Friday, January 12, 2007

What's the Big Idea?

One of the handiest ways to avoid responsibility for your actions is to blame other people. The corollary to this is that you have to depend on the system to get the work done for you, since people are no damned good and will screw up a perfectly rational and sound idea by their incompetence. Eric Alterman aptly labels this "the incompetence dodge." If there is a failure, the failure is never due to the "big idea," but to the people who carried out the idea. "Big ideas," of course, make it easier for us to get through our day.

Which is all most of us are looking for, let's be honest. The concept that we were looking for something else started with the Romantics, as a reaction against the dehumanizing model of industry which technology was making possible in the 19th century. Workers stopped being serfs and field hands and farmers (all of which gained a patina of "romance" which blinded even the rational Thomas Jefferson, to some degree) and started being servants of the machine. The reaction to this absolute dehumanization of the person (serfs and peasants weren't exactly considered 'human' either, and their lives, as Thomas Hardy chronicled, weren't exactly filled with "Englightenment") was to elevate the individual and delve deeply into his or her memories and emotions ("The Child is Father to the Man" was Wordsworth, predating Freud by nearly a century, but building on the work of Locke regarding human identity. We are what we remember, and that memory is writ on a tabula rasa.).

It was Kierkegaard who challenged us, largely in reaction to Hegel's idealism, to take our individuality seriously, to be Christians in our souls, not just in our culture. From that has sprung all manner of blessings as well as curses, but it is the curses we most suffer with today, as we try to reduce his hard words to something kinder and gentler, to make us feel worthy without the effort his Knight of Faith required.

What Hegel espoused and Kierkegaard critiqued can be fairly referred to as the "postulates." (No, this is not a fair summation of either Hegel or Kierkegaard, but bear with me.) The postulates are Hegelian only in the sense that only the postulates are real, and, rather like Plato's idea of the Good (and hence the basis for his morality), only the postulates (i.e., the "Good") are real, and human actions meant to either enact them or follow them are false, mere shadows, apprehensions of the possibility of what the postulates achieve, albeit in some metaphysical realm. To quote myself:

But "religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all." If we are going to draw from Christianity the notion that an idea is all we need to save us, then we had better at least take responsibility for drawing that lesson in the first place. No one can be allowed to build a system they are not willing to live in. No one can escape responsibility by pointing to the weakness of the other to live up to the requirements of a system they do not hold themselves accountable to. The Deuteronomists did not hold Israel accountable any more than the prophets did. They spoke for God, and stood under judgment and accountability and responsibility along with all the members of their nation. David Brooks, and William Buckley and Frances Fukuyama before him, want to speak for god, too. But their god is the "big idea" they have fashioned from reason and comfort and easy occupations lived out among people amenable to their ways, or at least agreeable to being of aid to them.
This puts, of course, entirely too much of a burden on individuals, many of whom are:

those who want to go to church with other folks like themselves and feel comfortable and not be challenged every Sunday. If needy people show up, they take them in, but then the needy are expected to shape up and become like everyone else.

Some of them face serious problems in their daily lives, and on Sunday, they want to sing a few songs and listen to a sermon which is exciting and in which the preacher will tell them, in simple words, with some degree of certainty, how to solve their problems.
That's certainly a fair description of most church attenders; and God be with them. To sit in the seat of judgment is to appoint yourself superior to someone else, and that the teachings of the Christ simply do not allow you to do (what Christianity allows you to do is another matter). There is a fair question as to whether or not the preacher ever does tell them how to solve their problems (one size does not fit all), but that's an unfair question in this context. We will simply note it, and let it pass; because our interest here is not ecclesiology but theology, and the question of "self-actualization."

I actually trace that concept back to Kierkegaard, if not all the way back to Wordsworth. It was Kierkegaard who gave it a religious edge (Wordsworth was more generally "spiritual"), and it is from that new edge that much mischief has flowed. Because while Kierkegaard struggled to do all he could to address 'the individual,' even encouraging the readers of his "Edifying Discourses" (which were really undelivered sermons) to read them aloud so as to hear the words in their own voice, his ideas have been generalized into a "system" (none more debilitating than the three volume Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich) in which each of us is to generally "actualize" our "selves" in order to be the person we were meant to be.

Thus does Platonism meet Romanticism, and their child is a perfect bastard. And so today we are all "individuals" in our identical clothing, sipping our uniquely identical "gourmet" coffees, driving cars that are virtually indistinguishable one from another (only our car dealer knows for sure). All watched over by machines of loving grace.

The odd thing is, the Bible speaks to this, too. All of the Hebrew scriptures are the corporate confession of the people of Israel of the experience of God. (Yes, even Proverbs; yes, even Ecclesiastes; yes, even Ruth.) Yes, even the Psalms. But the Psalms are almost relentlessly in the first-person. They are a corporate confession every individual can sing (and as Luther said, when we sing, we pray twice).

Coming by chance across another comment by Mimi allows me to underscore my point:

The Communion is already broken and the meetings of the Windsor bishops and the Design Group and the ABC wringing his hands can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

In the end, the English and the Anglicans from other countries will have to choose sides.
This is not a representative comment of weak thinking or expressing a "bad idea." This is the common level of frustration we all come to, at one time or another. What's the big idea?, we ask. What do they think they are doing? Can't we all just agree? Or at least agree to disagree? But if "they" are not tolerant, does that let "us" off the hook? If you are not tolerant, am I allowed to exclude you from my company now, in the name of tolerance? Does that exclusion improve my tolerance? Or just protect "the big idea"?

The Big Idea, of course, is essential; not in the sense of necessary, but in the sense of constitutive. The infant regards herself as a universe, and only slowly understands individuation and differentiation, and that "extension" means "beyond the boundaries of the self." But when the Big Idea becomes too important, it becomes god to us, and we sacrifice everything and everyone else to its propitiation. However, without a Big Idea which is larger than we are, the individual becomes the Big Idea, and again we sacrifice everything and everyone to its propitiation. "Two conditions that often appear alike."

In the end we return to the wisdom of Israel, which means "struggles with God." It is no accident that angel renamed Jacob, or that that story of the encounter near the Jabbok just before Jacob met his estranged brother Esau, is central to the identity of a people. It is part of the Big Idea that is constitutive of our understanding of our relationship with God, and so it should be. "The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod." Those are not the comforting words some people want in their daily lives, but they are true, and they can be trusted; and, as ever, the truth will set us free. We can cling to comforting childhood notions of solutions to problems, of answers to difficulties, but we will always be disappointed, and we will make larger and larger sacrifices of our time, talent, treasures, and even family, to an indifferent god which is ultimately nothing more than a false idol. It cannot hear, it cannot help, it cannot assuage; and belief in it can only hinder. But judgment on that belief and those believers is also a hindrance and a pursuit of a false idol; it is also vanity and striving after emptiness. As the Preacher concluded, there is only one truth, if you would follow the path of knowledge and through knowledge, authoritative understanding: "Fear God and keep his commandments."

That is our guiding star, but it is easier said to others than done, and easier not said at all. Is that, then, what church is for, to remind us of our duties? Not entirely. The church always has that awkward duty of caring for its members while being an organization established for the benefit of those who aren't its members, just as Jesus constantly preached and healed and ate with those people who were not decent members of 1st century Palestinian society. But disciples have to eat, too and have to be given a word, and fed in the spirit if only by their communion with each other. This is not an either/or institution; it is a both/and institution. Which means we have to repeat the stories and the gestures and the exercises over and over again, not in pursuit of some goal of perfection (that is Hellenistic thinking; that is Plato leading us all back to the Good from which we have fallen), but because of what Auden so memorably noted; the nature of the quotidian, in which we all live:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
Part of the lesson of the struggles with God of Israel, is that the world deserves its due, too; that it ian't all about God; that we have our needs, and our expectations, and our right to expect some of them, the best of them, the worthiest of them, to be fulfilled.

We just need help from each other, from God, to know which those are. Because otherwise, we start to think there is answer to life's problems; that the Big Idea we've come up with, is the solution. And that it's a solution that would work, if all these people would just get it right, or get out of our way. But that's the opposite, again; that's when everything becomes an It, and nothing a You. We vacillate so badly; but we can see where we should be moving. We can glimpse what we should be waiting for:

A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph
Because that is more true, and more trustworthy, than any Big Idea we can imagine, or imagine we can implement.

No comments:

Post a Comment