Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fred Clark (and Marilynne Robinson) on Evangelical Tribalism: Implications for Catholics

Moving Beyond Tribalism

I very much appreciate Fred Clark's valuable work in defining and critiquing evangelical tribalism.  Clark's critique of evangelical tribalism parallels my own of Catholic tribalism, and accents points I accent as I critique the tribalism of my own faith community.  I began writing explicitly about Catholic tribalism when the U.S. Catholic bishops announced their current overtly partisan "religious freedom" war against the Obama administration several months ago.

As I began to note after this declaration of a bogus politically partisan war against the current administration, the atavistic tribalism of centrist Catholics who immediately picked up their weapons when the bishops sounded their bugles and sallied forth seems to me to negate some of the core proclamations and core values of the very tradition they claim ardently to be defending.  The reflex atavistic impulse that causes us to see the world in terms of me and not me or us. vs. them has the effect of foreclosing the sort of productive, intelligent, respectful conversation on which a participatory democracy depends for its health. It also has the effect of foreclosing desperately needed catholic conversation that permits many voices into the discourse center in which the Catholic definition is hammered out.

As I said yesterday, when the Catholic contribution to public conversations in a participatory democracy depends on a party line mandated from the top down from which no deviation is permitted and about which no discussion is countenanced, the Catholic contribution to the conversation of the public square tends to become null and void. Not worth hearing. Much insincere ado about much doctrinal nothing.

We've retreated into a sectarian shell and have doomed ourselves to irrelevance in the conversation of the public square when we allow reflexive, atavistic tribalism centered on the blind assertion of our distinctive religious identity to become our dominant stance towards a culture.  And so Fred Clark and his parallel insights for the evangelical Christian response to the public square: he writes yesterday,

“We live in a time when the claiming of a religious identity has become more important than abiding in what that truth implies,” Marilynne Robinson said last month at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. 
That “claiming of a religious identity” and the elevating of it above the meaning, content or substance of that faith is what I’ve been describing as evangelical tribalism. Robinson, author of the novel Housekeeping and of the new essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, does not seem to be a fan of tribalism.

That lapidary, powerful formula of Robinson's, "We live in a time when the claiming of a religious identity has become more important than abiding in what that truth implies": I hope the influential centrist media commentariat of the American Catholic community finds a way to hear this.  And to think about what Robinson means in making this statement.  I hear her saying unequivocally that you can't divorce conversation about the quality of lived, sacramental witness to faith proclamations from the faith proclamations themselves.  You can't proclaim Catholic values and Catholic identity while behaving in uncatholic ways towards groups of fellow Catholics you intend to write out of the catholic conversation.

I hear Robinson saying unequivocally that when the assertion of a distinctive tribalistic identity takes precedence over the lived experience of and lived witness to the faith identity the tribe is proclaiming, something of immense significance has leached out of a faith community's self-representation in the public square.  When the tribalistic religious identity fiercely asserted in the public square actually contradicts the core proclamations and core values that are foundational to the faith identity asserted in a tribalistic way in the public square, what appears to be a victory--we stand loudly and proudly against them!--becomes a significant defeat.

I hear what Fred Clark is saying about evangelical tribalism (bolstered by Marilynne Robinson's critically important assertion that lived witness to a faith identity has to go hand in hand with proclamation of that identity for the identity to make any sense at all) echoed in some provocative feedback that a National Catholic Reporter reader, Jean Brookbank, offers Michael Sean Winters and Phyllis Zagano in a response to an NCR posting by Winters a day or so ago.

Brookbank writes:

Please, MSW, in future, challenge yourself to challenge the previously determined meta-narrative which is dear to YOUR heart. "Resist overbroad interpretations of events that neatly with YOUR favorite meta-narrative, the meta-narrative "that sees the American President and the culture at large "going after unsuspecting Catholics". 
I have loved Phyllis Zagano's scholarship but have not spent my precious daily reading time on her column here since the day she rampaged against the NYTimes because it had printed an Sunday editorial in support of a UN writing on international aid for healthcare for women who have been raped as a tactic of war. The editorial was published on a Marian Holy Day of obligation and Professor Zagano interpreted that fact as evidence of an attack on Catholicism. 
I was stunned and I was embarrassed. We Catholics are not the center of the universe. We are, in fact, not always on everyone else's mind. Just as we Christians do not live our lives in constant reactive response to the teachings of Islam or Buddhism or Judiasm (and if we do, our ears and eyes are ignoring our God and it is then WE who are causing injury to our Churhc and our faith and God), most non-Catholics do not live their lives in constant reactive response to Catholicsm. To believe that they do is to indulge in a rather extraordinary degree of self-centeredness, pride and self-importance. 
The rest of the country and the rest of the world has every right to view the world in terms and context other than OUR terms and contexts. And they do. Just as we view the world in terms and context that is primarily Catholic. 
And the sooner we American Catholics lay down our false cross - our self-serving pet belief that everyone says and does what they do as an anti-Catholic attack - we will be able to turn our eyes and hearts and mouths toward God again. As soon as we lay down our own favorite meta-narrative that sees the big bad American President and American culture in constant warfare directed at Catholicism, we will be able to do God's work again rather than the work of our own fragile and prideful egos.

Both Winters and Zagano were quick to go to war with the bishops against the Obama administration.  Both profess to hold moderate-to-liberal Catholic views.  But both are extremely fond of the left-right-center meme that identifies themselves as the objective, dispassionate, see-all-sides center.  As both identify the center with themselves and their constant give-the-hierarchy-a-break rhetoric, both also move the Catholic conversation to the right while ignoring and actively excluding their fellow Catholics to the left of center from the conversation.

Along with Brookbank, I am embarrassed by the tribalism both Winters and Zagano (and other highly placed members of the Catholic commentariat) keep displaying in the current debates about how our Catholic hierarchy actively betray Catholic identity when they attempt to claim that they alone represent and define that identity, and as they shut one voice or another out of the Catholic conservation, insofar as it does not defer to the hierarchy's claims.  I am embarrassed by the collusion of both Winters and Zagano, many of whose views I have formerly listened to respectfully, with the U.S. Catholic bishops in narrowing and distorting the Catholic conversation at present.

I hope Winters and Zagano listen to what Brookbank is saying here.  And that they begin to use their cachet and connections to the USCCB and the media to fight for the inclusion of Catholic voices the bishops (and they themselves) have excluded from the Catholic conversation, so that the Catholic contribution to the public square may really become what it professes to be: catholic.  And therefore meaningful when it addresses the public square . . . .

(And we can't have that meaningful conversation with the public square when we pretend that who the leaders of our church are and how they behave has nothing to do with what Catholic identity means in the public square.  Or that conversations about who our leaders are and how they behave are distasteful and are motivated by ill-will and not by concern for the church's ability to contribute something of importance to the conversation of the public square.)

No comments: