Reflections journal

“News and comment arrive in a blaze of alarm, but also with a barely concealed thrill – the anchorperson’s dopamine thrill, and ours – at the next squalid or horrifying revelation. Then cut to commercial.”

TURNING A CORNER

(editor’s column, Spring 2018, Reflections, Yale Divinity School … see the whole issue at reflections.yale.edu) 

By Ray Waddle

Op-eds every day now lament the “two Americas” – pro-gun America and anti-gun America, PC and anti-PC, white and non-white, city and rural. This is nothing new. There were two Americas in 1860 (slave and free), in the 1930s (people with money and people with none), the 50s (segregationist and non-segregationist), the 60s (war and anti-war). The “United States” was always an article of faith as much as a sociological fact.

That’s not terribly consoling right now. The era is severely testing spiritual resilience and the democratic future. We need a bigger frame for understanding the partisan forces at work and getting things done. Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy says it’s time to get in touch with our inner strengths, our sense of adventure, and our power to choose – despite uncertainties everywhere. This isn’t optimism. It’s “active hope.”

Never mind the latest dispirited news about gangsterish leadership, data breaches, and gunfire. She argues we are entering a Great Turning, a period that is poised to repudiate unlimited-growth consumerism and recover the world. The Great Turning reconceives power as collaborative and open-ended. The old form of power – dependent on conflict, I-win-you-lose tactics, and, above all, a fear of looking weak – is handing us political paralysis and ecological crisis. It is slowly discrediting itself in an ethical collapse. Macy and co-author Chris Johnstone think we can do better than business as usual.

“Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act,” Macy and Johnstone declare. “Active Hope is … a readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love of life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,  the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.” <1>

None of these things, they say, “can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.”

Such high-spirited arguments are routinely outshouted. The furious matrix of nonstop media makes sure of that. The sensationalized effect, from TV to Twitter, feels like the opposite of hope. News and comment arrive in a blaze of alarm, but also with a barely concealed thrill – the anchorperson’s dopamine thrill, and ours – at the next squalid or horrifying revelation. Then cut to commercial. And so our wretched divisions are gleefully monetized. Nobody’s happy with this and everyone abides by it.

An outbreak of authentic hope might well soothe the national case of nerves. It might rebuild some trust and blunt some of the perfectionism that drives debate – the jargon, the sneer at compromise. Reform happens in the grit and tumult of each exhausting week, not in the pure air of some alternative universe.

As I hear it, urgent to all this is a creation theology, a sturdy conviction that a Creator underwrites all life and all matter. The world is worthy. We’ve been given reason and each other to explore it, praise it, understand it, reform it. It’s discoverable. Facts might not be 100 percent accessible, but evidence still matters. To paraphrase a commonsensical George Orwell theme, even if facts are just 70 percent reliable, that’s still better than 69 percent, and the difference is worth struggling for. <2> It’s certainly better than the nihilist’s zero percent acknowledgment of the world’s conditions and pain.

Other tribunes of hope come to mind: the writers in this Spring 2018 Reflections issue. They dare to take on hard sayings of scripture, the hard-shell disagreements coursing through 21st-century life, the hard task of facing conflict, defusing it, or even finding redemption in it.

“Walk with us in the way that we take,” the mystic-prophet Howard Thurman prayed, “lest our footsteps stumble in the darkness and we lose our way, Our Father.” <3>

Notes

  1. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (New World Library, 2012), pp. 35.
  2. See Julian Barnes’ discussion of Orwell in “Such, Such was Eric Blair,” New York Review of Books, March 12, 2009. See nybooks.com.
  3. Howard Thurman, The Centering Moment (Friends United Press, 1969), p. 123.

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“One convenient contemporary milestone of religious loss and bewilderment became as clear as the night sky starting around 1947, when UFO sightings surged in the US.”

FIRST PRINCIPLES

(editor’s column, Reflections journal, Fall 2017 … see reflections.yale.edu)

By Ray Waddle

Musician David Olney does a growling honky-tonk song called “God Shaped Hole” about the miserable stuff that tries to fill the void when the soul wanders away from belief. Yet a divine persistence remains, a memory of the spirit, despite every self-defeat. People can still imagine it returning. Flickering thoughts of an empty tomb survive. “And it might come back/God only knows.” <1>

It’s tempting to transfer this image of deficit and longing to the public world, where a hole seems to get wider and deeper. One hears analysis now of the guilt that many feel about the world’s cruelties and injustices but who have no way of talking about their sense of failure or dread, no metaphysic of meaning, no frame for forgiveness.

A divine deficit leaves an imprint, and other notions rush in to fill it. Individualism and self-regard install themselves as the basic social unit, cut off from relations with neighborhood, governance, and church. “I make my own reality” passes as sensible personal marketing. A real-estate tycoon becomes commander in chief, merrily upending presidential ethics, decorum, and prestige. Conspiracy theories are a national pastime.

One convenient contemporary milestone of religious loss and bewilderment became as clear as the night sky starting around 1947, when UFO sightings surged in the US. It’s as if the ordeal of world war and Holocaust, then the new anxiety about atom bombs and communist infiltration, all conspired to destroy a certain theological confidence. People scanned the Cold War heavens for help, harboring a terrible new secret thought: In the nuclear age, if God can’t save us from ourselves. Maybe ET can.

At that same moment, a famous theologian was puzzling out vectors of divine movement and redemption. Paul Tillich called it the Protestant Principle. By that he didn’t mean Reformation religion or the Protestant Era. Even in the late 1940s, he thought modern Protestantism wouldn’t last. Some other religious expression would someday take its place. It might not even be called Protestantism. But the Protestant Principle would always be in play. It stood always ready to be unleashed – in every religion.

Tillich described this principle variously as the creative spirit of God, the ethic of love, the fire of the biblical prophets, the person of Jesus, the power of New Being. It is double-edged. It criticizes the times and also transform them. <2> It undercuts spiritual arrogance, political idolatry, denominational moralism, religion’s captivity to the complacencies of culture. It keeps alive a liberating vision about the future. It is an eternal flame of human endeavor and hope.

Catching it, riding its next wave, means paying attention to the gritty specifics of the everyday, staying alert to openings. I was handed a new book the other day regarding Christian politics. In it Jim Wallis of Sojournerssaid believers must step up and commit to a Matthew 25 ethic, the protection and defense of vulnerable people in the name of Jesus. <3> He doesn’t mention the Protestant Principle, but his words summon it.

A certain kind of Protestantism is fading. A familiar old-time religiosity declines. The trouble with writing about the decline of anything is it right away looks like sentimentality, a wistfulness about the way something was before decline set in.

But nostalgia’s a non-starter. Filling the God-shaped hole requires taking a measure of the depths of it. It has to do with calling out every brutal ism of the new era and hearing out the next person you meet and facing down the cold wind and confiding in powers of renewal you didn’t expect to turn up.

Notes

  1. From his CD The Wheel (Loudhouse Records, 2003). See davidolney.com.
  2. The Essential Tillich, edited by F. Forrester Church (Chicago, 1987), p. 79.
  3. Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump, edited by Miguel A. De La Torre (Orbis, 2017), pp. 161-162.

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“We’re learning that our bedrock spirituality must speak more acutely against the era’s economic excesses. We’ve neglected to make a hard study of the way power really works.”

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH

(editor’s column, Reflections journal, Fall 2017 … see reflections.yale.edu)

By Ray Waddle

We’ve passed through several months of giddy national tumult, and it’s not done yet. The entire drama throws open the meaning of America and the strength of our political institutions. It also raises an old question: Who is my neighbor?

We thought we knew. Until last year many of us were pleased to think we understood the mood of the electorate. Then the 2016 election handed us our ignorance. The times are bringing harsh news, but also clarity. There’s something to be learned from it all.

We’re learning that millions of Americans feel disrespected, alienated, ignored. Millions are suffering in this economy or enduring the blunt force of daily prejudice. The American dream isn’t serving them.

We’re learning that both major parties are flattered and impaired by the big money. Regular citizens pay the price, living in gutted towns or fighting in permanent wars. As George Packer described it recently in The New Yorker, Democrats years ago lost a traditional ally – working-class whites – and embraced a coalition of urban professionals and diversity. Must it be either-or? Republicans meanwhile thundered social conservatism while carefully lending a helping hand to the 1 percent.

We’re learning that our bedrock spirituality must speak more sharply against the era’s economic excesses. We’ve neglected to make a hard study of the way power really works. In many cases religion has not challenged or examined the spirit of consumerism and empire but endorsed it.

Tested by disorder or disinformation, we’re learning too that millions are deeply committed to constitutional freedoms, public integrity, environmental repair, and a culture of empathy.

It took countless decisions to get to this embattled moment. And the next moves will unfold, transmute, blossom in exciting, unnerving directions. We can be sure of this much: History will provide ironies at every turn, merrily ignoring our expectations. Consider the politics of a century ago: Many American small farmers and Christian rural citizens believed the biblical news of “peace on earth, good will toward all” carried a message of socialism. Jesus was regarded as a leftist philosopher of the people, and politicians could win evangelical votes by quoting the Nazarene as the messianic enemy of the banks. It gives new meaning to “red state.”

Bluster and disruption win the attention in the social media era, for now. Much unglamorous work gets discounted – the vigilance of fair voting laws, the fight for a living wage, infrastructure repair, a thousand local commitments to good governance and neighborliness. All these depend on cooperation, public purpose, discipline, patience, mutual respect – actions rooted in humane virtues. Where do such values come from? Not from Social Darwinism or the metrics of ruthless efficiency. A functional society needs something like Golden Rule wisdom found in sacred texts, parental leadership, mentors, and congregations that honor the soul.

Preparing this Reflections issue on “God and money,” I’ve learned from each contributor that it takes tough-minded analysis but also heart and resolve and gospel truth to write about this big thing called the economy. These writers take seriously the world-bending lines from the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Those words speak to the creator of the universe, and they also dignify the political, economic details of this time and place.

If you want to feel more hopeful about the rampages of history, talk to divinity students. Catch their enthusiasm and resilience. Chatting with Yale Divinity students leaves me feeling invigorated. They are pursuing a vocation, trying to make daily poetry out their faith, with ethical impact, often in the teeth of financial struggle. Many take on sizable debt in order to be in school, but they refuse to let that define them or derail their sense of calling. Find a way to support them, through congregation or denomination or scholarship fund. Consider a gift to the YDS Annual Fund, which is entirely devoted to student financial aid, or a donation to the campaign to raise endowment funds for financial aid.

A wounded body politics needs these future leaders, healers, and neighbors.

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“Maybe pluralism is God’s way of making everyone look each other in the eye on this crowded planet, acknowledge that other people and other tribes actually exist, and share in an unexpected tenderness.”

FOOTLOOSE AND FLUNG

(editor’s column, Reflections journal, Spring 2016 … see reflections.yale.edu)

Fifty years ago, Time magazine turned a small cadre of theologians into unlikely celebrities. The Holy Week cover in 1966 asked, in huge provocative font, “Is God Dead?” The God-is-dead debate, already a century old (maybe three) and often misunderstood, was suddenly news.

I was just a kid at the time, but the adults were clearly troubled by this new moment in the American religious universe: This death of God thing, such a naughty phrase, was a sign that the church must brace for post-Christian pluralism. We must gird ourselves against the chaos of new choices, new arguments, the scattering of the old truth.

Ever since, the temptation of many a believer has been to dream of returning to an old cultural unity that can silence the new cacophony of voices, assertions, and dissents that define the 21st century.

And if others don’t want this sort of religious unity – Bible-oriented, nostalgic for postwar American preeminence – well, other unifying principles are available. A trust in the relentless rationalism of the global marketplace … or a commitment to the clash of civilizations … or a faith in a utopian online future – these appear to be mutually exclusive, yet what they have in common is an attractive simplicity, the grand search for a way to organize or minimize the teeming, in-your-face rush of pluralism.

Perhaps this is mostly what pluralism is right now, a competition between ambitious secular and religious worldviews, none of which are comfortable with … pluralism.

The Death of God dust-up turned out to be a handy shorthand for some familiar nagging dreads – despair of the nuclear threat, the shame of the Holocaust, the failure of traditional religion to hold the imagination – that new generations felt. The Death-of-God theologians wanted new ways of talking about divinity outside the old metaphysics. Looking back on it now, the controversy was a (mostly Protestant) plea to churches to embrace their own ethical commands and fight for humane social change in the gritty secular city.

Some years later, writer Annie Dillard, an early writer hero of mine, used the sheer force of poetic rhetoric to imagine a new – actually very old – source of unity for holding our various existential agonies. She reached for an ancient Christian speculative idea that she called Holy the Firm. She described it as the divine substance at the base of everything, sub-mineral, unseen, yet linking heaven and earth, matter and the Absolute, some kind of mystic emulsion that knits immanence to transcendence, God’s otherness to God’s intimacy. It’s accessible to us if we dare. Old rifts in our psyches, and between one another, might finally be healed. God has a stake in this, she declares.

“And the universe is real and not a dream, not a manufacture of the senses,” she writes in Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977). “Subject may know object, knowledge may proceed, and Holy the Firm is in short the philosopher’s stone.”

By a kind of ecstatic Neoplatonism, by declaring God “footloose and flung,” she melds poetry to prose and reclaims a wholeness available to anyone at the salty foundations of grainy daily existence. “It is the one glare of holiness: it is bare and unspeakable.”

She speaks, in other words, of our capacity for holy astonishment. Every human being shares this capacity. Maybe pluralism is God’s way of making everyone look each other in the eye on this crowded planet, acknowledge that other people and other tribes actually exist, and share in an unexpected tenderness.

We can’t hide behind the teetering architecture of ideologies, not for long. The  contemporary klieg lights expose, bleach and weaken them without warning. We nevertheless hold things in common, miraculously yet pragmatically – this earth, the surge of words, the power of human touch, loss, gratitude, the dream of love.