Post Script to the Meta Story Essays

I began this series of essays with some thoughts about the difficulty of entering into true dialogue with people with whom we disagree. I concluded the first essay by saying that eventually, instead of “continuing to dialogue,” I dropped out of the group. Why? Because true dialog is unspeakably hard and the dynamics of the group were not such that the sort of dialog that was necessary for me was not possible in this context.

True dialog is unspeakably hard because the things we must speak about actually lie beyond the realm of what can be spoken. Each of us is unconsciously shaped by meta-stories that help us make sense of the world by transcending words and ideas. The meta-stories are thus able to unify and give meaning to our experiences. This process is necessary because our experience of the world is always larger than we can ever grasp. It is an essential feature of being limited, created beings.

True dialog is unspeakably hard because we must move beyond the realm of words and conversation (the “speakable”) and start the process of uncovering our own meta-stories that shape our perception of reality (the “unspeakable”). The group I was a part of was a group that wanted to do things. I admire that in my friends; in fact, I envy it, and that is why I stayed for as long as I did. But in my months of being part of that group I realized that what I need to “do” at this moment in time is to “pray things” rather than “do things.”

I was surprised how deeply the meta-story of the monks of Mt. Athos has become my own story. I was surprised at how forgettable books on activism were and, in contrast, how moving the life of Thomas Merton, the non-active activist was.

One does not need to be a cloistered monk to seek union with God. The monks specialize in it in order to teach those of us who live in secular society how to do it.  What I need to do is “pray things.” If the monks’ meta-story is true, I suspect that as I “pray things” while my friends and colleagues are busy “doing things,” a far more authentic dialog is beginning to happen. It is a dialog of spirit to spirit as my heart expands and the Spirit groans the larger truth to all of us.

My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors

In the previous essay I opined that we need to broaden our face-to-face community and interact socially with a broad range of people. In truth it is surprising how difficult that is. Our social networks, our churches, and many of our social groups are “silos of conformity” where no real dialog with those who are different is possible. There’s a reason for this; being with those who are different is hard.

This year I took part in an Advent book study that extended out through winter and Lent. Over time the group inexorably veered toward social justice issues, not by design, but because the most outspoken members were focused on social justice and seemingly quite dismissive of disciplines focused on personal spiritual growth (except for prayer: prayer is good … as long as it leads to social justice; and worship and the Eucharist are good … as long as we understand that the Eucharist is about feeding hungry people). I hadn’t been intimately involved with the social justice wing of the church since my days as a Presbyterian pastor, so this turned out to be an adventure in community with people of quite different perspectives and thus an illustration of that which I was speaking in the previous essay.

I was unimpressed (to put it mildly) by the social justice movement of the 90s which was long on talk and short on action (except for protests, public meetings, and bulletin inserts – in other words, long on action that made us feel good but short on action that actually led to social justice). Over the years I have come to realize that the systemic change the social justice movements of the 80s and 90s were seeking were beyond the scope of anything that movements could significantly influence. For the most part systemic change occurs in spite of, and not because of, social justice movements.

My new experience with social justice was the same as two and three decades ago. We read books and repeated the same conversation we had back then. The characters had changed (Latinos instead of Somalis, for instance; Donal Trump instead of Ronald Reagan) but angst and anger were all pretty much identical.

It was at this point that I began to disengage in the book study. My memory of my Presbyterian days was that it was the anger that propelled the movement forward and the angst that made it feel righteous. We felt bad and a righteous anger burned against those who did bad. But is it righteous?

Righteous anger is a very rare thing because it needs to be constructive rather than destructive. For me, in my very short time with this justice focused group, there was very little that was constructive. (Conversation for conversation’s sake, for instance, is not constructive; going to a meeting about immigration is not constructive.) It was destructive because it left a slow burn in my soul. Righteous anger, in order to be constructive, cannot be the slow burn variety. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26).

Anger that you sleep on, that you mull over in your head, transforms itself into a variety of spiritual problems. It drowns out the silence of God that transforms the heart into the image of anger rather than love. St. Porphyrios said, “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.” Abiding anger is antithetical to the life of love that Porphyrios is talking about.

But when I disengaged from the book study I did not engage the group in a discussion of these issues, or only did so at the surface level. Is this not a contradiction to what I said should happen in the previous essay? As I said at the beginning of this essay, my experience illustrates the difficulty of authentic engagement with those one disagrees with.

The Orthodox vision of salvation is radically but subtly different than the Western vision of salvation. It took me years to begin to understand and embrace the difference. One of the key differences is that the Orthodox recognize that social justice is inherently futile.  The world is broken; we are broken. The result is that when we try to fix the world, we inadvertently break it more. The very idea of changing the world (every college kid’s dream, if you believe the commencement speeches) is triumphalistic and thus , to a degree, idolatrous. Only God can change the world.

My role in that primary grand divine process of changing the world is to participate in changing myself. Changing myself is extremely difficult. In fact, it is far easier  to put that aside and go about trying to do social justice and hope that others and social systems will change. In this Orthodox framework, social justice is similar to co-dependency.

But the other people in the group didn’t sign up to have a conversation about Orthodoxy and how it is radically different than the liberal Protestant vision of what we need to do in the world. They didn’t come to me, I came to them. It would have been impolite to force the conversation in that direction.

Instead, I’ll hang around and wait. Maybe at some point down the line there will be an opportunity for such a conversation. But before that is truly possible I need to spend more time listening and being … and allowing myself to fully appreciate their personhood and ideas without (1) merely demeaning their ideas, and (2) not allowing their ideas of social justice to create a slow burn in my own heart. The time is not full, the opportunity is not yet fully ripe.

Tolstoy, Facts, and Community

I continue to ponder what I believe to be Tolstoy’s misguided view of the world and reality itself as expressed in his book, The Kingdom of God Is within Us. In this essay I want to consider his rejection of the larger community and the resulting narrowness of his thinking. Most everything he said was factual but he didn’t have enough facts. Because of his disdain for those who disagreed with him, he had no source of the other facts and ideas that would have rounded out his opinions.

We have far too much confidence in facts. Facts are good, but there are too many of them. Several factors limit our ability to get the facts that are useful to us. First, we are limited creatures. I can only be in one place at once, so my perceptions of the world are not actually of the world, but of this small place that I am in. Even if we had access to “all” the facts, all that information would overwhelm our limited brains.

Second, my personality shapes how facts are observed and incorporated into my thinking process. Consider two observers of a conversation between two people. The one observer, who is an idea person rather than a people person, pays attention to what is said. When asked to  report on what happened, she describes the content of the conversation and what she learned from it. The second observer, being a people person, describes how the conversation was uncomfortable and one-sided because person A was domineering, moving into person B’s space. The effect that person B was constantly on the defensive. What are the facts of the conversation? Our idea person described it in a series of concepts while our people person described the relationships. All those facts were present in the conversation, but personalities shaped which facts were heard and incorporated into the listener’s perspectives.

Third, my value system will shape which facts stand out, and thus get incorporated. The van has a flat tire and everyone gets out and stands by the roadside while the tire gets changed. Afterwards they are asked what they saw. The prairie expert notices an unusual flower tucked in beneath the bank beside the road. The flower requires shade and is usually found in woodlands, but because of the shade of the bank created by the road cutting through the hill, the flower is thriving in a most unexpected place. The bird expert saw the sparrow, which he had never seen this far north. He wonders if that species is expanding its range. The environmentalist didn’t see the flowers or birds in particular but bemoaned the litter along the roadside. The guy who works for the county said a crew needs to come out and fill the potholes.

Expertise also comes into play in our ability to see what’s there. I am a fan of the Creighton Men’s Soccer team and attend most of their home matches. I don’t know a lot about soccer, but enough to enjoy the matches. One night I sat in front of two scouts from the Chicago Fire, a professional soccer team. They were there to watch three players. They saw the same match I did, but what they saw was completely different because they knew exactly what to look for and their eyes were trained to see the small details that I didn’t have the skill to notice.

Put all of these factors together and the result is that different people see or hear the same things physically but harvest a different set of facts from the same event. If I don’t interact with these different people, when I observe the world and collect the facts that shape my understanding, I will see and hear things that confirm my personality, my interest, and my expertise. I need other people to round out my perceptions of the world.

This is one of the primary functions of communities. Groups of hunter/gatherers were more successful than lone hunter/gatherers and this was the basis of the first human towns and tribes. Similarly, one cannot be a lone Christian and remain truly Christian for long because we need the broader insight and experience to come to know the living God and not just the caricature of a God (or a caricature of the Bible) that I develop all by myself.

But community is having a tough time of it at the moment. Universities were originally designed to promote this sort of broad thinking that would promote true communities of learning. Increasingly, universities are doing the opposite by focusing on a single ideology and excluding most others. (The book The Closing of the American Mind offers a thorough critique of the problem.)

Social networking, as it is currently conceived, is not social at all, in the classic understanding of the term. These networks tend to gather people of a single opinion together and thus mirror the crisis of the modern university. The effect is that certain facts that confirm a certain bias get amplified in the various self-selected “social” groups.

American churches suffer from the same confirmation bias. Individual congregations and denominations tend toward a single perspective on critical issues. In the most recent American election cycle a Trump supporter would probably have been stoned (if that were still allowed) at the local Episcopal Church while the same fate would have faced a Hillary supporter at the currently popular local post-denominational entertainment church. (At least if the rhetoric at work from members of those congregations is any indication.)

If we want to be well-rounded human beings, it is critical that we spend time, and I think it requires face-to-face time where we interact with the fullness of persons and not just their on-line avatars, with a variety of people. I’m not sure where we go to find these relationships, but I do believe it is one of the critical needs of the day.

Eventually we will figure out how to incorporate all of our new technologies into our social relationships. For the time being, we need to be intentional about seeking those sorts of relationships out. Only then can we be given more facts by others – facts that we probably won’t and can’t discover on our own – that will give us a well-rounded understanding of reality.

Nowhere for Me to Get Out To

From Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Setting: Ivan is in an insane asylum because of a misdiagnosis (in his opinion); he saw the transcendent world. There are bars on the windows, but another patient has just entered Ivan’s room by unlocking the bars and opening the window. They are now talking:

“But if you can go out onto the balcony, you can get out of here. Or is it too high up?” queried Ivan.

“No,” was the guest’s firm reply, “It’s not because it’s too high that I can’t get out, but because there’s nowhere for me to get out to.” After a pause he added, “So, we’re stuck sitting here?”

“Yes, stuck,” replied Ivan, gazing into the new-comer’s anxious-looking brown eyes.

Ah … but isn’t that the plight of humanity! Nowhere for me to get out to.

Note: If this doesn’t make a lot of sense, the novel is a critique of Russian atheist culture.

What I learned from Tolstoy (That Tolstoy did not intend for me to Learn)

I am quite ignorant when it comes to Leo Tolstoy. Like most people with a passable liberal arts education, I have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I know little of his life. I had assumed that, like Dostoyevsky, he was Orthodox; although in fact he was an anarchist with what seems to be vaguely Christian tendencies (a Christian in general but believes whatever he wants to pull out of the Bible and ignores the rest) and dismissive of not only all Orthodoxy, but seemingly all organized Christianity.

I came to this realization reading his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You is his explanation and defense of his anarchist position, drawn largely from two American writers, William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. It was an influential volume. Gandhi said it was one of the books that taught him the value and process of non-violence. But it is a thoroughly 19th century book that embraced most of the weakness and few of the strengths of the era. I’ve managed about a third of the book but doubt I will finish it.

Tolstoy says he embraces “non-resistance,” but his understanding of the idea is so comprehensive it must necessarily be identified as an anarchist philosophy. Along with pacifism, Tolstoy argues that the Christian cannot serve in any government office, cannot vote, cannot willingly pay taxes (although one shouldn’t object if the government takes it by force). He also is open to the possibility that the Christian cannot be a land owner.

As alluded to above, the book is a product of the some of the least tenable ideas of the 19th century. It is thoroughly rationalist and considers Christianity, not as a living relationship with God, but rather as a philosophy or a collection of ideas (or in the case of this book, a singular idea from the Sermon on the Mount) to shape his thinking and live by. It also elevates his own private interpretation above all others that have gone before. The depth and breadth of his hubris is quite frankly a bit frightening. That someone could be that absolutist and sure of his own ideas in the context of the Stalinist regime is unimaginable to me. But I suspect that sort of triumphalistic rationalism was the air the 19th century breathed because those same sensibilities were also built into American Protestantism and still largely infect conservative American Christianity.

If Shashi Tharoor is correct in his analysis (and most Indians think so, if not Britons) Winston Churchill committed genocide on a scale near to that of Stalin in his dealings with India. Tolstoy was essentially responding to Stalin and his genocide in this book, and it could be that context in India was similar enough that Gandhi found, in Tolstoy, a comrade who was horrified by the evil perpetrated by the government.

I mention Stalin and Churchill because we too live in an age of demagoguery. Brexit, the American and French elections, along with similar sentiments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere, indicate that the neither Brexit nor Donald Trump are outliers in the modern Western world. The sort of violence expressed in acts of genocide have not been seen, but the attitudes that underlie such actions should be recognized.

But if I dislike the book so much, why am I writing about it? Because it reveals the disconcerting ways in which we are living in similar times. First it is rooted in the idea that a relatively simple idea will fix everything. (For Tolstoy it was anarchism. Today it is, among other things, nativism, which is at the root of the Brexit vote, the Make America Great Again campaign, and the le Pen campaign.) Second, it is rooted in a personal version of truth that rejects a broader understanding of reality. (In this sense, Tolstoy’s interpretation of the Bible is similar to the modern phenomenon which is currently called “fake news.”) Third (and this is closely related to the first), is inherent triumphalism of such ideas. Some things are simply too big to fix with an overarching plan. The problems need to be chipped away rather than swept away. Trying to sweep them away will lead to unimagined consequences that are almost always bad. India was left with staggering poverty (although that was almost certainly the result of British policy more than Gandhi’s response), Russia was left with the police state that we called Communist Russian and the modern world … well, what knows what will happen with the modern world.

And this has led me to think at length at how we chip away at world that seems to be spinning madly out of control. Tolstoy didn’t have a clue. Dostoyevsky understood the problem very well it seems. Gandhi was immediately successful, but his revolution has been a long-term spiral downward. It’s hard to find true modern success stories.

This essay is designed to set forth some very broad ideas. I will propose the following:

  1. The problem isn’t fake news, or more fundamentally, the problem is not truth and our lack of commitment to it; rather the problem is relationships, and our lack of commitment to them.
  2. We can solve very little by focusing on the victims. They do not represent the core problem, but rather the effects of deeper problems.
  3. Most problems cannot be fixed in an acceptable way. Rather than fix them, we need to learn to live with them and through them.
  4. The biggest problem is not the government nor radicals nor the unengaged, it is rather us. If we learn to focus on our own issues rather than other peoples issues (Jesus described it as the log in my eye and the speck in the other person’s eye), we can seriously begin to address #3.

These are some rather broad ideas that I hope to flesh out in the next months. I am curious how much headway I can make. I invite you to follow along.