God does indeed play dice with the universe.
I prefer to think of it as God setting creation free. We are too often bewlidered by the cycles of life - the daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, yearly, millenial circles that make up creaturely existence. If we see with Christian eyes the possibilities inherent in a Universe radically contingent, then, we no longer need to live our lives by these determined cycles. Life is no longer cyclical but linear - or even random!
Where is God in randomness, you ask? There are those who equate randomness with the primordial chaos. Chaos, however, is the nothing out of which the Creator called what is. What is, is random. God chose randomness as a sign of the goodness, the freedom of creation. This is the horrible aspect of freedom - things are up to us to make better, to do well. The whole Universe, or at least our infinitessimal portion of it, depends upon us, those who bear the Divine Likeness, to bring things about as God would have them.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Been Away, Returning Soon

I have been trying to get my brain in order this week; not an easy task! Seriously, there was one good thing - I had my annual summer book shopping spree, and hope to be hitting them here by the beginning of next week. I look forward to being entertained, enlightened, challenged, and given new perspectives and opportunites for growth and learning.
Hope all is well with you and yours. God's Blessings and peace.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Gift of Pluralism: Isaiah Berlin's "The Crooked Timber of Humanity"

. . . As disparate as heat is from cold, and as one pole from the other, so diverse are the various religions. Their dissimilarity constantly provides us with a far more secure means of unlocking the spirit of a nation that the structure of the face provides in judging the temperament of an individual.

Johann Gottfried Herder
"Myth and Religion"
In Against Pure Reason: Writings on Religion, language, and History
Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Martha Bunge
Minneapolis, MN:Fortress Press, 1993, p.78.

What is most striking about this quote from Herder is its recognition of this reality in the face of Enlightenment instance that all religions (and here, they meant Christianity, Judaism, perhaps Islam, and Herder discusses Greek religion with a certain seriousness) are essentially the same, manifestations of an underlying spiritual reality that conformed, after careful analysis, to a kind of Deistic understanding of God. In his lectures on religion, Hegel gave final shape to this typology of religion, of a spiritual striving after perfection and finality, finally achieved in Christianity. While there are few confessed Hegelians around anymore, we are, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, all now Hegelians when it comes to religion.
Except Herder does more tha prick a small hole in the fabulous balloon of Hegelianism. He, indeed, punches a huge, gaping wound. In refusing to succumb to a kind of reductionism in studying "religion", Herder took the variety of religious expression as indicative of human ingenuity, and each as distinct as the other, providing opportunities for human growth and expression unique to each. It was a wonder to be celebrated, not a thesis/antithesis to be overcome in some synthesis.
Along with Herder, Berlin lifts up Vico and Hamann as indicative of a certain kind of protest against the bland universalism of Enlightenment thought (He would later write a book about them), and the central thesis he brings out from these three thinkers is that there is no reason to assume, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that the varieties of expression of human life - social structures, political systems, religion - are in fact merely variations on a single theme, but are in fact expressions of real, differences. Not only are these differences irreconcilable, Berlin argues, there is no need to reconcile them. One can, with very little effort, allow oneself to imagine living a life, a rewarding, fully human life, as an Indonesian Muslim, say, or an ancient Greek pagan. Precisely because these choices exist, they cannot be subsumed under some universal idea of "politics" or "religion", but need to be understood in and of and for themselves as such expressions.
Pluralism is, in some sense, a heroic view of the world. That is, it lets go of cultural, political, social, and religious superiority and takes a different view of the multifarious expressions of human social life. Rather than devising a theory of cultural superiority, beased on a narrow ethno-culturla-centrism, pluralism surrenders such determinism and insists that all these choices are equally valid, all these choices lead to equally authentic lives, and none are superior, or lead to anything that could be considered cultural or political superiority.
If one accepts such a view, however, we are left with the conclusion there is nothing inevitable, fated, determined, in our lives; our social life and its various expressions could be different. How do we defend contingency? How do we argue that our choices are correct, when we assume that no choice, in the end, can be final for anyone in all times and all places? Here is Berlin's finest turn. Precisely because these social and cultural choices are contingent, however, our attachments to them are all the stronger than if they were determined, either by fate, or nature, or some god or other. These are our, collective and individual, choices, and we must accept the consequences of these choices, taking the good with the bad, the beautiful with the ugly.
Pluralism, then, allows us to rid ourselves of that odious phrase "the Other". There is no "Other" precisely because that other could be, might be, probably is, another "I", an individual with a history, with commitments and beliefs and values and judgements distinct and quite different from my own, but nonetheless very real, very human. We are, all of us, allowed to meet on the same plain, with the social constructs we use to create barriers - race, religion, culture - removed. We can discuss differences without fear or false pride, seeking understanding based on a mutuality of respect. We can view other people as just that, people like us. There is only, in the end, "we". It is a bland universalism, a minimalist universalism, to be sure, but one that is more likely to produce fruitful productive interaction than a blustery cultural or religious superiority.
The title of Berlin's book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity comes from a quote from Immanuel Kant, the great universalizer himself. There is an irony in the essays in Berlin's work, subtitled "Essays in the History of Ideas". Berlin was, first and foremost, a moral philosopher, and while I do not believe him to have been a Kantian, there is no doubt that Berlin accepted the truth of Kant's dictum that "Out of the crooked timber of man, nothing straight was ever built." Yet the essays in this volume in fact point the way to the possibility of something, if not straight then at least solid, being built, exactly by recognizing our crookedness. In his long essay on Joseph deMaistre, in whom Berlin sees the beginnings of European fascism, we see how the very ideas Berlin supports can be perverted by those who view such distinctions as Herder and Vico celebrate as impediments to be overcome. The drive to eliminate difference, to rid ourselves of the possibility of distinction, is the drive behind the horrors of the just-ended century. In the pluralism celebrated by Berlin one sees an antidote, the possibility that we can live together with our differences intact. Berlin recognizes that it is hardly the kind of notion that can rally millions, move whole nations to cheer and toss their hats in the air (a child coming of age just after WWI, Berlin surely had the cheering hordes greeting the beginnings of that holocaust in mind). It is, however, a choice that allows humanity to survive and thrive, growing together, being together. It is not the last, best hope of humanity, but it certainly offers a serious alternative to a "War on Terror Without End".