Václav Havel: Democracy as Spiritual Discipline

by Peter Montgomery, Religion Dispatches, December 18, 2011

…Václav Havel’s death…brings a more reflective sadness, a sense of what he could yet have taught Americans about the moral responsibilities of citizens and politicians in a democratic society. Havel, of course, was an accidental politician, a playwright and former political prisoner-turned-president after his leadership of the “Velvet Revolution” against Soviet-sponsored tyranny in Czechoslovakia…emotionally transparent way he addressed the staggering challenge of steering Czechoslovakia away from totalitarianism and toward social democracy while resisting pressures to embrace free-market fundamentalism…

While still sitting president..Havel bared his mind, heart, and soul in a remarkable collection of essays written in the summer of 1991 and published in English by Knopf the following year as Summer Meditations these essays are imbued with a quiet conviction that politics should be a high moral calling… A moral and intellectual state cannot be established through a constitution, or through law, or through directives, but only through complex, long-term, and never-ending work involving education and self-education…it might be called spirit. Or feeling. Or conscience. 

On moving from a state-controlled economy toward a market economy based on individual responsibility, plurality of ownership and decision-making, while resisting pressures from free-market fundamentalists to abandon any regulation or social principlesthe marketplace can work only if it has its own morality — a morality generally enshrined in laws, regulations, traditions, experiences, customs — in the rules of the game, to put it simply. No game can be played without rules…The law is undoubtedly an instrument of justice, but it would be an utterly meaningless instrument if no one used it responsibly…Havel also wrote that politicians have a moral obligation to call their followers to be true to their best selves rather than pander to or inflame their followers’ worst instincts…Havel utterly rejected the kind of dishonest and destructive “ends justify the means” politics that seems to dominate so much of our political discourse…Havel was not naïve about the need for eternal vigilance…Havel understood that the mechanisms and institutions of democracy also depend on a commitment to what we could call the spirit of democracy, in opposition to rigid ideological thinking:

“I am convinced that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is – regardless of how unscientific this may sound to the ears of a political scientist – humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural.“…

Building an intellectual and spiritual state — a state based on ideas — does not mean building an ideological state. Indeed, an ideological state cannot be intellectual or spiritual. A state based on ideas is precisely the opposite: it is meant to extricate human beings from the straitjacket of ideological interpretations, and to rehabilitate them as subjects of individual conscience, of individual thinking backed up by experience, of individual responsibility, and with a love for their neighbors that is anything but abstract..

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News of Václav Havel’s death arrived just days after the New York Times literally stopped the presses to report on the death of the brilliant, caustic, maddening intellectual iconoclast Christopher Hitchens.  Hitchens and Havel shared a fierce and fearless opposition to tyrannies, whether from the right or left. For me, Havel’s passing brings a more reflective sadness, a sense of what he could yet have taught Americans about the moral responsibilities of citizens and politicians in a democratic society.

Havel, of course, was an accidental politician, a playwright and former political prisoner-turned-president after his leadership of the “Velvet Revolution” against Soviet-sponsored tyranny in Czechoslovakia. I am not a Havel scholar, but I have been moved deeply by the emotionally transparent way he addressed the staggering challenge of steering Czechoslovakia away from totalitarianism and toward social democracy while resisting pressures to embrace free-market fundamentalism.

While still sitting president, and before Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Havel bared his mind, heart, and soul in a remarkable collection of essays written in the summer of 1991 and published in English by Knopf the following year as Summer Meditations. In contrast to Hitchens’ pyrotechnic polemics, these essays are imbued with a quiet conviction that politics should be a high moral calling.

Twenty years later, Havel’s meditations from a nation struggling into democracy have much to say to those of us in a nation struggling with our own democracy:

There is no simple set of instructions on how to proceed. A moral and intellectual state cannot be established through a constitution, or through law, or through directives, but only through complex, long-term, and never-ending work involving education and self-education. [...] It is not, in short, something we can simply declare or introduce. It is a way of going about things, and it demands the courage to breathe moral and spiritual motivation into everything, to seek the human dimension in all things. Science, technology, expertise, and so-called professionalism are not enough. Something more is necessary. For the sake of simplicity, it might be called spirit. Or feeling. Or conscience. 

On moving from a state-controlled economy toward a market economy based on individual responsibility, plurality of ownership and decision-making, while resisting pressures from free-market fundamentalists to abandon any regulation or social principles:

Right-wing dogmatism, with its sour-faced intolerance and fanatical faith in general precepts, bothers me as much as left-wing prejudices, illusions, and utopias. Today, unfortunately, we often find that a straightforward analysis of specific problems and a calm, unbiased consideration of them are being pushed out of public debate by something that might be called ‘market madness.’ [...] It is a great mistake to think that the marketplace and morality are mutually exclusive. Precisely the opposite is true: the marketplace can work only if it has its own morality — a morality generally enshrined in laws, regulations, traditions, experiences, customs — in the rules of the game, to put it simply. No game can be played without rules.

Havel told citizens that they held immense responsibility for holding institutions and individuals accountable:

The law is undoubtedly an instrument of justice, but it would be an utterly meaningless instrument if no one used it responsibly. From our own recent experience we all know too well what can happen to even a decent law in the hands of an unscrupulous judge, and how easily unscrupulous people can use democratic institutions to introduce dictatorship and terror. [...] That these institutions can help us become more human is obvious; that is why they were created, and why we are building them now. But if they are to guarantee anything to us, it is we, first of all, who must guarantee them.

Havel also wrote that politicians have a moral obligation to call their followers to be true to their best selves rather than pander to or inflame their followers’ worst instincts:

Time and time again I have been persuaded that a huge potential of goodwill is slumbering within our society. It’s just that it’s incoherent, suppressed, confused, crippled and perplexed — as though it does not know what to rely on, where to begin, where or how to find meaningful outlets.

In such a state of affairs, politicians have a duty to awaken this slumbering potential, to offer it direction and ease its passage, to encourage it and give it room, or simply hope. They say a nation gets the politicians it deserves. [...] At the same time – paradoxically – the opposite is also true; society is a mirror of its politicians. It is largely up to the politicians which social forces they choose to liberate and which they choose to suppress, whether they rely on the good in each citizen or the bad. 

Unfortunately, many politicians do not live up to this ideal. Havel saw partisanship and the sowing of general anti-government hostility as particularly dangerous:

It is enough to look around our political scene (whose lack of civility is merely a reflection of the more general crisis of civility)….Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents knows no bounds. One politician will undermine another’s work only because they belong to different political parties. Partisan considerations still visibly take precedence over pragmatic attempts to arrive at reasonable and useful solutions to problems. Analysis is pushed out of the press by scandalmongering. Supporting the government in a good cause is practically shameful; kicking it in the shins, on the other hand, is praiseworthy. Sniping at politicians who declare their support for another political group is a matter of course. Anyone can accuse anyone else of intrigue or incompetence, or of having a shady past and shady intentions…

[...] Citizens are become more and more disgusted with all this, and their disgust is understandably directed against the democratic government they themselves elected.

And yet, if a handful of friends and I were able to bang our heads against the wall for years by speaking the truth about Communist totalitarianism while surrounded by an ocean of apathy, there is no reason why I shouldn’t go on banging my head against the wall by speaking ad nauseam, despite the condescending smiles, about responsibility and morality in the face of our present social marasmus. There is no reason to think that this struggle is a lost cause. The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle.

Havel utterly rejected the kind of dishonest and destructive “ends justify the means” politics that seems to dominate so much of our political discourse:

…Of course, I don’t know whether directness, truth, and the democratic spirit will succeed. But I do know how not to succeed, which is by choosing means that contradict the ends. As we know from history, that is the best way to eliminate the very ends we set out to achieve.

In other words, if there is to be any chance at all of success, there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly. I’m aware that, in everyday politics, that is not seen as the most practical way of going about it….

I see the only way forward in that old, familiar injunction; “live in truth.”

But Havel was not naïve about the need for eternal vigilance.

If I talk here about my political — or more precisely, my civil — program, about my notion of the kind of politics and values and ideals I wish to struggle for, this is not to say that I am entertaining the naïve hope that this struggle may one day be over. [...]

Neither I nor anyone else will ever win this war once and for all. At the very most, we can win a battle or two — and not even that is certain. Yet I still think it makes sense to wage this war persistently. It has been waged for centuries, and it will continue to be waged – we hope – for centuries to come. This must be done on principle, because it is the right thing to do. Or, if you like, because God wants it that way. It is an eternal, never-ending struggle waged not just by good people (among whom I count myself, more or less) against evil people, by honorable people against dishonorable people, by people who think about the world and eternity against people who think only of themselves and the moment. It takes place inside everyone. It is what makes a person a person and life, life.

Havel understood that the mechanisms and institutions of democracy also depend on a commitment to what we could call the spirit of democracy, in opposition to rigid ideological thinking:

I am convinced that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is – regardless of how unscientific this may sound to the ears of a political scientist – humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural. [...]

Building an intellectual and spiritual state — a state based on ideas — does not mean building an ideological state. Indeed, an ideological state cannot be intellectual or spiritual. A state based on ideas is precisely the opposite: it is meant to extricate human beings from the straitjacket of ideological interpretations, and to rehabilitate them as subjects of individual conscience, of individual thinking backed up by experience, of individual responsibility, and with a love for their neighbors that is anything but abstract.

A state based on ideas should be no more and no less than a guarantee of freedom and security for people who know that the state and its institutions can stand behind them only if they themselves take responsibility for the state — that is, if they see it as their own project and their own home, as something they need not fear, as something they can — without shame — love, because they have built it for themselves.

http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/guest_bloggers/5509/v%C3%A1clav_havel%3A_democracy_as_spiritual_discipline__/

Political dysfunction spells trouble for democracies

By E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, May 19, 2013

Mini-excerpt

…it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy. …We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it[there are] two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual… politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal…

Excerpt

…it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy. Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements…We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird itEarlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics. “Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”…Ernst Hillebrand, the head of international policy analysis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic Party’s think tank…pointed to two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual. On the one side, large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters have seen their economic standing deteriorate over two or three decades. There has been a substantial transfer of wealth and income from labor — which is how most people pay their way — to capital. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains. This builds justified frustration. At the same time, he said, many citizens, especially the young, have enhanced expectations for “participation, self-realization and control over their lives.” They do not see current electoral arrangements in democracies giving them much chance to achieve any of these goals. Since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again — and soon. In the meantime, politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal. They could begin by pondering what an unemployed 28-year-old makes of a ruling elite that expends so much energy feuding over how bureaucrats rewrote a set of talking points.

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We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy.

Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements.

Still, while it may not be much of a comfort, the democratic distemper is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Across most of the democratic world, there is an impatience bordering on exhaustion with electoral systems and political classes.

Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.

It’s not hard to discover that this conundrum is global and not just our own. “Has democracy had its day?” is the headline on Columbia University historian Mark Mazower’s cover story in the May issue of Prospect, a British magazine. The subhead: “Electoral politics has had a bad decade.”

Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.

“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”

In Europe, the authors noted, “there is fear that the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy.” In the United States, “lamentations about gridlock and polarization are the order of the day.” Even our peaceable neighbor Canada is not immune. “Canadians,” they write, “worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister.”

The report does include some useful suggestions for reviving the democratic spirit and improving democratic practice. But it is not alarmist to be uneasy about democracy’s prospects. Ernst Hillebrand, the head of international policy analysis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic Party’s think tank, describes a chilling finding in a 2009 survey by the German polling firm Forsa: “that zero percent — yes, zero percent — of workers in Germany believe they can have a significant impact on how policy in Germany is shaped via the ballot box.”

And bear in mind that a poll released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that Germans are far more satisfied with their country’s situation than are their European neighbors.

In a conversation last week during a visit to Washington, Hillebrand pointed to two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual.

On the one side, large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters have seen their economic standing deteriorate over two or three decades. There has been a substantial transfer of wealth and income from labor — which is how most people pay their way — to capital. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains. This builds justified frustration.

At the same time, he said, many citizens, especially the young, have enhanced expectations for “participation, self-realization and control over their lives.” They do not see current electoral arrangements in democracies giving them much chance to achieve any of these goals.

Since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again — and soon. In the meantime, politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal. They could begin by pondering what an unemployed 28-year-old makes of a ruling elite that expends so much energy feuding over how bureaucrats rewrote a set of talking points.

Read more on this topic: The Post’s View: European Union economic crisis grinds on George F. Will: The European Union is a coalition of irresponsibility Steven Pearlstein: Turned off from politics? That’s exactly what the politicians want. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein: Want to end partisan politics? Here’s what won’t work, and what will

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ej-dionne-political-dysfunctions-spells-trouble-for-democracies/2013/05/19/757fedba-bf28-11e2-97d4-a479289a31f9_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

Another Word on “God and the Twenty-First Century”

by Michael Benedikt, Tikkun, March 5, 2011

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It is no longer necessary to invoke the name of God to explain or promote compassionate action. Today we understand we have evolved that capacity…what are commandments? Ways of bringing goodness to life through actions, through deeds…These are the words of three champions of monotheism [Judaism, Christianity, Islam]…But what should followers of these theist traditions think of the good practiced by nonbelievers — people who would say it’s quite unnecessary, and even counterproductive, to bring “God” into ordinary morality, who would offer that morality can and should be understood from an entirely scientific, evolutionary, and historical point of view thus: the capacity for empathy, fairness, and altruism is wired into human beings and even other higher mammals from birth, thanks to millions of generations of reproduction-with-variation under the constraints of natural selection. Similarly, the laws of civility — from the Eightfold Way and the Ten Commandments to the Magna Carta, the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights — are the culturally transmitted legacy of thousands of years of human social evolution overlaid upon older, natural reproductive-selective processes. Whereas laws of civility may once have needed the rhetorical force of God-talk to establish themselves, today they can be embraced rationally in the service of peace and prosperity.

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It is no longer necessary to invoke the name of God to explain or promote compassionate action. Today we understand we have evolved that capacity and can choose to exercise it.

There’s the story of a young atheist arguing with his Orthodox Jewish father about the existence of God. It’s late Friday afternoon. After an hour or so, the father looks at his watch and concedes, “Well, my son, God might or might not exist, but it’s time for evening prayers.”

Mitzvot are what matter. And what are mitzvot — what are commandments? Ways of bringing goodness to life through actions, through deeds. Said Rabbi Shimeon: “Not learning but doing is the chief thing.” Said Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord! Lord!’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of God” (Matthew 7:21). Said Muhammad: “If you derive pleasure from the good you do, and are grieved by the evil you commit, you are a true believer.”

These are the words of three champions of monotheism. Their pragmatism is bracing. But what should followers of these theist traditions think of the good practiced by nonbelievers — people who would say it’s quite unnecessary, and even counterproductive, to bring “God” into ordinary morality, who would offer that morality can and should be understood from an entirely scientific, evolutionary, and historical point of view thus: the capacity for empathy, fairness, and altruism is wired into human beings and even other higher mammals from birth, thanks to millions of generations of reproduction-with-variation under the constraints of natural selection. Similarly, the laws of civility — from the Eightfold Way and the Ten Commandments to the Magna Carta, the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights — are the culturally transmitted legacy of thousands of years of human social evolution overlaid upon older, natural reproductive-selective processes. Whereas laws of civility may once have needed the rhetorical force of God-talk to establish themselves, today they can be embraced rationally in the service of peace and prosperity.

In short, the nonbeliever holds that arriving at the enlightened understanding that good actions are good-for-us, that better ones are good-for-us-all, and the best are good-for-all-living-things requires neither God nor religion. God (in their view) is actually “God,” a useful fiction at best, a mental catalyst, rather like the square root of minus one: put into the equation only to be taken out later.

This dismissal of God and “his” goodness — in favor of evolution and its goodness — leaves modern, science-educated theists (and deists) unsatisfied. They believe that centuries of religious architecture, literature, and music ought not be treated only aesthetically and/or anthropologically, bracketed from real life, and considered to be about what was once picturesquely believed — but rather as capable, still, of transporting the self and transforming the world for the good. They believe, likewise, that ceremonies calmly asking for God’s blessing in progressive churches and synagogues the world over may not be worship in the traditions of self-abjection or irrational ecstasy, but they do more than “improve group fitness.” There’s a reason that the seal impressed upon births, marriages, and deaths by the invocation of the deity is so poorly replaced by secular language.

For modern, science-educated theists, the theory of evolution and the way it accounts for the origins of ethics and aesthetics is not wrong, then, just inadequate. Arthur Green’s excellent essay in “God and the Twenty-First Century,” the March/April 2010 Tikkun, represents one response, one solution. It is to divinize evolution, to understand evolution as God’s only mode of operation. Evolution has a direction, which is the attainment of ever higher levels of complexity and organization — of ever greater “intensifications of beauty,” as Alfred North Whitehead put it — in the arrangement of matter and energy in the universe, culminating in human consciousness. This passage from dust to mindfulness, this many-billion-year saga, is sacred in its entirety. It is the new “Greatest Story Ever Told.”

In Divinizing Evolution, What Becomes of the Problem of Evil?

If evolution itself is seen as wise and benevolent, even divine, how come it involves so much suffering? Or is there a better way to conceive of “evolutionary spirituality”? Creative Commons/William Li.

Reading Green brings to mind earlier attempts to divinize evolution: Whitehead’s process, Henri Bergson’s creative evolution, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s cosmogenesis, Samuel Alexander’s emergentism, as well as the “evolutionary spiritualities” (Andrew Cohen’s term) of Leibniz, Schelling, Hegel, and J. Huxley, for whom humankind was “nothing else but evolution become conscious of itself.” The danger with reconciling theism with science by sacralizing evolution, however, is the tendency to assign to evolution a wisdom equivalent to the God of Genesis. The resulting problem is an old one: the “problem of evil.” For just as it is difficult and even impossible to reconcile the existence of a single, absolutely powerful, knowledgeable, and beneficent Creator God with the innocent suffering that surrounds us, so one cannot hold to a good, evolution-devising, evolution-endorsing, or even evolution-constituted God for whom the agonies and early deaths of uncountable living creatures through history are justified by the result, since the vast majority of those agonies and deaths contributed nothing to evolution.

Evolution, overall, may be “good” in as much as it eventuated in our being here to read and write articles like this. But looked at with any precision, evolution is a slow and messy affair, tragic in most directions. Is God really that careless, that wasteful? The evolution of species may be “the greatest … drama of all time,” as Arthur Green says, but on the evidence, it would seem that only a small and recent chapter of it begins to be “sacred.” It’s the chapter that opens with Eve’s eating of the apple, the allegorical mark of the emergence of human conscience, and it’s a chapter that’s still being written.

What If God Emerges From and Evolves With Us?

I suggest that the only version of “evolutionary spirituality” that keeps God good and that makes spiritual as well as evolutionary sense, sees God him/her/itself as emerging from and evolving with us, and not existing before.

This is not so strange an idea, or so new. As talmudist Aryeh Cohen, coming from quite another direction, writes in his careful essay in the same issue of Tikkun: “It is in the practice of justice that God exists and that redemption may happen.” The next logical step multiplies implications: perhaps it is not only in the doing of good (in “the practice of justice”) that God exists, but as the doing of good (as the practice of justice) that God exists. “God” is not a noun but a verb, as David Cooper declares in his book about the Kabbalah; but more pointedly God is not a being, but a doing. If God is as God does, and God does only good by definition, then it follows, in so far as doing (over mere mechanical action or reaction) involves even a trace of foresight, creativity, and review, that God’s existence and continuance is in human hands, no less than our continuance, increasingly, is in God’s. The human species is new in cosmic history. Doing good is newer still. God is not everywhere always, therefore, and never was; God is — only where good is being done, and when. Humanity is “theogenic,” and God “ethicogenic.”

I understand that these declarations are under-supported in this short article. But consider this: seeing God as goodness performed, like music or dance, allows an educated believer to say “God” and to mean by “God” something viable, actual, and energizing that needs no apology or bracketing or empty hyperbole to promote. It encourages them — it encourages us — to understand that religious texts, and especially ancient religious texts, are not poor science or arcane readings suited only for ritual use, but recordings of the emergence of — and generators, still, of an openness to — that new, tenuous, and “vertical” dimension of human experience we call the ethical. This is the dimension into which we step, as out of a basement into fresh air, each time we volunteer ourselves into selflessness, or choose what is best for all, or welcome necessary complexity. One might call it elevation through submission — submission not to God Almighty (this is the old hyperbole), but to the gentle and persistent current of joy and care that runs through life: a charge coming to us from everywhere and nowhere to “choose life,” consciously, for all living things, in the freedom to do otherwise.

The step into the ethical dimension and its upward loft is not arduous. It is often a small one. Said Moses to the Israelites:

Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your hearts, to observe it … Choose life, that ye may live (Deut. 30:11-14, 20:19).

Look out of your window, then. Every animal not shot, every walker not carrying a gun, every car waiting patiently for a traffic light to change, every repairman writing up a job fairly, every person dying in a fresh hospital bed rather than on a battlefield or in a gutter, every street that is swept, every bush that is trimmed, every toddler studying a worm, is God evidenced and instanced. We should look upon these things and be glad, even reverent. We should rejoice at peace and simple decency, and not take them for granted. They are not the product of raw, biological evolution, but of the divine process of civilization, a process to which we contribute. Our “cup runneth over,” and by our ethical actions, that cup runs over for others. This is the wonder of good doing. “The wonder of [good] doing,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel,

is no less amazing than the marvel of being … and [it] may prompt us to discover “the divinity of deeds.” In doing sacred deeds, we may begin to realize that there is more in our doing than ourselves, that in our doing there is something — nay, someone — divine. [It is] “through the ecstasy of deeds” that we learn “to be certain of the hereness of God.”

How Should We De-Anthropomorphize God?

One perpetual challenge for thoughtful theists — a challenge almost as great as how to interpret evolution — is how to deal with theological anthropomorphism, which is the second entry point for atheists after the problem of evil.

As Stewart Guthrie points out in Faces in the Clouds, anthropomorphism takes two forms. The first is easy to detect and easy to suppress: seeing the man in the moon or thinking that snakes are reincarnated bad people, that volcanoes are angry, that the stock market “shakes off” bad news, and so on. It is the stuff of instinct, of children’s books, poetry, and colorful journalism.

The second form of anthropomorphism is not as easy to detect or neutralize. It is part of thinking itself. As Kant argued, space and time may or may not be “out there” apart from our thinking. More commonsensically, we know at some level that whereas we are born and die, the universe may not have had a beginning at all and may not end. Certainly, the universe is neither beautiful nor ugly nor safe nor dangerous, except to us. But neither, really, is it large or small or old or young. We might say that the universe “just is.” But metaphysical “being” too might be an indiscriminate extension of what our own persistence feels like to us. And so on. Like metaphor in language, this form of anthropomorphism is endemic to all human perception and thought, and we just have to live with it. We are, after all, part of the universe — even though we may be the only part evolved enough to ponder its form and meaning — and so can’t be totally wrong.

Where, then, should religious anthropomorphism lie on the spectrum between children’s-book animism on the one hand and Nature-article objectivity on the other? Choosing the first as inevitable, atheists will gleefully quote the pre-Socratic wit, Xenophanes, who reasoned: “If lions could think, their gods would have manes and roar,” or cite Ludwig Feuerbach, who more seriously portrayed God as the wishful projection of human virtues onto an indifferent cosmos — and regard both as evidence of God’s nonexistence.

In defense of this critique, serious theologians and philosophers have long sought to move to the other pole, devising ever less anthropomorphic descriptions of God. Among them are Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura (“God or Nature”), Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, Whitehead’s Process, Tillich’s Ground of Being, Hartshorne’s Eminent Self-Creation, Kaufman’s Creativity, and Green’s Sacred Evolution. Important to note is that while each helps de-anthropomorphize divinity (at the price of God’s addressability — but that’s another story), each also leaves God presiding over the Beginning and underlying all historical developments; each leaves God, though not human in any way, omnipresent, beyond understanding, and without end (Ein Sof), and thus, like the God of the Bible, the suitable object of awe. It would seem that the capacity to inspire awe, by size, beauty, power, and age, is the one capacity without which no God, in our estimation, could be considered God. Do you recall God’s answer to Job? Even a de-anthropomorphized God, it seems, would answer Job in essentially the same way.

What If God Is Young and Weak?

I think that these theologians and philosophers’ hyperbolic descriptions of God might be, if not a mistake, then an unexamined habit. For God may not be the oldest and strongest force in the universe, but the youngest and weakest one, neither celestial on a throne, nor embedded among subatomic events, but enacted in daily human encounters, choices, and deeds. This is a God to cherish, not to fear. Our tradition of depicting God with a human voice “and an outstretched arm” may not, then, be the result of naive anthropocentrism, but rather a reflection of the fact that voluntary goodness emerges from the matrix of human life in acts of love, duty, beauty, compassion, forbearance, and wisdom — it emerges from motherly, fatherly, brotherly, sisterly, and neighborly acts whose recently evolved, high-order complexity is essential not only to our happiness, but to our continuance and even to that of life on earth. Is it not miracle enough that a whole new level of being/doing is struggling to its feet on this planet? And if we are inclined to concede that the emotion of awe is necessary for any God to be God to us, may we not feel awe at a child’s first words? Or radical amazement at the flowering of the Torah on this speck of dust drifting among the mindless, wheeling stars?

Influenced variously by the Hasidic masters, Felix Adler, Martin Buber, Emanuel Levinas, and Abraham Joshua Heschel were among the pioneers of the line of Jewish, existential, “theo-humanistic” religious thinking that we find in practitioners today as different as Michael Lerner and Harold Schulweis (both Heschel students). This line of thinking is happy to see divinity at work in ethical human relationships — people with each other and with other living things. It speaks often of human partnership with God. It celebrates the godliness of certain human deeds. But that divinity, that partnership, that godliness is derivative still, and dependent upon the much greater godliness of God the Creator/Sustainer/Evolver of the Universe, who remains in place, as it were, at the alpha and omega points of existence. I propose that we can let go of this conception and, in holding God to be good only, consider seriously that our ethical actions are the very substance of God, and say dayenu. I have tried to describe this variant of humanistic Jewish theology in my book God Is the Good We Do.

In Conclusion

As every reader of Tikkun knows, the word “tikkun” means healing, repair, uplift. Healing, repairing, and lifting-up are deeds, not just doctrines; they are transformations of the world around, not just private adjustments of attitude. Tikkun, one might say, is the obligation that evolution bequeaths to the creatures it “blesses,” first with consciousness and then with conscience, to effect life’s further evolution without causing or countenancing involuntary suffering.

Let us resist the tradition of claiming that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Let us stop competing with each other to compose dizzying encomiums to God’s cosmic creativity, eternity, wisdom, and might (shadows of kingship, all), and embrace instead the humbler truth at hand: that divinity is evidenced — indeed constituted — not by how the stars twirl or how life began, but by how graciously we step forward into the next moment.

Michael Benedikt holds the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism at the University of Texas at Austin. The son of two holocaust survivors, he is the author of God Is the Good We Do (Bottino Books, 2007).

http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/another-word-on-god-and-the-twenty-first-century

In Obama’s inauguration speech, a new American religion

By Diana Butler Bass, Washington Post, 1/25/2013

Excerpt

In the days following President Obama’s inauguration address, commentators across the political spectrum have made much about how it overtly expressed a progressive agenda. It was not only a politically progressive speech, however, it was a masterwork of progressive theology: a public sermon on the meaning of America, a creedal statement and a call to practice that faith in the world. It was an expression of a genuinely pluralistic America, the first inaugural address of a new sort of American civil spirituality… In 2011…the United States became an officially pluralistic religious country for the first time in its history, with no single faith tradition claiming the allegiance of 50 percent of the population. Overtly Judeo-Christian understandings of God are no longer adequate to address and include all of America’s people. President Obama is the first president who, as a Christian person, has to speak to and for the new communities of American faiths.

What can a president do? Leave faith out of the equation? Or find new ways of expressing the transcendent meanings of community? Abandoning the language of faith would, of course, be the easier path (and the favored choice for the atheists in our midst). In his inaugural speech, President Obama did not choose the easy road. Instead, he linked his progressive political agenda with transcendent values, with a spiritual appeal to the new American pluralism.

What binds together the variety of American faiths? President Obama insisted that our unity is found in a powerful theme, borrowed from the twin theological sources of his own African-American Christianity and Protestant liberalism: Life is a journey. In both of these theological traditions, one is never fully satisfied with the way things are. We are on perpetual pilgrimage, never arriving to a settled place. We seek deeper justice, greater knowledge of ourselves in and through God, elusive wisdom, and wise action as we sojourn in and through the world. At the outset of the speech, President Obama stated, “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words [of our founding texts] with the realities of our time.” We are political sojourners.

Not only is this idea at the core of President Obama’s liberal Christianity, it is also central to contemporary spiritualities, Judaism, Buddhism, forms of native religion, Islamic traditions and agnosticism. To call the American people into a journey is both a spiritual and political invitation toward new understanding of who we are and who we might be…President Obama articulated six beliefs of a spiritual and political, as well as inclusive and pluralistic, creed: 1) We believe in community; 2) We believe in shared prosperity; 3) We believe in mutual care of one another; 4) We believe in stewardship of the Earth; 5) We believe in peacemaking; and 6) We believe in equality and human rights…creedal statements…

President Obama ended the speech with a call to action…Answer the call of history by renewing our ancient covenant of justice and equality in this new and uncertain world. We must make a new American future…his was the first spiritual-but-not-religious inaugural sermon, a twenty-first century expression of American civil spirituality, embedded in but not dependent upon the ancient vision of American Protestant theology of and for God’s almost-chosen, always striving nation.

Full text

In the days following President Obama’s inauguration address, commentators across the political spectrum have made much about how it overtly expressed a progressive agenda.

It was not only a politically progressive speech, however, it was a masterwork of progressive theology: a public sermon on the meaning of America, a creedal statement and a call to practice that faith in the world. It was an expression of a genuinely pluralistic America, the first inaugural address of a new sort of American civil spirituality.

President Obama is a Christian but made few, if any, direct appeals to religion during his recent campaign. As president, he has a new historical problem when it comes to speaking of faith. Through the twentieth century, presidents were able to craft a generally religious language that addressed America’s three most influential groups-Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. When President Kennedy delivered his inaugural address, it was considered the best public sermon in this tradition of American civil religion.

But the old civil religion is no longer enough. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the percentage of the Christian population has declined as the number of nones, atheists, agnostics, and those adhering to non-Christian religions increased exponentially. In 2011, according to the Pew Forum, the United States became an officially pluralistic religious country for the first time in its history, with no single faith tradition claiming the allegiance of 50 percent of the population. Overtly Judeo-Christian understandings of God are no longer adequate to address and include all of America’s people. President Obama is the first president who, as a Christian person, has to speak to and for the new communities of American faiths.

What can a president do? Leave faith out of the equation? Or find new ways of expressing the transcendent meanings of community? Abandoning the language of faith would, of course, be the easier path (and the favored choice for the atheists in our midst). In his inaugural speech, President Obama did not choose the easy road. Instead, he linked his progressive political agenda with transcendent values, with a spiritual appeal to the new American pluralism.

What binds together the variety of American faiths? President Obama insisted that our unity is found in a powerful theme, borrowed from the twin theological sources of his own African-American Christianity and Protestant liberalism: Life is a journey. In both of these theological traditions, one is never fully satisfied with the way things are. We are on perpetual pilgrimage, never arriving to a settled place. We seek deeper justice, greater knowledge of ourselves in and through God, elusive wisdom, and wise action as we sojourn in and through the world. At the outset of the speech, President Obama stated, “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words [of our founding texts] with the realities of our time.” We are political sojourners.

Not only is this idea at the core of President Obama’s liberal Christianity, it is also central to contemporary spiritualities, Judaism, Buddhism, forms of native religion, Islamic traditions and agnosticism. To call the American people into a journey is both a spiritual and political invitation toward new understanding of who we are and who we might be. To President Obama, the appeal is a Christian one, but also one shared and understood by others. It is both specific and open at the same time.

In the second section of the speech, President Obama articulated six beliefs of a spiritual and political, as well as inclusive and pluralistic, creed: 1) We believe in community; 2) We believe in shared prosperity; 3) We believe in mutual care of one another; 4) We believe in stewardship of the Earth; 5) We believe in peacemaking; and 6) We believe in equality and human rights. Each one of these creedal statements was backed by subtle references to Hebrew or Christian scriptures, an occasional historical reference to a noted sermon or hymn, as well as more general appeals to God or divine favor.

Finally, President Obama ended the speech with a call to action. Almost all good sermons end with the preacher telling his or her congregation to do something. Serve the poor, proclaim the faith, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Indeed, the inauguration address did just that: Answer the call of history by renewing our ancient covenant of justice and equality in this new and uncertain world. We must make a new American future.

The inaugural address was assertively progressive. It was also a powerful and deeply nuanced piece of public theology in the liberal Protestant tradition. As such, it embraced the new American pluralism as a welcome expansion of our national journey. In the process, President Obama gave us an innovative new form of public address-his was the first spiritual-but-not-religious inaugural sermon, a twenty-first century expression of American civil spirituality, embedded in but not dependent upon the ancient vision of American Protestant theology of and for God’s almost-chosen, always striving nation.

Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books, including “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” (HarperOne, 2012). She is a fellow of the SeaburyNEXT project of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an independent scholar, educator, and blogger.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/in-obamas-inauguration-speech-a-new-american-religion/2013/01/25/7cb93216-6740-11e2-85f5-a8a9228e55e7_blog.html

Healing the Heart of Democracy – Book Review

Book Review By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Healing the Heart of Democracy
The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit  by Parker J. Palmer

Parker J. Palmer is a sensitive soul, a gifted writer, and a deft social analyst whose nine books, including the bestsellers The Courage to Teach, Let Your Life Speak, and A Hidden Wholeness, speak to a broad range of readers. He is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and he was recently honored with the 2010 William Rainey Harper Award previously given to Margaret Mead, Paolo Freire, and Elie Wiesel. He is profiled as a Living Spiritual Teacher at Spirituality & Practice.

Anyone awake in contemporary America knows that something is desperately wrong with democracy and the political system. The list of messes and miseries is long and lamentable: the power of big money and the clout of large corporations, a dysfunctional health care system, unending wars abroad, high levels of unemployment, a growing gap between the rich and the poor, hunger, unsafe food, the degeneration of our cities and schools, race politics and injustice, the destruction of the earth in the name of progress and profit, the collapse of the nation’s physical structure, capital punishment and the blighted prison system, and the politicization of the courts. On the opening page of this timely and soul-stirring book, Parker J. Palmer clasps our hands and admits his heartbreak over the sorry state of the nation; he says he feels like “a displaced person in my own land.”

But he is pulled out of a real case of depression by a personal journey that involves looking at politics through the eye of the heart. What is entailed within this path? Palmer lets Terry Tempest Williams explain it:

“The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, without giving up — ever — trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?”

Palmer believes that many Americans are fed up with business as usual in Washington, D.C., and the odd cultural and media mix of divisiveness, toxicity, passivity, and powerlessness. Throughout the rest of the book, Palmer delineates what it means to practice politics from the heart. He shares his own journey as an accidental American citizen and then lists five habits of the heart (such as “we must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways”) which could turn things around in this country.

In the next chapter, he probes the sources of two underlying “heart conditions” which must be curtailed: consumerism and scapegoating. Another challenge facing those trying to practice politics from the heart is moving beyond the “fight or flight” response to those perceived to be enemies.

Palmer laments the waning of American public life and the growing emphasis on private life with family and friends. He would like to see more places and programs to encourage mingling with strangers and opening ourselves to diversity. He salutes Wendell Berry and others who through “the lens of compassionate imagination” have promoted the bounties of public life in a democracy. Much more could be done by classrooms and congregations to advance this cause among children and lay persons. Palmer would like to see greater time and energy in churches devoted to developing and enhancing a theology of hospitality to overcome fear of the “other.” He examines how television, circles of trust, and cyberspace can be arenas where the habits of the heart can flourish or die.

Healing the Heart of Democracy is a hopeful book that lifts up and hallows the heart as a source of inner sight. Inspired by the efforts to understand and undergird democracy by Abraham Lincoln, Alexis de Tocqueville, Rosa Parks, and others; the author sends us on our way rejoicing with the small portion of hope that he has planted in our minds and souls.

http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/books.php?id=21525