Friday, August 12, 2005

Everything is political, but not everything is politics

Here's a very interesting interview with church historian Martin Marty over at Tikkun. I enjoy and respect Marty's scholarship (he was a seminary classmate of my dad's), but I usually find him too sociological -- that is, he usually talks about religion in terms of how it manifests itself in society rather than how it manifests itself in an individual human being. But his analysis of the relationship between religious and politics is always interesting. Here's just a short excerpt; the whole interview is worth the read:

There’s a wonderful Dutch book titled Everything is Political, But Not Everything is Politics. When religions convert themselves into nothing but political forces, in the perception of the larger republic, they hurt religion and they hurt the republic. But, you cannot separate religion and politics in a neat way. In a political world—and there is no other world—not to be political is political. That is, if you are silent, if you create a spiritual, political vacuum, it will be filled. Therefore you are voting by not speaking. So, there’s no place to hide. . . .

[T]he forces of modernity reach everywhere, into Bin Laden’s caves and everywhere else, mediated mainly by mass communications, but also by global economy, by rapid transportation, etc. They reach everybody, and it means that your social and personal identity is threatened. Twenty years ago, Jerry Falwell said that in the Civil Rights era, right-wing Christians used to say it was sinful for the church to be in politics. Now it’s sinful not to be, because we used to think we could keep the world from our door, the way the Amish do, or Orthodox Jews do. But you can’t. Our kids get MTV and all these other forces by the time they’re four, five, six years old. So we have to fight back. . . .

When you do that you’ve got to have heavy ammunition, and you’re not going to do it in a mild way. I’ve long been interested in religion and sports. There are no Unitarians or reform Jews in the National Football League, but there are plenty of Pentecostals. There are plenty of people who know God’s on their side and will bash the other guy’s face in God’s name. When you’re on the front line, you must be sure you’re really loaded up with pretty heavy stuff. So you have to have an authoritative book, an authoritative teacher, an authoritative moment, and that’s the simplifier. . . .

Beyond that, I would say that liberals and moderates didn’t stress religious experience. For example, in every little town I go to in Guatemala or Bolivia, I can walk up and down the street and there are ten little evangelical or Pentecostal things going on, and they don’t wait for structure. They just start right in. They pick you
up off the street, they give you an exuberant experience, you jump up and down. You’ve got experience, and that’s a very popular thing.

I’m going to use an analogy: With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you buy a $70 ticket. But U2 comes to town, and they have $160 tickets and it’s sold out every night. It has its own drama that pales our own drama. This is what happens with Pentecostal and exuberant forms of religion. People are starved, and this gives them an emotional high.


Anonymous said...

"When you’re on the front line, you must be sure you’re really loaded up with pretty heavy stuff. So you have to have an authoritative book, an authoritative teacher, an authoritative moment, and that’s the simplifier"

The first sentence of this quote resonated with me. As a mystic, and as someone who's lived through some very weird situations, I feel like I'm on the front line, and I am, necessarily, loaded up with pretty heavy stuff to help me get through it.

Actually, in my experience, Quakerism is an exuberant religion. It doesn't happen every time, but I do literally quake before God, not because somebody's talking to me about God, but because God is talking to me.

The second sentence in the quotation resonated, but a little bit less. I strongly feel that I need some good backup, but as a Quaker, I want that backup to come from grounded, Spirit-led corporate discernment. I know from experience that my discernment falls short, and I also know that I'm dealing with some pretty intense, often scary stuff. There's a reason why folks in the Bible threw themselves down in fear when they met angels. At least in my experience, working with all this stuff is not a job for an individual. It's a job for an individual who securely grounded in greater wisdom.

I think this is one of the main reasons that I'm having trouble with our meeting's rather diffuse spiritual focus. By the time everyone has translated a shared experience into language that works for them, and then had their own time to process whether or not they feel antagonistic towards "God language," there's not a lot of energy left over to help me figure out what to do with my experiences of God, or how to interpret them.

Thanks again for your blog. I enjoy it so much. It's giving me a chance to clarify my thoughts, too.


Paul L said...

Elizabeth -- I am glad when you comment. I am not by nature a mystic (though I'm not innocent of mystical experiences) and your concrete responses are a healthy antidote to my tendency to think (and talk) beyond my experience.

I find your use of the phrase "diffuse spiritual focus" important, and accurate. The problem with our worship isn't that the worshipers are diverse but that its worship is diffused.

The effect of diffusion in a religious community is that any testimony that arises is, as you suggest, tentative, qualified, hesitant, instead of certain, clear, and bold.

I think we'd do better if we paid more attention to one of the classic attributes of the Light -- that it is one. That is, we should stop speaking of the Light as "your light" or "my light" (or, worse, "my truth" and "your truth"). There is one Light that enlightens the whole world.

The reason our meetings for worship are diffuse and unfocused is therefore not because its members profess different beliefs, but because we (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) put our energy into trying to realizing a common experience of unity rather than experiencing a common reality.

Put another way, evangelicals often criticize liberal Christians by saying that they worship Creation instead of the Creator. When this happens, the multiplicity of creation begins to predominate over the unity in the Creator and the church's corporate witness is diluted.

If we're saying that our meetings can't appreciate the power and wonder of the elephant-God in our midst because we are atached to the part of it we perceive -- the leg like a tree, the trunk like snake, the tail like a rope, etc. -- the problem isn't that we're holding different parts of the elephant, the problem is that we're blind. If we'd open our eyes, we'd see the thing we really cared about in all its glory.

Perhaps we should learn to worship with our eyes open; maybe we'd find what we're looking for has just walked in the door.