The Deadly Polarities: Warming Up for 2016

05/28/2015 01:55 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

What set me off was a recent column in the New York Times by David Brooks. A friend had sent it to me because it was concerned with the centrality of spirituality in our lives. But it wasn't the column itself which got my attention. It was the comments. There was little engagement with the actual content of the column. The comments were more a collection of self-satisfied attacks on any struggle for meaning and purpose, sent down from the heights of a secular Olympus -- "Life is meaningless but I'm important" seemed to be the message. I had no sooner squirmed my way through the homilies on the Brooks article than I was forwarded a couple other pieces which served to release more adrenalin. One was a reaction to Hilary Clinton's recent statement about women's health circulated by a right-wing "Christian" site. The other, was an editorial in a conservative Christian journal (I read it for it's challenging intelligence which often shines through its self-satisfied tone). The former began -- "If you're Christian, Hilary Clinton's comments about religion will infuriate you!" There was no sense that hers might be sincerely held views. "You can see what's most important to Hilary, and it's not God or any religious faith. It's her far left-wing policies." And since her real agenda is her far-left wing ideology, you don't have to pay any attention to her actual ideas. Still less do you have to speak to the actual issues she raises. The polarization runs deep -- with the "Christians" on one side and the Bill Maher atheists -- picking the low hanging fruit of fundamentalist religion -- on the other -- ("These idiots believe in a talking snake!") What a choice!

I wonder how many of us are caught between the Scylla of a vapid religiosity and a Charybdis of a self-satisfied atheism? "At least, I'm not part of the pathetic brigade of 'believers'!" At the same time, I find myself in agreement with some of the views of those who are critical of the world-view of secular progressive politics. The trouble is that thoughtful conservative writers often appear to have an unchanging view of revelation -- a kind unchanging Platonic shaping of the Biblical witness -- with no sense of human consciousness as subject to evolutionary change -- which brings me to the conservative Christian journal. The editorial (rightly, to my mind) criticized the present cultural climate as fostering a selfish and childish view of human nature. So far so good. But the argument was bruising to those of us, for example, who are divorced, struggle with the issues of contraception and abortion and support gay marriage. The "unchanging" Biblical witness, after all, is clear and is backed by centuries of tradition. But then, so are lots of other things (Just read a few of the sermons preached leading up to and during the Civil War). Those who are sympathetic to such things as divorce, birth control, and gay marriage are erroneous, shallow, selfish and unrepentant -- mere devotees of a corrupt modern consciousness. There was no sense in the editorial that many of us struggle with shame, sin, and brokenness as we move through life. Some of us are ship-wrecked and live under grace. The English writer, Charles Williams, signed his letters "Under the Mercy!" That's where many of us are. There was no appreciation that some of us have come through crises which presented us with intractable moral problems -- that we need healing not censure and condemnation. What's more, the past with its patterns and solutions (with its so-called Biblical perspective and appreciation of tradition), has its share of horrors too. Everything has a history -- not least "marriage". It isn't simply one thing. Owning slaves was thought to be part of the natural order of things.

So, the conversation -- such as it is -- has gone sour. The progressives too often reject any sense of sin as sick; the conservatives have a strong sense of sin -- but it's often the sins of others, not of themselves. It is a small comfort to learn that atheists and secularists can be as bigoted and idiotic as believers. So, please do not respond to this blog! I have deliberately not identified the sources of my concerns because I don't want to get into a slanging match with ideologues. If you feel moved, either way, I suggest you write a meditation on the kind of society you long to live in, calculate the cost and commit yourself to the level of sacrifice and passion required of you to bring it into being. Without such commitment, it seems that we have already reverted to the law of the jungle and confuse it with freedom. The barbarians are not at the gates. As we have been reminded, they have been ruling us for years. Two simple doctrines might inform our meditation wherever we are on the religious and political spectrum: one is that everyone matters; the other is, we're in this together. The rest of the stuff of religion and secularism are footnotes to these doctrines. They might help us read a David Brooks more intelligently and sympathetically and listen to different view points without demonizing those with whom we disagree. We might, then, be able to face 2016 with some hope. The bottom line? What a holy and awesome thing it is to be alive and be aware -- to be human. The question is, how are we going to honor and celebrate that in a world that is becoming tone deaf?