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What's going on with me?

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Soon after I retired I joined the Board of the American Conservatory Theatre.  I have long been a devotee of the theatre  (in my early teens I attended every Shakespeare production at the Old Vic in London -- a good way to spend my pocket-money!) and I also wanted to support my dear friend Carey Perloff, head of ACT. 
2010 ended with a four city preaching tour: beginning the first week of December in Berlin at the Anglican Church, the following week took us to the Anglican Centre in Rome, with my preaching a sermon and leading a seminar. We then moved onto Paris for the third Sunday of Advent at the American Cathedral.  Finally, Advent IV and Christmas  were spent at Winchester Cathedral.  It's a commonplace to say that "travel broadens the mind"! But it does!  

That broadening process continued into 2011 with two invitations which, for me, were emblematic -- signs of a more generous and inclusive church. The first was a weekend at Furman University in Greenville, SC, ending with an invitation to preach at First Baptist Church. The second invitation was to conduct a workshop and preach at the four masses for the first Sunday of Lent at the Jesuit Chaplaincy at the University of Hawaii. I felt very welcome at both places but it was more  than feeling welcome. It was a fresh yet deeply grounded vision of "Church" which transcended denominational allegiances.  

This sense of full "catholicity" was confirmed by our spending nearly a month in Washington D.C. at the National Cathedral -- supporting that great institution. I preached on the fifth Sunday of Lent and on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil. A particular high-light for me was working with the remarkable musicians at the cathedral on an evening of music and readings in the context of Tenebrae on the Wednesday of Holy Week. 

Recent Work in Words

The Loss of a Common Culture?
Peggy Noonan in the WSJ (July 16-17, 2011) wrote of our cultural ignorance and dislocation. “Pretty much everyone over 50 in America feels on some level like a refugee . . .And they fear, deep down, that this new culture, the one their children live in, isn’t going to make it. Because it is, in its essence, an assaultive culture, from the pop music coming out of the rental car radio to the TSA agent with her hands on your kid’s buttocks . . . In the Old America there were a lot of bad parents. There always are, because being a parent is hard . . . But in the old America you knew it wasn’t so bad, because the culture could bring the kids up. Inadequate parents could  sort of say,  “Go outside and play in the culture,” and culture – relatively innocent, and boring – could be more or less trusted  to bring the kids up . . .   Grown up now know that you can’t send the kids to go out and play in the culture, because the culture will leave them distorted and disturbed.”

I think of the country I grew up in –- London in the 1950s – the New Elizabethan Age, as some called it. John Campbell reviewing A.N. Wilson’s Our Times: The Age of Elizbeth II, writes,

“The class-ridden, racially homogeneous, rationed and deferential country which the Queen undertook to defend in her Coronation Oath in 1953 has been transformed over the following fifty-six years almost beyond recognition. The outward continuities of Crown and Parliament today barely veil a raucous, multi-ethnic, multicultural  melting pot of hedonistic consumers all wired up to a ubiquitous virtual world of incessant novelty and instant gratification. While much has been gained in terms of living standards and personal freedom, there is no denying that much of value has been lost. Above all, perhaps, we are in danger of our losing our connection with the quite recent past, as even supposedly educated people’s knowledge of history grows ever sketchier.”

This is rough and exaggerated but not without truth. And this degeneration of culture is not peculiar to Britain – it’s global: “the triumph of free markets, the deregulated movement of capital, and the ubiquity of rock music, television, computers and the internet, have had or are having the same corrosive effect in dissolving every other society in the world.”[i]  In short there’s a lot to be conservative about! And the more I read history the more I see the necessity for conservatives to travel with the revolutionaries to remind them of the humanizing tradition which they, at their best, claim to represent. Every age has those who think the world had gone to the dogs.  I think of John Ruskin despairing of the effect of the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth century England.  In June 1874 an unhappy Ruskin, suffering from unrequited love, visited Assisi. He stayed in the sacristan’s cell at the basilica and copied Giotto’s frescoes – contrasting them with his own age of “cotton and iron mills”. He copied Cimabue’s Madonna with Angels with Francis and gave Francis is own features! Why should I think my situation worrying about the disintegration of culture in my own century is unique? Ruskin felt haunted by the storm cloud of his time – “the metaphysical evils of the Industrial Revolution.”[ii]  Then, as now, “Francis’ message of poverty was a potent antidote to an age obsessed with material advancement at the cost of both human lives and earthly resources.”  

[1] see Review of A.N. Wilson, Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II, Hutchinson by John Campbell in the TLS, January 16, , 2009, p. 11

[1] See Philip Hoare, “User-friendly Saint our time”, The Tablet, 25 April, 2009, p, 6.


Arthur G. Weiser Lecture for Interfaith Understanding 
Sunday, October 2010, Congregational Emanuel, San Francisco

"Ah! what a divine religion might be found if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith." (Shelley) We live in a world where there is too much faith of the damaging sort. True faith, linked to love, is always open to doubt. Miguel de Unamuno wrote, "Life is doubt. And faith without doubt is nothing but death." And St. John of the Cross, "In the end we shall be examined in love." That's it. That's the test of any religion; the test of atheism. It's the test of being human. 

Our love of stories, novels, movies, adventures, even sit coms, reflects our quest for a narrative, a story to make sense of things. Stories play an important part in helping us interpret the world and simply get through the day. They provide the architecture of our thoughts and feelings. 

But many of us, in spite of living inside a narrative, have swallowed the lie that science somehow is THE privileged language "the only language that's really, really true. We're not good at seeing that we all live inside a story" not necessarily a good one and that knowing what story's playing itself out inside us might help us move into a truer one. In an essay on The Burning Bush, George Steiner writes of the "ambiguous loftiness and terror of the unsayable." The God of Moses cannot be said, cannot be put into words. I am Who I am, I will be Who I will be. This is why we need stories "not to break the silence of the unsayable but to guard and preserve it". 

This is the great biblical insight celebrated and misunderstood (and even betrayed) by both Christianity and Judaism. Literary critic Terry Eagleton refers to "The non-God or the anti-God of Scripture, who hates burnt offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness... the enemy of idols, fetishes, and graven images of all kinds -- gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes, nations, sex, success, ideologies and the like." This is a scandal worth exploring -- a scandal absurd as it sounds -- leads to the ground on which we all stand -- a common and shared humanity.



FREEDOM AND ITS COUNTERFEITS OR THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE
Let me start with a couple of images.  The first. In August 2009, there were demonstrations on the steps of the state capitol in Austin Texas demanding secession from the United States in the name of freedom – freedom to be left alone, freedom to do as one pleased, freedom from interference from anybody at anytime, freedom as a kind of open-road rootlessness, freedom as being free from the burden of dialogue with others.  There was no hint of any fear from the undertow of nihilism – what it might mean to live in a vast and dehumanizing emptiness. The demonstrators longed for a situation where they could live in a world where all its problems were definitively solved. Just get off my back and out of my way, but launch a Federal rescue effort if things get really rough.

The second. In Pasadena in 1996, a city council member was censured for cursing and screaming invective during the session. The ACLU defended him by attacking the Council’s courtesy code as “silly,” “goofy,” “embarrassing,” and “a laughing stock.” In the triumphant press release the ACLU called [the Council’s defeat] “a victory for all of Pasadena.” I don’t think so. It was a victory for those who have such a shallow vision of freedom.

Many people confuse freedom with this kind of selfish arbitrariness. They confuse indulging appetite with liberty. Much of our freedom is phony.  We think  that if we had total control over things and events, we’d be free. Julian Barnes wonders what it would be like if he had his life to do all over again. “I could leave home earlier, live abroad, have children, not write books, plant hornbeams, join a utopian community, sleep with all the wrong people (or at least, some different wrong people), become a drug addict, find God, do nothing. I could discover quite new sorts of disappointment.”[i]  It would be the same muddle all over again.  I sometimes fantasize about free I’d be if I had more money, different parents? Instead I had to muddle through with what I’ve been given. How free is that?

What does it mean to be free? Most of us labor under a particular conception of what it is be free as being centered on the autonomous self, doing what it pleases without the restraint of priest or monarch. I have my inviolable truth, which can neither be contradicted nor restrained. I am a free-floating agent and any relations I have with others are merely and purely contractual. 

            Now, imagine a young boy, sixteen years old, in prison for resisting the Nazis. He asked himself the question, “How should I  demonstrate my freedom?”   This is what he did. He tore  off a piece of brown paper from under   his mattress and wrote down, with a blunt pencil he had cadged from a guard, all the Latin words he could remember. This was the way he demonstrated his free spirit. He was Ralf, Baron Dahrendorf, known as a defender of liberty. Writing down Latin verbs was his way of expressing his freedom. “In the preservation of liberty,” he wrote later, “we have the weapons we need, our minds.’”[ii] He presumed that we have well-furnished ones in the first place. 

It’s hard to imagine any contemporary American giving such an example of the free spirit. Or take the story of the idealist left-wing students in Paris who in 1968, drunk with the possibility of a new political beginning went to the old Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojève to ask his advice. “Learn Greek!” he told them.  They were confused and dumbfounded. This was the last thing they expected.  They were hoping for something like, “Demonstrate! Occupy a building! Overturn and burn a few automobiles! But,  learn Greek? What the hell for?” The reponse!  You want to be free? All right! Learn Greek. Write down all the Latin words you can remember.  If you do, you might bump into a different vision of freedom from the one where you get a high from following your appetites and instincts.

Freedom? It’s a key word in the American lexicon and on the surface most of us think we  know what it means. I want, in this brief presentation, to use the imagination to throw us off balance and make “freedom” appear strange and unfamiliar. In the words of  G. K. Chesterton “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.”  The fact that there’s something playful about this approach shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the game of freedom is a very serious one indeed.  Freedom isn’t license. It isn’t doing what we damn well please. Yet at its crudest, this do-as-I-please view of freedom is at the heart of  much of populist rhetoric.  In short, freedom is often a scarcely veiled nihilism. In this presentation, I want to take a little cultural tour of the American landscape and briefly examine what we mean by freedom and the sense of self that accompanies it – for example,  the idea of freedom colored by our collective and selective memory of the great move West and life on the Frontier.

David A. Hollinger’s book  Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, points to the fact that “Much in American culture is passionate, ugly, violent, committed. Americans like it that way; it is part of their sense of self . . . The Scarsdale housewife with a gun in her handbag, the Southerner with a Confederate flag on his lawn, the Jew in Brooklyn wishing death to the Palestinians, the Minnesota feminist reviling men as potential rapists, the black professor chanting anti-Semitism -- these are not candidates for membership in urbanely voluntary affiliations. These are angry people, who want to keep their share of anger.”[iii] Freedom to be angry, very angry, is a key element of the package.

            We’ve had a recent example in the Supreme Court’s action in defining  and defending what we mean by “freedom”. You will remember that the court held for Westboro Baptist Church and against the Snyder family by a vote of 8-1. Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter. He was also the lone dissenter in a case decided a year ago (United States v. Stevens) when the Court stuck down a statute criminalizing the sale of videos depicting kittens being crushed to death by the high-heeled “spike” shoes of a dominatrix. The majority opinion in both cases was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, and the result in Snyder was predictable, given Roberts’s rejection in Stevens of “any balancing of relative social costs and benefits” when it comes to free expression rights.  Should individual rights always trump those of the community? Doesn’t “freedom” require (God-willing) voluntary restraint on the part of the individual?  At the same time, doesn’t it require protection for the individual from the tyranny of the majority?  Underneath these issues lies the basic  anthropological question: what does it mean to be human?  What kind of creatures are we?  Are we free-floating autonomous selves or  are we beings created for communion and community?

What got me going on the topic of freedom and its counterfeits was a visit to the German Historical Museum in Berlin last December.  Hitler und Die Deutschen – Volksgemeindschaft und Verbrechen -- Hitler and the Germans -- Nation and Crime -- a brilliant but exhausting exhibit showing the thoroughness of the Nazi machine and the pliancy and collaboration of the population, which embraced the Nazi Party because it promised both prosperity and solidarity.  What struck me was not so much the “Hitler” parallels with US politics --  both sides of the political divide claiming that the other side is a bunch of Nazis!  What came through in the exhibit was the power of  faux populism of das Volk in supporting tyranny the name of Freedom.  Hence, references to “The American People” in our political rhetoric make me nervous.  Try saying “The American Volksgemeindschaft” in you head instead of “The American People.”

“The Nazi Party’s Gleichschaltung (“coordination”) of politics and society went hand in hand with the voluntary collaboration of a society longing for security and strong leadership, as well as for participation in social community and social  ascendancy.”  In Germany in the thirties, “Social promises and successes in securing work and food for the people ensured the increasing approval of the government by almost all classes of society.” It became easy to overlook persecution of “aliens” and minorities for the sake of solidarity and “purity”.  And all in the name of freedom.

We live in a remarkably free country – a country for which I am enormously grateful. As an immigrant, I was drawn into the American myth of the frontier where freedom rules and where everyone carries a gun.  You could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats. So let’s take a little cultural tour – a look through the lens of the movies – the Westerns; and then through the lens of Jonathan Franzen novel, Freedom.

First the movies. Robert B. Pippin’s book Hollywood Westerns and American Myth points out the importance of the genre for political philosophy.[iv]  He even calls its subject America’s “second founding”.  “According to the Frontier Theory of Frederick Jackson Turner, the American personality was established in that place where “advancing civilization met declining savagery”.”[v]  And that “American Personality” takes as a given a view of freedom that  still has its roots in the wild West mentality.

Remember the movie Stagecoach (1939)?  The passengers on their way from Tonto to Lordsburg are faced with a choice: to turn back or go ahead through hostile territory. Sitting around a large dining table, they establish a  little democracy and take a vote to go head. The irony is that at the end of the movie, with all problems apparently resolved, the two leads – John Wayne and Clare Trevor – are shooed south of the border with the word’s, “Well that’s saved them the blessings of civilization.” The two gun-toting cow boys are vital in establishing “civilization” but once that’s accomplished, they are told to move on – in this case into Mexico.  In Pippin’s phrase, “Mexico has become America’s America.” So there’s both anxiety and ambiguity over the move to “civilization” from the “freedom” of the open range -- the move from the individual to the social, from the pastoral to the industrial. “Civilization” means good order. It also means, from the perspective of the classic Western,  the loss of freedom.

            The movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) goes even deeper into this theme.  Visually it’s powerful.  In the opening scene, the railroad (the sign of civilization) cuts its way through the virgin landscape. The message seems to be “Progress spoils things”.  The train carries aging Ransom (Rance) a senator (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles). They are on their way back to their former home Shinbone.  The local newsmen soon find out about this unexpected visit and discover that the senaror has come back principally for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Who? A nobody.  Why has a famous senator come to the funeral of an obscure cow boy? No one else seems to know of Doniphon's pauper’s funeral.  The local press wants a story and Ransom agrees to relate the whole tale of his relationship with the John Wayne character. The story begins with the   young Rance,  recently qualified as a lawyer from the East, suffering a brutal introduction to his new home. His stage is ambushed by outlaws. He is savagely beaten by a vicious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) as he defends a female passenger. Valance despises the young lawyer and yells as he beats him, “I’ll teach you law! Western law!”  Ransom is left on the trail and is rescued by Doniphon, a hard-bitten and sharp-shooting local, who brings him into town.  He’s nursed back to health by Hallie who many take to be Doniphon’s girl. Ransom  learns that the man who beat him up was Liberty Valance.  And here’s the heart of the matter. Ransom stands for the rule of law in a place where the gun is the only law.  He vows to put Valance in jail, using the law not a gun. While this raises some laughs, the townspeople give Ransom, the crazy Easterner, grudging respect for his education and his ideals. He also represents the “progress” that they want for their children.  But “progress” requires the restraints of civilization.  Tom Doniphon tells Ransom, “Out here a man settles his own problems.” To which Ransom retorts, “The only advice you an give me is to carry a gun!” “Well, votes wont stand up against guns,” Tom replies.

Tom Doniphon, who is one of the few who will stand up to Valance, believes there is no law and that one "needs a gun in these parts". Stoddard, who believes in the rule of law rather than violence and is regarded by Doniphon as a tenderfoot unable to handle himself in the kind of fights that are common in the West, cannot understand Doniphon's thinking – the same thinking by the way as that of Liberty Valance: might makes right.

Soon Ransom is teaching people to read and write (including Hallie his future wife), showing them how to exercise their right to vote and proving that you don't need to wear a gun to be a man. “Education is the basis of law and order” is written on the chalk board in the class room.  

A showdown with Valance is inevitable.  Things come to a head as the territory votes to become a state. There’s to be an election for two representatives to the state senate.  But not everyone wants statehood. On one side are the cattlemen (who have hired the violent outlaw Valance to be their representative). They’d rather keep the land “free” and lawless, since they have the power. On the other are the townspeople who want the protection and “civilization” promised by joining the Union. As the vote takes place (no women and no blacks voting of course) there is a tense standoff between Ransom and Valance as the latter tries to force his own election. The outlaw fails and challenges the lawyer to a gunfight. Ransom, of course, is no match for Valance. We know that Ransom survives the shoot-out, since he's telling this tale, but  how did he make it?  The truth is that Tom secretly shoots Valance and allows Ransom to take the credit and get the girl.  The good guy succeeds by reason of a calculated murder, albeit of a vile man.

Stoddard on his return for Tom’s funeral confesses the whole story, but the newspaper editor refuses to publish it and burns all the notes his reporter took, stating: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Ransom and Hallie board the train for Washington, sad about the lie that led to their prosperous life. With the area becoming more and more civilized, Stoddard decides, to Hallie's delight, to give up politics, return to the territory and set up a law office. Stoddard asks a conductor how long it will take to get to Washington. The conductor tells them that the train is traveling at high speed and that at an upcoming junction they are holding the express train for him, saying, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance".

Professor Pippin comments: “What this suggests is that the conditions necessary for law and political order are doubly morally problematic. First, there can be no law unless the lawless are eliminated, controlled, but . . .  this violent elimination cannot itself be just or fair, cannot play by the rules . . . Second, it seems that a civilized order must view itself as founded by heroic and unproblematic violence, so this truth about the founding must be hidden by a lie.” In the movie, a lie establishes and sustains Stoddard’s career in politics. The editor of The Shinbone Star  won’t print the truth. Where does the greater danger lie – in opting for the prosaic over the heroic? Do we want little freedoms because we cannot cope with Freedom with a capital F.    Is  letting fantasy oust memory  too expensive? Where does freedom lie? In the wild or in the cultivated?  There is a great human cost in human “progress”.  Who should we go for? Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne?  The drama is still being played out in our politics right now.

Another lens through which to look at our view of freedom  is that of contemporary literature. Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, brilliantly critiques our confused notion of liberty.  As the commentator in The Economist puts it,  “I don't think he was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans' own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”

            The heroine in the novel, Patty, desperately struggles “for freedom and autonomy, but in a personal, emotional sense, played out mainly at the level of family. Other characters in the book, too, are trying to get free of the fetters that bind them: overbearing families, the compromises and frustrations of working life, sexual fidelity, sexual infidelity, alcoholism, money problems, and so on. What becomes clear, as they push against these restraints and against each other, is that they can't free themselves by running away. They can't free themselves by fighting, either; the enemies they pick are most often projections of their own anxieties, and their battles against neighbors, lovers, relatives or corporations become obsessional feuds that wind them up ever tighter in their own neuroses. The characters who achieve some measure of freedom in "Freedom", including Patty, do so by coming to understand themselves, by seeing their own limits and those of others and of society itself, and working out rules for living peaceable and reasonably rewarding lives within the disappointing bounds of reality.” Freedom means setting limits and establishing rules.

            That, it seems to me, is the great challenge buried in our espousal of freedom – the knot of realism and responsibility, the necessity of limits and disappointments. We think the autonomous self is free but as the commentator in The Economist , points out, “Pure negative freedom isn't freedom, because it leaves you enslaved to your stumbling, repetitious, obsession-driven animal self. Freedom comes through self-knowledge and the setting of self-chosen rules.”  If that’s the case, who needs it? Freedom is hard work.

            Over seventy years ago, T.S. Eliot uttered a warning the kind people we were becoming. Given our political climate he sounds prophetic.  “Britain has been highly industrialized longer than any other country. And the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women – of all classes – detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well housed and well disciplined.”[vi]  This isn’t simply reactionary. The past, of course, isn’t necessarily better than the present.  We don’t want to hark back to “the good old days”. It’s more that while the past failed in its ideals, the present seems to have abandoned them.

So, freedom aint easy.  St. Augustine pointed out that freedom has two meanings: the freedom to do as we please which isn’t really freedom. It’s simply the autonomous self bumping around in its neuroses.  The deeper freedom is the freedom that comes when we come home to our true selves. The trouble for Augustine is that we are estranged from our true selves.  The irony is that we can wander off from our true selves into “the region of unlikeness.”  We even say such things as, “I wasn’t myself.”  To be truly free, you have to know what kind of creature you are. Moreover, the exploration as to what kind of creatures we are is not only personal. It’s political. It will involve such things as learning Greek and mastering Latin verbs! (Or whatever their equivalents.)

The commentator in the Economist thinks that the example of the invasion of Iraq is a good one. At first sight the overthrowing a dictatorial government does have a good deal to do with freedom in its most straightforward political sense. “But the chaos that immediately followed the fall of Baghdad, and the ultimate devolution of Iraq into ethnic civil war, vindicated the anxiety I and other war opponents had that the Bush administration would make a mess of postwar governance precisely because of its naive ideas about freedom: its apparent assumption that a country stripped of its evil tyrant would naturally become a free-market democracy rather than a cronyistic gangland battleground, and its reflexive belief that government and freedom are in opposition to each other.” The belief that government and freedom are in opposition to each other --  sound familiar? The state is always bad, the individual always good. Is that really so?

            It’s not my intention to get into politics as such but simply to point out that our ideas of freedom are confused and often naïve and self-serving. When Franzen points to our “"mixed-up, childish notion of freedom" as one source of our willingness to engage in destructive international behavior, he’s onto something. An administration with a less childish, more thought-through vision of freedom would have recognized that storming off and smashing up bad guys is unlikely to make people free, that structures of governance and rule-bound behavior are conditions of freedom, not constraints upon it.” Our rhetoric is replete with the call to spread freedom with little talk about either its nature or its cost. What was good for Halliburton was also, by nature, good for freedom in the Muslim world. It’s not that we’re not sincere. It’s more that our ideas of freedom are sometimes  “childish and mixed-up.” True freedom requires a commitment to self-knowledge. And our culture resists that.  What  do you make of this from the English commentator?

“One of the deepest failings in American political life today is that Americans themselves do not understand, or deliberately refuse to understand, how or why their society works. At the mechanical level, we have the "get your government hands off my Medicare" phenomenon. . . .” But at a deeper level, it seems perverse to me that the most energetic ideological current in America today fetishises individualism and reviles the public sphere, and that political discourse is so full of hatred and fear, in a country which I'm pretty sure is among the nicest, openest, and most informally generous I've ever lived in. There's something bizarre, something psychological, going on with that contrast between personal niceness and political hatred.”[vii]

Freedom can’t flourish in a situation where individualism has become rancid.  Freedom, paradoxically requires self-restraint for the common good. It’s time to stop being idiots. It’s time for a little Greek and Latin. In Greek and Latin, “idiot” means a “private person”: that is someone caught up in a private world of self-preservation and safety with no regard for the common good or obligations of citizenship. The word “idiot” was used derisively in ancient Athens to refer to one who declined to take part in public life. In our own day we confuse this “idiocy” with freedom – freedom as distorted to mean the ability of the isolated self to pursue its selfish desires.  It’s its own form of nihilism.  We are becoming a nation of idiots and our idiocy leads to polarization and violence, to possible Death by Stupidity.

Michael Lind points out the danger of severing the individual from the community, by contrasting the difference between us and the Romans, centered in the word “public”. 

“If one word sums up the general difference between us and the Romans, it is public . . . . The very term republic  (the ‘public thing’) incorporates the word. The horrors of 20th-century collectivism have left us with a reasonable suspicion of coerced community. Even so, the contemporary eclipse of the public and accessible  in literature, art, and philosophy by the private and idiosyncratic would have been considered a disaster  by the Romans as well as the Greeks. Our term idiot comes from the Latin idiota, an adaptation of the Greek idiotes, which means ‘private person.’”[viii]

Idiocy (in this ancient sense) makes is difficult for us to talk to each other  When we do try to communicate it’s  often at cross-purposes. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of noise in the public square but few are actually listening  and speaking to each other. We live mainly in a world of private citizens screaming their frustrations publicly. A couple of hours with Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, and I’m left with a feeling of gratitude for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

The good news is that far more things bind us together – atheists, believers and all those in between – than anything, which tear us apart.  If we’re awake to the wonders of modern science – the vastness of the universe,   the disturbing and thrilling openness of  indeterminacy, we  realize that we are all bound together by amazement and humility.  That sense of amazement and humility is surely the basis of any appreciation of what it is to be truly human – to be truly free.

The fact that it all “began” over four and half billion years ago and has about six plus billion years to go before the sun blows up should stop us in our tracks. We are presented with a disturbing openness with regard to our very nature. Whatever we human beings are right now – if we survive – will bear little resemblance to what of our descendents might be around a few billion years from now. So what kind of creatures are we? Is the process all meaningless? The brave and serious atheists say “Yes!” and tell us that we have to create our own meaning. But is self-generated meaning really real and sustainable?   Either way, we’re all in the same boat. Each of us is an instance of wild improbability. Each of us struggles to believe that he or she is somehow significant. Do we matter? How free are we?

Let’s move out of idiocy into a conversation about what it means to be a human being in the light of the shock (barely felt now) of what I call the godly nature of human beings. If you don’t like the word “godly” use the word “mysterious” or even “weird”.  How about “wildly improbable”? We need to recover the oddness of it all. Being human has become so familiar that it has lost its strangeness. Being human and being free takes an enormous effort of imagination.  Remember G. K. Chesterton’s, “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.”   

At the heart of being human is the issue of freedom and the thing that trips us up about freedom is that there is no freedom without responsibility, no liberty without a corresponding sense of duty and obligation.  If we aren’t to slip into nihilism, freedom requires our acknowledging some transcendent authority – or, at least, some objective standard of right and wrong. Nearly a century ago (during WWI), political commentator Walter Lippmann  was  prophetic (and echoing the contrast between John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart) about our need to see a link between personal interaction (of which freedom  is the prerequisite) and transcendent authority.

“We are unsettled to the very roots of our being. There isn’t a human relation, whether of parent or child, husband and wife, worker and employer, that doesn’t move in a strange situation. We are not used to a complicated civilization, we don’t know how to behave when personal contact and eternal authority have disappeared. There are no precedents to guide us, no wisdom that was not meant for a simpler age.”[ix]

If that was true then, how much more is it so now – in a shrinking world enduring accelerated change. The key insight here is the combination of “personal contact” with “eternal authority.” These are the two poles around which a fully human and truly free life revolves. I might not know what the “eternal authority” is but I do acknowledge there’s a reality outside my own little psyche, calling me out of solipsistic idiocy into relationship with others and the world. If we don’t find a creative outlet for this longing, there are plenty of destructive ones available to fill the void. It’s no accident that people, longing for something to count on, feel drawn to authoritarianism in both politics and religion. And there are those ready to exploit the anxieties and fears of the Volksgemeinschaft.

Another way of talking about “personal contact” and “eternal authority,” comes from  G.K. Chesterton who found himself in just such a predicament as ours yet was joyfully optimistic. He refused to collapse into negativity. In the Roman Catholic Church, he found the two things he longed for – authority and romance.  Adoration provided the counterpoint to uncertainty. Adam Gopnik points out this was why Catholicism appealed to  Chesterton. It was  “a solution at once authoritarian and poetic”. Rome offered a powerful combination -- “stability allied to imagination”. Chesterton was a conservative but his conservatism was “not the blinkered and mulish preference for the past over the present, but a philosophical concern for whether there will be a future.”[x] That’s my concern too – not whether there will be a future but whether there will be a future fit for humans.

Adam Gopnik, commenting on Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, describes anarchism as “a kind of vengeful, all-devouring nihilism that is assumed to be pervasive and – this is the crucial thing – profoundly seductive, sweeping through whole classes of intellectuals, or immigrants, or, especially, immigrant intellectuals.”[xi]  The appetite for romantic violence is the flip side of the desire for absolute order.  It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between seductive nihilism and true freedom.

Chesterton’s  The Man Who Was Thursday takes seriously our capacity for violence and destruction. He contrasts the ordinary liberal with the enlightened humanist. The latter takes seriously our capacity for violence and destruction. The former thinks that “reason” (like the New Atheists) will win out in the end.  The contrast between “the ordinary liberal” and “the enlightened humanist” is a good way to understand what is implied by “idiocy” in the  old sense of the word.

“Where the ordinary liberal scoffs at the idea that apocalyptic terror represents a real threat to his society, the awakened humanist . . . believes that everyone has missed the reality, by refusing to accept how plausible and alluring the argument for destruction is. To anyone ‘awakened’ in this way, people who hold the alternative normal view – there is nothing much to be frightened of – are literally insane. They cannot see what is in front of their noses even as it blows up their cities.”[xii]

Chesterton saw the “idiocy” of the rationalist’s faith in “reason”. To be human means being able to smell the sulphur of an impending apocalypse without collapsing into hysteria.  Remember. Freedom is hard work. Things could easily fall part.  If the mean-spirited God of popular religion doesn’t do us in then we’re quite capable of managing our own apocalypse. We are mortal. Death is not optional. As novelist Julian Barnes has wittily pointed out, “We are all future dead people.”[xiii] When we forget that we indulge in yet another form of idiocy – a kind of perverse “exceptionalism”. Everyone else is marked for death except us. We often try to assuage the tragic with the trivial, to reduce the world to the manageable and narrowly personal and private.  

What, then, can spring us out of the idiotic prison of the merely private and rancidly individualistic? Circumstances can jolt us out of our present position. Many are feeling the pain of dislocation, unemployment, loss of home, as well as the inner miseries of depression and addiction. Given the challenges facing us, we need a new conversation about freedom and responsibility. The noble words used to describe our highest aspirations and longings – words like “freedom”, “dignity”, “virtue” -- have been corrupted. They become code-words. freedom = the right to carry a gun; dignity = the right to think of ourselves as autonomous, with no reference to the needs of others; virtue = the fantasy that we are the truly righteous.

Is our romance with rugged individualism  coming to an end?  Alexis de Tocqueville used the word individualisme unflatteringly.  It was a word to describe the terrible atomizing forces let loose by the French Revolution. Americans quickly gave it “an almost entirely sunny sense. It was no longer a dark force that needed correction from outside, one crushing public virtue, but was itself the source of all American virtue.”[xiv] Gary Wills comments, “It [individualism] was ideologically unchallengeable. Opposing individualism became unpatriotic. It was identified with the frontier values [there we go again], with the free market, with freedom itself.”[xv]  What’s more the popular view of freedom has morphed into a new expression of contradictory strands of American life. On the one hand, there’s a “blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing – an unwarranted – confidence in the self” on the other. This vision of freedom blends together an apocalyptic pessimism about public life with a childlike optimism swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to our own powers.[xvi] Idiots?

Our confusing freedom with a sunny individualism is why we’re strangely schizophrenic politically. On the one hand, we want no infringement of our private freedoms and, at the same time we want to be protected from social fragmentation, epidemic violence, and economic and technological change – always accelerating faster than our ability to absorb it.  Our appetites undermine the very values we espouse. The senator touting “family values” has a mistress on the side.  We don’t want “socialized” medicine but we love Medicare. We don’t want to be the world’s policeman yet we think we know what’s good for the rest of humanity.  Prince Talleyrand made a prophetic statement: “I attest that any system which aims at taking freedom by open force to other peoples will only make that freedom hated and prevent its triumph.”[xvii]  Sound familiar?

What are the bones that people chew on in their fear? Fear about Big Government, job loss, illness masks a general angst about life itself. Not far beneath the surface are issues of faith, as the search for someone or something to save us. May be it will be God? Maybe, science? Maybe “the triumph of freedom and democracy”?  Those who blame religion for most of society’s ills, see religious people as idiots in the modern sense of the word and want them to get back to being idiots in the ancient sense by making religion merely private and personal, a hobby, like stamp-collecting or Nascar racing.  We would be better off if religion were relegated to the world of private preference – “a legally permissible private eccentricity; allowable behind closed doors once a week.”[xviii] 

No wonder so many of us are depressed.

 Our view of freedom, cripplingly private and isolating, is deeply flawed because being human means living in community, in communion. This has its dangers. Even the loners among us are tribal creatures, wanting to find a safety zone with the known and familiar.  The pressures on the planet make it imperative that we broaden the confines of our little tribe to include the stranger, the outcast, the alien. The old  “brotherhood of man” kind of idealism  is  now a necessity for our survival.

But isn’t this asking too much of people? Are we up to such a work of the mind and heart that we can imagine new possibilities for the human race? Can we live in a world subject to constant disruption -- even if it happens to be the real world? Wouldn’t it be better to invent a more stable one? Besides “reality” (our conception of it) itself is unstable and subject to the penetration of the imagination. So, why not manufacture a manageable virtual world devoid of ambiguity – a world in which we are fooled into thinking we are free – a world like the one in the1999 movie The Matrix --  a future in which reality as perceived by humans is actually  a simulated reality, the Matrix created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue the human population, while their bodies' heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source?  That movie made me feel nostalgic for such films as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

How many of us are living in a simulated reality? The promise that there is no ambiguity, that there is closure, comes as a breath of fresh air. But this “breath of fresh air” comes at the expense of a lowering of consciousness, which is a kind of servitude, a diminishing of our freedom. In the name of liberty we embrace a narrowing of vision of what‘s possible. Our social contexts get smaller and human possibilities are put on hold. It’s not that there is no place for limits and boundaries but that they easily become prisons and barricades. It takes more maturity than most of us can muster to be able to take differences in our stride and not be driven crazy by inconclusiveness. Cheap certainties reinforce whatever kind of idiocy we choose to embrace. We live by custom and habit, and, often these quietly and effectively dampen the fires of the imagination. It takes conviction and courage to keep the conversation respectful with regard to the opinions of others, especially when their views are repellent.  It takes guts to venture our of the safe enclave of fixed opinion and argue with passion and respect.

            There is little we can do when we’re faced with a conversation stopper that goes something like this: “I’m white. You’re black. I’m straight and you’re gay. I’m male. You’re female. I’m a Democrat. You’re a Republican. We have nothing to say to each other besides you just don’t get it, in fact you can’t get it.” Are we all irrevocably stuck inside our own skins? Idiots? Am I reducible to my membership of a race, an ethnic group, or sex?  The endless pursuit of identity (as a species of idiocy) kills the civic conversation. If we were to pursue integrity more vigorously, then identity would follow. We easily become enemies -- I am white, male, and heterosexual and therefore the enemy.   (Each of us can choose his or her own set of enemies). We go to war. We take no prisoners. Violence breeds violence, and all in the name of autonomy. What or who can break the cycle? Words fail me. Perhaps if I punch you in mouth, things will begin to move again? Perhaps if I can “expose” you (blog you to death) you will disappear?

It’s important to understand that preserving our privacy is not the same as hiding in a private world and abandoning civic responsibility.  Critiquing our being “idiots” doesn’t mean trashing the private realm. Indeed, if we aren’t tender about the need for the privacy of others and are unwilling to guard the necessary barriers to full revelation about their private lives, how safe can we expect to be in the most vulnerable parts of our lives? We need to talk with one another but not everything should or need be revealed to everyone. Everyone does not have the right to know everything. We need to recover the distinction between public and private if the conversation is to be constructive and civil. The opposite of idiocy isn’t letting it all hang out. Serious engagement with and respect for one another doesn’t mean a “tell all” commitment.      

             Most of us are idiots looking for a private world where we’ll be safe, safe from the mob, safe from the demos, and its rule. “Power to the people!” is all very well, but I want to be sure that it’s my people running things.  At the end of all our arguments is the obligation to find some political and social resolve to live into the vision of the human republic, into some kind of community of justice, into a communion of if not love then forbearance and respect.

            In the midst of this intense battle about the nature of freedom, it’s difficult to know how to choose between struggling with something or taking a pill to take away the pain. Should I struggle with my depression or should I take a drug to numb its ravaging effect on me? Should I find a balance wherein I can function but, at the same time, not be so drugged that I no longer experience the pain of being awake and aware? How do I acquire the power to run the engine of the self?

Power in all its forms is very seductive and most of us don’t really want to be free but dare not say so. We opt for one or more of its many substitutes, which give us the illusion of power and control. We grab at substitutes for transcendence. In the affluent (for how long?) West, the substitutes are consumerism, self-indulgence, conspicuous consumption, self-destruction, dominance over others, the pursuit of wealth, the feeling of superiority over other cultures. Our freedom is reduced to the ability to choose from a welter of “stuff” in the world’s emporium (freedom like this requires money). We are not “free” in the sense of knowing that what we choose is in harmony with who we essentially are and called to be. The question as to our true nature (what kind of creatures are we?) wont go away.  Poet John Milton identifies the slavery of  what passes for freedom.

But what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,

And by their vices brought to servitude,

Then to love Bondage more than Liberty,

Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty.

“Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty?” An extraordinary phrase challenging us with the notion of freedom as a craft, something to be learned and earned, a work-in-progress.

I think Chesterton was right. To be free is to be answerable to someone or something. This is the key. To the modern mind, this sounds like slavery. And it is, unless that someone or something is God, “whose service is perfect freedom”.  (If you don’t like the word “God”, try Lipmann’s eternal or transcendent authority.) Without that we are slaves to the promptings and appetites of our psyches. It’s not a matter of blind obedience to a higher arbitrary authority but a matter of knowing that we are the inheritors of a vast library of stories, which teach us about the strange relationship between freedom and authority.

Stories matter. We have to choose them carefully and be willing to defend them because they are the stuff of politics.  The pendulum swings between the “idiocy” of a purely private world of the one side and the tyrannical collectivism of the other.   Politics is unavoidable and we never get it quite right.  Some of us have to play the part of John Wayne, others Jimmy Stewart – to kill off Liberty Valance.  What a name!

 Philosopher Richard Tarnas gives what, at first, sounds an odd and extraordinarily old-fashioned and regressive response to our predicament (our confusing nihilism with freedom). He calls for a moment of remorse.  If we are to survive, if true transformation is to take place, we will need to go through a period of regret and sorrow.  Remorse has as one of its roots the verb mordere – to bite. It has something about it of the puncturing we find at the heart of the word compunction. If we are to survive, we will have to recover our consciences – some sense of “eternal authority” to rescue us from the seductive form of nihilism masquerading as freedom. Tarnas quotes  the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz: “the examination of conscience, and the remorse that accompanies it, which is a legacy of Christianity, has been, and is, the single and most powerful remedy against the ills of our civilization.”[xix] Tarnas comments,  “It will take a fundamental . . . self-overcoming, a radical sacrifice, to make this transition.” Do we recognize and accept the task? Are we up to it?  Are we capable of living free?  Someone has to shoot Liberty Valance who is terrorizing our world if we are to live in a free society.  The hired gun does it for us but we give the good guy the credit. "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Words that echo those of Starbuck in Moby Dick. Starbuck looking at the shark infested sea from the deck of the Pequod composes these words, “Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”  But there’s a price to be paid when Moby Dick gets mad!  Where does the greater danger lie – in opting for the prosaic over the heroic? Do we want little freedoms because we cannot cope with Freedom with a capital F?    Is  letting fantasy oust memory  too expensive? Where does freedom lie? In the wild or in the cultivated?  There is a great human cost in human “progress”.  Who should we go for? Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne?  Or what happens if we choose – God help us --  Lee Marvin (the lawless and violent Liberty Valance)?

Alan Jones, dean emeritus, Grace Cathedral and honorary Canon of Chartres.

[i] Barnes, p. 63.

[ii] Obituary in The Economist, June 27th, 2009, p. 94.

[iii] see Michael O’Brien, “Angry is Good,” TLS February 1996, p.9. Review of Dazvid A. Hollinger’s Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, New York: Basic Books, 1996.

[iv] Robert B. Pippin, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, Yale, 2011

[v] see Clive Sinclair’s review of Pippin’s book in the TLS, February 18, 2011, p.5.

[vi] T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949, 17.

[vii] From  a discussion in The Economist, October 27, 2010

[viii] Michael Lind in the Wilson Quarterly (Winter 2000)

[ix] Quoted in William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning, p. 4.

[x] Bruce F. Murphy’s introduction to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Barnes and Noble, 2007 (1908) xi.

[xi] see Adam Gopnik on Chesterton, op. cit, (New Yorker) p. 55-56.

[xii] Adam Gopnik, “THE BACK OF THE WORLD: The troubling genius of G. K. Chesterton,” in The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008 p. 52ff.

[xiii] Julian Barnes, NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF, New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008.

[xiv] Garry Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities, NY: Penguin Press, 2007, 79.

[xv] Ibid. p. 81.

[xvi] See Mark Lilla, “The Tea Party Jacobins”, NYRB, May 27, 2010, p. 54.

[xvii] see David Lawday, Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand (2007)

[xviii] Peter Smith, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff. See “Voice that must he heard” in The Tablet, 25 July 2009, p. 4

[xix] “Poetry and the Free Market” review in the NYT Book Review, December 8, 1991.

A Book in the Works
I've been working on a book (the first draft is with my agent) and below you will find the beginning of the revised Preface with a link to the whole document if you would like to read it. As you will see the phrase "The Scandal of God" has been my theme this year!

THE SCANDAL OF GOD: WHY FUNDAMENTALISTS (THE RELIGIOUS AND THE ATHEIST KIND) HAVE IT ALL WRONG

PREFACE

The impetus to write this book came after a public conversation broadcast on local public radio in San Francisco with Christopher Hitchens about his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I enjoyed our conversation and afterwards I wondered whether it might be worthwhile to take on the new atheists. I had a lot of misgivings. The issue was already getting a bit stale, and I was realizing more and more that I really didn't care whether people believed in God or not, which may seem an odd admission for a priest. Religious people got into trouble when they tried "about three hundred years ago" to treat religion as if it were like science "an explanation of how God runs the world. When religion sets itself up as if it were a scientific explanation of the world, it looks increasingly ridiculous. That's why I think that, at this moment in history, arguing about whether God exists or not is a waste of time. But I was still left with the question, what did I care about? Had I given my life up to an illusion? Had it all been a waste of time? What did I really care about?

Not long after my conversation with Christopher Hitches, I began my retirement from being dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. My wife and I flew to Singapore and enjoyed having over two months at sea on a container ship to "nowhere".  I say to "nowhere" because while we stopped at wonderful sounding ports "Shanghai, Nagoya, Kobe, Pusan, Montevideo, Santos and Rio" we had little or no opportunity to experience these places for very long. Staying in port costs the ships money, so the turn-around was made as fast as possible. I've languished outside Shanghai but haven't seen it.  I've spent two hours in a shopping mall in Durban, South Africa, and had coffee at Starbucks in Kobe. The trip gave us the opportunity to experience the world-as-shopping-mall, the globe as one great engine of consumption. The ship became the container of all my questions...

Click here for full text.

What's going on with me?

Picture
Soon after I retired I joined the Board of the American Conservatory Theatre.  I have long been a devotee of the theatre  (in my early teens I attended every Shakespeare production at the Old Vic in London -- a good way to spend my pocket-money!) and I also wanted to support my dear friend Carey Perloff, head of ACT. 
2010 ended with a four city preaching tour: beginning the first week of December in Berlin at the Anglican Church, the following week took us to the Anglican Centre in Rome, with my preaching a sermon and leading a seminar. We then moved onto Paris for the third Sunday of Advent at the American Cathedral.  Finally, Advent IV and Christmas  were spent at Winchester Cathedral.  It's a commonplace to say that "travel broadens the mind"! But it does!  

That broadening process continued into 2011 with two invitations which, for me, were emblematic -- signs of a more generous and inclusive church. The first was a weekend at Furman University in Greenville, SC, ending with an invitation to preach at First Baptist Church. The second invitation was to conduct a workshop and preach at the four masses for the first Sunday of Lent at the Jesuit Chaplaincy at the University of Hawaii. I felt very welcome at both places but it was more  than feeling welcome. It was a fresh yet deeply grounded vision of "Church" which transcended denominational allegiances.  

This sense of full "catholicity" was confirmed by our spending nearly a month in Washington D.C. at the National Cathedral -- supporting that great institution. I preached on the fifth Sunday of Lent and on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil. A particular high-light for me was working with the remarkable musicians at the cathedral on an evening of music and readings in the context of Tenebrae on the Wednesday of Holy Week. 

Recent Work in Words

The Loss of a Common Culture?
Peggy Noonan in the WSJ (July 16-17, 2011) wrote of our cultural ignorance and dislocation. “Pretty much everyone over 50 in America feels on some level like a refugee . . .And they fear, deep down, that this new culture, the one their children live in, isn’t going to make it. Because it is, in its essence, an assaultive culture, from the pop music coming out of the rental car radio to the TSA agent with her hands on your kid’s buttocks . . . In the Old America there were a lot of bad parents. There always are, because being a parent is hard . . . But in the old America you knew it wasn’t so bad, because the culture could bring the kids up. Inadequate parents could  sort of say,  “Go outside and play in the culture,” and culture – relatively innocent, and boring – could be more or less trusted  to bring the kids up . . .   Grown up now know that you can’t send the kids to go out and play in the culture, because the culture will leave them distorted and disturbed.”

I think of the country I grew up in –- London in the 1950s – the New Elizabethan Age, as some called it. John Campbell reviewing A.N. Wilson’s Our Times: The Age of Elizbeth II, writes,

“The class-ridden, racially homogeneous, rationed and deferential country which the Queen undertook to defend in her Coronation Oath in 1953 has been transformed over the following fifty-six years almost beyond recognition. The outward continuities of Crown and Parliament today barely veil a raucous, multi-ethnic, multicultural  melting pot of hedonistic consumers all wired up to a ubiquitous virtual world of incessant novelty and instant gratification. While much has been gained in terms of living standards and personal freedom, there is no denying that much of value has been lost. Above all, perhaps, we are in danger of our losing our connection with the quite recent past, as even supposedly educated people’s knowledge of history grows ever sketchier.”

This is rough and exaggerated but not without truth. And this degeneration of culture is not peculiar to Britain – it’s global: “the triumph of free markets, the deregulated movement of capital, and the ubiquity of rock music, television, computers and the internet, have had or are having the same corrosive effect in dissolving every other society in the world.”[i]  In short there’s a lot to be conservative about! And the more I read history the more I see the necessity for conservatives to travel with the revolutionaries to remind them of the humanizing tradition which they, at their best, claim to represent. Every age has those who think the world had gone to the dogs.  I think of John Ruskin despairing of the effect of the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth century England.  In June 1874 an unhappy Ruskin, suffering from unrequited love, visited Assisi. He stayed in the sacristan’s cell at the basilica and copied Giotto’s frescoes – contrasting them with his own age of “cotton and iron mills”. He copied Cimabue’s Madonna with Angels with Francis and gave Francis is own features! Why should I think my situation worrying about the disintegration of culture in my own century is unique? Ruskin felt haunted by the storm cloud of his time – “the metaphysical evils of the Industrial Revolution.”[ii]  Then, as now, “Francis’ message of poverty was a potent antidote to an age obsessed with material advancement at the cost of both human lives and earthly resources.”  

[1] see Review of A.N. Wilson, Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II, Hutchinson by John Campbell in the TLS, January 16, , 2009, p. 11

[1] See Philip Hoare, “User-friendly Saint our time”, The Tablet, 25 April, 2009, p, 6.


Arthur G. Weiser Lecture for Interfaith Understanding 
Sunday, October 2010, Congregational Emanuel, San Francisco

"Ah! what a divine religion might be found if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith." (Shelley) We live in a world where there is too much faith of the damaging sort. True faith, linked to love, is always open to doubt. Miguel de Unamuno wrote, "Life is doubt. And faith without doubt is nothing but death." And St. John of the Cross, "In the end we shall be examined in love." That's it. That's the test of any religion; the test of atheism. It's the test of being human. 

Our love of stories, novels, movies, adventures, even sit coms, reflects our quest for a narrative, a story to make sense of things. Stories play an important part in helping us interpret the world and simply get through the day. They provide the architecture of our thoughts and feelings. 

But many of us, in spite of living inside a narrative, have swallowed the lie that science somehow is THE privileged language "the only language that's really, really true. We're not good at seeing that we all live inside a story" not necessarily a good one and that knowing what story's playing itself out inside us might help us move into a truer one. In an essay on The Burning Bush, George Steiner writes of the "ambiguous loftiness and terror of the unsayable." The God of Moses cannot be said, cannot be put into words. I am Who I am, I will be Who I will be. This is why we need stories "not to break the silence of the unsayable but to guard and preserve it". 

This is the great biblical insight celebrated and misunderstood (and even betrayed) by both Christianity and Judaism. Literary critic Terry Eagleton refers to "The non-God or the anti-God of Scripture, who hates burnt offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness... the enemy of idols, fetishes, and graven images of all kinds -- gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes, nations, sex, success, ideologies and the like." This is a scandal worth exploring -- a scandal absurd as it sounds -- leads to the ground on which we all stand -- a common and shared humanity.



FREEDOM AND ITS COUNTERFEITS OR THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE
Let me start with a couple of images.  The first. In August 2009, there were demonstrations on the steps of the state capitol in Austin Texas demanding secession from the United States in the name of freedom – freedom to be left alone, freedom to do as one pleased, freedom from interference from anybody at anytime, freedom as a kind of open-road rootlessness, freedom as being free from the burden of dialogue with others.  There was no hint of any fear from the undertow of nihilism – what it might mean to live in a vast and dehumanizing emptiness. The demonstrators longed for a situation where they could live in a world where all its problems were definitively solved. Just get off my back and out of my way, but launch a Federal rescue effort if things get really rough.

The second. In Pasadena in 1996, a city council member was censured for cursing and screaming invective during the session. The ACLU defended him by attacking the Council’s courtesy code as “silly,” “goofy,” “embarrassing,” and “a laughing stock.” In the triumphant press release the ACLU called [the Council’s defeat] “a victory for all of Pasadena.” I don’t think so. It was a victory for those who have such a shallow vision of freedom.

Many people confuse freedom with this kind of selfish arbitrariness. They confuse indulging appetite with liberty. Much of our freedom is phony.  We think  that if we had total control over things and events, we’d be free. Julian Barnes wonders what it would be like if he had his life to do all over again. “I could leave home earlier, live abroad, have children, not write books, plant hornbeams, join a utopian community, sleep with all the wrong people (or at least, some different wrong people), become a drug addict, find God, do nothing. I could discover quite new sorts of disappointment.”[i]  It would be the same muddle all over again.  I sometimes fantasize about free I’d be if I had more money, different parents? Instead I had to muddle through with what I’ve been given. How free is that?

What does it mean to be free? Most of us labor under a particular conception of what it is be free as being centered on the autonomous self, doing what it pleases without the restraint of priest or monarch. I have my inviolable truth, which can neither be contradicted nor restrained. I am a free-floating agent and any relations I have with others are merely and purely contractual. 

            Now, imagine a young boy, sixteen years old, in prison for resisting the Nazis. He asked himself the question, “How should I  demonstrate my freedom?”   This is what he did. He tore  off a piece of brown paper from under   his mattress and wrote down, with a blunt pencil he had cadged from a guard, all the Latin words he could remember. This was the way he demonstrated his free spirit. He was Ralf, Baron Dahrendorf, known as a defender of liberty. Writing down Latin verbs was his way of expressing his freedom. “In the preservation of liberty,” he wrote later, “we have the weapons we need, our minds.’”[ii] He presumed that we have well-furnished ones in the first place. 

It’s hard to imagine any contemporary American giving such an example of the free spirit. Or take the story of the idealist left-wing students in Paris who in 1968, drunk with the possibility of a new political beginning went to the old Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojève to ask his advice. “Learn Greek!” he told them.  They were confused and dumbfounded. This was the last thing they expected.  They were hoping for something like, “Demonstrate! Occupy a building! Overturn and burn a few automobiles! But,  learn Greek? What the hell for?” The reponse!  You want to be free? All right! Learn Greek. Write down all the Latin words you can remember.  If you do, you might bump into a different vision of freedom from the one where you get a high from following your appetites and instincts.

Freedom? It’s a key word in the American lexicon and on the surface most of us think we  know what it means. I want, in this brief presentation, to use the imagination to throw us off balance and make “freedom” appear strange and unfamiliar. In the words of  G. K. Chesterton “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.”  The fact that there’s something playful about this approach shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the game of freedom is a very serious one indeed.  Freedom isn’t license. It isn’t doing what we damn well please. Yet at its crudest, this do-as-I-please view of freedom is at the heart of  much of populist rhetoric.  In short, freedom is often a scarcely veiled nihilism. In this presentation, I want to take a little cultural tour of the American landscape and briefly examine what we mean by freedom and the sense of self that accompanies it – for example,  the idea of freedom colored by our collective and selective memory of the great move West and life on the Frontier.

David A. Hollinger’s book  Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, points to the fact that “Much in American culture is passionate, ugly, violent, committed. Americans like it that way; it is part of their sense of self . . . The Scarsdale housewife with a gun in her handbag, the Southerner with a Confederate flag on his lawn, the Jew in Brooklyn wishing death to the Palestinians, the Minnesota feminist reviling men as potential rapists, the black professor chanting anti-Semitism -- these are not candidates for membership in urbanely voluntary affiliations. These are angry people, who want to keep their share of anger.”[iii] Freedom to be angry, very angry, is a key element of the package.

            We’ve had a recent example in the Supreme Court’s action in defining  and defending what we mean by “freedom”. You will remember that the court held for Westboro Baptist Church and against the Snyder family by a vote of 8-1. Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter. He was also the lone dissenter in a case decided a year ago (United States v. Stevens) when the Court stuck down a statute criminalizing the sale of videos depicting kittens being crushed to death by the high-heeled “spike” shoes of a dominatrix. The majority opinion in both cases was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, and the result in Snyder was predictable, given Roberts’s rejection in Stevens of “any balancing of relative social costs and benefits” when it comes to free expression rights.  Should individual rights always trump those of the community? Doesn’t “freedom” require (God-willing) voluntary restraint on the part of the individual?  At the same time, doesn’t it require protection for the individual from the tyranny of the majority?  Underneath these issues lies the basic  anthropological question: what does it mean to be human?  What kind of creatures are we?  Are we free-floating autonomous selves or  are we beings created for communion and community?

What got me going on the topic of freedom and its counterfeits was a visit to the German Historical Museum in Berlin last December.  Hitler und Die Deutschen – Volksgemeindschaft und Verbrechen -- Hitler and the Germans -- Nation and Crime -- a brilliant but exhausting exhibit showing the thoroughness of the Nazi machine and the pliancy and collaboration of the population, which embraced the Nazi Party because it promised both prosperity and solidarity.  What struck me was not so much the “Hitler” parallels with US politics --  both sides of the political divide claiming that the other side is a bunch of Nazis!  What came through in the exhibit was the power of  faux populism of das Volk in supporting tyranny the name of Freedom.  Hence, references to “The American People” in our political rhetoric make me nervous.  Try saying “The American Volksgemeindschaft” in you head instead of “The American People.”

“The Nazi Party’s Gleichschaltung (“coordination”) of politics and society went hand in hand with the voluntary collaboration of a society longing for security and strong leadership, as well as for participation in social community and social  ascendancy.”  In Germany in the thirties, “Social promises and successes in securing work and food for the people ensured the increasing approval of the government by almost all classes of society.” It became easy to overlook persecution of “aliens” and minorities for the sake of solidarity and “purity”.  And all in the name of freedom.

We live in a remarkably free country – a country for which I am enormously grateful. As an immigrant, I was drawn into the American myth of the frontier where freedom rules and where everyone carries a gun.  You could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hats. So let’s take a little cultural tour – a look through the lens of the movies – the Westerns; and then through the lens of Jonathan Franzen novel, Freedom.

First the movies. Robert B. Pippin’s book Hollywood Westerns and American Myth points out the importance of the genre for political philosophy.[iv]  He even calls its subject America’s “second founding”.  “According to the Frontier Theory of Frederick Jackson Turner, the American personality was established in that place where “advancing civilization met declining savagery”.”[v]  And that “American Personality” takes as a given a view of freedom that  still has its roots in the wild West mentality.

Remember the movie Stagecoach (1939)?  The passengers on their way from Tonto to Lordsburg are faced with a choice: to turn back or go ahead through hostile territory. Sitting around a large dining table, they establish a  little democracy and take a vote to go head. The irony is that at the end of the movie, with all problems apparently resolved, the two leads – John Wayne and Clare Trevor – are shooed south of the border with the word’s, “Well that’s saved them the blessings of civilization.” The two gun-toting cow boys are vital in establishing “civilization” but once that’s accomplished, they are told to move on – in this case into Mexico.  In Pippin’s phrase, “Mexico has become America’s America.” So there’s both anxiety and ambiguity over the move to “civilization” from the “freedom” of the open range -- the move from the individual to the social, from the pastoral to the industrial. “Civilization” means good order. It also means, from the perspective of the classic Western,  the loss of freedom.

            The movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) goes even deeper into this theme.  Visually it’s powerful.  In the opening scene, the railroad (the sign of civilization) cuts its way through the virgin landscape. The message seems to be “Progress spoils things”.  The train carries aging Ransom (Rance) a senator (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles). They are on their way back to their former home Shinbone.  The local newsmen soon find out about this unexpected visit and discover that the senaror has come back principally for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Who? A nobody.  Why has a famous senator come to the funeral of an obscure cow boy? No one else seems to know of Doniphon's pauper’s funeral.  The local press wants a story and Ransom agrees to relate the whole tale of his relationship with the John Wayne character. The story begins with the   young Rance,  recently qualified as a lawyer from the East, suffering a brutal introduction to his new home. His stage is ambushed by outlaws. He is savagely beaten by a vicious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) as he defends a female passenger. Valance despises the young lawyer and yells as he beats him, “I’ll teach you law! Western law!”  Ransom is left on the trail and is rescued by Doniphon, a hard-bitten and sharp-shooting local, who brings him into town.  He’s nursed back to health by Hallie who many take to be Doniphon’s girl. Ransom  learns that the man who beat him up was Liberty Valance.  And here’s the heart of the matter. Ransom stands for the rule of law in a place where the gun is the only law.  He vows to put Valance in jail, using the law not a gun. While this raises some laughs, the townspeople give Ransom, the crazy Easterner, grudging respect for his education and his ideals. He also represents the “progress” that they want for their children.  But “progress” requires the restraints of civilization.  Tom Doniphon tells Ransom, “Out here a man settles his own problems.” To which Ransom retorts, “The only advice you an give me is to carry a gun!” “Well, votes wont stand up against guns,” Tom replies.

Tom Doniphon, who is one of the few who will stand up to Valance, believes there is no law and that one "needs a gun in these parts". Stoddard, who believes in the rule of law rather than violence and is regarded by Doniphon as a tenderfoot unable to handle himself in the kind of fights that are common in the West, cannot understand Doniphon's thinking – the same thinking by the way as that of Liberty Valance: might makes right.

Soon Ransom is teaching people to read and write (including Hallie his future wife), showing them how to exercise their right to vote and proving that you don't need to wear a gun to be a man. “Education is the basis of law and order” is written on the chalk board in the class room.  

A showdown with Valance is inevitable.  Things come to a head as the territory votes to become a state. There’s to be an election for two representatives to the state senate.  But not everyone wants statehood. On one side are the cattlemen (who have hired the violent outlaw Valance to be their representative). They’d rather keep the land “free” and lawless, since they have the power. On the other are the townspeople who want the protection and “civilization” promised by joining the Union. As the vote takes place (no women and no blacks voting of course) there is a tense standoff between Ransom and Valance as the latter tries to force his own election. The outlaw fails and challenges the lawyer to a gunfight. Ransom, of course, is no match for Valance. We know that Ransom survives the shoot-out, since he's telling this tale, but  how did he make it?  The truth is that Tom secretly shoots Valance and allows Ransom to take the credit and get the girl.  The good guy succeeds by reason of a calculated murder, albeit of a vile man.

Stoddard on his return for Tom’s funeral confesses the whole story, but the newspaper editor refuses to publish it and burns all the notes his reporter took, stating: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Ransom and Hallie board the train for Washington, sad about the lie that led to their prosperous life. With the area becoming more and more civilized, Stoddard decides, to Hallie's delight, to give up politics, return to the territory and set up a law office. Stoddard asks a conductor how long it will take to get to Washington. The conductor tells them that the train is traveling at high speed and that at an upcoming junction they are holding the express train for him, saying, "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance".

Professor Pippin comments: “What this suggests is that the conditions necessary for law and political order are doubly morally problematic. First, there can be no law unless the lawless are eliminated, controlled, but . . .  this violent elimination cannot itself be just or fair, cannot play by the rules . . . Second, it seems that a civilized order must view itself as founded by heroic and unproblematic violence, so this truth about the founding must be hidden by a lie.” In the movie, a lie establishes and sustains Stoddard’s career in politics. The editor of The Shinbone Star  won’t print the truth. Where does the greater danger lie – in opting for the prosaic over the heroic? Do we want little freedoms because we cannot cope with Freedom with a capital F.    Is  letting fantasy oust memory  too expensive? Where does freedom lie? In the wild or in the cultivated?  There is a great human cost in human “progress”.  Who should we go for? Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne?  The drama is still being played out in our politics right now.

Another lens through which to look at our view of freedom  is that of contemporary literature. Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, brilliantly critiques our confused notion of liberty.  As the commentator in The Economist puts it,  “I don't think he was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans' own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”

            The heroine in the novel, Patty, desperately struggles “for freedom and autonomy, but in a personal, emotional sense, played out mainly at the level of family. Other characters in the book, too, are trying to get free of the fetters that bind them: overbearing families, the compromises and frustrations of working life, sexual fidelity, sexual infidelity, alcoholism, money problems, and so on. What becomes clear, as they push against these restraints and against each other, is that they can't free themselves by running away. They can't free themselves by fighting, either; the enemies they pick are most often projections of their own anxieties, and their battles against neighbors, lovers, relatives or corporations become obsessional feuds that wind them up ever tighter in their own neuroses. The characters who achieve some measure of freedom in "Freedom", including Patty, do so by coming to understand themselves, by seeing their own limits and those of others and of society itself, and working out rules for living peaceable and reasonably rewarding lives within the disappointing bounds of reality.” Freedom means setting limits and establishing rules.

            That, it seems to me, is the great challenge buried in our espousal of freedom – the knot of realism and responsibility, the necessity of limits and disappointments. We think the autonomous self is free but as the commentator in The Economist , points out, “Pure negative freedom isn't freedom, because it leaves you enslaved to your stumbling, repetitious, obsession-driven animal self. Freedom comes through self-knowledge and the setting of self-chosen rules.”  If that’s the case, who needs it? Freedom is hard work.

            Over seventy years ago, T.S. Eliot uttered a warning the kind people we were becoming. Given our political climate he sounds prophetic.  “Britain has been highly industrialized longer than any other country. And the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women – of all classes – detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well housed and well disciplined.”[vi]  This isn’t simply reactionary. The past, of course, isn’t necessarily better than the present.  We don’t want to hark back to “the good old days”. It’s more that while the past failed in its ideals, the present seems to have abandoned them.

So, freedom aint easy.  St. Augustine pointed out that freedom has two meanings: the freedom to do as we please which isn’t really freedom. It’s simply the autonomous self bumping around in its neuroses.  The deeper freedom is the freedom that comes when we come home to our true selves. The trouble for Augustine is that we are estranged from our true selves.  The irony is that we can wander off from our true selves into “the region of unlikeness.”  We even say such things as, “I wasn’t myself.”  To be truly free, you have to know what kind of creature you are. Moreover, the exploration as to what kind of creatures we are is not only personal. It’s political. It will involve such things as learning Greek and mastering Latin verbs! (Or whatever their equivalents.)

The commentator in the Economist thinks that the example of the invasion of Iraq is a good one. At first sight the overthrowing a dictatorial government does have a good deal to do with freedom in its most straightforward political sense. “But the chaos that immediately followed the fall of Baghdad, and the ultimate devolution of Iraq into ethnic civil war, vindicated the anxiety I and other war opponents had that the Bush administration would make a mess of postwar governance precisely because of its naive ideas about freedom: its apparent assumption that a country stripped of its evil tyrant would naturally become a free-market democracy rather than a cronyistic gangland battleground, and its reflexive belief that government and freedom are in opposition to each other.” The belief that government and freedom are in opposition to each other --  sound familiar? The state is always bad, the individual always good. Is that really so?

            It’s not my intention to get into politics as such but simply to point out that our ideas of freedom are confused and often naïve and self-serving. When Franzen points to our “"mixed-up, childish notion of freedom" as one source of our willingness to engage in destructive international behavior, he’s onto something. An administration with a less childish, more thought-through vision of freedom would have recognized that storming off and smashing up bad guys is unlikely to make people free, that structures of governance and rule-bound behavior are conditions of freedom, not constraints upon it.” Our rhetoric is replete with the call to spread freedom with little talk about either its nature or its cost. What was good for Halliburton was also, by nature, good for freedom in the Muslim world. It’s not that we’re not sincere. It’s more that our ideas of freedom are sometimes  “childish and mixed-up.” True freedom requires a commitment to self-knowledge. And our culture resists that.  What  do you make of this from the English commentator?

“One of the deepest failings in American political life today is that Americans themselves do not understand, or deliberately refuse to understand, how or why their society works. At the mechanical level, we have the "get your government hands off my Medicare" phenomenon. . . .” But at a deeper level, it seems perverse to me that the most energetic ideological current in America today fetishises individualism and reviles the public sphere, and that political discourse is so full of hatred and fear, in a country which I'm pretty sure is among the nicest, openest, and most informally generous I've ever lived in. There's something bizarre, something psychological, going on with that contrast between personal niceness and political hatred.”[vii]

Freedom can’t flourish in a situation where individualism has become rancid.  Freedom, paradoxically requires self-restraint for the common good. It’s time to stop being idiots. It’s time for a little Greek and Latin. In Greek and Latin, “idiot” means a “private person”: that is someone caught up in a private world of self-preservation and safety with no regard for the common good or obligations of citizenship. The word “idiot” was used derisively in ancient Athens to refer to one who declined to take part in public life. In our own day we confuse this “idiocy” with freedom – freedom as distorted to mean the ability of the isolated self to pursue its selfish desires.  It’s its own form of nihilism.  We are becoming a nation of idiots and our idiocy leads to polarization and violence, to possible Death by Stupidity.

Michael Lind points out the danger of severing the individual from the community, by contrasting the difference between us and the Romans, centered in the word “public”. 

“If one word sums up the general difference between us and the Romans, it is public . . . . The very term republic  (the ‘public thing’) incorporates the word. The horrors of 20th-century collectivism have left us with a reasonable suspicion of coerced community. Even so, the contemporary eclipse of the public and accessible  in literature, art, and philosophy by the private and idiosyncratic would have been considered a disaster  by the Romans as well as the Greeks. Our term idiot comes from the Latin idiota, an adaptation of the Greek idiotes, which means ‘private person.’”[viii]

Idiocy (in this ancient sense) makes is difficult for us to talk to each other  When we do try to communicate it’s  often at cross-purposes. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of noise in the public square but few are actually listening  and speaking to each other. We live mainly in a world of private citizens screaming their frustrations publicly. A couple of hours with Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, and I’m left with a feeling of gratitude for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

The good news is that far more things bind us together – atheists, believers and all those in between – than anything, which tear us apart.  If we’re awake to the wonders of modern science – the vastness of the universe,   the disturbing and thrilling openness of  indeterminacy, we  realize that we are all bound together by amazement and humility.  That sense of amazement and humility is surely the basis of any appreciation of what it is to be truly human – to be truly free.

The fact that it all “began” over four and half billion years ago and has about six plus billion years to go before the sun blows up should stop us in our tracks. We are presented with a disturbing openness with regard to our very nature. Whatever we human beings are right now – if we survive – will bear little resemblance to what of our descendents might be around a few billion years from now. So what kind of creatures are we? Is the process all meaningless? The brave and serious atheists say “Yes!” and tell us that we have to create our own meaning. But is self-generated meaning really real and sustainable?   Either way, we’re all in the same boat. Each of us is an instance of wild improbability. Each of us struggles to believe that he or she is somehow significant. Do we matter? How free are we?

Let’s move out of idiocy into a conversation about what it means to be a human being in the light of the shock (barely felt now) of what I call the godly nature of human beings. If you don’t like the word “godly” use the word “mysterious” or even “weird”.  How about “wildly improbable”? We need to recover the oddness of it all. Being human has become so familiar that it has lost its strangeness. Being human and being free takes an enormous effort of imagination.  Remember G. K. Chesterton’s, “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.”   

At the heart of being human is the issue of freedom and the thing that trips us up about freedom is that there is no freedom without responsibility, no liberty without a corresponding sense of duty and obligation.  If we aren’t to slip into nihilism, freedom requires our acknowledging some transcendent authority – or, at least, some objective standard of right and wrong. Nearly a century ago (during WWI), political commentator Walter Lippmann  was  prophetic (and echoing the contrast between John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart) about our need to see a link between personal interaction (of which freedom  is the prerequisite) and transcendent authority.

“We are unsettled to the very roots of our being. There isn’t a human relation, whether of parent or child, husband and wife, worker and employer, that doesn’t move in a strange situation. We are not used to a complicated civilization, we don’t know how to behave when personal contact and eternal authority have disappeared. There are no precedents to guide us, no wisdom that was not meant for a simpler age.”[ix]

If that was true then, how much more is it so now – in a shrinking world enduring accelerated change. The key insight here is the combination of “personal contact” with “eternal authority.” These are the two poles around which a fully human and truly free life revolves. I might not know what the “eternal authority” is but I do acknowledge there’s a reality outside my own little psyche, calling me out of solipsistic idiocy into relationship with others and the world. If we don’t find a creative outlet for this longing, there are plenty of destructive ones available to fill the void. It’s no accident that people, longing for something to count on, feel drawn to authoritarianism in both politics and religion. And there are those ready to exploit the anxieties and fears of the Volksgemeinschaft.

Another way of talking about “personal contact” and “eternal authority,” comes from  G.K. Chesterton who found himself in just such a predicament as ours yet was joyfully optimistic. He refused to collapse into negativity. In the Roman Catholic Church, he found the two things he longed for – authority and romance.  Adoration provided the counterpoint to uncertainty. Adam Gopnik points out this was why Catholicism appealed to  Chesterton. It was  “a solution at once authoritarian and poetic”. Rome offered a powerful combination -- “stability allied to imagination”. Chesterton was a conservative but his conservatism was “not the blinkered and mulish preference for the past over the present, but a philosophical concern for whether there will be a future.”[x] That’s my concern too – not whether there will be a future but whether there will be a future fit for humans.

Adam Gopnik, commenting on Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, describes anarchism as “a kind of vengeful, all-devouring nihilism that is assumed to be pervasive and – this is the crucial thing – profoundly seductive, sweeping through whole classes of intellectuals, or immigrants, or, especially, immigrant intellectuals.”[xi]  The appetite for romantic violence is the flip side of the desire for absolute order.  It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between seductive nihilism and true freedom.

Chesterton’s  The Man Who Was Thursday takes seriously our capacity for violence and destruction. He contrasts the ordinary liberal with the enlightened humanist. The latter takes seriously our capacity for violence and destruction. The former thinks that “reason” (like the New Atheists) will win out in the end.  The contrast between “the ordinary liberal” and “the enlightened humanist” is a good way to understand what is implied by “idiocy” in the  old sense of the word.

“Where the ordinary liberal scoffs at the idea that apocalyptic terror represents a real threat to his society, the awakened humanist . . . believes that everyone has missed the reality, by refusing to accept how plausible and alluring the argument for destruction is. To anyone ‘awakened’ in this way, people who hold the alternative normal view – there is nothing much to be frightened of – are literally insane. They cannot see what is in front of their noses even as it blows up their cities.”[xii]

Chesterton saw the “idiocy” of the rationalist’s faith in “reason”. To be human means being able to smell the sulphur of an impending apocalypse without collapsing into hysteria.  Remember. Freedom is hard work. Things could easily fall part.  If the mean-spirited God of popular religion doesn’t do us in then we’re quite capable of managing our own apocalypse. We are mortal. Death is not optional. As novelist Julian Barnes has wittily pointed out, “We are all future dead people.”[xiii] When we forget that we indulge in yet another form of idiocy – a kind of perverse “exceptionalism”. Everyone else is marked for death except us. We often try to assuage the tragic with the trivial, to reduce the world to the manageable and narrowly personal and private.  

What, then, can spring us out of the idiotic prison of the merely private and rancidly individualistic? Circumstances can jolt us out of our present position. Many are feeling the pain of dislocation, unemployment, loss of home, as well as the inner miseries of depression and addiction. Given the challenges facing us, we need a new conversation about freedom and responsibility. The noble words used to describe our highest aspirations and longings – words like “freedom”, “dignity”, “virtue” -- have been corrupted. They become code-words. freedom = the right to carry a gun; dignity = the right to think of ourselves as autonomous, with no reference to the needs of others; virtue = the fantasy that we are the truly righteous.

Is our romance with rugged individualism  coming to an end?  Alexis de Tocqueville used the word individualisme unflatteringly.  It was a word to describe the terrible atomizing forces let loose by the French Revolution. Americans quickly gave it “an almost entirely sunny sense. It was no longer a dark force that needed correction from outside, one crushing public virtue, but was itself the source of all American virtue.”[xiv] Gary Wills comments, “It [individualism] was ideologically unchallengeable. Opposing individualism became unpatriotic. It was identified with the frontier values [there we go again], with the free market, with freedom itself.”[xv]  What’s more the popular view of freedom has morphed into a new expression of contradictory strands of American life. On the one hand, there’s a “blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing – an unwarranted – confidence in the self” on the other. This vision of freedom blends together an apocalyptic pessimism about public life with a childlike optimism swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to our own powers.[xvi] Idiots?

Our confusing freedom with a sunny individualism is why we’re strangely schizophrenic politically. On the one hand, we want no infringement of our private freedoms and, at the same time we want to be protected from social fragmentation, epidemic violence, and economic and technological change – always accelerating faster than our ability to absorb it.  Our appetites undermine the very values we espouse. The senator touting “family values” has a mistress on the side.  We don’t want “socialized” medicine but we love Medicare. We don’t want to be the world’s policeman yet we think we know what’s good for the rest of humanity.  Prince Talleyrand made a prophetic statement: “I attest that any system which aims at taking freedom by open force to other peoples will only make that freedom hated and prevent its triumph.”[xvii]  Sound familiar?

What are the bones that people chew on in their fear? Fear about Big Government, job loss, illness masks a general angst about life itself. Not far beneath the surface are issues of faith, as the search for someone or something to save us. May be it will be God? Maybe, science? Maybe “the triumph of freedom and democracy”?  Those who blame religion for most of society’s ills, see religious people as idiots in the modern sense of the word and want them to get back to being idiots in the ancient sense by making religion merely private and personal, a hobby, like stamp-collecting or Nascar racing.  We would be better off if religion were relegated to the world of private preference – “a legally permissible private eccentricity; allowable behind closed doors once a week.”[xviii] 

No wonder so many of us are depressed.

 Our view of freedom, cripplingly private and isolating, is deeply flawed because being human means living in community, in communion. This has its dangers. Even the loners among us are tribal creatures, wanting to find a safety zone with the known and familiar.  The pressures on the planet make it imperative that we broaden the confines of our little tribe to include the stranger, the outcast, the alien. The old  “brotherhood of man” kind of idealism  is  now a necessity for our survival.

But isn’t this asking too much of people? Are we up to such a work of the mind and heart that we can imagine new possibilities for the human race? Can we live in a world subject to constant disruption -- even if it happens to be the real world? Wouldn’t it be better to invent a more stable one? Besides “reality” (our conception of it) itself is unstable and subject to the penetration of the imagination. So, why not manufacture a manageable virtual world devoid of ambiguity – a world in which we are fooled into thinking we are free – a world like the one in the1999 movie The Matrix --  a future in which reality as perceived by humans is actually  a simulated reality, the Matrix created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue the human population, while their bodies' heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source?  That movie made me feel nostalgic for such films as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

How many of us are living in a simulated reality? The promise that there is no ambiguity, that there is closure, comes as a breath of fresh air. But this “breath of fresh air” comes at the expense of a lowering of consciousness, which is a kind of servitude, a diminishing of our freedom. In the name of liberty we embrace a narrowing of vision of what‘s possible. Our social contexts get smaller and human possibilities are put on hold. It’s not that there is no place for limits and boundaries but that they easily become prisons and barricades. It takes more maturity than most of us can muster to be able to take differences in our stride and not be driven crazy by inconclusiveness. Cheap certainties reinforce whatever kind of idiocy we choose to embrace. We live by custom and habit, and, often these quietly and effectively dampen the fires of the imagination. It takes conviction and courage to keep the conversation respectful with regard to the opinions of others, especially when their views are repellent.  It takes guts to venture our of the safe enclave of fixed opinion and argue with passion and respect.

            There is little we can do when we’re faced with a conversation stopper that goes something like this: “I’m white. You’re black. I’m straight and you’re gay. I’m male. You’re female. I’m a Democrat. You’re a Republican. We have nothing to say to each other besides you just don’t get it, in fact you can’t get it.” Are we all irrevocably stuck inside our own skins? Idiots? Am I reducible to my membership of a race, an ethnic group, or sex?  The endless pursuit of identity (as a species of idiocy) kills the civic conversation. If we were to pursue integrity more vigorously, then identity would follow. We easily become enemies -- I am white, male, and heterosexual and therefore the enemy.   (Each of us can choose his or her own set of enemies). We go to war. We take no prisoners. Violence breeds violence, and all in the name of autonomy. What or who can break the cycle? Words fail me. Perhaps if I punch you in mouth, things will begin to move again? Perhaps if I can “expose” you (blog you to death) you will disappear?

It’s important to understand that preserving our privacy is not the same as hiding in a private world and abandoning civic responsibility.  Critiquing our being “idiots” doesn’t mean trashing the private realm. Indeed, if we aren’t tender about the need for the privacy of others and are unwilling to guard the necessary barriers to full revelation about their private lives, how safe can we expect to be in the most vulnerable parts of our lives? We need to talk with one another but not everything should or need be revealed to everyone. Everyone does not have the right to know everything. We need to recover the distinction between public and private if the conversation is to be constructive and civil. The opposite of idiocy isn’t letting it all hang out. Serious engagement with and respect for one another doesn’t mean a “tell all” commitment.      

             Most of us are idiots looking for a private world where we’ll be safe, safe from the mob, safe from the demos, and its rule. “Power to the people!” is all very well, but I want to be sure that it’s my people running things.  At the end of all our arguments is the obligation to find some political and social resolve to live into the vision of the human republic, into some kind of community of justice, into a communion of if not love then forbearance and respect.

            In the midst of this intense battle about the nature of freedom, it’s difficult to know how to choose between struggling with something or taking a pill to take away the pain. Should I struggle with my depression or should I take a drug to numb its ravaging effect on me? Should I find a balance wherein I can function but, at the same time, not be so drugged that I no longer experience the pain of being awake and aware? How do I acquire the power to run the engine of the self?

Power in all its forms is very seductive and most of us don’t really want to be free but dare not say so. We opt for one or more of its many substitutes, which give us the illusion of power and control. We grab at substitutes for transcendence. In the affluent (for how long?) West, the substitutes are consumerism, self-indulgence, conspicuous consumption, self-destruction, dominance over others, the pursuit of wealth, the feeling of superiority over other cultures. Our freedom is reduced to the ability to choose from a welter of “stuff” in the world’s emporium (freedom like this requires money). We are not “free” in the sense of knowing that what we choose is in harmony with who we essentially are and called to be. The question as to our true nature (what kind of creatures are we?) wont go away.  Poet John Milton identifies the slavery of  what passes for freedom.

But what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,

And by their vices brought to servitude,

Then to love Bondage more than Liberty,

Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty.

“Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty?” An extraordinary phrase challenging us with the notion of freedom as a craft, something to be learned and earned, a work-in-progress.

I think Chesterton was right. To be free is to be answerable to someone or something. This is the key. To the modern mind, this sounds like slavery. And it is, unless that someone or something is God, “whose service is perfect freedom”.  (If you don’t like the word “God”, try Lipmann’s eternal or transcendent authority.) Without that we are slaves to the promptings and appetites of our psyches. It’s not a matter of blind obedience to a higher arbitrary authority but a matter of knowing that we are the inheritors of a vast library of stories, which teach us about the strange relationship between freedom and authority.

Stories matter. We have to choose them carefully and be willing to defend them because they are the stuff of politics.  The pendulum swings between the “idiocy” of a purely private world of the one side and the tyrannical collectivism of the other.   Politics is unavoidable and we never get it quite right.  Some of us have to play the part of John Wayne, others Jimmy Stewart – to kill off Liberty Valance.  What a name!

 Philosopher Richard Tarnas gives what, at first, sounds an odd and extraordinarily old-fashioned and regressive response to our predicament (our confusing nihilism with freedom). He calls for a moment of remorse.  If we are to survive, if true transformation is to take place, we will need to go through a period of regret and sorrow.  Remorse has as one of its roots the verb mordere – to bite. It has something about it of the puncturing we find at the heart of the word compunction. If we are to survive, we will have to recover our consciences – some sense of “eternal authority” to rescue us from the seductive form of nihilism masquerading as freedom. Tarnas quotes  the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz: “the examination of conscience, and the remorse that accompanies it, which is a legacy of Christianity, has been, and is, the single and most powerful remedy against the ills of our civilization.”[xix] Tarnas comments,  “It will take a fundamental . . . self-overcoming, a radical sacrifice, to make this transition.” Do we recognize and accept the task? Are we up to it?  Are we capable of living free?  Someone has to shoot Liberty Valance who is terrorizing our world if we are to live in a free society.  The hired gun does it for us but we give the good guy the credit. "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Words that echo those of Starbuck in Moby Dick. Starbuck looking at the shark infested sea from the deck of the Pequod composes these words, “Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”  But there’s a price to be paid when Moby Dick gets mad!  Where does the greater danger lie – in opting for the prosaic over the heroic? Do we want little freedoms because we cannot cope with Freedom with a capital F?    Is  letting fantasy oust memory  too expensive? Where does freedom lie? In the wild or in the cultivated?  There is a great human cost in human “progress”.  Who should we go for? Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne?  Or what happens if we choose – God help us --  Lee Marvin (the lawless and violent Liberty Valance)?

Alan Jones, dean emeritus, Grace Cathedral and honorary Canon of Chartres.

[i] Barnes, p. 63.

[ii] Obituary in The Economist, June 27th, 2009, p. 94.

[iii] see Michael O’Brien, “Angry is Good,” TLS February 1996, p.9. Review of Dazvid A. Hollinger’s Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, New York: Basic Books, 1996.

[iv] Robert B. Pippin, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, Yale, 2011

[v] see Clive Sinclair’s review of Pippin’s book in the TLS, February 18, 2011, p.5.

[vi] T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949, 17.

[vii] From  a discussion in The Economist, October 27, 2010

[viii] Michael Lind in the Wilson Quarterly (Winter 2000)

[ix] Quoted in William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning, p. 4.

[x] Bruce F. Murphy’s introduction to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Barnes and Noble, 2007 (1908) xi.

[xi] see Adam Gopnik on Chesterton, op. cit, (New Yorker) p. 55-56.

[xii] Adam Gopnik, “THE BACK OF THE WORLD: The troubling genius of G. K. Chesterton,” in The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008 p. 52ff.

[xiii] Julian Barnes, NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF, New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008.

[xiv] Garry Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities, NY: Penguin Press, 2007, 79.

[xv] Ibid. p. 81.

[xvi] See Mark Lilla, “The Tea Party Jacobins”, NYRB, May 27, 2010, p. 54.

[xvii] see David Lawday, Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand (2007)

[xviii] Peter Smith, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff. See “Voice that must he heard” in The Tablet, 25 July 2009, p. 4

[xix] “Poetry and the Free Market” review in the NYT Book Review, December 8, 1991.

A Book in the Works
I've been working on a book (the first draft is with my agent) and below you will find the beginning of the revised Preface with a link to the whole document if you would like to read it. As you will see the phrase "The Scandal of God" has been my theme this year!

THE SCANDAL OF GOD: WHY FUNDAMENTALISTS (THE RELIGIOUS AND THE ATHEIST KIND) HAVE IT ALL WRONG

PREFACE

The impetus to write this book came after a public conversation broadcast on local public radio in San Francisco with Christopher Hitchens about his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I enjoyed our conversation and afterwards I wondered whether it might be worthwhile to take on the new atheists. I had a lot of misgivings. The issue was already getting a bit stale, and I was realizing more and more that I really didn't care whether people believed in God or not, which may seem an odd admission for a priest. Religious people got into trouble when they tried "about three hundred years ago" to treat religion as if it were like science "an explanation of how God runs the world. When religion sets itself up as if it were a scientific explanation of the world, it looks increasingly ridiculous. That's why I think that, at this moment in history, arguing about whether God exists or not is a waste of time. But I was still left with the question, what did I care about? Had I given my life up to an illusion? Had it all been a waste of time? What did I really care about?

Not long after my conversation with Christopher Hitches, I began my retirement from being dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. My wife and I flew to Singapore and enjoyed having over two months at sea on a container ship to "nowhere".  I say to "nowhere" because while we stopped at wonderful sounding ports "Shanghai, Nagoya, Kobe, Pusan, Montevideo, Santos and Rio" we had little or no opportunity to experience these places for very long. Staying in port costs the ships money, so the turn-around was made as fast as possible. I've languished outside Shanghai but haven't seen it.  I've spent two hours in a shopping mall in Durban, South Africa, and had coffee at Starbucks in Kobe. The trip gave us the opportunity to experience the world-as-shopping-mall, the globe as one great engine of consumption. The ship became the container of all my questions...

Click here for full text.