Sunday, March 11, 2012

My Inner Conservative and My Inner Anarchist

I should begin by pointing out that I make a distinction between "conservative" and "right." Just about all the people who call themselves "conservative" in the public forum these days are in fact, right wingers and there's nothing conservative about them. Right wing policy is about supremacy; the supremacy of race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, any of those, and all of those. Conservatism, so the name implies, is about conserving, and usually the thing conservatives always want to conserve is the inheritance from the past. Edmund Burke believed that the society that we are born into, that we inherit from our ancestors, takes precedence over the individual. There may still be English conservatives like this, but not many American ones. Most Americans, both left and right, would more agree with John Stuart Mill, that all societies are free associations of individuals, that individuals make and can unmake society. At one time, conservatives in this country wanted to preserve what they saw as a fundamental American identity rooted in capitalism, individualism, and Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, conservatives like Robert Taft and William F. Buckley (a Catholic, but hardly one to be found venerating Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe). Now, those are being supplanted by the angry resentment of the constituency that made Joseph McCarthy a force in politics and that Nixon rode into the Presidency. That spiteful legion wants revenge and conquest, not the preservation of anything. They want to bring on the Apocalypse, and the sooner the better.

I have an inner conservative in that older sense of the word, a deep reluctance to throw out babies with bathwater. He lives right beside my inner anarchist.

Curiously, my inner conservative is quite secular. It is my inner anarchist that is deeply religious.

My inner anarchist despises contemporary society which he sees as corrupt and poison at the root; a degraded social order that rewards aggression, predation, and brutality and isn't worth the bother of preserving. My inner anarchist takes the words of the Lord's Prayer and all the promises of a New Heaven and a New Earth very seriously. He understands why Christianity spread so quickly in the ancient world, because it offered something that Classical culture never offered, hope. The slave, the beggar, the prisoner, the pauper, even the bourgeois and the affluent and educated could hope that the world as presently constituted would not last forever. That the whole order of Who May versus Who Must that Classical thought assumed was without beginning or end would indeed come to an end, and those who were Last will at the end be First. That was revolutionary, and the Romans were right to feel threatened by a religion where slaves and masters could pray together as equals.
Far from feeling threatened by the demise of institutional Christianity, my inner anarchist positively rejoices in it. As for the whole business of Christendom, he says "burn baby burn!" No more hierarchy! No more dogma! No more legalism! No more purity cult! No more Bibliolatry! Let it all burn, and use bishops' vestments and Bibles for kindling! No more Christianity as tribal identity. No one should ever be born into the faith again. It's time to finally bury Constantine and his imperial cult. May the Christian religion once again be the Christian faith and return to its revolutionary roots.

It is my inner conservative that has qualms about the demise of Christendom. In his heart of hearts, he really couldn't care less about it. He's really quite secular. He's puzzled that the religious should be so shocked when some people come to the very reasonable conclusion that there's no One there.
But my inner conservative worries about what will fill the vacuum that Christianity leaves behind. Materialism doesn't worry him. There's lots of different varieties of that, many quite benign. It's not atheism or agnosticism that bothers him. Perhaps indeed Freud was ultimately right and we've outgrown our temples. What worries him is that one god might take the place of another. He's worried that it will be plain old Money that will fill that void. As I've always said, Money may not be a transcendent god, but it is a god nonetheless, and he's a jealous and demanding god that makes no exception for unbelievers. Money will have its due worship and sacrifice from us all or leave us to starve. Money is such a crappy god as gods go. He's hardly an improvement over the old ones. He's no Shiva or Apollo. Money degrades and brutalizes all that he touches. The only meaning and authority he recognizes is what's written on a price tag, and everything and everyone has its price. His creed is "more and faster." He declares that all the world is ultimately trash, that all things exist to be used and exchanged. And when they've lost their usefulness and are no longer desirable, then they are trash. Nothing (and no one) has any intrinsic value.

It's that god that troubles my inner conservative. That god also troubles my inner anarchist who sees Money already ruling over the earth, miraculous spawn of his mother, Santa Muerte. It is no accident that the Romans made Pluto, god of the dead, the god of wealth. How very conservative of me to make a Classical allusion. How very anarchist of me to use it to attack commerce.


The prospect of a secular world does not frighten me. If anything, with most institutional religion crapping all over itself in a panicked reaction to modernity, I think we would be much better off.
Fundamentalist and self-proclaimed orthodox Christians will simply self segregate into separate communities like orthodox Judaism. More liberal and left forms of Christianity and other faiths may well go underground, marginalized into storefronts and the back rooms of bars. Revolution Church here in Williamsburg which meets in the back of a bar may be a vision of the future. I would miss the big beautiful historic church buildings, but it would hardly be the end of the world for us. If anything, it might be an opportunity for a new beginning.

This is what really frightens me, the religious impulse making a deity out of the brutal nihilism of modern market capitalism. When I say Money is a god, this is what I mean. Modernity worships success, and so why not worship it literally with candles, bells, and smoke? There are plenty of precedents for this. Tyche, the goddess of fortune, had her great temple in the city of Antioch. We can see this today in that cargo cult in Christian trappings known as Prosperity Gospel.

Notorious prosperity preacher, Joel Osteen

That worship of fortune takes its most frightening form in the popular and spreading cult of Santa Muerte, Saint Death, out of Mexico. She appears as a horrific parody of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a skeletal corpse in Virgin Mary drag. She is a goddess of crime and criminals worshiped by drug traffickers. They pray to her and offer her sacrifice, including animal and human sacrifice, for safety and success in their enterprises.

The worship of Santa Muerte in Mexico


My inner conservative (who is not particularly religious) worries that the demise of institutional Christianity would mean the loss of the historical, cultural, and intellectual legacy of Christendom. Our lazy and spineless refusal to challenge the right wing and fundamentalist claim to a copyright on Christianity may mean that all of its legacy from St. Augustine to Kierkegaard to Tillich, from Gregorian Chant to Bach to Mahalia Jackson, from Chartres to Michelangelo to Rembrandt will go down the drain or into a ghetto with them. The decline in Biblical literacy troubles my inner conservative who foresees the loss into oblivion of a major force in the shaping of Western culture, including its most revolutionary elements. Would Marxism or Anarchism even be imaginable without the precedent of Christianity?


JCF said...

Two thoughts:

1) I agree w/ SO MUCH of this...and would love to see you publish it at JoeMyGod (well, linked from there to here), but

2) There's part of me that's deeply Religious (Institutional) Conservative, when I consider My Impending End (near or far. I'm 50). I just want to be SURE there's an Episcopal priest to give me last rights/assurance-of-pardon, and the rest of the Church can go rot (selfish, but I'm being honest here).

Where does this come from? (Two further thoughts)

a. I'm stuck at the same "Stage of Faith" Thomas Merton was, at the time he converted (to the RCC): "I just want to be a good Catholic." At the same time, I'm remembering (from a hat-tip @ MP's) this blog post


Oh, how lovely not to CARE! Just be there for me, Christendom, when I need you/when I'm feeling all "religious" . . . and beyond that, Just Go Away. [And also, Just Go Away, all "Evangelical Antitheists", who would like to get in the way of my needs/feelings. A pox on both your houses!]

Tis a puzzlement.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

[Furious clapping]

Counterlight--this is brilliant. So very, very insightful--and sad and frightening.

I agree that Christianity is dying and that it's probably not a bad thing. (Although I'm in sort of the same boat as JCF--and St. Augustine--"The Church is a whore, but she's my mother.")

What a mess we humans make of everything we touch....

Counterlight said...

Actually, JCF, I have a similar inner conflict.
I see the Episcopal Church as very much a worldly institution, and yet I very much want it to be there when it comes time to face my end (I'm 54).
My inner conservative is reluctant throw out the historic cultural and intellectual inheritance of Christendom. Would anything like Anarchism have even been possible without a foundation laid by Christianity?

it's margaret said...

Like. Very much.

Tristan Alexander said...

The spirit has always been and religion only cages and supresses it!

Do not fear Money as the new God, Money is the ONLY God that has been worshiped for most of time since man created it! Christianity may have started as a personal system but soon became a new way to worship money! Mega Churches and "Preachers" like Osteen are purely worshipers of Money and Power! If we could destroy THAT worship, we might have a chace and Peace and Love!

Paul said...

Your comments resonate with me too. I am in a non-church phase of my life, for the first time ever. I don't miss it when I skip (which is more often than not), rejoice in being officially retired as far as TEC is concerned, refuse to attend any meetings, and quite ignore the Church Year except to see which Proper I will preach on. That which touched me profoundly is now very much in the background and I feel fine. Perhaps some strange combination of longing for change and resting in God characterizes my present state. The Gospel will perdure. The Church? Not so sure. It has formed me but I know it is dying in its current form and that's a good thing. It will be interesting to see what phoenix emerges from the ashes.

Counterlight said...

My feelings are more mixed. I had the good fortune to spend my entire life in 2 relatively sane and friendly churches (Methodist and Episcopalian). I think about that every time I listen to former Catholics and former fundamentalists who are still so very angry even decades after leaving their churches. And sadly, I don't blame them a bit for feeling angry.

Formal Christianity as a whole bores me more and more. The long warfare within Anglicanism gets so very tiring, and it's especially tiring knowing that I am a living embodiment of the contending issue. I get tired of being an issue and would like to be a person. I'm beginning to despair of finding that dignity within the larger framework of institutional Christianity.

The smaller framework of institutional Christianity is an entirely different matter. I continue to have great experiences on the local parish level. Of course there is the inevitable conflict and backbiting in any gathering of more than one human being ("When two or three are gathered together, games are played" said an old friend of mine). Despite that, people really do look out for each other, and for total strangers who come their way in a way I don't see anywhere else, certainly not in business, not in academia, not in government, and maybe occasionally in fleeting moments of common political purpose (some of my most intense Pentecostal experiences happened in small political meetings). I've seen people in my church volunteer on the spot to spend the night up with dying people that they hardly knew. And they did stay until the person died the following morning. I continue to be impressed by such acts of selfless generosity in a world that doesn't think much of selfless generosity anymore (and then the strivers have the unmitigated gall to complain about feeling lonely and unloved). I suppose it's a community experience and a religious experience of being in this all together. I've heard similar stories from the Occupy movements of people finding a purpose in life beyond themselves, and finding real friendship for the first time in their lives.

Churches as a whole may well perish soon, but local congregations will survive like the roaches after nuclear Armageddon, if not quite prosper.

Counterlight said...

If you want to snark, fine, but you've got to stand publicly behind your snark or out your comment goes.

No chicken shit hiding behind "Anonymous."

If it's my troll, you've already been spammed. You'll have to move to another computer in that internet cafe in Providence.

If not, send me an email.

JCF said...

I had the good fortune to spend my entire life in 2 relatively sane and friendly churches (Methodist and Episcopalian). I think about that every time I listen to former Catholics and former fundamentalists who are still so very angry even decades after leaving their churches.

Yeah, Cradle Piskie here, and I can relate!

When somebody tells me a JMG that *I* am crazy, and "All Christianity (or Religion) is Homophobic", I just wish they could understand my experience is different.

When I was growing up in St Michael's Episcopal (Carmichael CA---where I am now!), I *never* heard the word "homosexual" or "gay" in condemnation (rarely heard the words at all, truthfully, but when I did, it was to "love them". Love them, PERIOD. No "love sinner, hate sin". Yeah, OK, it was still "them".)

Later, when I would read about Episcopal homophobes at GC, or in the pages of "Episcopal Life", I would think "Who are these bigoted FREAKS?" [Thankfully, most have either converted or am-scrayed!]

I recognize my Episcopal upbringing was/is a tremendous blessing (which I didn't earn in the slightest. I also recognize that, for all the horrors of bullying today, overall, LGBT youth today have it better than I did. "It Gets Better")

...but it's also because of this providential Episcopal shelter/nurture, that I'm probably less apathetic than some, about a foreseen "End of TEC". By failing to pass on a healthy TEC, will we deny future LGBT youth its protection?

MadPriest said...

In England your mixture of conservative and anarchy is called being a socialist.

Counterlight said...

In this country, being identified as a socialist is about the same as being identified as a child molester.

rick allen said...

The church as an institution is always disappointing, since, as a society, it necessarily requires some sort of politics, and that means conflict and power issues.

Much that we read about, on the web and in the secular media, about religion, is more about our religious politics than the core of our actual religion--how we behave, how we treat others, how we conceive of the whole system of the world, how we approach God, individually and collectively.

Having said that, I find, for myself, that there is some degree of ingratitude in an indifferent or contemptuous attitude toward the institution. An angel did not come down from heaven and give me my faith. It takes an institution to carry the deposit of faith through the ages. The scriptures, the words of the Fathers and the Doctors, the example and teaching of the saints, the rich legacy in poetry and liturgy and music and painting and sculpture and architechture, the systems of schools and universities and hospitals, not to mention the ubiquity of sanctuaries and shrines, have been built up and have all contributed to my personal spirituality. It would surely be churlish of me to think that all of that "institutional" work was to culminate in me, and that I didn't have some responsibility to at least maintain and defend the institution that, for all its failings, has done so much for me.

It is one of the glories of the institution that it is there when I am not. I have had times, like most, when I was less inclined to be involved in the life of the church, and it has always been important, even when isolating myself, to know that it is always faithfully there, that, whatever my own coldness, I could always go back, any Sunday, even most weekdays, and re-enter the mass, and it will be as if I hadn't left. That, to me, is the value of an institution that doesn't depend on the present ferver of my own sprituality.

Counterlight said...

Protestant me doesn't depend on an institution to be faithful when I am faithless. That is supposed to be God's role. God may be in the institutional machinery, but He is not the machinery.

rick allen said...

And that is, I think, an important point about protestant and catholic differences, however far removed we seem from the controversites of the 16th century. The Church, as a body, has a greater role for Catholics. The Church is Mater et Magistra, to use Bd. John XXIII's memorable phrase, mother and teacher of all nations.

Your original thoughts about anarchy and conservatism seem right on the mark in many ways. There is no inherent contradiction in holding fast to what is good in what we have received and pushing back against the pervasive injustice of any system of rule. I don't feel I'm arguing with you so much as trying to express the sometimes less-articulated appreciation for the hidebound, the inertial, and the institutional.

Counterlight said...

I understand, and I take no offense, nor do I intend any offense.

L F Antyne said...

I wouldn't give Osteen a quarter in a bus station. Personification of sleaze.

Counterlight said...

Can't argue with that.

Anonymous said...

I don't like socialism and conservatism for their common basis in paternalism. Whether it's Red Toryism or "Progressive activists, it's still "I'm here to help those who can't help themselves-and god help you if you stand in our way." Whenever a church closes, it's a yawn event for me. Mainline protestantism is about as vibrant and diverse as skim milk. You're all engaged in what Chris Hedges calls "boutique activism".

Tristan Alexander said...
Have you seen this?

Counterlight said...

I think the Episcopal Church, and my parish, has been hiding its light under a bushel basket for too long:

rick allen said...

"I don't like socialism and conservatism for their common basis in paternalism."

Since when has acting to others like a father been a term of reproach?

"Whether it's Red Toryism or "Progressive activists, it's still "I'm here to help those who can't help themselves-and god help you if you stand in our way.""

Well, certainly, God help us all, but, for all the problems we have, I don't think our greatest is too much assistance to the poor and sick and helpless.

"Whenever a church closes, it's a yawn event for me. Mainline protestantism is about as vibrant and diverse as skim milk."

Vibrancy is a rather subjective matter, and diversity is wonderful, but surely not the be-all and end-all. My experience is that the good churches do is ninety per cent under the radar, rather in accord with the direction of Jesus. Or rather like skim milk (which I try to stick with), not too flashy, but surprisingly good for you.

"You're all engaged in what Chris Hedges calls "boutique activism"."

Arguably, if you have in fact taken an inventory of all they do. But, seriously, how much "activism" are most people involved with, and isn't even a modest effort preferable to acquiescence or a comfortable despair?

rick allen said...

I hope that our host will not object to a personal footnote to the previous post.

Though Catholic, I was raised Protestant, and can say that a good 95% of what I believe now I received from the Presbyterians. My debt to the Presbyterian Church is incomparable.

My mother passed away last summer, just short of ninety years old. She was active in the Presbyterian Church even in the weeks before her death, participating in church programs to visit and take meals to shut-ins, and to meet regularly with recently widowed women (she was twice-widowed herself). She indeed fit a stereotype, a white, blue-haired little old Presbyterian lady, but one whose lifelong habits kept her still, at 89, actively feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, and comforting the sorrowing. (I pass over many acts of generosity I learned of only after her death). She was not, by most definitions, an “activist.” But it seems to me no small thing that the various churches have continued to routinely promote, nourish and channel such lives of devotion and charity, and I cannot believe that such spiritual formation does not have a significant positive effect in our society

Counterlight said...

So Turnip Ghost, what are YOU doing to make life a little more bearable for people?

Please be specific.

Anonymous said...

I donate blood (just over 9 gallons), platelets and bone marrow.

Tristan Alexander said...

Turnip Ghost, not that I would ( very needle phobic) but even if I or our host here wanted to donate blood, we could NOT! Because we are gay and that makes our blood poison to everyone else! The AIDs excuse is stupid and invalid to the extreame, but we still are NOT legally allowed to give blood!

Anonymous said...

Then use science and statistics to prove that this is inaccurate and counter-productive. Blood banks (and marrow donation programs)need all the donors they can get.
And man the hell up-it's just a small stick of steel. You could be saving some kid's life! It hurts more to stub your toe. Trust me-I've done it dozens of times, including needles in both arms for more than two hours when I used to do pheresis on the old style machines.

MarkBrunson said...

If all you're doing is "saving lives" to live in a world in which no one does help - beyond keeping them breathing - that is counterproductive.

JCF said...

May your mother rest in peace, and rise in glory, rick.

I have a very catholic sensibility, and value my church in the catholic sense of having those incarnate "matter" sacraments. I appreciate sharing this POV w/ you...

...AND, that said, if you give even $.01 to The Popoid Institution that oppresses me (and all LGBTs, wherever it can), I find it very difficult NOT to tell you to Piss Off...

...while at the same time liking you (and, of course, loving you as my brother in Christ).

It's another of those (personally bothersome to me) paradoxes. :-/

Lapinbizarre said...

That would be the same Chris Hedges who identifies himself as a "socialist"?

rick allen said...

JCF, I appreciate it, and I am thankful that, deep as our differences are, we can be web-friends and recognize each other as sincerely trying, both of us, to follow the way of Jesus.

For the two of us the differences probably aren't political, in a practical sense. I am certainly not 100% in favor of every position taken by the general run of Democrats, but I find that, overwhelmingly, the Democrats advocate for a more just and compassionate society than the Republicans. So there we would probably work together.

Nevertheless, I consider that the old Christian notion of chastity, which you, and most contemporary Americans, find so oppressive, can be liberating (and I have lately been reading some of the Fathers with more appreciation). This is not to say that it can or should be legislated--how these things relate to social organization is a very vexed question which is typically treated with the subtlety of a sledge hammer in our politics and public discussion.

And I hasten to add that my appreciation of the "old things" doesn't imply any claim of having attained them. The Catholic approach, it seems to me, is to set the bar very high, with a similarly high tolerance for our never quite getting there. I have not yet gotten to the point where I can give all I have to the poor, or love my enemies--but I think those worthy, indeed, necessary goals. And the same with all facets of the "call to perfection" which makes none of us perfect, but keeps us striving for improvement.

Anonymous said...

Yes but he's also spoken against atheists and atheism. It's a sort of noblesse oblige upper middle class socialism: Volvo Voter.

Counterlight said...

One more shot at my guests, Brad, and you're getting spanned again.
How much do you spend just to get around my spam blocker?

JCF said...

"spanned": is that a Spam Ban? (a term I hadn't heard before)

When you have your head up your arse, Everything Looks Like Shit: behold, the Sad Brad POV!

Counterlight said...

That should read "spammed." Sometimes my fingers have a mind of their own on the keyboard.

Lapinbizarre said...

"boutique activism"; "volvo voter". Talk in clichés much, do we?