Friday, September 11, 2009

Transformative Journeys and Finding the Thread: Blogging as Empires Decline

Dear Friends,

I appreciate the encouragement of those of you who’ve contacted me to ask why I haven’t been writing here. I apologize for my absence. I’m not sure if I can explain even to myself my reluctance to write this week.

Here’s a stab at an explanation. When I was a child, two books that profoundly influenced me were George MacDonald’s fairy tales-cum-mystical fantasies The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. As I grew up and began to read a bit about MacDonald’s theology—and also learned that many others, including C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, had been similarly influenced by MacDonald—I came to see that what enthralled me in MacDonald’s work were several images for the spiritual life embedded in these fairy tales, which framed my imagination about spirituality even before I began to understand the significance of those images.

One is MacDonald’s famous image of a bath of burning roses maintained by a divine mother figure that rejuvenates those immersed in it. Another is less obvious, but equally compelling. It’s the image of the thread that runs through all the subterraneous tunnels the characters in the novels have to navigate, in order to lead them to safety and light.

I don’t remember if MacDonald describes the thread that the princess and Curdie must find and to which they must cling as a bright thread. In my child’s imagination, however, it was definitely a shining thread, a golden one that led them to safety because it alone gleamed in the darkness they had to traverse to find their way out of danger.

And that image of the bright and shining thread became for me, as I grew up, an image of what I needed to seek constantly in my life, no matter what twists and turns were around the corner—of what I needed to seek constantly in order to stay on the path.

Lately, I feel I’ve lost sight of the thread. I feel bewildered, in the etymological sense of the word: in the wilderness, and daunted by it, without a clear indicator of where to place my foot in order to find safety and a path.

When I began this blog, I thought I was on the path. I thought that I was following the shining thread. Lately, though, I begin to wonder if I have somehow lost sight of what allured me, as I began to share my journey with others through this blog.

Here’s how I feel, frankly: the world is full of that bright thread I’m describing. It runs through all cultures and in all religious and philosophical traditions. I sense that I am picking up traces of the thread when my contact with others, with new ideas, with books I haven’t yet read, with religious symbols, somehow pulls me beyond myself, onto a journey of meaningful encounter that moves me beyond the narrow, selfish confines of my own experience.

For me, the path has to have a moral trajectory, in order to make sense. I have to feel a moral tug ahead of me in order to move forward with any certainty that I am on the right path. Spirituality is, for me, bound up with moral force, with the clarity of ideas and symbols that not only communicate meaning to me, but change the way I see things and behave. That’s what I mean by morality, and by moral force.

Lately, I have begun to feel that much that I write about, much that I read everyday, simply does not have those threads running through it which tell me I am on the right path. The ugly political-religious debates of this summer, with the town-hall meetings and the mean-spirited attacks by members of my own religious community on proposals to extend access to health care, have had a cumulative effect on my spirit. I am beyond weary, listening to the hate speech pour forth, the attacks on immigrants, the mendacious distortions about health care reform even by religious people.

I have had enough of hate and meanness and lies. Above all, I think, I have had my fill of hearing lies.

I feel lately as though I am surrounded by lies. And those most apt to be lying are the ones shouting louder than anyone else that they alone have the truth and that everyone else is a liar. I feel lately that the American political sphere—and to a great extent American religious life—is coming to resemble very precisely Augustine’s description of the city of man, in his classic work City of God.

Augustine thought that, without grace, human life and human communities descend to the state of the latrocinium. Without grace, societies become dens of thieves and robbers. The bright and shining thread of moral force does not run through such societies, because it cannot do so. They have chosen to debase language, thought, communitarian life to such an extent that it is impossible to know where truth lies or to hear redemptive insight within the babble of meaningless talk intended to mask the rapacity of the rich and powerful and to present that rapacity as noble and religiously upright.

I suppose I am saying that I do not feel enlivened by—and I do not find hope in—much of what passes as political discussion in my culture these days, and in the religious underpinnings of that discussion. In fact, I find the opposite. I feel dispirited and downhearted when I entertain that discussion. I feel the need to look elsewhere for the bright threads that, throughout my life, have pointed me to authenticity as I journey.

And so I find myself wondering where to turn now, what to do. As I approach 60 (that birthday is just around the corner for me), I have the kinds of questions Erik Erikson tells us many of us face as we reach the final period of our life. I have questions about how best to contribute, how most effectively and generatively to use the time I have left.

I have questions about how to find that bright, shining thread at this point in my life, and to assist others in finding it, through what I write and what I do. That was what got me going, when I began this blog, and that vision has sustained me as I have written faithfully here for many months now.

Where these questions are leading me, I don't really know. If this blog is simply one more commentary on contemporary religious and political matters, particularly in the American context, then I doubt that it contributes a great deal. Blogs like that are a dime a dozen. We’re glutted with commentary.

And, ultimately, all the commentary doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference. It doesn’t stop the lies from pouring forth. It doesn’t stop the rich and powerful from lording it over the weak and defenseless. It doesn’t stop the systemic distortion of truth used by the powerful to disguise the inequities in the world in which we live. It doesn’t shame religious leaders who abuse religious ideas and religious language to cater to the rich and powerful and demean the poor and defenseless. It doesn’t stop them from such shameful abuse of religion.

Granted, I may be asking questions like this with an acuity not everyone feels because of certain features of my life journey that are unique to me. As I’ve noted, I’m on the verge of a significant birthday, and that passage evokes these reflections. I’m also an out-of-work and failed theologian who has to ask such questions with a certain urgency because I do not have the support networks that other academics (or many other professional people my age) have.

But I may also be asking questions that are part of the zeitgeist we are all confronting now, as the declining American empire goes into overdrive to try to keep at bay a process of decline that is inevitable—unless we are willing to entertain the kinds of moral questions that an empire in decline has to entertain, if it wishes to move gracefully to the new, post-imperial stage of its existence.

But declining empires never do ask such moral questions. That is, in fact, precisely why they decline in the first place. They decline because they believe they can prescind from all the moral concerns essential to the maintenance of a viable human community—concerns about finding and speaking truth, concerns about curbing the inevitable tendency of the rich to abuse the poor, concerns about the tendency of religious groups in decaying empires to put their central symbols and ideas to the service of propping up power centers rather than calling them to moral accountability.

Meanwhile, folks have to go on living, as best we can, while things fall apart. And I'm trying to find a way to do that, these days, as I look once again for the bright and shining thread that set me on the path of blogging here.