Sunday, March 13, 2011

Liberal pastor talks about "what we need rules for" (Arlington VA - Trinity Presbyterian)

Today, Sunday March 13, Rev. Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt at the normally liberal Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, VA gave a stinging beginning-of-Lent sermon “Temptation: Standing Firm in a Culture of Lies”.  The scriptural reference was, of course, Matthew 4, the Temptation.

And the gist of the sermon is the central Paradox of Christianity: no human being can be “right” on his own, or is entitled to develop complete knowledge on his own; everyone needs God. Call it “the Knowledge of Good and Evil Problem”.  David Day had spoken about it at MCC Dallas one Sunday night around March 1982 (long before the days of the Cathedral of Hope).  Today, Fulp-Eickstaedt hit quite hard common attitudes usually praised in individualistic culture: get that next personal accomplishment before having a family, or expect personal freedom at any cost. 

But “needing God” has an earthly correspondence: one needs Others, in the sense that one needs to meet the real needs of others and have a real stake in the future of his or her family and community. This is a moral area separate  from “personal responsibility” as modern liberal democracy (and especially Cato-style libertarianism) puts it. It has nothing to do with making choices. It presumes we all must “belong” after all.

It’s easy to think of other examples of this point of critical attention. In the gay horror short “Bugcrush”, at a climactic moment, the psychopathic Grant says “I can do whatever I want”, twice. That’s the lie. (I leave aside how consensual that situation is or isn’t.)  Around 2004, Mother Jones backed up an article by James McKibben about “hyper-individualism v. solidarity” with a cover that read “A Nation of Ones: How We Lost the Common Ground” – yet I remember back in the 1980s that MCC Dallas Pastor Don Eastman used to talk favorably about the idea of a “team of one.”  In the past couple of decades, we’ve come to deal with the problem of “asymmetry”, the idea that one person, without permission of others, may, if smart enough, innovate something that changes the “rules of the game” for everybody, and creates new risks.  Welcome to the world of Facebook.  Michael Ruppert, in the interview film “Collapse”, says that rugged individualism is doomed; to survive sustainably, people will have to learn being anchored in families and tribes again, very locally. We start to see the point of youth-group's 30-hour-fasts and the old Catholic idea of sacrificing for Lent. 

So we’re coming around to expecting a new kinds of integrity: the idea that one has real accountability to others, before he starts making any choices at all.  That is how “it used to be” a few decades ago.  Conflicts between “tribes” for resources were for the official politicians – elected in a democracy. That led to enormous corruption and abuses of power (like Watergate).  But today, we might be able to instill a similar ethic; since everything is so public (with Wikileaks around), no tribal leader can get away with it.

Fulp-Eickstaedt spoke of the need for some rules, even in a Garden of Eden that had started with so much freedom. One rule was something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (of the play and film “Copenhagen”).  In the world of “social conservatism” (more moderate forms of authoritarianism, trying to avoid both fascism and communism and preserve a relative freedom within a family or community unit), rules are designed to prevent unusually predisposed and asymmetrically talented people from cheating the system, or from being able to benefit by getting out of things that are unusually disquieting or even humiliating for them to face. This does bear on the “question” of homosexuality. (“Is that a question?”) The Vatican insists that gender non-conformity is one of many immutable “challenges” that God or nature must allow in a living world but that the individual must resist (as a special cross) to avoid passing serious disadvantage onto others who may be even more disadvantaged but out of sight (such as low-wage workers who do the things we can’t face).   Even so, TPC has always been outwardly liberal, sympathetic to gay marriage and ending “don’t ask don’t tell” as a matter of fairness and equality. The “lies” (in the view of this sermon, and in books like Lisa Dodson’s “The Moral Underground”) seem to be those of big business, that we can build financial pyramids and get something for nothing, or get rich of the skin or the disadvantaged, or remain blissfully ignorant of “inconvenient truths” about our environment and not unlimited natural and now demographic resources. Social conservatives, remember, want to take moral finger-pointing away from institutions and companies and pin them back on every individual.  If no individual can cheat, then inequalities will melt away. If only the “rules” could be so easily enforced.

In summary, it seems that the New Testament calls on individuals to become alert and responsive to others before or at least while they seek out their own personal goals and deploy their own talents. That's separate and happens even before making choices, not just taking responsibility for choices afterward. Family responsibility can exist even without the acts to make babies. The Left tends to think that this moral responsibility primarily belongs to the wealthy and those in power (or those who benefit too much from "the system"), but the Right, or at least social conservatives, think this belongs to everyone. It may be true that in a world of asymmetry and exposure to environmental and demographic change, we may not be able to sustain our democracy without becoming more "social" in person again as well as on an abstract network. 

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