Thursday, February 7, 2008

You Can't Be Under What is Everywhere

It’s my own fault for invoking the phrase “One Nation Under God.” Of course I intended it as a sly suggestion that I was and am more like the “Evil Empire” than I have ever cared to admit. But no phrase ever means what I want it to mean and there’s a whiff of theocracy in “One Nation Under God.” Few words strike more knee-jerk into my liberal friends than “theocracy.” Liberalism sees the Magisterium and the Fundamentalists and concludes that to obey God is to abandon reason. We see theocratic delusions the faces of the Taliban and their faceless women. We experience theocracy as tyrannical obedience to evil men who set death as the price of questioning authority. Was not violence the legacy of the Inquisition, the burnings at the stake that scented the Middle Ages with horror? History has seemed to clearly demonstrate that to claim to have God on ones side results in nothing but inhuman behavior. End argument. Theocracy is religious violence.

Well, maybe. It could also just be plain old ignorance. People do a lot of stupid things which they blame on God. Humanity is not God and God is not human. In the parlance of faith, we are images. The wise ones know full well that to believe I can govern in God’s name will end up driving me mad. I can’t do what God does. To be under authority to God is to acknowledge that God, not I, rules. It should entail the recognition of human limitation and a practice of daily humility. That this is not the case in theocratic states says much about the sorry state of the age.

Authority is one of the most difficult questions any of us will ever encounter, especially in a culture like ours that tells us always to question authority. What is authority anyway? Look at all the doctors and priests and leaders who have abused the trust we placed in them. In such a climate, how can I know what authority to trust? Does it matter? J.R.R. Tolkien reflected on the English custom of having to remove ones hat when a nobleman passed. “I lift my hat to the Lord, not because he needs it, and God knows, he probably does not. I lift my hat to the Lord because I need it.” For Tolkien, this act of respect was not an expression of subservience as much as a reminder of his own limited scope. As many of us heard yesterday, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is simple fact. We are part of something so much larger than ourselves that all the saints both East and West can only convey the smallest part of it. “Under God” is even a limited phrase. God surrounds us like an atmosphere and as there is no up or down or east or west in space, so it is with the Divine. You can’t be under what is everywhere.

All these governments of men: the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution which this year’s Lent book takes up, the ideologies of Fascism and National Socialism, even something as benign as Tolstoyism, all of these are the product of human minds. All are tainted by wish fulfillment and a view of the world that elevates me. Have you ever seen anyone form a government in which they are compelled to doff their caps to their betters? Self interest is well disguised by rhetoric and ideology. A totalitarian state can do its damage in under a century, while it takes millennia for the work of God to unfold. All ideologies appeal to some aspect of human goodness. Tolstoyism was all about pacifism – Gandhi learned a great deal from Tolstoy. Tolstoyism taught that it was best to hold things in common and love ones neighbor, but only Gandhi succeeded in doing this and probably because he had a long tradition of Hindu monasticism to work with. He also made a point of practicing what he preached. Tolstoy himself was an abysmal Tolstoyan. We all know how he preached marital celibacy at the same time that his wife kept turning up pregnant, not just once, (an understandable and totally normal lapse for a married man), but ten times pregnant. I refuse to believe that Sonya Tolstoya’s bi-polar disorder was simply some form of organic imbalance. How could anyone live with a husband who publicly loathed sex and publicly preached the weakness and inferiority of women as year after year you were forced to deal with immaculate conceptions? This is to say that human ideologies have a way of driving other humans mad. Consider the classic American example. What we hail as the Land of the Free was built on the broken backs of slaves, treated like so many natural resources to be exploited for economic gain.

As I said, authority is a difficult question. Let the phrase “One Nation Under God” trouble you. It’s a deeply troubling idea. But during Lent, we are asked to practice living under the authority of God. I don’t think we need worry about a theocracy taking us over. We’re a resilient group. Let’s just ground ourselves in prayer and try and find our spiritual bearings. As the experience of the Soviet artists reminds us, finding those bearings has the capacity to surprise us in breathtaking ways.

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