Thursday, July 21, 2011

Progressive Attitudes and Misplaced Piety

A recent series of posts written by a blogging friend of mine raises some serious questions. In it, he discusses ways in which many of us who mean well go completely wrong. We live in a post-Christian society, but we carry over aspects of religiosity of which we may not even be consciously aware. In seeking to be Good Liberals™, we reveal our indebtedness to the same relative framework, one held also by our ancestors. Before I introduce my larger point, I need to assert here that I am not arguing that anyone ought to hold racist ideas or that doing so is acceptable. Rather, I’m critiquing the means by which we often resort to eradicate them. Here is the first.

You need an impossible standard. This can be complete personal holiness, as with the historical pietists. Or it can be becoming completely unracist, for multicultural pietists, to name one example. Whatever it is, this goal that can never be reached should be held up as a goal everyone should meet. Both the failure to meet it and the failure to want to meet it are held up as grave sins, even if “sin” language is never used. Finding new sins to detect, or new ways to detect sins already known, are viewed as especially helpful.

It is tempting to believe that with enough vigilance, we might lose all aspects of racism within us, or wasteful consumerism, or attitudes that harm the planet. We can work on ourselves, but it might be better for us to acknowledge that we will all carry some imperfection with us, probably forever. I myself strongly dislike childhood imprinting regarding certain racist beliefs and have worked hard to reverse them. But, flawed being that I am, some will always be present. Perhaps I need to stop trying to reach this impossible standard. The reality that takes account of where I’m at in the present may be more realistic and healthy than insisting upon a damaging standard that can never be fulfilled. If we all came to this realization, maybe we’d be less inclined to be so hard not just on ourselves, but on those with whom we closely identify.

Feminists have talked critically about being cautious of aiming for perfection, because the perfection trap is just as perilous and insufficient. We also have to be cautious not to assert some arbitrary standard as the litmus test for greater participation. We know that understanding basic Feminist 101 is necessary for the sake of basic literacy. However, we should be careful in how we apply the word should to someone else or the movement as a whole. Each of us has an idea of the greater goal and the greater good, but it need not necessarily be the same thing. We can preserve our individual leadings and not succumb to either self-loathing or overly critical attitudes. These do not honor related, fully valid, but also differing paths of others.

The New Testament contains multiple passages wherein Jesus implies that his followers need to attain spiritual perfection. To even be a Christian as regularly defined means seeking to act like God incarnate, which is not just an impossible standard, it is an impossible reality. We will fall short. We are only human. Somewhere in history, however, someone believed that works alone and the proper attitude towards them were sufficient for salvation. Being a tolerant person means an inward transformation, not a systematic series of hoops to jump through in precise sequence. Jesus focused on the heart, not on the act alone. He focused on the sentiment, not on the Law. Here he speaks about eating food that some believers considered unclean.

Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. "Listen," he said, "and try to understand.

It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth."

In other words, being devout doesn’t mean working hard to follow all the steps and guidelines in the proper sequence. Instead, what one must do is transform his or her heart, not conduct. The emphasis is on the heart and the heart-felt. Forget the notion of Liberation through Works. In Jesus’ time, purity rituals and Laws regulating what made one clean or unclean ruled. With time, they became unruly and excessive. And they choked out the true purpose of religion. It’s not what you believe you must do to seem acceptable in front of your cohorts. Instead your inward convictions are the basis upon which you are truly judged.

Returning to the blog post with which I began this essay,

You could give the form of spirituality I was raised in a lot of names—charismatic, Pentecostal, or, since we were Methodists, Methodistecostal. (There are also Bapticostals.) But the one name that captures what it really felt like every night as I sat on my bed praying and reading my Bible is pietist. Because pietists search themselves endlessly for failure and find failure endlessly.

Pietism has come to mean excessive or just especially earnest spirituality, which is often also true. But it is the form of that rigidity, and the reason for it, that is so important about pietism.

The deepest-seeded human phobia might well be the fear of failure. I live in Washington, DC, a city full of well-educated perfectionists. Competence and high achievement are highly valued character traits. We would be well to take ourselves and our occupations much less seriously. And we might also consider revising our values system. Degrees, certifications, and an impressive resume are far less important than the competence and concern we hold in our own hearts. This does speak loudly against the prevailing winds, but sincerity is the only way for us to break the hold of Pietism.

But Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.

What follows below is an additional aspect of this idea that is often tenaciously difficult to overcome. If we strive not to walk into this trap, we would be wise to consider this.

You need constant self-surveillance. I do not mean simple introspection. I mean that at every moment, you must watch over yourself to make sure that you are not straying from the path, whatever that path is. When you do stray from the impossible standard—and you will, constantly—you must at every moment ask yourself how exactly you failed this time, what led to your failure, and how you will reorient your very self so that you do not fail again. And when you find that you have not been watching over yourself constantly—another impossible standard—you must question yourself about this latest of your many failures.

When we factor in self-policing, here we have a toxic stew. I’ve been privy to discussion threads on many websites, some Feminist, some Progressive, some Religious, and seen them all quickly degenerate into a contest to determine most observant or least observant. The intention, again, is without objection. But when an impossible, thus highly subjective ideal is in place, the rules reflect it. Controlled chaos reigns instead, and sometimes individual bias fills in what solid fact cannot.

As my friend points out, we seem to worship the form sometimes more than we do the stated purpose. If we do this, we are injuring ourselves and those around us by not speaking from within ourselves. If I were speaking in Quaker terms only, I would question whether the leadings we are responding to are from us or from the Holy Spirit. Even if we are not believers or religious people, we should consider conceding that we are not angry or discouraged at faith, but that rather we’re angry at a failed foundation. The first step to free ourselves is to completely remove self-defeating behaviors and language. We may hold fast to them, but they do little, if anything to help us.

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