Iâ€™m going to tip-toe a bit through this post since I donâ€™t want to break the rule against criticizing individuals, etc. So bear with me for a moment of generalization.
I recently read Ron Suskindâ€™s article, â€œFaith, Certainty, and the Presidency,â€? in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. He was on NPR again this morning, discussing the role of faith in politics. His article and interview raise several further questions in the on-going debate concerning the relationship between faith and reason in governance. Some of you also may have seen Sam Harrisâ€™s new book, The End of Faith, which explores various kinds of â€œirrationalityâ€? required for faith, religious devotion, spiritual quests, etc., and traces a growing willingness for many to accept assertions of faith in place of reasoned propositions from those in positions of government leadership. I realize that many who have strong religious convictions may find Harrisâ€™s book insulting, but I found myself feeling refreshed after reading it. In a less severe vein than Harrisâ€™s essay takes, Sojourners has been leading an e-mail campaign urging Christians of all denominations to remember to add humility and tolerance to their religious convictions, stressing the need for communication across differences of doctrine, or theology, or spiritual affiliation. The question being explored by Sojourners: what should be the role of faith in the public discourse of a democratic republic?
Typically, I have given myself a misleadingly simple formula: I have to weigh my own convictions (and my right to assert them within appropriate legislative frameworks) against the differing moral convictions of others (and their right to assert such within appropriate legislative frameworks). Persuasion, negotiation, reconciliation, and constantly reconstructed equilibrium could be woven into a civic tapestry of law and culture, a tapestry made up of threads of many colors and textures. The result would be a flexible fabric of order and freedom, having both a high level of tensile strength and the ability to accommodate sudden cultural shifts & political movements. I have had a remarkable degree of confidence in our ability to create this fabric of national identity: Iâ€™ve had faith in more than my own religious convictions.
What Iâ€™ve been concerned about these past few years is the possibility that we may be losing a particular strand of faith: faith in each other. It seems to me that religious convictions, even with respect to assertions of certainty, are not necessarily the problem in our national debates; rather, the way such assertions are made can either foster further forms of civic faith, or make civic faith impossible. A goofy personal anecdote will, I hope, illustrate my point. [some of you may have heard me tell this tale before, so I apologize if this is a repeat].
When I was ten years old, my mother had been a member of the Mormon church for nine years. My father, while a believer in general Christian terms, was highly suspicious of religious institutions. My siblings and I were raised in the church.
As you might expect within our family, the members had the usual Mormon zeal for converting loved ones. We had to temper our enthusiasm, though, for fear of asserting the false premise that there was a simple choice: the Church or the NFL. Anyhow, the year that I was ten, my father surprised us all one Sunday by joining us for church. Instead of waving to us from the couch (Coors in hand, the t.v. tuned to sports, a look of utter bliss on his face), my dad was dressed up in shirt and tie, shined shoes, and a serious demeanor. This was really something, mind you. My dad smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor, and drank like a fish. We were all happy he was joining us, but also a little nervous about the possibility of a serious profanity breach during sacrament meeting. Anyhow, we arrived at church a bit late and had to sit on chairs in the back of the chapel. There werenâ€™t enough for all of us to sit together, so I sat with my dad on the very back row. The rest of the family sat in front of us.
The talks werenâ€™t bad, and one was quite inspiring. The speaker was elaborating on the importance of knowing that families are forever, that love doesnâ€™t end with death, etc. Like many of his generation, under his rough&ready exterior, my father was a romantic. During this talk he sat forward, clearly interested. He nodded agreement at key moments in the talk. It was looking good . . .
And as he always did when beginning to think deeply, my father pulled his pipe out of his pocket, tamped down the tobacco, clicked open his lighter, put flame to weed, and began contentedly puffing. Still nodding from time to time, he was clearly settling in for much-needed spiritual refreshment. I wasnâ€™t sure what to do. A moment later, my motherâ€™s posture stiffened and she turned around with her mouth open in surprise. Not wanting to cause a scene, and being shy by nature, she turned back around and picked up her hymn book, turned to the closing song, and began fidgeting. Within minutes, as pipe smoke wafted its way forward over the pews, heads were turning our way. Eventually, I could see the bishop straining to see who was sitting at the very back of the chapel. It was looking to be a disaster.
I remember being surprised at how angry the other members were. We were so proud and happy to finally have Dad with us. I guess we expected others to feel the same. After the closing prayer, my dad stood up and looked around, clearly expecting to be greeted; but people literally went far around us, almost dramatizing their desire to avoid my father. Tension galore. But then a charming little old lady (the kind with perfectly blued hair and a pearl-studded purse that matched her earrings) came up to us and said hello. She shook my dadâ€™s had and welcomed him to church. In an old fashioned way, she slipped her arm through his, and gently guided him out the front door. She told him she had always loved the smell of pipe tobacco, mentioned the good memories the fragrance brought back for her, and elaborated on how pipe-smokers always seemed so intellectual and mysterious. Then she lead the conversation around to the word of wisdom, and invited my dad to share his views on health and well-being. It was done so beautifully, that it was my father who eventually pointed out that he didnâ€™t want his kids to smoke; he shared his views with her on the evils of tobacco and expressed interest in a little pamphlet the church had on the word of wisdom.
A long story for a simple point: most of the people in that chapel shared the same religious convictions, the same certainty about the blessings associated with the word of wisdom, etc. Most chose to express that certainty in ways that were not welcoming, with an attitude that expressed distrust of my father (an attitude that would no doubt have been reciprocated in kind). The charming, pearl-laden lady, in contrast, was willing to assert her convictions with courtesy and a generosity of spirit I have continued to admire all these years later. In a manner of speaking, she was willing to put the needs of civic faith before her personal religious convictions.
Old fashioned courtesy? Simple kindness and generosity of spirit? I donâ€™t know what to call it, exactly, but it seems we need much more of â€œitâ€? here in the U.S. right now.
P.S. Apologies for being such a lackadaisical blogger. Who knew?! However, as I’m going to be stuck in Alabama Thurs.-Tues, I think I’ll take advantage of the U. of ‘bama computers to post a few more thoughts before my guest status runs out. Thanks for your responses to the mountain-bike letter, by the way. I did eventually add a further thought of my own, once I figured out the system.