Learning to converse like grown-ups

By Catherine Madsen
November 14, 2006

Those who are constitutionally disposed to speak in religious language whether they like it or not are in perennial doubt whether religious language has any legitimate uses. Worship, however physically compelling, is deeply compromised by the dynamics of congregational and denominational and intercultural politics (not to mention the nature of petitionary prayer).

Theology, the more confident it becomes, is the more evidently a house of cards. The attempt to understand history theologically—even one's own personal history—is full of opportunism and slippery reasoning. The project of defending God's honour is self-important and futile; human beings are not fit for such work, which quickly becomes shrill and violent with the effort of convincing oneself it is necessary. It might be better to fight one's constitution.

Even the effort to apply moral conviction in public life is so fraught with self-congratulation and so full of unpleasant surprises that it is no straightforward matter. One speaks of the political spectrum, but it provides a fairly narrow range of illumination. It is not generally appreciated that both sides of the religious culture wars operate on a shared principle: the Left calls it relevance and the Right calls it traditionalism, but it amounts to the relentless promotion of simplified opinions on issues of inflated importance. Gender-neutral language and women's ordination and gay rights are "relevance" for the Left, but so are the abortion wars and the campaign against homosexuality for the Christian Right.

Public religion has become primarily ideological, and ideology by nature has no sense of proportion. It cultivates a sense of personal emergency which is essentially vicarious and artificial; I remember a heretical private conversation in the radical feminist community I once belonged to which discovered that this was merely a feeling, even a pose, which did nothing to help the oppressed. Radical Islam (which synthesizes the worst elements of the political Left and the religious Right) now cranks up the same sense of red alert—what Egyptian playwright Ali Salem calls a mental state of war, poisoning every joy— with as much and as little basis in experienced reality, and as little regard for the outcome. The sense of religion as a space apart, from which one evaluates and perhaps even rejects the surrounding culture without wishing to destroy it, has fallen on hard times.

How anyone who takes religion seriously can endure this atrophy of substance to slogan is hard to fathom. It must stick in the throats of conservative evangelicals and Catholics and Muslims to have the whole structure and atmosphere of their faith reduced to declarations of enmity, just as it sticks in the throats of liberal Christians and Jews to have their thinking reduced to a set of "progressive" reflexes that cannot tolerate nuance or compromise (no, no, not civil union with a practical set of benefits, it must be marriage or nothing!) and that treats liturgical practice as a treadmill of positive self-esteem.

A fiery preacher who instigates phone campaigns against pro-choice legislators is different in degree, but not really in kind, from a persuasive one with a rainbow bumper sticker and a repertoire of old anti-war chants. In essence the two sides collaborate with each other to distract their members from the more demanding aspects of their mutual calling: the study, the self-discipline, the deep inwardness of committed religious thinking and practice.

Both sides promote a frantic, video-game caricature of social responsibility; both evade the slow, equivocal and tragic task of planetary responsibility. "Personal responsibility" becomes a code phrase rather than a fact of existence. A political stance, in this sense, is not a viewpoint but an attitude. When you feel outnumbered and embattled, what you want is people who share the attitude; you have no use for people who know how to construct and sustain a culture for the long term.

Superficial attempts provoke superficial responses. The Danish cartoonist, in flouting the Muslim rule that the prophet Muhammad cannot be represented lest the image provoke idolatry, provoked—what else—idolatry: enraged mobs calling down death on other human beings for the sake of an image. The modern Western mind, secular or religious, has trouble getting itself around the idea of blasphemy as a capital offense. Die for cartoonery? no; mocking caricature is forgettable and disposable as yesterday's paper. But the modern Western mind is so accustomed to the forgettable and disposable that its mockery is shallow too.

Salman Rushdie once said in an interview that for him tradition had never functioned as a straitjacket: "tradition was something to rip apart and trample on." To a satirist nothing can be off limits, and Rushdie did not deserve the threat to his life, but the most bracing blasphemies are the best informed; they start from profoundly within a tradition and are the fruits of disappointed love. By nature, God is not mocked, and can take care of himself; what we mock is the human failure to live up to him. What is really holy is on the one hand so invulnerable that we cannot reach it, and on the other so tender to our wounds that we would not touch it.

People who attach themselves to a cause are generally—at least to begin with—trying to find a worthy outlet for their moral energies. But most of us are delighted for an excuse to let ourselves go, relieved to find a cause for our causeless hatred. Even hatred with a legitimate cause attaches itself with dismaying ease to self-justifying and inexhaustible rage. Not every hatred finds its Hitler or Pol Pot or Milosevic to organize it into mass violence, but every hatred that relaxes into habitual rage is a distraction from real work. It is the insult to one's pride (whether individual or collective pride) that provides the excuse: the finely honed suspicion that one is being "dissed," the overriding need to uphold one's honor without having to be honorable.

Ultimately the idea that we can cleanse the world of our enemies is not even functional; revolutionary France, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and (much more tamely) the U.S. in the McCarthy era are all cases in point. Rage at a particular target becomes rage at a general target, and at last consumes its own house. "There's no one left but thee and we, and we're not sure of thee," said the old Chad Mitchell Trio song about the John Birch Society. Gandhi and King and Mandela succeeded because they wanted someone to be left when they were done; they were not less serious than the totalitarians, but more practical.

One of the few legitimate uses of religious language, surely, is to bring everyone along beyond the emotional age of fifteen. In the end, there are things you don't do even if you have been insulted; you don't do them because nothing is worth the kind of instability it would cause to your own equilibrium and to the world's. One of the marks of adult thinking is the recognition that things can get very much worse.

To grow up politically is to understand that there are other points of view, and that you cannot erase them; that there are no shortcuts to respect, and that one must earn one's dignity; that our obligation to our fellow humans is to make our own point of view not unassailable but intelligible. What do you want so badly that you have to develop an impenetrable and threatening rhetoric to talk about it, or blow yourself and the bystanders to bloody shreds rather than ask for it sanely? The Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in protest against the Vietnam war did it one by one; they went into an open space where there were no people and sat in the flames.

Like totalitarians of all ideological stripes and mystics of all religions, painstaking thinkers of all cultures know each other intuitively across the boundaries of opposition. Totalitarians do not like them; indeed they are always at risk from the totalitarians in their own culture as well as those in the enemy's. In spite of this—or because of it—they are determined to construct a trustworthy language, a language dense and durable enough to resist the corruptions of politics. That language, if any, is religious. We will be lucky if it ever finds its way into prayer.

Catherine Masden is contributing editor for CrossCurrents, the journal of the Association for Religion & Intellectual Life. © ARIL, reproduced with permission

This article is the editorial for the Fall 2006 issue of CrossCurrents on the theme of Religious Language: Its Uses and Misuses. Subscription details here. ARIL is a not-for-profit organization located at 475 Riverside Drive in New York City, USA.

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