Monday, December 25, 2017

“Religion” We Can Live With: An Essay on Belief and the Impossible

I was born to believe and I’ve spent my life trying that on. It’s not for lack of trying but I’m a believer in nothing supernatural. And I’d rather not quibble over what “supernatural” means either. I won’t substitute either a belief in humans or some claim to the goodness of humanity. What’s important about belief is that we need it, like the air we breathe, just to do the next thing, however ordinary or sublime. Belief is the task of reckoning with what comes next. Belief is how we address the possible, for better and worse.

Now, if there is anything left of “belief” by the time I am done with this, it will be that belief needs strange company to do its job, to perform the tasks of making do. That companion is religion, which when I am done with that, will be nothing more than reckoning with the impossible.

As a religion professor I think about what “religion” means all the time. I cringe just to say that about myself, or even confess to my chosen profession. I’m often embarrassed to say that I am a University Professor of Religion. Truth is, religion and the professing part chose me and I’m usually none too happy about either of those things. When we are really lucky in life we not only do the thing we need to do, we find a way to make a living doing it.

I used to defend religion as a subject, the one that can be our catch-all for all that is culture--- the place to study art and music, history and language, the refuge for a humanist who wants all that philosophy, politics, and human reflection can create. Add into the mix the irrational, the indirect, the mythic, poetic, and the pageantry of ritual, consider how the truths of feeling write over reason at every turn, and there you have it, a subject to embrace for its humanist possibilities. I still make that argument when I need either to defend my place in a humanities curriculum or console myself for a lifetime of choices. But nearly all of that is apologetics, self-consolation, mere rationalization. Religions deserve no excuse, certainly warrant no privilege or exemption, and still we must study them.

No sane person can dismiss religion’s role in oppression and horror and, more occasionally, in altruism and beauty. And given the fact that nearly everything about religious belief that is not art and imagination invites charlatanism, absents seriousness, and calls upon stupidity, we are all left wondering how to collect ourselves, where to put the stories that endure past the individual memories that possess them. We can say we are socialized with religions but that is something we can study too. We need nothing from religions to be moral, however much we need to learn how to be moral to be human. We long for irrefragable values or principles to guide us, but however we take a stand for more enduring truths, our most noble confessions serve us better as ideals and beacons. It is the power of questions over answers that will occasionally save religion from itself.

Let me pose the matter in more candid, even less romantic terms. If we can make religion a question, I would make it this: how can humans create more than cruelties of self-interest? Religion may offer ideas, even examples, but humans prefer to reject the tawdry facts of power and the criticism that must follow from honest questions. We instead prefer to look for immaculate answers and tell ourselves there is a plan, a mystery, an anything to console the pain or justify the unjustifiable. We must find room to celebrate and illumine hope because without those things, well, we know what will happen without those things. Life needs to celebrate life, not merely endure its tragedies.

It’s taken me nearly a whole life--- and my entire professional life--- to realize ‘religion’ is not my favored subject, at least not “religion” by any conventional definition and all of the historical unraveling of the strange human phenomena it features. My subject preferred subject is our humanity, with a special turn towards thinking about the impossible. For just one moment, maybe even just here, I want “religion” to mean the entirely human pursuit of holding the world together. We do this with words and art, with ideas, values, with the collective power of institutions, the unconscious, and the longing for life and liberty. We want a world that holds together, and if that is the meaning of “religion” then we’re on firm ground. That definition would take us back to the etymology of the word “religion” itself but we need not digress there.

This holding the world together is something we do all the time; something we need to do no matter how we acknowledge it or pursuit it unwittingly. That historical religions have been dishonest in offering serious answers about ‘holding together the world’ is a feature of power, not an absence of human imagination. There is phrase in the Gita that makes this idea I am calling “religion” plain; it’s actually a simple compound in Sanskrit, lokasamgraha. Literally it means “grasp together the world.”

“Holding the world together” is what Krishna says when he is asked why he acts at all. Yeats knew too the fact we all know: the center cannot hold. The Buddhists made it the very feat of liberation to release into that void, claiming there was never a need to hold on to anything at all. But no matter who we ask, we all know that we cannot hold the center, and neither can anything else. So I add here: not God or Buddha, certainly no self-proclaimed or, far worse, declared to be saint. Our more human task is the impossible, and that is something I can embrace, something I can believe in.

I can love the impossible not because it is someone or anything that can solve our problem or answer my question. Not because Krishna will save the day any better than anyone else. I can love the futility and abhor the hypocrisy of “love thy neighbor,” “may all men [sic] be created equal,” that we are “dedicated to a proposition,” you name it: a thing of beauty is a joy forever. The list goes on, doesn’t it?

I can love the impossible because I can also reject the implausible ---may that I walk on water, find the god to save me, be freed from suffering and all beings be happy. If that can’t happen then I can go about the more dangerous business of admitting to the terms of a shared humanity. We aspire to what cannot be and are better for it, or we can be better for it if that is what we aspire to be.

We can seek a humanity that knows love is always imperfect, knowledge always provisional, life’s conditions permit only human achievements and certain failures. I can’t achieve anything impossible, but I can believe in impossible things like freedom, life, the majesty of imagination, and the consolations of human touch. Our human arc towards the impossible sometimes touches greatness but that greatness fails to be perfect, or just fails, does not dishearten me. To love the impossible tells us we can be more than our cruel self-interest, however flawed we might be for the trying, however the center does not hold. We are not going to be free when we know that and nothing special is going to happen; we gain no privilege when we create impossible beliefs, but we might gain a few reasons to love life. We are going to have to try, no matter what, until we can no longer. When we give up on the impossible that serves self-delusion and cruelty, the impossible that is left is worth our hope and every effort.

Religion has created all the worst impossibilities and yet features the impossible as its most important claim. To study the impossible is to ask what is worth living for and how we might hold this world together when we know that will not last. To study those impossibilities is to examine human folly in the midst of great creativity, aspiration, from inside a heart aspiring to decency and goodness. People have always used religion to hold their center, which is another way of saying that whatever we use to hold our center is our religion. However that may be too loaded, too uncomfortable a definition because of all the things religion already is. But we can still say the impossible matters in human life. I revel in the impossible task that claims this being born human is a wonder and a chance to savor what is possible by seeking what rages and burns, what soothes and consoles, all that engages and inspires us to revel in the impossible.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Moving Aside and Moving Forward: The Rot vs. The Circular Firing Squad

Today's one screed is brought to you by multiple editorials in the WaPo, NYT, etc., all inspired by Righties embarrassed but not enough by being Republicans. They are still wrong. The Left, meh. Not a winner. You needn't read further if you just came for the 411.

As a kid I thought the best version of the Star Spangled Banner was Hendrix, the best version of a politician was Bobby Kennedy and Shirley Chisholm, that a judge should think like Thurgood Marshall, and then much later than that Presidents could look like Barack Obama. Everything, and I mean everything, that those leaders thought should be the future is under threat, being rolled back, or destroyed.

As soon as we stereotype we lose the difference between a likely demographic, which has documentable features that can point to expected patterns of behavior, and incipient bigotries, blanket condemnations. I submit that the Left is just as likely to fail to make this distinction as the Right. Substitute the stereotype for the demographic and there's any easy choice that is, in truth, not going to prove helpful. (Let's use "Left" and "Right" rather loosely enough, okay?)

On the Left there are substantive differences in viewpoints and policies. Or are there? There are certainly other kinds of real difference in terms of age, culture, ethnicity, etc. There are substantive differences no matter what leadership thinks or what people want. The Left is likely to shoot its dissenters. On the Right there is in both substance and fact no important differences--- I will return to this point. The Right in America is white, older, and almost all members of the same religion (or that weird other thing that makes evangelicals put Israeli flags next to their Confederate flags--- I have -seen- this where I live.)

But first, Lefties might have some spectrum of economics and different priorities based on ideological, even ethical views. For example, on the death penalty or 2nd Amendment rights, people inclined to vote for the Left may have substantive differences. Lefty leadership might want to think twice or more about imposing litmus and purity tests or it can be happy to stay in the powerless wilderness with their principles intact. I am not sanguine about any Left leadership. I am an anachronism. Bobby, Thurgood, and Hendrix are dead. Obama can't help us because the Right had an effective plan to render him largely ineffective. They succeeded, for the most part, because he failed to rally the Left and the Left failed to make its case. Left leadership coming up the ranks seems to me, well, just as lost but I am willing to concede any role to them. Let them try. Personally, I'm on to do the last 15 years of my own work.

Much of the criticism of the Right about Lefties silencing and censorship, purity tests and branding whole groups as enemies has at least some merit. What they say about academia may be exaggerated, often silly, but it is not entirely wrong. I work there and there's plenty of ideological loyalty standards for someone to be in or out. It's not a friendly place unless you're on one and the same bus. Righties are, however, far, far worse hypocrites. I choose the lesser of two weevils.

When David Brooks, Scarborough, Gerson, Rubin, Wehner, along with Flake and Corker and Collins lament the fate of the Republican Party's turn to Trumpism, they all fail to acknowledge their complicity and hypocrisy. They did this. They cheered the Tea Party and the white nationalists until it just got to be too ugly. If the faces of those fanatics were just slightly less ugly, they would still be cheering. The real issue is that they are not _substantively_ different. All Alabama had to do was put up one of their candidates ---whose Senate votes would be just as regressive, driven by oligarchs, and proven failed policies-- and they would have won in a landslide. There is no _effective_ difference between Roy Moore and Luther Strange and Mitch McConnell and the rest of them know this.

Right policies are anachronistic, failed (think e.g., trickledown), and worst of all willingly and shamelessly imposed on the majority. They are also racist and sexist and that will eventually hurt them more than it does now. They have created non-majoritarian rule, not governance based on compromise, and there is nothing about any revision to the Republican Party that will change that. How many pro-choice Republicans are there?

In contrast there actually are on the Left views about abortion that offer some shades of difference. Interestingly, the Left is more libertarian than the Right, move live and let live. Or is it? But that's another argument. I'm not trying to argue a position here, I'm merely pointing out that Republican/Right _rot_ is entire, that there is nothing _at all_ about the Right that allows the rest of us, the majority, any room. The question is: will the Left make room for difference, the difference it claims to represent?

The issue I see is twofold. Democrats are the only hope for the republic's _survival_ since Republicans seek the End Times. Lefties who fail to acknowledge how the system works will, as usual, fail. Will they lead with shades of ideological difference? A real inclusive that means a "middle"? This means the Left has to find room for more points of view _or_ it can just become the Not The Right party. Divided we stand? That could work for now. I think the Right might force this position and they will still lose because they are extremists and the majority knows this.

But for Democrats to win and be _for_ something, they are going to have to take that big tent of their coalitions and try to avoid the circular firing squad routine. So far, they have not shown me they can do that. So I am not yet for Democrats, I am just wholly opposed to Republicans. That might be enough to get me through the bonus period of life. The future is up for grabs.

Friday, December 1, 2017

It's About the Feeling of "Us"

As the facts roll out about the impact of the tax bill we, the rational doing the math and, dare I say, secular wonder how is it that Trump voters swallow this toxic swill. Let's assume for a moment that they believed his populist backlash message: that elites had failed to deliver and that the vast swath of white working class America that has fallen hopelessly behind the curve of education, jobs, health, and well-being would get relief. Let's also believe that HRC represented all of that elitism, topped off with Obama's fast-paced social changes, like marriage equality and DACA. Hmmm, we're getting closer to their populism but now that is failing them too. This bill is nothing like the populist promises, so why still support him?

Now that the plutocratic shift of wealth from the lower and middle classes is on the verge of passing the Senate, a wishlist conforming to Ryan's Ayn Randism and McConnell's Kochism, let's assume too that Trump voters recognize this for what it is. Let's also assume that they understand this is _not_ the populism of jobs and economics that will in fact benefit them and is not what Trump ran on. Has Trump turned their backs on them? Why of course he has but from our point of view this is because Trump has no policies or convictions, he has only the desire for self approval. His malignant narcissism coupled with intellectual inadequacies and moral vacuity seem self-evident to us. But the Republicans in Washington know this too. They know he is sick and incompetent but they don't care. They want a tax bill and the culture wars that push back in the courts against women, minorities, religion, and the rest. Norquist was right: Ryan/McConnell really are happy with _anyone__ who will simply sign their tax giveaway, at any cost, no matter _who_ that person is, how inept or corrupt. The rest of the culture war is a distant second to the money but it's there too. And on this second point Trump is with them, just think Gorsuch.

So the question remains why is Trump still solid with his base when the polls tell us that the Republican tax bill is not popular? There are two immediate things that come to mind and neither of them has to do with the math.

First, Republicans evince a strong need for authoritarianism. This explains their religious preferences and claims, their confirmation biases, and the ways they look to God the Father to be safe, right, and in charge. In Trump they have a dissimulation of that need and a preference met. He may be an inept, erratic narcissist but they will assert he is crazy like a fox, that he _really_ knows, and that the rest is facade or mystery. Just like their, umm, mysterious God who is charge of the weather, consoles horror, and has a plan for the victims of the next mass shooting. It's all in God's gracious hands. So most of all he is Papa Bear, and Republicans love their patriarchy because their religion reflects their deep need for authority and security. The world is chaos, evil, filled with villains and warrants more guns but we also need a God in charge who will cut through all and any of it "to tell it like it is." If they need strongly redolent authority why not go for a whiff of cool Obama, who after all epitomizes, at least for many of us, the calm, sober, not always right but always measured authority. This leads us to the second point.

Republicans who do not fancy themselves _very_ religious or racist--- think of exurb, suburb types in your family--- believe they have _earned_ their way in the capitalist system. Obama did not, he's a phony, got a boost, didn't really serve his time, and advanced by privileges given, not earned--- this is not far from the surface of their feelings. No arguments about structural or systemic disadvantage, like racism, patriarchy, or their own privilege cuts through the idea that they got theirs by their own hard work. Now we can re-invoke the power of tribalism, which of course is redolent with racism and privilege no matter how much one denies it. It's got two sides, first, "we" need to "protect" what "we earned" and "they" want it and "are coming" for it.
Build a wall, get your guns, put up blue-lined American flags, and make sure that those rich athletes "respect" the system that pays them so well. It just so happens that those "takers" are brown, it's not racism, right?

Second, "they" are getting undo, unearned privileges (like wedding cakes, welfare, immigrant status, etc.) that "they" don't deserve because they didn't "earn" it "like we did." Their interest is _to protect_ what's "mine" and to see "them" not as "takers." The Romneyn/Rya's takers/makers came through abundantly, clearly, and without "political correctness" in Trump. It's ugly, structurally racist and privileged but that neither matters to them nor will it penetrate their fear, their need for acknowledged worth ("we earned it..."), or their sense of "mine." Get off my lawn has become if "you" come on my lawn I will shoot you.

None of this is a long a step from a family relative, friend, or acquaintance that doesn't think she or he is racist or paranoid because they look out at America and nearly everything about it is deeply unfamiliar: fast technologies (older and undereducated people hate this), more diverse (the neighborhood isn't "safe" because it's not like me), and their jobs are obsolete, everything is _more_ complicated and that's now government's fault. If they are relatively well off, well, that is under threat because government is for everyone but "us." If all of these things would just be simpler or go away, everything would "go back" to "normal." That 99% of these folks are white, likely more religious (or authoritarian) than the rest of us, and don't live in diverse places tells them nothing about themselves no matter how much it tells us.

Authoritarianism and Tribalism can't survive without racism, sexism, and structural privilege but these feelings of disenfranchisement and cultural change also create a kind of plausible deniability of those facts. Think of how uber-religious conservatives like Ross Douthat of the Times argues that he doesn't believe Trump voters are principally racist. The argument we just made describes this mentality. Ross loves the Church of Big Hats telling women what to do with their bodies and promising morality and an afterlife. Let's leave the patriarchy, pedophilia, and manipulation out of it for a moment. It's about feeling safe in an unsafe world and this is how people cope and console themselves. But now we are at true turning point, politically and morally.

It doesn't matter how these authoritarian and tribal needs translate into this Trumpian populism. Trump is shamelessly, blatantly racist and unrepentantly guilty of sexual assault. To continue in any way to support him for _any_ reason is to be wholly complicit in these worst failures of human character. It is to be part of the worst arcs of history and failures of humanity. Does supporting a racist and abuser make you one? Are Trump's voters who insist this is not racism racists? At this point and at best it makes them complicit, it diminishes character, and puts them in the worst company ---and in all of those ways, one becomes part of the problem socially and culturally just as one's own character and integrity is fundamentally failing the tests of decency. Whether they acknowledge their racism and sexism, they are part of it and are morally culpable for complicity.

Trump voters will not give up on him though they are failing these simple tests of human association because they want what they want _more_ than their character. For the rich, that's more wealth, the kleptocracy; for the rest of them, it's culture wars by any other name over their own financial interests. For our part it is important not to underestimate the power of culture over people's choices and how self-affirming the tribe is when one's character is called into question. Ask the voters of Alabama. America the Tribal explains more than dollars or sense. Our tribe is not theirs because our needs and our hopes are not the same.