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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"Being Right" as religion

I think of this as reaping the whirlwind of the Enlightenment. 

Cardinal Sveum discusses a nuanced theological point with a faculty member
at the American College.
They say you recognize the faults in other people because they are a mirror in which you see yourself, for better or worse. I am a cradle Catholic, raised on the Baltimore catechism (I went to public school until the fifth grade, and the catechism was a staple of the CCD), I loved learning, and my parents were insistent that I work hard and get good grades. The way we were taught was that for questions there were answers. There was the occasional Thomistic modesty, acknowledging the ultimate unknowability of God, but there was also a lot of hubris related to knowing the “right answers” to questions we hadn’t even thought of yet along the way. I was on the debate team for four years in high school. Politics was a polemical issue in the Vietnam and Nixon years especially, went into hiding during the administrations of the avuncular if murderous Reagan and Bush One eras, then came out of the closet for the rollercoaster of Clinton and descent into hell of Bush Two. What has gone on since then makes polemics seem old-fashioned and polite, and the internet's obsession with the anonymous poison of "comments" bears no relationship at all to genuine human discourse.

Church politics has hardly been less cacophonous, as the debate over worthy ritual has raged since the Council in the mid-sixties, and the ancillary debate about music has rocked on the pendulum while that half-century long clock has ticked. Church-state issues, the morality of sexual and reproductive issues (the fact that I would separate those two into different issues!), issues of authority, all of these have generated as much or more disputation as liturgy. Meanwhile, the internet has added as much heat as light to the fire, making it possible for wild and baseless disinformation to be spread around the world at the speed of light, while it has also made access to actual news, research, and responsible opinion democratically available as well.

The thing that occurs to me about all this is that in the area of religion especially (but certainly not exclusively) values like equality, dialogue, the ineffability of the divine, loving one’s enemies, consensus, common good, general welfare (pick your platitude), they all go by the wayside during a disagreement on principle. What has emerged in our culture of relativism is that there are no objective criteria for evaluating the relative worth of arguments. The individual, and therefore the opinion, is the first authority. Talking heads from Limbaugh to Carville spin the truth (when they bother to check their facts) and the noise begins. Catholic blogs from left to right, citing chapter and verse of the Bible, the Fathers, the Councils, and the liturgy demonize those with points of view divergent from their own. 

To me, in other words, we’ve lost the object of the quest, whatever that might be - intimacy with the divine, a community of mutuality and equality, to create a “more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, secure the blessings of liberty,” (pick your platitude) - and instead substituted being right as the object of the quest. It’s being right that we’re willing to fight (and die?) for, and not for the more elusive subjects of the quest. The ultimate arbiter of truth is, well, me, the individual, and in the world of the internet and soundbyte, opinion is the same as fact. Whoever is still standing at the end of the shouting match is the winner.

Being right has become a substitute for religion. It’s being right, in our own minds and to our own way of thinking, that gives meaning to our lives, not achieving consensus or grappling with other people’s perception of truth. And there’s no legitimate challenge to our perception of our rightness unless we have a personal encounter with a more persuasive truth; it’s not good enough that another has already had the experience, I have to have it for it to be valid. It’s as if, in order to ascertain the murder is wrong, I have to kill someone to be sure. This is the ultimate victory of the Enlightenment and modernism. Now, not even science matters, unless it’s my science, or the science of people who agree with me. It’s possible for a government to deny the Holocaust, or global warming, or to posit the existence of fictitious weapons of mass destruction, or for a church to know that homosexuality is objectively disordered or that life begins at conception without consulting anyone who has actually studied these things, or has had any experience with them. We are in global denial about the experience of other people, and feel it’s all right to believe whatever we want to believe about anything.

Which is where the gospel comes in, and it seems to be where there is no substitute for the gospel of St. Francis. He told his little community to preach the gospel, and when necessary, to use words. The only way for the gospel to have a chance of taking root in people’s hearts in a shouting, subjectivist culture like our own is to do the gospel, and that’s the way it’s always been. Dominic Crossan wrote a book a few years ago entitled God and Empire, in which he describes the milieu into which Jesus was born and in which the Jesus movement blossomed during the first century CE. In the pre-enlightenment world, he says, the fact that a god might have been born as a man, or walked on water, or was raised from the dead might have generated some interest, but the question at the heart of the listener would be, “Yes, but what good does that do me, here in the heart of Roman Empire. I know what Caesar can do, I have experience of what the pax romana is. How is your god any better than he, who is also named Savior of the World and Prince of Peace?” After a brief word of evangelization, or maybe without it, the apostle might invite the hearer to a meeting with other Christians, where the person might discover a community of mutuality, of shared possession, where no one went hungry while others had more than they needed. An experience of a Christian community at work was an experience of the gospel, and the way that Christ and the message of Jesus spread across the Mediterranean and outward. 

It’s just this kind of evangelization that’s needed today to heal the kind of tyranny of the ego that masquerades as dialogue. The center has been lost. There is no common sense of the divine, there is no general understanding of the common good or any altruistic instinct left in us. I think the best we can hope for is to talk gently to each other, strive for consensus in our parish communities, and act with vigor and integrity on behalf of those who are without a voice and without power in our society.

Chances are, this will be perceived as Being Wrong, which is the antichrist in the religion of rightness. But it seems to me we’ll be in good company with Christ, the incarnation of a god who cared so little for being completely right (what else can god be?) that he emptied godness out and became a fallible human being like us. Being right did him little good either, and eventually he went to his death in silence. But even at that, he is the image of the invisible God, the manifestation of the paschal mystery of divine agape made flesh. We Christians have a God who doesn’t seem to care about being right as much as about loving, creating, healing, feeding, affirming. To me, captain of the high school debate team who took political science at DePaul in 1972 using Mike Royko’s book Boss as a textbook, that sounds like the music of liberation.


  1. I gave up being right for Lent one year. Let it suffice to say, that it was one of the hardest Lents ever... and I did not exactly live up to what I wanted to do. *sigh*

    Thanks always for this wisdom, of which your blog is a font of!

    1. Hi Fran, I know what you mean. I'm not even sure it's possible, as "not caring about being right" becomes "being right," and then where are we? And it's SO hard just to shut up. Sigh.