Glimpses From The Plague Year

One nurse comforts an exhausted colleague.

The first official COVID-19 death was 60 days ago. There’s evidence there were deaths ea.rlier, but for now let’s go with that February 29th death as the moment things started to get real here in the US. We’ve averaged a thousand deaths a day since. On that day there were fewer than 100 cases nationally. Sixty days later there are over a million. An ER doc from NYC committed suicide over the weekend. Families get separated by hospitals when members are admitted for COVID-19. Some people never make it to the hospital, dying in their homes. We don’t have anything near the number of tests we need. We’re still over a year out from an effective vaccine. Along with respiratory distress and pneumonia, we’re learning the novel coronavirus also causes permanent or near-permanent damage to the lungs, the kidneys, and the lever. Some patients seem to have clotting issues, with random clotting causing strokes in some patients. We’re only a few months into studying the virus and what it does to its human hosts. Healthcare providers, exhausted physically and emotionally, are prime targets for infection. There are shortages of proper PPE, made worse by apparent confiscation by the federal government where they’re put into pools that the states are then forced to bit on in order to buy back.

Anti-lockdown protesters demanding an end to stay-at-home orders

Meanwhile, a small yet very vocal minority, fueled by money from far-right donors, are demanding an end to the stay-at-home orders that have slowed the spread of disease and death. In the name of saving the economy, or protecting fundamental freedoms, or denying the severity of our current situation, these protests certainly make a lot of sound and fury. I know the current situation is both frightening and frustrating. It would be great if we could just end various shutdown measures in order to return to something resembling the “normal” that existed before all this happened. There’s a lot of comfort in the thought this could happen; a greater sense of security in a return to our usual patterns of social behavior than in the odd, worrying new-normal of staying in and isolated, watching our economy collapse as part of the horrid collateral damage from the coronavirus.

Even understanding their frustrations and fears, however, it’s difficult to have sympathy for these protesters because, in the end, they seem far too willing to sacrifice vulnerable populations as a balm to their own uneasy psyches. They often insist the reality we see around us is false; that shadowy forces of one sort or another are exaggerating the threat in order to accrue more power at the expense of our Constitutional liberties. We are told the virus is artificially enhanced, produced either here in the US then sneaked into China, or created by the Chinese themselves and accidentally released. Ships at our two major metropolitan centers, New York and Los Angeles, serving as extra hospital space, are, we are told, actually serving a far stranger purpose, part of which is rescuing supposed “underground children” from sexual slavery.

And now we are facing the prospect of states reopening before there enough tests, enough contact tracing, enough redundancy in our healthcare system to handle the inevitable rise in infections and hospitalizations. After a couple weeks delay due to the time lapse from infection to first symptoms, we will see a steep rise in infections first, followed by a steep rise in the mortality rate. This second wave will be that much worse because, by the time states manage to find the strength to reinstate social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the damage will be done and the virus will be moving swiftly through a far larger portion of the population. Trying to get people back home will be that much more difficult. The ineffectiveness, counterproductivity, and irrelevance of the federal government will make managing things in a second wave far worse than the first wave (because it’s not starting from zero this time, but from an average of nearly 17,000 new cases daily). States will find themselves with fewer resources, the economy will take an even deeper hit as more and more workers get ill, some either permanently disabled or dead, and pressure to continue to operate in the face of danger continuing, social stress will increase leaving those who haven’t contracted the virus with more psychic pain and the promise of PTSD looming into the future.

This is not a happy scenario right now. It’s actually more frightening than things were at the beginning, a mere sixty days ago. We face more sickness, more lifelong damage, more death, more social and economic dislocation, more political unrest, and more uncertainty. Whether this could have been prevented will be the great unanswered, unanswerable question of the 21st century. My hope and prayer is that we make it through to the other side of this season of sickness and fear with a greater sense of what our collective needs are and how best to satisfy those needs in a way that respects freedom without leaving anyone behind.

My Mom

Virginia Johnston, probably her Senior Picture in HS

Today is my Mom’s birthday. Of course, she passed away three years ago at the age of 91, but as long as I can, I’ll lift up her birthday. Growing up, I often saw my friends and acquaintances looking at her and just seeing who she was at that time, a middle-aged housewife, mother of five, whose quiet public demeanor (mostly) was in stark contrast to her husband’s very outgoing friendliness. As I became older, learned more of her life, talked to her siblings, saw photos, and remembered things she did, it occurred to me that it was nearly impossible to judge who she was; ridiculous to try and sum up who she was with one or two simple labels. Oh, I’m sure she would have been happy being known as a mother and wife, because she told me that’s all she ever really wanted to be (more about that later). But during her very long life, she did and was many things, very few of them boring.

Being the older daughter in a very large family, she helped raising her youngest siblings, particularly since her mother was quite ill after having the two youngest. Her youngest brother, Ned, when he was in high school, would introduce her to his friends, “This is my sister Virginia. We call her Virgin for short, but not for long.” Which should give you an idea of what kind of family she lived in!

She attended the University of Dayton during the Second World War. She decided to take chemical engineering as a major because, as she told me once, it sounded fun. She was the only woman in a small group of men, several of whom were Cuban, having been educated at Society of St. Mary schools in their home country then coming to UD. She graduated top of her class in her major (which should surprise no one), but she never pursued anything to do with her degree because, well, she studied it, did well in it, but she wasn’t, you know, married to it. It wasn’t her life’s vocation.

During her summers in college, she did war work. She worked for what was then National Cash Register Company, Huffman Bicycle Company building those folding bikes soldiers carried during the invasion of Italy (I think she was always proudest of that). One summer, she worked for The Manhattan Project. She insisted all she did was pass a Geiger counter over clothes workers wore, although I don’t believe her. At a family get-together once when I was in high school, I asked her oldest brother about that. He just smiled and said, “She received a commendation from Pres. Roosevelt for her work. Do you really think she got that checking clothes for radiation?” After she died, going through her lifetime’s accumulated things I never found such a commendation. I know she had one, because she told me about it after I asked her if it was true. I don’t think she kept it. Because, well, why would she?

Also while in college, she and her best friend Mark Kotterman showed up at marching band practice together and told the director, “We’re your majorettes!” He looked at them, not quite sure what to say. Mary and Mom made their own uniforms, flags, came up with their own routines, and marched at halftime with the band through one season. She did it, she told me, because she wanted to see UD beat the University of Cincinnati and this was the only way she’d be able to go to the game. For years, a little pennant saying, “Beat Cincy!” hung on the attic wall. It, too, disappeared at some point.

She also thought it would be fun to join the archery team. Of course, she’d never handled a bow and arrow before, but why should she let that stop her? That year, she ended up going to Nationals. The next year, she claimed, “I couldn’t even hit the target!” I don’t believe that. I think she went out for the archery team, did really well, and then was quite done with it all. Like her not pursuing work in her chosen field, doing any majorette stuff after that one autumn, and so many other things, she did something she though would be fun. She did it really well, proving to herself she could. Then, she was done with it.

The only thing my mother really wanted to do was, well, to be a mother. She told me once that she had always wanted five children. She even, so she claims, had the five men picked out who would help her reach her goal! Then she met my Dad in New York in the late 1940’s. While each of them lived their lives and were with other people, they stayed connected and in the early 1950’s when my father found himself pursued not at all subtly by the students at all-women’s Stephen’s College in Columbia, MO, she agreed to marry him. I have no doubt they loved each other very much, even through some rough times here and there.

While she spent most of the next thirty or so years raising her large brood, she also took time out to volunteer for the Red Cross after Hurricane Agnes flooded our area in 1972. She volunteered for the regional Adult Literacy program, helping teach people to read. She wore quite a few hats at First UMC, Sayre, PA. She welcomed her childrens’ friends into her home with no questions, providing a safe, fun place for all manner of boys and girls over the years. I think sometimes of the gaggle of kids that would sometimes gather in our yard and house to play and remember her being insouciant about it all. Of course they were welcome! This last is something Lisa and I have done, too, making sure our house was a welcome place for pretty much anyone.

Mostly, though, she was my Mom. She put band-aids on my cuts. She used to be able to hold my legs just below my knees, and as long as I locked my knees, lift me up to touch the ceiling. She was there when I cried, she barely tolerated my adolescent moodiness and angst. She welcomed her childrens’ spouses into her home just as she always welcomed people into her home. She loved her grandchildren, even welcoming her first two great-grandchildren late in her life.

Mom was not at all the person one saw at a glance in the supermarket, or mingling during intermissions at band concerts and school plays. I think this is important to remember when we see people casually; we should remember their lives might well be far more full and interesting than it might appear. I celebrate my mother today because I know she’d be embarrassed and upset I would do so, because she wasn’t one to think she’d ever done anything interesting. She was, after all, just a housewife and mother.

Ignorance Is Not A Virtue

This picture started it all for me.

All sorts of things happened this week, good and bad. There was another school shooting, this time in California. Venice and Sydney were both affected by events exacerbated by global warming, even as governing bodies in these two very different places sought to play down this simple reality. States keep wasting taxpayer money and their own time passing clearly unconstitutional anti-abortion laws. Of course, there were the first public impeachment hearings against Donald Trump, two days that proved how callow and nonsensical the Republican Party has become.

I’d rather speak for a moment about Ohio’s House Bill 164, entitled ” Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019.” Snopes, ever cautious in looking at click-bait and scare headlines, insists the claims that the bill would allow students to ignore science in, well, science classes if these students insisted it clashed with their religious beliefs are “unproven”. To the extent that the wording of the Bill is significantly vague enough to make a casual reader wonder; and that the Bill has yet even to go to the State Senate, let alone be signed by the governor, this certainly seems an arguable position to take.

Except, of course, such a view ignores the trajectory of religious-based anti-science activity of the past half-century. Obviously, the goal of this bill is to keep students who, say, believe the earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago from being penalized for insisting so during a term studying cosmology, evolution, or geology. The invention of “Intelligent Design” by a kind of newspaper Jumbo Scrambling of creationism was just one step along this way. Couching the language of the bill in terms of religious freedom is certainly no accident; even were one not a believer, it seems, most Americans would be hard-pressed to correct a students religious beliefs with something as arcane as scientific understanding.

The first stirrings of awe and wonder in my own mind and heart – said affects being necessary for the pursuit of understanding according to the ancient Greeks – began with the photo above. Specifically, that photo adorned the cover of a National Geographic magazine from 1981 that captured my attention in a way nothing ever had before. I’ve written of this life-event before, so you can click the link to find out more about the specifics of that moment. Suffice to say, for our purposes here, long before I thought about what I might study, or what kind of person I might become (beyond perpetual student); long before my own heart was strangely warmed by reflection upon the events in my life, an event that sent me off to Seminary; long before I declared Political Science as my undergraduate major; the very moment I started down a road that would twist and turn through all these moments and more, I sat and wondered about the planet Saturn, its moons, the immensity of space, of time, and who we human beings were and might become. It was science, in this case planetary astronomy, that started the little gears and gizmos in my head turning and spinning, trying to figure things out.

Over the years I’ve studied lots of things. Political analysis, statistics, constitutional law (as an undergraduate), American history, medieval history, the theologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, liberation theology and the relationship between science and theology, the philosophy of science reading Newton’s Principia, Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Thomas Kuhn (among many others). In all that reading, and over decades, I’ve never encountered anything that would suggest science and religious belief – of any kind; not just Christian or so-called Abrahamic faith, but eastern religions as well – would be at odds with one another. Considering each concerns completely different parts of the human experience, has different criteria for method, the pursuit of “truth”, and discuss wholly different phenomena, this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The phony story of a clash between religion and science begins with that eminently modernist religious movement, Fundamentalism. First flourishing in the early years of the 2oth century, the “Fundamentals” were a rationalist, fideist reaction to what was then called the higher criticism of the Bible, the emergence in both Germany and the United States of what became known as liberal theology (a beast that bears no relationship to the targets of the epithet these days), and the activism of the Social Gospel and Personalist theologies among Baptists and Methodists, respectively. The “Fundamentals”, ignoring 1900 years of Christian teaching on grace and the specific language of Scripture, insisted there were these things it was necessary human beings “believe” – a word now reduced to a simple cognitive act, empty as it had become of the nuance and affective content it had held throughout history – in order to achieve salvation. One of those things was the literal understanding of the Bible in its entirety, as if somehow the ancient Hebrew teachers and and rabbis were as stupid as a bunch of Princeton theology professors. This included the Creation, without ever once acknowledging the reality, long known, that there were two distinct, contradictory, and irreconcilable creation stories in Genesis. One was simply to acquiesce to their literal truth without examining what each might teach us about God, the world in which we find ourselves, or the relationship between Creation and Creator.

In part a reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which was in turn indebted to the science of geology for discovering how long the earth had existed, how slow and steady (we now know occasionally punctuated by periods of rapid, extreme) change is, fundamentalists now had something to challenge Darwin and the growing disenchantment with simplistic religious belief that was clear for everyone to see. They met most famously in Dayton, TN when a HS science teacher named Scopes taught evolution against the express wishes of the school board. The trial is famous for its clash of legal titans, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant; less known is that Scopes was found guilty and fined.

It was the public humiliation of Fundamentalism that, for a time, pushed so-called religious objections to scientific study underground. These objections, however, never went away. Re-emerging as part of the fundamentalist revival of the late 20th century, we saw renewed attempts at curbing the teaching of evolution, the Big Bang, an ancient and slowly morphing planet, solar system, galaxy, and Universe. The courts, quite rightly, saw these attempts for what they were, ruling them unconstitutional. So the matter has sat, with variations on the theme played out in the early 21st century with the elimination of “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to creationism.

This history is important to understand. It has been a very specific, blinkered, very modern, and politically motivated (as opposed to the pursuit of the Gospel, which is the actual focus of Christian religious life) religious movement that continues to create conflict and controversy where none actually exists. Most scholars of each recognize this to be the case, even as voices of idiotic publics on both sides (consider Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) continue to pretend the fate of the human race hinges on whether religious belief or the acceptance of science is taken to be the proper measure of things. Even as the risible spectacle of ignorant religious fanatics and equally ignorant scientistic fanatics yelling at each other continues, both the scientific project and religious life continue. They do so precisely because each fulfills needs that are a part of what it is to be human. We are a species, it seems, that needs both to know as much as we can about all that is around us; we also recognize, in a near-infinite variety of forms, there is specific type of awe that pushes us to consider our moral relationships with the world and with other people. Whether one accept Christian theology as a legitimate pursuit or not, surely it’s difficult to deny the reality of the ubiquity of similar such schools of thought among other groups of people.

A particularly dark trend on social media is an increased deprecation of higher education. Whether couched in terms of equality (people who get a college degree think they’re better than everyone else!), or economic and financial security (you can get a good-paying job without a college degree!), or pithy nonsense (a college education doesn’t teach common sense!), it is becoming more and more common to see such declarations. Combined with the increasing difficulty of attending a college or university without incurring impoverishing debt, more and more we erect barriers to higher education even as such an education becomes necessary for economic survival. Such views not only increase the disdain for the educated among an American public already predisposed to such a view. It does so in ways that misconstrue or ignore the reasons for and benefits of a liberal education. Such an education has never concerned itself with social, financial, economic, or some other betterment. It should also be said that what passes for “common sense” all too often is not at all how the world really works at all, which is why an education is necessary; to see through the comfortable illusions of “common sense” to the way we understand how things really are.

Ohio House Bill 164 is nothing more than part of our latest spurt of anti-intellectualism, itself a response to fast-changing social conditions and mores. It pits the “common sense” that there are only two genders, immutable and ontologically distinct against the scientific fact of multiple genders, not only in humans but in other creatures as well; the “common sense” that minorities in America already enjoy far more rights than the majority population, special rights that others do not enjoy against the reality of ongoing and increasing resistance to minority rights; the “common sense” that our personal experience of the world is the best guide to what is, and is not, actually the case with how the world works, what is in it, and is the final arbiter of reality for all of us against the scientific spirit and liberal notion that it is critical reflection upon our experience that teaches us just how wrong we too often are. We couch this in a language we no longer understand, that of rights, enshrine it legislation, codifying what is a passing moment of social and cultural discomfiture for an eternal truth to be followed by all persons at all times. This is the antithesis of what liberal education provides, the most important virtue being the ability to think critically about the world around us. Rather than thought, such a bill insists on the acceptance of whatever passes for truth in one’s own mind as the sole guide for understanding the world, whether one calls it religion, or race, or what have you.

While it is technically true the more outlandish claims made about Ohio House Bill 164 are “unproven”, such a claim can only be made in ignorance both of the history of fundamentalist ideology and our specifically American romance with anti-intellectualism. Stifling as it would that most important thing human individuals have to spur us toward understanding, a naive awe and wonder at the unknown I experienced nearly 40 years ago, this is not only a threat to education. It is a threat to thought, to individual freedom, and our collective need to continue searching for answers, not only about our world but also about how we are to live together in ways that lift all of us.

Ernst Bloch – The Principle Of Hope, Part One: Little Daydreams

The New is greeted as a brother who has travelled from the region where the sun rises. The sensational wish is in malleable, dull souls itself dull and gullible, in strong souls capable of vision it is thorough. It wants to make sure that [humanity] is not lying crooked, that [humanity] is in tune with [our] place and [our] work. That this work does not fob [us] of with alms, but rather that the same old story of doing without finally comes to an end. . . .

. . . The obsession with what is better remains, even when what is better has been prevented for so long. When what is wished for arrives, it surprises us anyway.

Ernst Bloch, The Principle Of Hope, Vol. 1, p. 42
Ernst Bloch, unorthodox yet compelling Marxist philosopher

Ours is an age that has forgotten how to hope. Oh, this isn’t anything recent. It is the direct result of a kind of small-minded ideological triumphalism best expressed by the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With the military stand-off in Central Europe gone with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact; with the political stand-off with the Soviet Union ended with the collapse of the Soviet state, Thatcher repeatedly insisted, “There is no alternative.” Thus TINA was born, a phrase that said everything yet said nothing at all. “Alternative” suggests a series of choices available. Once the field is declared clear – There Is No Alternative – there exists nothing left for which human beings might desire. “No alternative”? To what, exactly?

Why, only the ridiculously bloated, increasingly inefficient, and soon-to-be-senescent late capitalism at once given the name New World Order yet bearing a striking resemblance to the same-old same-old of much of the western world since the 19th century. While much of the world looked on as the events of 1989-1991 unfolded with a rare sense of joy as oppressed peoples danced upon the soon-to-collapse walls that once meant death, the leaders of the west moved quickly, even decisively, to declare the events meant one thing and one thing only. Those moments of surprise and happiness were greeted with the dull monotone of the victorious speeches of the mediocrities in Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn. Millions of us watched in wonder, believing that all sorts of things were possible if the very regimes we were told over and over would never fade collapsed under their own dead weight. Wonder, joy, happiness collided with the immovable object of technocratic capitalism. When dullards face something beautiful, they cannot help but make it as bland as themselves.

That era has now reached its logical conclusion in the growing Nazification of America and western Europe. Old hatreds and bitterness, once thought decisively defeated and exposed for the demonic entities they were, have emerged as TINA has forced upon us less and less room to maneuver even as changes continue around us. The dull minds of technocrats have been replaced by the poisoned minds of fascist fears and, the old restraints no longer in place, racist hatreds and we find ourselves facing dangerous times with a dearth of sense about how to move forward.

Speaking of hope in a moment such as this seems absurd. To speak of it in the tones of an ideological enemy declared defeated seems nonsensical, meaningless. With the loss of any room in which to move, we face the choice either of being crushed by the onrushing nightmare or declaring there are now, and have always been, choices. The emptiness of senescent capitalism offers nothing but its logical conclusion – Gotterdamerung. There is, also, a small glimmer of light. That glimmer is the wish, or dream, or forgotten ideal, that things can be different, even better, more humane.

Bloch’s Marxist social psychology of Hope – for such it is, regardless of other definitions on offer – is a tiny candle in the darkness of our times. In this first part, we read Bloch describing the ways wishes and dreams of all kinds, rooted in class consciousness and socio-economic status, may seem of a piece but in fact seek very different ends. For the ruling class it is a desperate search for an end to boredom brought on by the successes of excess. For the petit bourgeoisie it is the fanned flames of resentment not so much at the rulers who declare an end to alternatives or their own realization of their mediocrity in a world that once rewarded such; instead, their increased bitterness and rage aims at easier targets, those below and outside their own too-small circle of acceptability. Even as global events force a need for real alternatives, we are increasingly left with the nonsense of a fading, aged ruling class or the rage of those no longer able to access corridors of power that once seemed to be their own by right.

And yet there are those who wish and dream for an end of suffering. They desire neither the dullness of “the real” nor the violence of exclusion but rather the friendliness (in the full sense of the word) of people working, struggling together to live a more humane and moral life together for the benefit of all. These dreams of the end to deprivation and suffering are called “utopian” or “foreign” even as they continue to fill the minds of our neighbors who believe it possible to live without fear or boredom. In our Age Of TINA, it seems outlandish, ridiculous, mindless to believe such is possible.

It is with these dreams and wishes, the possibility of alternatives to either the long twilight of our fading capitalist age or the Dark Age of the fascist nightmare, that Bloch begins to lift his candle, giving us the ability to see something that we have been told doesn’t exist. Even in our wishes and dreams, as fanciful as they might be, we see the tiniest light of hope. We are reminded that things can be different. We are not subject only to the gray skies of dullards or the endless night of Nazis.

Hope is there, its small light shining upon things we had forgotten might be possible.

On this third or fourth reading of Bloch’s massive work, I’ll be offering reflections at the end of each Part. Even if no one else encounters them, at least here a light might yet shine in the dimming dusk of a time that seems to offer us nothing but gloom or doom as the ends toward which we move.

Uncentering

Rev. Adam Hamilton

The other day, while we were out walking our dogs, my wife and I were talking about her experience at a recent meeting of United Methodist leaders from around the country. Held in Leawood, KS, just outside Kansas City, this meeting was coordinated by Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of one of the largest UMC congregations in the country. The reason for the meeting was to try to figure out, in a way consonant with our faith history and traditions, how we as a denomination move forward in the face of legalized discrimination within the body. It was to be a safe space, a place where people could come and speak their minds without fear of reprisal.

Truth is, I was and am wary of Hamilton’s motives. While certainly a popular writer – his numerous study books are used by UM and other churches around the country for small group learning, sermon and worship series, and devotional guides – Hamilton has not been able to translate that popularity into political capital. While a perpetual delegate to our larger denominational meetings, he has little influence and less power. With the denomination drifting into two unequal pieces, I am wary of yet another white man trying to become the “leader” of a movement. I agree, rather, with United Methodist pastor Pamela Lightsey who insists that any future UMC that does not come from those explicitly excluded and sidelined by current and historic polity and practice isn’t legitimate. At all. Ours is a movement that began with a renegade preacher going around England, cast out and excluded from pulpits, preaching in fields, down mine shafts, bringing the Gospel to those the society didn’t want to acknowledge. If we don’t begin there, again, we betray the heart of what it is to be a United Methodist.

Part of the reason I think Hamilton, while certainly popular, has little political power within the denomination is simple: he has always been a voice of moderation in a denomination that has, historically, not been moderate on matters of the human rights and the divine worth of all persons. Even as we continue to struggle with race and gender, human sexuality has become the straw that broke our connectional back. Much of the struggle over the past thirty or so years hasn’t been making clear the full worth and dignity and divine love for all persons, but rather with institutional maintenance through accommodation. The aim of far too much energy has been on making sure everyone has a place at our table rather than making clear that before everyone can come to the table, everyone has to accept and celebrate everyone else. Hamilton’s voice has consistently been one with those who sought some kind of moderation in the midst of dehumanization. By and large, that has not been and is not either a practical or moral position to take.

So it was this morning a FB friend posted a link to a Time magazine article from last October.

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Tayari Jones, “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”, Time Magazine, October 25, 2018

In both our secular and sectarian politics, we have long past the time when unity for its own sake is neither desirable nor workable. Such a desire ignores the reality there are forces of ignorance, hatred, exclusion, and even violence that have already made clear their refusal to live together with those with whom they disagree. Why should those who sit on the other side of this divide that already exists try to find common ground in a middle that is nothing more than the abyss, staring at us?

We have become such an oh-so-careful people. Oh-so-careful to the point of being passive-aggressive in much of our public discourse. For example, we don’t want to call anyone a liar. After all, “we don’t know what they’re thinking, do we?” Except, of course, that is hardly the test for lying. Stating a falsehood, particularly one people know to be false, well . . . that’s lying. Whether it’s saying, “Hillary Clinton is a crook,” or “gay people are incompatible with Christian teach” both are false, known to be false, yet repeated ad nauseum in our secular and sectarian discourse as if they were of equal worth as their opposites. This “democritization” of our discourse renders impossible any attempt to find common ground precisely because there are people who accept falsehoods as expressions of real states of affairs. The wise thing to do, the honest thing to do, is publicly to acknowledge this, viz., there are people who believe things about the world that are patently false, and move on.

Of course it’s going to hurt people’s feelings. It’s going to make people angry. The thing is, folks are already angry. Folks’ feelings are more than hurt by the reality that some percentage of the American people continue to dehumanize, discriminate, and even perpetuate violence against them. As I wrote earlier this week after the murder of a trans activist, those whose rhetoric and actions create safe spaces for hatred to lash out with violence share the burden of some responsibility for an atmosphere in which such violence is accepted. The only way we achieve moral clarity on these and other issues of public import is making this point clear.

The UMC is splitting. That cannot be stopped now. I have no interest at all being in communion or holy conference with people who not only dehumanize others, but seek out to punish those who refuse to do so. What do I have in common with such people? What would I want to have in common with them? There is no “center” that either can or should hold up a place where a meeting of such disparate people might meet.

Authority?

Why should I listen to you again?

I haven’t been able to access my WordPress account for quite a while now. For some reason, I decided today was the day I said, “screw it”, and just open a new account. I’ve been needing to write all along. The longer it’s been, the more urgent to do so became. Just like physical exercise, however, getting back in to the habit of writing can be difficult.

Not least because, in writing, something audacious takes place: A normal person seems to assume a mantle of “authority”. It’s even there in the word “author”. Isn’t writing assuming that others should take seriously the things you’re saying?

Literary criticism, with its roots in Biblical interpretation, had assumed for the longest time the authority of writer and text over and against the reader. When the deconstructionists came along, they flipped the authority relationship on its head; the author and text became empty, a surd. It was the reader who provided the authority for shaping meaning. Literary criticism, then, became something akin to creatio ex nihilo. Except it is the word that is brought into being in the process of reading, rather than the Word that creates (in this case, the reader).

Neither solution to the “problem” of authority is very satisfying, precisely because both assume there is a power relationship that exists among the author, the text, and the reader. To be sure, there is some kind of relationship; all relationships involve negotiating power. Parents have authority over children; the state has power over citizens. The author, or perhaps the reader, or even the text itself must have some kind of power.

Except power is a funny thing. It only exists when we acknowledge its presence. Children admit to parental authority, sometimes even in the midst of rebelling against it. Citizens accept the state’s authority, to a greater or lesser extent. Does that mean that I assume some kind of authority when I sit down to write? Am I expecting you, dear reader, to take the words in front of you not only as expressing my “innermost thoughts” (whatever those might be, if they really are), but as reflecting my assertion of power over you? Do I assume some kind of authority over the topic about which I’m writing?

How is it possible to express how unsettling that idea is to me. I’ve been writing off and on my whole life. I’ve written on the Internet, pretty steadily, for eleven years now. I’ve written about all sorts of topics. I’ve been in discussions and arguments with all sorts of people. In all that time, I have never once assumed that I have something special to say. On the contrary, I’ve been clear many times saying just the opposite. I don’t expect people to agree with me. I don’t care if people disagree with me. I don’t write to convince, to argue, to proclaim, or anything of the sort. For me, writing is nothing more than the opportunity to clarify what seems jumbled for me. If someone else finds something upsetting, uplifting, helpful, hurtful, annoying, beautiful, ugly, or some combination thereof in what I’m doing, that’s cool: a real connection has occurred between human beings, something far too rare.

If it seems I’m ceding authority or power to the reader, nothing could be further from the truth. The reason is simplicity itself: If there is power, it is in that human connection between author and reader. For example, lots of people I know – some of whom have read him, many who have not – don’t like the writings of St. Augustine. Having read his Confessions, I realized that Augustine was, at heart, just this guy, living in the late Roman Empire, trying to figure out what it meant to be a Christian. He was intelligent, gifted with insight and the ability to use rhetoric to his advantage. As a Bishop, he had a certain authority granted him by the church. All the same, reading even his most intricate theology, or most polemical writings for or against this or that topic, one gets the sense that Augustine assumes the whole time he could be spectacularly wrong. The only thing Augustine has, as an author, is his faith, his story, and how these come together to inform the things he believes are important. Any authority exists outside either himself or his readers; it only exists in the relationship he forms with the reader over the matter attested in the text.

So, you don’t have to take much of what I say seriously. Not even what I’ve written here! I’m not trying to do anything important or world changing. Indeed, I’m not doing anything special at all. If you, dear reader, find something upon which to grab hold, something that makes you nod and say, “Yes!” or, “No!”, then a human connection has been made. That relationship has power, dear reader; it can change the world. Real human connections, relationships forged between and among people, have the power to shake the very foundations.

This is the reason tyrants want to control what people read. Nothing in this world is more dangerous than people linked by the very real threads of shared humanity.

Music has this same power, this ability to create real human connections. With regard to music, its an emotional, empathetic connection. That’s why Woody Guthrie wrote, “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. He understood what happens when people become united by shared experiences.

So, no, I don’t assume any authority, because I have none. The illusion of a power dynamic among author, text, and reader is largely a hangover from a time when people believed power pervaded human relationships. Not that there aren’t people who continue to believe in power and its necessity; they are, however, the most dangerous people imaginable. I may be silly, frivolous, mindless, or even wrong. I am not now, not do I ever wish to be, dangerous to others. This is not humility, false or otherwise. Like me, it just is what it is.