If your only tool is a hammer...

So what's the difference between speaking with passion and conviction and being a bully? How do you differentiate between words that are intellectually or emotionally over the top because a button has been pushed and a shadow exposed, and, a firmly held conviction that challenges the status quo? A moment of self-disclosure, for many of us, discerning these differences is a life-long quest - especially those who have confused anger for passion and getting our own way with advocacy. Add the double-whammy of our culture's insistence upon repressing nuanced emotional health in most men and the challenge becomes even more complex, yes? 

One of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, put it like this in a collection of essays entitled The Death of Adam:

It all comes down to the mystery of the relationship between the mind and the cosmos. Those who would employ reductive definitions of utility or reality credit their own perceptions of truth with fundamentalist simple-heartedness, brooking no allusion to complexities and ambiguities and countervailing experience... It seems to me that there is now the assumption of an intrinsic fraudulence in the old arts of civilization. Religion, politics, philosophy, music are all seen by us as means of consolidating the power of the ruling elite, or something of the kind. 

She goes on to argue that contemporary culture - and our infatuation with the marketplace as the only viable metaphor for reality - nourishes a "terror at complexity (that) has driven us back... (to) a very crude monism. We have reached a point where cosmology permits us to say that everything might in fact be made of nothing, so we cling desperately to the idea that something is real and necessary, and we have chosen, oddly enough, competition and market forces, taking refuge from the wild epic of cosmic otogeny by hiding our head in a ledger."
My experience - personally and professionally - suggests that Ms. Robinson is on to something: not only have we made an idol out of marketplace realities, we have let the most shallow market metaphors feed our fears of complexity. Indeed, as one poet wrote at the turn of the century, "We have become what we have hated." Funny how that works out over and over again. Jesus put it like this in Luke 12:34:  where your treasure is, there will be your heart. Or as the 19th century moral philosopher, Ludwig Fuerbach, said:  "You are what you eat." You become what you do - your habits, culture and material surroundings shape and inform your worldview - and we have chosen to be overfed on a diet of consumerism and fear for so long it even shapes how we speak with those we love. Somebody has to win - and somebody has to lose.
As I was surfing Facebook last night, Diana Butler Bass, posted this quote about life in a post-Twin Towers context that has implications for my opening question.  She wrote:

In the 20th century, there were three events that dramatically changed the global religious landscape: 1) the trenches of WWI; 2) the Holocaust; and 3) the nuclear bomb. After all three, it was exceedingly difficult for conventional religious faith to make meaning in the world (and raised questions engaged by the greatest philosophers and theologians of the last century). Increasingly, it seems to me that the exponential growth of religious disaffiliation in the North America has a lot less to do with individualism than it does with a profound cultural reaction to the "Post-Twin Towers" world. In a very real way, people who have left churches are reacting to a loss of meaning in conventional pre-9/11 religion, spiritually unmoored as they are attempting to remake forms of faith that provide a new way of life from the ashes of religious violence and crusading hatreds. If we blame the "nones" for the problem of religious decline, we've missed the point; for many of the newly unaffiliated feel and see the problems far more clearly than (sadly) many of the church people I know. There is no way around the cultural reality of religion's complicity in global violence and until we get our heads and hearts around that, and until we discover new paths of theology and spirituality and making community, there's not much hope for any of our existing religious structures. (BTW, this "Post-Twin Towers" reality is so much like the years following WWI in Europe that 1914 and 2001 suggest a sort of historical poetry of anguish and post-Christian doubt.) 

Here's the take away for me in three parts:

+ First, in our current culture of competition and fear, it is small wonder that even good-hearted people speak to one another with cruelty. Where is the alternative model? Certainly NOT in most of our churches, synagogues and mosques.  Bass is right (as was Joseph Campbell before her) in noting that religion is so complicit in the global violence of this era that we have been disqualified from any significant public role. People have voted with their feet and taken their hearts and minds with them. To my way of thinking, those of us attempting to live into the call of the Spirit, must recognize that we have to earn the right to be heard. We must saturate our words and actions in compassion so that a track record that is objectively observable in the marketplace can be considered. And we're no where close to having earned the right to be heard again.  Like David Crosby sang:  it's been a long time coming, gonna be a long, long time gone.

+ Second, given this reality in the West, our work also includes showing
contemporary people how life has value and hope before death. No one in our world - that is, the world of Western culture and history - is worrying about life after death. Most of us in the post-Twin Towers realm want to know if there is meaning BEFORE our lives are over. As Bass notes, you can see the confusion, fear and despair in our art just as this was clear in the culture of post WWI and the Holocaust. 

Think what you like of Paul Tillich's sins - and he could be cruel in some ugly ways - he was also brilliant in observing that the Spirit of God was at work in the artists of his day. Indeed, he was so bold as to say that the Spirit of God had vacated the churches of post-WWI Germany because they were obsessed with sentimentality and nationalism. Not so in the music and visual art that gave birth to abstract expressionism. Much of contemporary visual art in this generation is flirting with beauty - a long forgotten virtue - that speaks to our inner emptiness. This is a clue about how to nurture meaning and hope in the 21st century. Beauty evokes awe - an experience that the marketplace has squeezed out of everyday considerations - but which is an essential ingredient in identifying real passion and authentic compassion.

+ And third, this moment in time invites us to reclaim the value of community after three generations of rugged and obsessive individualism. And not phony or forced community that demands membership and rules and dues. No, the simple table fellowship of Jesus will do very nicely. An open table where there is a place for everybody and the whole party is eager to hear your unique and important story. The time has come for religious bodies to practice lots more feasting where story-telling is at the core not doctrinal minutiae. Group singing, too is a lost art in the West, but it can teach us so much about listening as well as trusting and sharing. Just an encounter with creating harmony is a lesson that cuts deeper - with gentle beauty - than almost anything the marketplace currently offers - Disneyland included.

Rilke described our dilemma through the lens of his own generation in this poem that continues to shape and haunt me.

sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

Last night, after I finally went to bed, I finished Paul Harding's new novel, Enon. Not coincidentally, I had just watched the movie version of The Book Thief (from Markus Zuzak's novel of the same name.) Both books - and the film - explore something of our culture's soul at this moment in history:I see it as a deep and crippling grief writ large that we are confused about embracing. We avoid grief, we self-medicate against it, we scapegoat and distract ourselves with foreign enemies (real and imagined) to avoid paying attention to our own sorrow and shame. Nevertheless, we are still shadow-boxing with the world of our fears rather than spending time grieving and being liberated by the Spirit.

Sadly, most of our churches (I don't know about our synagogues and mosques) stink at mourning. We rush through everything in a sanitized way then expect our people to get back to business three days later. Look, that was ok for Jesus after HIS death, but most of us need years to figure out what has changed. Thomas Lynch, a poet undertaker, has written insightfully and ironically about grief and death.

Yeats said to Olivia Shakespeare that the only subjects that should be compelling to a studious mind are sex and death. Those are the bookends. And think of it, what else do we think of, what else is there besides that? “I think most people drive around all day being vexed by images of mortality and vitality. All they’re wondering about is how they’re going to die and who they’re going to sleep with, or variations on that theme—what job they’re going to have, whether they’re tall enough or skinny enough or short enough or smart enough or fast enough or make enough money, and all of it plays into these two bookends.

There are clues all over the place that we are ungrounded, filled with fear and terrified to grieve. We turn even the slightest disagreement into a contest where someone has to emerge as a winner. To which I suggest the road less traveled - the way of Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer, the way of Robinson, Bass and Lynch, the way of our modern shamans making the music of faith, hope and love - and the way of silence and listening, the way of music and beauty. Because if your only tool is a hammer, everyone will look like a nail - and there are too many people hurting to whack them again.


Peter said…
This is very powerful, and very true.
RJ said…
Thank you, my man!

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