"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pillars and posts

As I canvassed the news both secular and ecclesial today, I found myself thinking about how much people seem to be driven "from pillar to post"—to use one of my favorite old catch-phrases. When not distracting ourselves with forms of entertainment or consumption, we often agonize, be it in practice or theory, about polarities of goods in tension with each other. Most of us have experienced that in trying to balance such goods as work and family life, pleasure and duty, fulfillment and self-sacrifice. Politics are almost defined by perennial tensions between the public good and private interests, between principle and pragmatism. In both the personal and the political spheres, we find ourselves wanting this-or-that set of good things which, in the circumstances, are mutually incompatible; often we end up cynically resigned to choosing the lesser of evils, assuming we even have managed to fashion for ourselves a satisfactory account of what the lesser evil actually is. It gets no easier in religion.

Specifically, I want to focus on two topics where the oscillation between polarities seems especially intractable: ecumenism and, for want of a better term, the examination of conscience.

Lately I've seen much in both the blogosphere and the MSM that basically dismisses ecumenism as hopeless. I don't think that's just because the media generally and the Internet particularly tend to magnify differences between people. I find the despair seeping back into every branch of Christianity, all across the theological spectrum. Rather than encourage les autres by multiplying examples, I shall summarize my recent experience, including on this blog, with just one example: this thrust of the rapier from the unnamed blogger at Just Thomism:

Catholic- Protestant ecumenism is like a very odd dinner party where everyone sits around saying polite and edifying things while waiting for the other guest to die.

I couldn't help chuckling, of course. Who could? And I like that blog for the most part. I have been meaning for weeks to add it to my roll, and just have; that post in particular evinces the author's usual depth and wit. Perhaps that's one reason why JT's words are quoted with appreciation even by Prof. Brandon Watson at Siris, one of the most truly and soundly ecumenical bloggers I read and interact with, as well as one of the smartest. And in the combox to the Siris post, a fellow with the handle "Ahistoricality"—another dang-smart blogger with whom I've had good interaction in the past—remarks: "What a great line! True of almost all inter-religious dialogue, at least sometimes: Having been on the Jewish end of Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Christian dialogues...." This, I reiterate, is from ecumenically-minded bloggers. I hear much the same in the flesh from many thoughtful religious folk who are not church professionals. And of course one must not forget that Philip Johnson's words remain as true as ever: in America, land of almost infinite religious diversity, "anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice." The general cynicism and despair seems almost palpable.

Why do I consider this phenomenon an instance of being driven from pillar to post? Well, because amid all the despair, the "polite and edifying things" said in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue are, quite often, not only true but known to be true. Not heartfelt? Often. Platitudinously expressed? All too often. But still, true. Even the Unitarians used to have it two-thirds right. We needn't believe in "the neighborhood of Boston," and most of us probably wouldn't want to live there; but we do need to believe in "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man," and most of us still do. Of course the PC crowd has spoiled that phrase for everybody: nobody wants to befoul the language by uttering the expression "the parenthood of God and the siblinghood of humankind." But most of us have not forgotten the underlying truth; and it is our awareness of that truth which both motivates and justifies continued ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, even when those activities seem to have no prospect of solidifying such unity as the truth calls for. As Vatican II and all the popes since have made clear, Catholics have a duty to persist in dialogue not just with all the major religions, but with other Christians especially and with the Orthodox above all; for the Body of Christ is one, so that all who profess the name of Christ should be "of one mind and heart" in what they profess and how they live. And most Catholics recognize that—even those who believe "ecumenism" is basically hopeless, which many more do now than did 20 or 30 years ago. So the pendulum swings between openness and repulsion, hope and despair. Right now the swing seems to be on the downside.

I notice a similar trend in how religious people evaluate, or fail to evaluate, where they are on their individual spiritual journeys. At her new blog Charlotte Was Both, Amy Welborn names the the polarities-in-tension as "complacency" and "scrupulosity." A good many truly sincere disciples fall too deeply into one for fear of falling too deeply into the other. Almost any seriously committed religious person has a sense of how that dynamic works on the personal level, if not in themselves than in their co-religionists. Amy does a great job of describing the various forms that can take; but the occasion for her post was political: the US bishops' most recent collective statement on how American Catholics should carry out their civic duties, especially as regards voting. I've perused that statement; it's pretty sound in theory. But in practice not much will actually be done. I don't have time to rehearse all the reasons why, but the most important reason is that, among the minority of Catholics disposed to read or hear about such things to begin with, only another minority harbor any real desire to internalize them. To do so would disturb the complacency of the many and exacerbate the scrupulosity of the few, and not many of us really want to deal with that. People are tired of being driven to pillar to post already; one more pillar and post is just not on for them. There's only so much they can handle as they pursue goods which cannot, at least for long, be enjoyed together. So they either avoid the issue by slipping inertially into a complacency they know, deep down, to be false; or they become scrupulous, obsessive and pharisaical, like physicians who either can't see the need to heal themselves or, if they can see the need, can't do the deed because their own dire self-diagnoses spook them out.

Freud asked: "What do women want?" While he was still capable of real humor, Mel Gibson once did a funny movie pretending to give some answers. But the real answer is not hard to learn. Women want what men want: all good things. But we all want also to ignore several facts that are inescapable in this vale of tears: not all good things can be had together; some can only be had by giving up any prospect for the others; and we're never going to get it all "right" all the time, or even most of the time. As I used to tell my students, when I had students: "The challenge of freedom lies less in choosing between good and evil than in choosing between good and good." A great deal of modern society's restlessness, lack of time, frustration, and anger could be diminished if we learned to accept that we can neither have it all nor get quite right all that we do have. And we can only learn to accept that if we approach God as little children, who trust implicitly that their parents will sooner or later give them all that really matters. He is our peace, our center between the pillars and the posts. Only in such peace can we be truly free.
blog comments powered by Disqus