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McCain

McCainFuneral

I first remember being aware of John McCain when I was impressed by his speech to the 1988 GOP convention.  He was the first politician I ever gave money to, during the 2000 primaries.  Over the years he was as likely to frustrate and anger me as he was to do something I admired.  His speech on torture I play in my ethics classes when we discuss respect for human dignity after reading Immanuel Kant.

This weekend generated some very good articles about him and his funeral (and Aretha's too).

This article at the Guardian was quite good in discussing the complexity of his legacy.  I felt it was in bad taste for it to be published before the funeral--they should have waited till this week.  But the article is, nonetheless, good and accurate, I believe.

This CNN article discussed both major funerals--Aretha's and McCain's--and what meaning we could take from them.  The references to Pericles at the beginning remind you of the importance that a public funeral can play for a society. Excerpts:

While McCain's funeral recalled Eurocentric classical traditions (Athenian democracy, after all, did not extend to women and slaves), Franklin's evoked the scores of civil rights funerals at which she had sung, or at which her father had preached. 

***

There was one further question hanging in the air this weekend. Where do we go from here? Could we ever see Obama, Dyson and Williams organizing in the same civil rights movement? A rallying cry for voter registration is at least a start. At McCain's commemoration, former Presidents from the GOP and the Democratic Party were able to give speeches touching on the same virtues of civility and political self-sacrifice.
 
But on the frontlines of this November's election battles, the tone is still set by Donald Trump and his Twitter feed. To many American voters, the very bipartisanship of Saturday's gathering at the National Cathedral will testify to the herd mentality of a Washington elite.
 
Pericles had an advantage. If we believe his biographer, the historian Thucydides, his listeners shared his definition of his nation's values. They just needed an eloquent reminder. The broken body of Emmett Till exposed an evil so explicit that its presence in America could no longer be denied. But it is not clear that the vast TV audiences for Aretha Franklin's homegoing are all on the same page about racial justice. Nor that the millions who watched John McCain's funeral share his vision for America. Meanwhile, to many voters elsewhere in America, unity looks like weakness.

And the New Yorker reflected on the civil religion aspect of McCain's funeral, as it considered him "Americanism's High Priest."

Sublime happiness and metaphysical enlargement, achieved through the transcendence of self, are promises usually reserved for divine, not patriotic, worship, and McCain’s invocation of liberty, justice, and respect reads like the Jeffersonian shadow of St. Paul’s list of virtues: faith, hope, and love. He was an understated Protestant, not given to much mention of the Biblical God, but, when we understand Americanism as a church, we can see the true McCain, as religious a figure as has lately crossed the national stage.

This, I think, is the key to interpreting McCain’s funeral.

But this the article's dark conclusion:

But for all of the scorn heaped on Trump—whose name was never mentioned outright—there were questions left unanswered at the service. First: Is it really possible for a person to rise to power in a country with which he has absolutely nothing in common? Isn’t it more likely that Trump, whose most fervent devotees are white evangelicals and proponents of the fraudulent prosperity gospel, is just as archetypically American as McCain, embodying an alternative set of equally real national principles: anxious acquisitiveness, a distaste for deep thought, endless aggrandizement?

Then, too: Even if the American religion is good, and inclusive of certain eternal truths, if it can be thrown so quickly into crisis, turned so violently on itself, how sturdy was it, really?

My favourite parts of the funeral were actually when the words of the Episcopal ceremony were read about him, the same words read about every departing Christian.  This was a reminder that these same words are said about both the simple and the great, a truly Christian message.  So, I was most annoyed when the online footage from NBC I watched on Monday (on Saturday, the day after my step-father's death, I had not been in the mood to watch the funeral) ended with annoying historians and political commentators talking over the clergy's close of the service.  How incredibly disrespectful, as the service was not over, yet they seemed to think the religious words unimportant, a clear sign of the degradation of the nation and their fundamental misunderstanding that this was a worship service, not merely an act of civil religion.


The Open Society & Its Enemies

The Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume EditionThe Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume Edition by Karl R. Popper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This major work has been "on my list" since I read that marvelous little book Wittgenstein's Poker about the time Wittgenstein supposedly got so angry at Popper he brandished a poker at him (if you haven't read that book, I highly recommend it). After the election of Trump I thought I should hurry up and get it read.

This is a major tome that takes some work to get through (though you can effectively skim through portions). If you want to grasp the summary, read the chapter with the same title as the book.

The First Volume is a marvelous take down of Plato as the source of authoritarianism in the Western tradition. I must say, I was initially quite surprised with how critical Popper was of Plato, but the more I read the more convinced I became of Popper's analysis. Plato was an enemy of Athenian democracy and his philosophy has provided intellectual fodder for opposing the open society ever since.

The Second Volume is a criticism of historicism in more contemporary philosophy, first the conservative type represented by Hegel and then, more thoroughly, Marxism. Popper eviscerates Hegel with sentences that had me laughing out loud (despite the fact that I was reading them in my stepdad's hospital room). Popper greatly respects Marx and what he set out to do, but still thinks he was wrong. But this is judged on scientific grounds. Marx proposed a theory, Popper analyses and tests the theory and finds it wanting. He credits Marx with showing "that a social system can as such be unjust; that if the system is bad, then all the righteousness of the individuals who profit from it is a mere sham righteousness." Marx showed that we are responsible for the system.

And in this way, Popper contends that Marx contributed to the open society, for it is one in which we are all responsible. In fact, that's why there is often backlash against it--being responsible for oneself and one's society causes strain and stress.

What does sustain the open society? Democracy. The humanitarian spirit. Brotherhood. Individual freedom. Rational argument. Critical reason. Institutions. And incremental changes rather than bold revolutions. He places much emphasis on the role of institutions (a message I've been more open to since Trump, having revised my typical Gen X distrust of institutions).

And Popper doesn't think that you can give an argument to prove that the open society is right, believing in it is a matter of faith.

So, if you are looking for any purpose or meaning in history or politics, it is the purpose and meaning that we decide it will have. "Progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice."

In the final paragraph he writes, "We must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes."

***
I wrote on the final page, "Very good. Now I have many questions." Popper wrote this book in the midst of the ascendancy of the totalitarians of the twentieth century, so he would be an excellent giver of advice for how the open society should respond to those who don't engage in rational discourse and who destroy the institutions that support democracy, but he doesn't provide such practical advice. Are we to simply continue on doing the best we can and hope that we survive? He doesn't think our success is inevitable or that history bends toward justice. So it would seem that the believers in the open society could do our best and still be defeated.

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Democrats, Democrats

In the wake of Donald Trump's inauguration, I decided to take a moderate position.  It seemed to me that what was most essential in this crisis was reweaving the social fabric and committing to core ideals and virtues.  I even for a while had a podcast making this point.  

I came to this conclusion because Trump, to me, appeared to be a symptom not a cause, so focusing on him and his daily outrages was not going to be long-term helpful.

This also meant that I should set aside some things that matter deeply to me in order to build alliances in a moment when the survival of the republic and the moral order mattered more.  So, for instance, Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics Commission for the SBC, has been a Trump opponent.  I had long viewed Moore as an antagonist to my well-being as gay man, but our shared opposition to Trump matters more in this moment.

But it seems that the Democratic Party and many of the progressive activist folk I've worked closely with for the last couple of decades largely made other choices.  One could see this split occurring even during the 2016 election.  

Back in 2009 I was angered that the Democrats, when they did have power, didn't use it more effectively to achieve longterm goals.  I have also complained many times that the Democrats have failed to play the political game as effectively as the Republicans.  So, I do understand the position of those who think now is a time to fight more earnestly for longterm goals.

But I do worry that it is a failed strategy to solve the immediate needs of the country.  I do hear those that say the leftward tilt of the Democrats will work because it will mobilize more voters who have otherwise stayed home.  Maybe they are right, and some elections so far give evidence of that.  This is an empirical claim that will be answered in time.

Today I read two things that sent me into pondering these questions in more detail.  The first is an article in The Guardian about how Democrats are misunderstanding the moment and how their daily outrage is actually strengthening the Trump coalition.

The second is a good column from David Brooks about how the Democrats needs to decide on a compelling narrative.  I happen to like the one he suggests.  He writes:

Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.

This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented. It points to a task that we urgently need to undertake. 

What are your thoughts on these vital questions?


Perspective of "Death of Liberalism"

These authors point out that for more than a century liberalism's death has been predicted.  But that's nonsense, one reason being that so many different things are a form of liberalism.  This article gives some good historical perspective on our current moment.  And I liked this line, "Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires."


On Sessions & Scripture

In my reading this week, I came across this discussion of the truth of religious statements in George Lindbeck's classic The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.  Reading it made me think of the recent debate around Jeff Sessions's misuse of scripture and why we can call it a misuse.

Thus for a Christian, "God is Three and One," or "Christ is Lord" are true only as parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting.  They are false when their use in any given instance is inconsistent with what the pattern as a whole affirms of God's being and will.  The crusader's battle cry "Christus est Dominus," for example, is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance).  When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood.


Church as Polis

In the second chapter of Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith discusses the political nature of Christian worship, which he describes as "a public ritual centered on--yea, led by--an ascended King."  As a corollary to this, "Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics."

One of the most puzzling things for many of us clergy is how we are deeply trained to understand church and worship this way--these are not new or radical ideas in theology or liturgics--but how so many congregants seem completely unformed to understand church and worship in this way.  How did this disconnect arise?

Smith is also making the point that politics (and many other aspects of our culture) are also religious--they are rituals trying to form us in certain ways.  So if the church cedes the political terrain, it is actually allowing forces outside the church to shape people according to narratives that are not the churches.

I like this quote from Richard Bauckham, "Worship . . . is the source of resistance to the idolatries of the public world."

What was frustrating about this (and some subsequent chapters) is that he spent much of the time simply reviewing the analysis and arguments of someone else, here Oliver O'Donovan.  

A key theme of the chapter is that "The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent."  Unlike some thinkers who focus on the church as polis, Smith reminds us that we aren't separate from the world, we are in fact sent into it to make our mark and try to influence politics and culture for God.

Smith is mainly writing to other NeoCalvinists (Reformed Evangelicals).  Some of his arguments were broadly embraced by Liberal Protestants in the 19th century.  For instance, there is this sentence, also a quote from O'Donovan, which sounded a lot to me like the Congregationalists of the 19th century who were abolitionists, temperance campaigners, suffragists, etc.--"Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God's saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin--their own sin and others."

The chapter includes a surprising analysis of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent apocalyptic novel The Road.  Smith asks, "Where did these characters [the father and son who are main characters] come from who shine like lights in this brutal darkness?"  He doesn't read McCarthy as claiming they have a natural goodness--rather, they were formed in some way.  What liturgy then shaped them?  Smith cites numerous examples of sacramentality referenced in the novel.

In a side bar on the liturgical calendar he points out "The Christian year is a political rite that invites us to reinhabit the life of our King and learn what it might look like to imitate the strange politics of his kingdom here in the meantime."

He rightly points out near the end of the chapter that worship is not directed against any specific regime but against the entire notion that politics is ultimate for us as human beings.


Awaiting the King

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyAwaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed thoughts about this third entry in the Cultural Liturgies series. One the one hand the book makes good strong arguments for liturgical practice as political theology. On the other, many chapters are detailed reviews of other scholar's arguments that got a little tiresome.

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Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy

Continuing blogging about James K. A. Smith's Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyHere's the last post.  

Smith contends that the political is "a way of life, a constellation of loves and longing and beliefs bundled up in communal rhythms, routines, and rituals."

Drawing upon Augustine, he contends that earthly politics is a penultimate concern, but it has a way of trying to be an ultimate concern.  I do find this refreshing in this particularly difficult political age, a good reminder that my faith and values are my ultimate concern.

Similar to the criticisms of Michael Sandel (who is not quoted) he believes we need a vision of the good life, which is lacking in much liberal democracy (or has been lost, as it was part of the tradition).  

This chapter furthers his analysis that politics is already religious, a liturgy that is shaping and often misshaping us.

He references the work of Jeffrey Stout that "pragmatism is democratic traditionalism."  I want to read this work.

Christians cannot be separated from contemporary political concerns.  He writes, "to seek the welfare of the city precisely because we are called to cultivate creation."


Loss of a Nebraska Legacy

The Nation details how the current governor of Nebraska, billionaire scion Pete Ricketts, is dismantling the unique legacy of Nebraska state politics--its bipartisanship as embodied in the unicameral Senate.  

It didn't take long after Michael and I moved here for me to begin expressing my regard and admiration for this system.  Particularly coming from the dysfunctions of Oklahoma politics, which have worsened since 2010.  In Nebraska crazy bills generally never made it into serious contention, must less passed.  All Senators of all parties could hold leadership positions and have say in legislation.  Pragmatic rather than ideological solutions to problems were the pursued.  Bills killed in committee weren't surprisingly brought back to life the final day of the session.  Citizens were actively engaged in the hearing process and were fully informed of a bill's progress through the legislature.  And there was a spirit of working together.

I've often spoken highly of this system, as a committed convert, to people living elsewhere.  So sad to see it endangered.