Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Politics and religion

Awhile back, I posted some thoughts on an article titled There Really Are Two Americas: Republistan and Democravia at The Atlantic
Actually the bigger problem is this: now that religion has fallen out of favor - or is seen in great part as a marker of tribal and cultural loyalties - politics has taken its place in a totalizing way. The headline and content of this article demonstrate this very clearly.

Religion - and in the same way, philosophy - once helped people recognize their own shortcomings, and offered a program of working towards virtue by means of self-discipline; politics is always about somebody else's shortcomings, and offers only argument and discord. Granted, those things are sometimes needed - but can never be the entirety of what life is about, or accurately describe human experience.

The inner, spiritual life - and the common humanity people always found at the heart of spiritual practices - has been completely sacrificed to external, tribal, political loyalties. (Modern religion isn't interested in spiritual practices, either, BTW.)

Under the political description of living, people become rigid, narrow, sclerotic - entirely and myopically dedicated to their own small vision of the world, always focused on the present moment and personal "rights" - which are usually somehow being violated by their enemies on the opposite side of the political spectrum. And all this is happening in one of the richest countries in the world; it reminds me of what they say about politics in the university: the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

We then went on to discuss this a little.  One person thought this "rings true in modern America" - but that "religion has historically had the nasty 'my side is the right and the enemy needs to be destroyed'  mentality and still does in parts of the world (including in parts of the U.S.)."
Also, interestingly, that "In some sense, modernity changed religion both by making it more reflective and by making it less relevant to a large portion of the population. Nevertheless, the basic human tendency to form tribal loyalties and hate those who are different from us has not really left us, and perhaps we have been transferring the receptacle of that tribal mentality from the religious sphere to the political sphere."

(At some point I'd like to talk about that "modernity made religion more reflective and less relevant" thing.  That's in an interesting idea!)

I replied (to the "religion has historically had the nasty 'my side is the right and the enemy needs to be destroyed' mentality" thought) that:
You're right, of course, that this does happen and has in history. But the fact that it's happening now, in a secular society, is a pretty important clue as to where it actually originates: in human beings. I'd say it's an atavistic impulse, common to all of us, just as you describe.

Ironically, religion is the only thing I know of that also offers the antidote: self-criticism and "repentance," and on a regular basis. Some historical philosophies have also done this, but I'm not aware of any current ones that do.

Also, religion (and philosophy) offer a bigger-picture conversation about meaning; this is spiritually important - and also helps people get some distance from and perspective on their immediate perceptions and issues.

Without something like this, I don't see anything changing soon, I have to say....

My interlocatur (love that word!; been watching Hercule Poirot on Netflix recently, so it seemed to be a perfectly natural usage here) then replied:
I generally agree with you, but I am skeptical whether it is in our human nature to elevate ourselves to the lofty goals of self-criticism and repentance that religions often suggest. We often deceive ourselves that those requirements are for everyone else, but we are absolved from them. Or at least, I admit to being guilty of that some of the time.

And that response, I think, is really important!   This person is self-aware already, and at least somewhat attuned to some of these ideas about the inner life - yet still thinks of self-criticism as a "lofty goal," rather than a discipline necessary for living life.

It's interesting, too, that this person is apparently unaware of something like the Sacrament of Confession - which was absolutely central to Western life for the past 2,000 years.  It all seems terrifically unlikely - if not impossible - to him.

And that is where we really are, I believe.   Human beings, apart from religion (which is not actually functioning this way for the most part today), have no particular guideposts for living life as human beings.  We have no overarching philosophies for living; we have very little handed-down wisdom about living and growth and maturity in living.

In other words:  we're winging it, all the time.

I went on my usual "self-criticsm" spiel:
You are absolutely right: self-criticism is foreign to our nature; that's why it always has to be a formal discipline.

And that's exactly the point, in my view: religion offered a "formal discipline" of this kind, as did various philosophical systems in history. Other groups use such formal systems, too: soldiers, for instance - but of course not everybody is or can be a soldier. (The Samurai system in Japan is a clear example of something like this: the combining of philosophy with the warrior arts. But as far as I can telll all military groups do it, implicitly if not explicitly.)

Hospitals and medical schools do this, too; there are periodic meetings called "Morbidity and mortality (M&M) conferences" during which failures and mistakes are looked at and analyzed. So this applies to institutions as well - but it needs to be formalized or it won't happen.

Religion and the various philosophies were formal systems that anybody could adopt; they all pointed towards the idea of "developing the virtues," and used old and tested methods for doing just that. The Sacrament of Confession is a good example in Christianity - and monks and nuns throughout history have developed various systems for deeper and more formal self-examination (called "examen"). Jews have Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. Muslims also do this, I believe, during Ramadan. Not sure about Buddhism, but it, too, clearly, is a formal system aimed at changing people from the inside out.

But these systems - outside the religious ones, which still exist but are far less widely used - are no longer in use, generally. In fact, I wonder how many people could name, say, the Classical Virtues today - or are even aware there WAS such a designation. I couldn't, until a few years ago.

People in the past knew, though, that human beings needed such disciplines, and believed it was worth working through them; I'm not sure we do anymore.

One person, interestingly, said, "I could not agree with you more about our shortcomings spiritually."    Which I was interested by and glad to see.    He added:  "I also think all this rooting for red versus blue and treating politics like pro-football (at best) or pro-wrestling (at worst) is actively supported by the media, has distorted our perception of each other as citizens who share a country and values, and has undermined our ability to have meaningful conversations leading to fair solutions to major problems."

I've noticed many times in A.A. meetings that talking about "the life of the spirit" - a difficult-to-define-precisely topic, but like pornography: you know it when you see it - is a way of getting people and meetings centered; when it happens, people leave saying things like "Wow, we are sure lucky to have these meetings."  I think that's what this person was saying.

All this is to say:  as Anglicans, we may be in a good position to help people spiritually.   We have a great deal of experience with avoiding the "my side is the right and the enemy needs to be destroyed" syndrome.  We don't generally do religious warfare over "beliefs."

Our shortcoming, though, is that we're generally not very aware of - or at least willing and able to discuss - the "inner life," and of what our faith is actually doing for us in that regard - or what it is for, generally speaking.    We need more fluency in this. 

I'm wondering, more generally, though:  where have all the "philosophies of living" gone?    Did religion destroy them, back thousands of years ago, so that we're left with nothing at all in this respect now that religion has fallen out of favor?

I think we need them back, myself;  I think somebody is going to have to start some new pragmatic philosophical systems.   (Hint:  A.A. would be a good place from which to start.....)

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