The Tryanny of Experience

17 03 2013


We live in an age when a person’s best authority is herself. What a poor and impoverished replacement that is for what used to count for authority: inherited wisdom, otherwise known as the giants on whose shoulders we stood in order to see farther. But in our hubris, we’ve jumped off their shoulders and claim to be able to see farther and know better, all from our vaulted perspective 6 inches off the ground.

Sure, there have always been things about our past (our traditions and elders) that we’ve needed to repudiate: slavery, the subjugation of women, child labor, bear baiting… But we’ve taken their whole system, all of their assumptions about the world and each other, both good and bad, and tossed it aside. We’ve reinvented the wheel and called it an improvement to ride around on square blocks. That’s the problem with progress… we always assume it means progress; or rather, that progress is always a good thing. Is the hydrogen bomb really an improvement over dynamite? Well, yes, in a way…

By elevating our own experience as the ultimate authority in matters of life and death, we’ve placed ourselves at the middle of the universe and essentially sacralized our perspectives. There is no room here for humility in this new order of things — the order of I (or should I say “i”?), and as a result, we have no claim to final authority, since your experience is your experience, and mine is mine, and whose going to gainsay anyone’s experience?

Well, I am. I’m not only going to gainsay your experience, I’m going to gainsay mine as well. Why? Because I’ve been paying attention the last 48 years of living, and if I’ve learned anything about human nature, starting with myself, it’s this: that much of the time we’re right about things, but almost an equal amount of time, we’re wrong, which means that at best, it’s a 50/50 proposition to hold ourselves up as an authority over much of anything terribly important. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. But here’s the zinger: those things that we stand the chance of being most wrong about are precisely those things that we hold most dear because they valorize our human proclivity for provincial thinking and denial, which is the second thing I’ve learned in my 48 years of paying attention: we live in denial much of the time in order to validate our own view of things, and we do all of this as a coping mechanism for the nihilism that we breathe in all round us.

And where does this leave us? That at the very places where we most need to have authorities outside of ourselves to give us perspective, we are least likely to avail ourselves of them. And so we take the wisdom of our ancestors and reform it to reflect our prejudices, and we fashion the religion and politics of our forefathers and mothers and mold them into our own biases and tastes. We change everything we believe to adjust to our experiences, never for a second thinking to ask ourselves whether our experiences themselves are open to other interpretations, or whether our experiences might actually be misleading. If this is the way I understand what’s happened to me, then by golly, that’s precisely what happened to me! Right?

Never was there a time so many of us trusted so unquestioningly our own personal view of things. Never was there a time our own personal view of things was so influenced by the deluded voices around us.

La la la la la la….


Politics as Bloodsport: Adrenaline Part II

25 02 2012

It used to be that what candidates thought actually mattered. I’m not suggesting that politicians were any smarter 40-50 years ago, but only that the electorate wasn’t as obsessed with Image. These days all a candidate needs is a lot of money and a healthy dose of good looks (which is why Romney will win the Republican nomination and Santorum will be second; and why George Washington and Abe Lincoln, if they were alive today and ran, wouldn’t even get past the Iowa Caucus). Given these two criteria, the third one seals the deal: conviction. The more firmly someone can stand on principles, the better. Forget whether those principles are morally defensible or ethically sound or socially wise or even economically viable. As long as a candidate believes something a lot, that’s all that matters in this increasingly dumbed-down electorate. And what do we get in return? A Confederacy of Dunces running for office using politics as verbal bloodsport. Think about it. If you can sufficiently demonize your opponent, you don’t have to concern yourself with being good. As long as someone else looks worse.

The idea of civility was long ago tossed to the side for the sake of political expediency, so that now politicians no longer debate, they just compete for sound-bite-of-the-evening awards. No wonder Huntsman dropped out. He was the only one of the Republicans worth a scintilla of serious consideration. But he realized, finally, that he was above all of this buffoonery. No room here for facile thinking and subtle distinctions, for careful negotiations. No real room here for actual, serious political dialogue. Politics has become nothing but a campaign for a catchy slogan. After all, we’ve learned to sustain ourselves entirely on pastry-thin soundbites, so why not? The most important criterion in politics now (after looks and money) is whether a politician has principles. But even Ferdinand Marcos had principles, they just weren’t very savory. Principles are like values. Everyone has them. Virtues, on the other hand… well, that’s for another post.

Meantime, the sheer adrenalin of all this political bluster clouds our ability to think and mucks with our aesthetic sensibilities. It changes what we think is beautiful ~ and true ~ and thus what is worthy of our attention. What’s beautiful and true are now whatever cause our adrenalin to spike. If we go to a museum and don’t have an epiphany, or see a movie and aren’t titillated or shocked out of our gourds, or watch a hockey game and no fights break out, or date someone and the “rush” dies down, or go to church and aren’t uplifted, or go to class and aren’t inspired, or have sex and don’t achieve orgasm, then something must be terribly wrong. We junkies feel cheated out of our fix.

But fear not, my fellow Americans, because the drug called politics is about to get like crack. And if our drug habit holds sway, we’ll get exactly what we deserve.

The Problem with Rick Santorum, Inc.

19 02 2012

Rick Santorum is among that curious breed of folk who profess a singularly conservative theology that happens to look nothing like the belief the Bible prescribes. Otherwise known as “neo-conservative evangelicals,” these people lay claim to true Christian belief and act as if they were the mouthpiece of such belief. The more secular public has, for the most part, taken them to represent the Church as a whole, even though much of the rest of the Christian world does not understand these folks to be anything near the representations of authentic Christian belief. There is an entire swath of Christianity, in fact, who considers itself “evangelical” in the sense that it takes Scripture to be the inspired word of God and believes that Jesus is who he said he was, and who, as a result, remains steadfastly committed to the poor and disenfranchised and who support political platforms that give voice to this commitment. But you rarely hear of these folk. Why? Because our position isn’t titillating, isn’t prone to being summed up in cleverly cynical one-liners, neither provokes the political frenzy that such hyper-patriotic malcontents as the Tea Party seem singularly committed to fomenting, nor bow to the political pressures of gender or race or sexual identity politics. Our position doesn’t sell newspapers, in other words, because it isn’t prone to soundbites.

Tricky Rick is in another conundrum altogether, however, in that he’s a Roman Catholic, which in the eyes of many evangelicals doesn’t even count for Christian. Many of my students, most of whom come from conservative evangelical backgrounds, are quite taken aback by my insistence that Catholics are every bit as much Christians as they are. Often, even among my Catholic students, there is this disingenuous distinction between “Catholic” and “Christian.” So Mr. Santorum finds himself in a bit of a double-bind, in that many of the very people he’s courting find it difficult to accept him as one of their own. I must confess to a bit of private glee when I think of how the Republican party, which fashions itself as the bastion of true Christianity and decent family values, must choose between a Mormon, a Catholic, and a man on his third marriage. Not that I hold any grudge against any of these monikers, but the irony is, many Republicans do.

In an article from Reuters, we learn that Santorum said “the Obama administration . . . . was using ‘political science’ in the debate about climate change” and that his “agenda is ‘not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.'” He was speaking to a crowd of Tea Party conservatives (natch).

I guess I’d like to know what theology Santorum’s positions are based on, because the more I read his position statements, the more convinced I am that it’s a disingenuous blending of equal parts Bible and American Constitution, and therein lies the problem. We learn from his website that Americans need:

“… a system of governance that promotes human flourishing, seeks the common good and maximizes personal liberty. . . . Our founders understood that man’s nature is inclined toward self and sin, and that no one person or institution should have the opportunity to consolidate power, lest the freedom of others be taken away.”

Now riddle me this, Mr. Santorum. If our founders understood that man’s nature is inclined toward self and sin (actually, Jefferson didn’t, but that’s another issue), how is it that maximizing personal liberty, which is code for deregulation in virtually every area of life, even remotely makes sense? Wouldn’t maximizing our freedoms, by definition, lead to greater sin? That’s certainly the position of Scripture, where God makes it clear that, left to our own devices, we humans are our worst enemies and must therefore live within a set of strict moral and ethical guidelines and bear one another’s burdens when we fall and hold one another accountable in the meantime. Just read Paul’s letters to the Romans, chapters 1-3. But oddly, at other times, Santorum has said just the opposite ~ that the platform of the left is all about “I have the right to do what I want to do” (i.e. maximum personal liberty) ~ and then goes on to say that this is not the sort of freedom that our Founders envisioned. So I’m left to wonder, whose personal liberty is Santorum exactly trying to maximize? Republicans’? Neo-conservatives’? Fundamentalist Christians’? Because any way you cut it, the idea of maximizing personal liberty does not come from Scripture. All talk about freedom in any meaningful biblical sense comes from the freedom of slavery to sin, not the freedom that results in maximized personal liberty. It may be a Constitutional value, but then, the American Constitution and Scripture are not the same thing (which is a bit of a news alert to many social conservatives, including Santorum).

Santorum unabashedly believes in and promotes American exceptionalism, another one of those Republican “core Christian values.” But what is American exceptionalism if not outright idolatry? It is the view that understands America as a “city on a hill,” which is an explicit biblical designation reserved for the disciples of Christ alone and which Christ used in Matt. 5. The phrase “city on a hill” has been co-opted many times to refer to something other than the Church itself, which has conversely led to issues of confused identity. The Puritan John Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city on a hill,” which eventually led to misguided views of American exceptionalism and to the idea that America is somehow especially blessed by God (“My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty” and all that ~ which, not incidentally, ends with this stanza: “Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King”).

This is how Santorum puts it on his own website: “I truly do believe we are ‘the last best hope of earth. . .'” When Santorum channels Lincoln in this way, he is bastardizing Lincoln’s message, which was not about America being the last great hope of earth, but that the way of freedom for all people is the last best hope. The speech Lincoln gave in which he used this phrase is short, eminently readable by anyone caring to know a little bit about our own history. The context of the phrase is this:

“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

Notice how Lincoln is calling a way the last best hope, not a country. It is in extending freedom to all people that the last best hope resides. Not in some national identity. Turns out, Santorum’s theology is less built upon Scripture than it is upon this false ideal of American greatness. Santorum believes that America is exceptional not merely for what it has done, but intrinsically so, and he’s said as much. There is something almost divine about America ~ the city on a hill, that Promised Land of God’s favor. So for him to question Obama’s commitment to Christianity, and to claim that Obama’s theology comes from some place other than Scripture, is just plain hypocrisy.

The problem with Rick Santorum is that he, like many of his conservative cronies, has confused the American political vision with the Church’s Christian vision, and he no longer can make a meaningful distinction between the two. This is called idolatry in Scripture, and God has limited patience for such a thing.

To put it mildly.