It occurred to me from my last post, that I (and other commentators), were starting from differing cultural and philosophical premises. A short historical summary of these premises is in order.
First there is the older, conservative notion of a society organized around hierarchical hereditary or “divinely-appointed” leadership. Here a society’s individuals vest their wills in a collective guided or managed by charismatic supernaturally “chosen” authorities and transmitted through, for instance, monarchies and institutions like the Catholic Church. Tending toward autocratic rule by its very nature (and possibly theocracy if the autocrat is “speaking for God”) this notion responds to threats to survival and fears of change by replying, “If only you listen to me, I will lead you, I will protect you from physical harm, I will give you meaning.” An excellent example is the Grand Inquisitor narrative in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov.
No one in the WAAGNFNP conversation really seems to support this premise, though I think that some aspects of conservative and/or classical thought ought to be preserved and taken up—honor, tradition, antiquity, ritual, virtue, etc.—in order to acknowledge our accountability to our own history and those who have gone before. In this sense, I am part “old school” conservative. However, I realize the danger of the conservative premise is real. It is a surprisingly small and fatal set of steps that may lead one from speaking WITH God, to speaking FOR God, to finally simply believing one IS God, infallible, chosen, and superior to the humanity.
Second, there is the innovative liberal Enlightenment response. Primarily this arose in response to the former conservative prerogative. When belief in godly certainty and inherent authority are mixed with unacknowledged imperfections of the human condition, abuse is almost certain to follow. Once one proclaims oneself infallible as a leader of any order, it is a short step to “l’etat c’est mois” (“the state is me”) of the French monarchs, Divine Right of Kings, search and seizure, assault on human dignity, criminal neglect, and so forth. So to challenge this conservative abuse, a liberal notion comes into being: natural rights invested in individual people both accessed and adjudicated through Reason. Voila! Access to God is democratized, and so is access to governance. Individual free will reigns supreme, and one’s reciprocal support for society becomes the product of “enlightened self-interest,” realizing that the rights and welfare of others ought to (and indeed “have to”) be respected in order to exert and enjoy one’s own life choices. This largely makes sense to me, and to the degree that liberal thought has provided a protection against tyranny and provides for the general welfare, I am partly an “old school” liberal.
In this concept, law is built not on the arbitrary pronouncement of a supernaturally “chosen” leader, but upon the notion of Contract which mediates the “natural” rights of people to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, to “liberte, egalite, fraternite” (liberty, equality, brotherhood)… and separation of church and state. And so the foundations for the modern secular society is laid. Don’t step on my toes, and I won’t step on yours, and any connection we have is an agreement mediated by law to stop possible abuses of trust when trust is needed. There are many aspects of this outgrowth, from the basic ennobling of the individual, that I find inadequate and even self-defeating, and I will explain why later on in this post.
Third, there is what might loosely be called the “progressive” move, a major historical, social, and personal shift emerging right now as a response, not to a negative, but from a kind of “affirmative,” from our growing human interconnectedness (global, social, economic, cultural, cybernetic, consciousness, etc.). This is, at present, not well understood because we are in the middle of it. I find this paradigm the most intriguing, and when I try to articulate a “progressive” Christianity I attempt to do so from this location, as a “new school” progressive.
Both conservative and liberal paradigms I have described are unequal to this new emergence of the age of interconnection for at least two important reasons:
- One, both conservative and liberal paradigms were essentially formed in reaction to perceived threats, arising therefore from an origin substantially based in fear (hence more reactive and less creative in inception). The conservative premise derived much of its thrust out of fear for one’s physical survival, which led to a desire (in almost military fashion) to vest collective will in an individual authority, representing a “higher power” and/or embodying the power of the tribe. The liberal move, arose largely out of the fear of (and experience with) abuses of authoritarians. Liberals created a premise and movement that distributed and democratized control to protect individual autonomy.
- Two, both conservative and liberal paradigms continued to assume the individual person was the locus of power and meaning in organizing the world: respectively the autocratic leader and the informed citizen. The “universe” of comprehension is thus tied to personality, and not the “betweenness” and intersection of individuals, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” which is emerging as a locus of power and meaning in the post-industrial progressive era. Both conservative and liberal paradigms are still essential, in my opinion, (though not sufficient) because they deal with persistent historical threats. One does not usually have time to form a committee of consensus on the battlefield (though one hopes that military intelligence isn’t cooked), and one truly needs checks and balances and responsiveness from a citizenry if its choices are to be respected and enforced.
Though these paradigms may arguably be necessary, neither one (nor both taken together) is adequate, and pretense to the contrary actually invites new threats that undermine their legitimate protective functions. One can see this in the neo-conservative and neo-liberal failures. The neo-conservative romanticizes the past amid jarring changes and seeks to reestablish a paternalistic presence, which has combined the worst of traditional and modern dispositions, an unfettered desire for power and authority and a narcissistic refusal of accountability. This has exploded into such an orgy of corruption of time-honored democratic values in the Bush administration that one is compelled to call them anti-conservative. Meanwhile neo-liberals romanticize an American Dream (projected on to the entire globe) where every person can be upper middle-class if they just get the proper education, receive decent health care, and try real hard. Forgotten is the need for systematic critique and address of social and economic injustice, or even a passing understanding of the suicidal unsustainability of such an endeavor ecologically.
The progressive paradigm diverges in interesting ways from either the conservative or liberal, and I will try to describe it while avoiding tendency to romanticize its promise. One, it is fundamentally affirmative and creative in nature. Yes, it sees the gathering threat of global warming, but it is not ignoring it (like the conservatives) or simply advocating reduced consumption (like the liberals), but it is seeking technological, social, political, and cultural innovations that might address the root sources of the problems while expanding human capability and enjoyment. Two, this “human capability and enjoyment” is not centered on individual or the collective led by an individual, but rather in the active recognition of interdependence as the organizer of political and social realities and “interbeing” as the place of productive and creative spiritual value. Hence it is truly pluralist.
Religiously in a progressive paradigm, America is neither a “Christian nation” (one religion dominating, a la the conservatives), nor simply coexisting religions with a sprinkling of “interfaith” programs (a la liberalism), but itself the product of an interactive, and increasingly mutually-educating dynamic of different faiths engaging one another, deepening their own understanding and traditions, offering the affirmative spiritual knowledge and experience (what Christians call the “gospel”) in a spirit of generosity, and deeply receiving and informed by other traditions as part of the fabric of an American society which now sees enhancement of the individual and individual belief as co-creative with that of larger interactive social progress. My deepening and offering of my faith is an act of sharing, not a desire to coerce or convert, and my receiving of your larger faith (whether religious or purely areligious humanism or rationality). We may not connect necessarily, but our “interbeing” invites us into at least insight, possibility, and possible co-creation.
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