Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Letting Other People Be Other People

There is an excellent interview with former priest turned writer and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll in today’s Buzzflash. The interview focuses on the making of his book Constantine’s Sword into a documentary soon to be released. But along the way, he makes several pointed comments I’d like to consider.

His first comments concern his role as what he calls “a critical Catholic,” a description with which I strongly resonate:

Christianity, including Catholicism, is ambiguous and ambivalent - working for peace and justice on the one hand (The Catholic Church is the largest NGO in the world, doing good without strings attached all over the world), and reinforcing chauvinistic and imperialist attitudes on the other (Christians have sponsored some of the most violent wars in history, and the Church did too little to oppose Hitler). But this ambivalence is true of every religion - and every human institution for that matter. (America is a militarist empire and a source of liberal democracy both.) Indeed, such ambivalence characterizes every person. None of us is pure. I value my religious tradition most for the way it includes principles of its own self-criticism. If I am a critical Catholic, it is because the Church has taught me to be that way.

Christians who are not critical of their own faith traditions merit the less than charitable description some of my more cynical undergrads use to describe them: sheep. This is hardly to suggest that we should denigrate people of faith who are fervent in their beliefs and devout in their practice. It’s simply to suggest that an uncritical faith is also a blind faith. And blindness in regards to institutions with enormous power and influence historically is dangerous.

The line that struck me in this segment, however, is the reminder that “[n]one of us is pure...this ambivalence is true of every religion – and every human institution….Indeed, such ambivalence characterizes every person.” This is an understanding I have come to share with Carroll but only in mid-life. I would assess much of my earlier life as focused on eros as opposed to thanatos, to quote Fromm. I have been willing to see the optimistic half-full glass of human potential while ignoring the shadow that Jung warns of. I have assessed those Hobbesian and Machiavellian spirits I have encountered as deluded and unwilling to see the whole picture even as I have repressed the evidence of human ambiguity of spirit.

Where I find myself today is coming to grips with my own shadow. One of the things I learned from my juvenile clients is that all of us – including myself – are capable of any of the things they had done, up to and including murder. I found myself declaring this truth aloud one day – “If someone harmed my sweet mother, I’d hunt them down and kill them myself.” I was shocked by the anger and hatred this statement evidenced. It came at a point when my mother was beginning her decline which culminated in her death from cancer two years ago. So, the protectiveness was understandable. But it also forced me to see what the Hobbesians have long preached – that all human beings have a shadow side that must be taken seriously. We're all mixed bags on a good day and thus our institutions will reflect that.

Carroll’s interview also included this line in comments about the fundamentalist Protestant takeover of the US Air Force Academy during the 1990s: “Christian fundamentalists have their rights, too - but not to exert the power of the state to advance their agenda.” This is an important point. It brings into juxtaposition the First Amendment civil liberties both to freely exercise one’s religion as well as to be free from its imposition through state power. That is an essential concern in contexts like the military service which begins with a restricted if not coercive paradigm.

But it’s also important in a broader sense when considering issues like the currently proposed Amendment 2 to the Florida state constitution. Amendment 2 would not only prohibit gay marriages in Florida or the recognition of other states’ gay marriages, it would also prevent any kind of civil unions or recognition of domestic partner benefits. Ironically, while supposedly designed to protect heterosexual privilege in the form of an exclusive definition of marriage, it also would prohibit heterosexual cohabitation rights, most of them involving elderly people who don’t get married because of loss of pension rights, from being recognized.

This is the place where the line is crossed – the imposition of the fundamentalist vision on the populace at large through the aegis of state power. DeTocqueville would have called it the tyranny of the majority. Islamic fundamentalists would simply call it an expectable application of sharia law. Carroll is right here: Christian fundamentalists must have their rights respected but such rights do not extend to the shaping of the whole of society to their narrow visions.

Finally, Carroll observes the following about the perceived need to proselytize:

Believers feel an urge to convert others - and call it God's will - because they are uncertain in what they believe. That is clear in relation to the old Christian impulse to convert Jews - because Jewish rejection of Christian claims is profoundly threatening to Christians. This was an ancient Catholic impulse, and reached a climax with the Crusades. Protestants continued it, with a kind of climax in the missionizing of European colonialism. But in the contemporary world more and more believers recognize that tolerance and mutual respect for others requires an abandonment of assertive convert-making. Let other people be other people.

Here I would take a slight exception to his understanding. It's probably not that easy.

It is my observation that the impulse to evangelize is often the strongest among those whose religious claims are the most extreme and thus the most untenable. The cognitive dissonance theory of Leon Festinger would readily explain that phenomenon: the more one invests themselves publicly in beliefs which run counter to the reality one experiences, the more cognitive dissonance is generated and thus the greater the need to shore up one's belief system.

So, on the one hand, I might question whether this urge to convert others is generically applicable to believers generally or whether it might be more readily applicable to believers whose faith systems lend themselves to insecurity in the face of widespread rejection of their tenets. In other words, the more incredible the belief system, the greater the need to convert others given that the more one can find to affirm one’s beliefs, the easier the beliefs are to maintain.

On the other hand, I wonder if the "believers of the contemporary world" really have the luxury of being as cavalier as Carroll suggests here. Do not misunderstand me: I strongly agree that “tolerance and mutual respect for others requires an abandonment of assertive convert-making.” I am more than happy to share my views and to argue for their acceptance and listen to the views of others. And I am willing to reconsider my views in light of what others offer. But I do not feel the need for others to agree with me to hold the beliefs I find compelling. I do not pretend to have all the answers and readily reject the assertions of those who say they do. And one tenet of my own minimal, informal creed is well represented by Carroll’s restatement of the Golden Rule here: “Let other people be other people.”

But I wonder if it is that easy. It is my observation that many human beings come to religions, particularly conservative versions of them, precisely because they do NOT want to “Let other people be other people.” Such a vision is too airy and roomy for the fundamentalists such as those at the USAF Academy. It doesn’t have enough sharply defined boundaries and corners for folks like my brother and sister-in-law. In short, it simply cannot provide enough security for those who have come to religion for precisely that reason.

The work of Ken Wilber is informative here. Human beings function at various stages of spiritual, ethical and moral development. There is an inclination for people whose primary functioning level is post-conventional to show little patience for those functioning at tribal conventional levels such as fundamentalists. There is a tendency to say to them, “Oh, come on, grow up. I did, you can, too, if you just try.” At some level, I have been guilty of such thinking myself.

But, of course, that’s not how it works. And developmentalists from Kohlberg to Wilber all remind us that lower stages of functioning are absolutely necessary – without growing through them, no one develops to higher stages. And many will come to rest in conventional stages for their primary functioning paradigm.

This is where Carroll’s second point above - “Christian fundamentalists have their rights, too - but not to exert the power of the state to advance their agenda” – is critical. A society which permits its tribal conventional contingent to set the agenda for the entire society is by definition headed for tyranny. While conservative religious leaders should never be forced to perform same-sex marriages if they object on religious grounds, conversely they should not be permitted to enforce their personal objections on an entire state through the power of the state constitution.

If we are to truly “Let other people be other people” we must neither err on the side of leaving conservative religious people no boxes with sharply defined corners and walls in which to find security nor expand their boxes to encompass all of a society. It’s a tough balancing act on a good day.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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