When the Irish poet William Butler Yeats looked at the war-ravaged world of 1919, he described its confusion and anxiety in terms of a falcon whose circular flight had become so wide it could no longer hear its falconer. Yeats regretted that
The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity
His poem, The Second Coming, ends by wondering,
What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
“Surely,” Yeats continued, “some revelation is at hand.” Few of us are blessed with Yeats’s poetic imagination, but all of us can feel the confusion and anxiety of our day as keenly as he felt it in his.
Our times are called “postmodern,” a label remarkable for what it does not describe. All we know is that we used to be “modern”—but are no longer. What we actually are is unknown to us, and the vague uneasiness of that state is rapidly becoming more focused. People everywhere are declaring their discomfort, outrage, and frustration while struggling against the assumptions that would render them helpless. The Arab Spring sweeps long-established dictators aside; Moscow feels the energy of popular uprising that has been silent since the Bolsheviks of Yeats’s day; quaint European squares fill with anger at failing welfare states; voices are raised in protest in places as unlikely as China and Myanmar; even al-Qaida, for all of its horror, is largely motivated by resistance to globalization.
And at home the Occupy and Tea Party movements share almost nothing but common frustration. Our unfolding presidential primaries reveal us as more interested in voting against than for people, ideas, or programs. Pollsters tell us that up to two-thirds of Americans sense a strong divide between rich and poor that may make class a more dangerous flashpoint than race, gender, or nationality. It is no wonder that Time magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year was “the Protester.”
For reasons both good and bad, the Postmodern Age does not readily look to the Church for wisdom as it sorts through its confusions and anxieties. Hardly anyone would suggest that faith has the answer for our age—or even a series of specific proposals for our ills. But faith does have more than a little to oer during this time of discontent.
Holding Us Accountable
The enterprise of religion is literally and historically about putting things back together. The root word behind religion is the same as that for ligament, a sinew that holds our body together. Religion is literally the business of re-ligamenting and re-binding, which is why we speak so frequently of reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness, and renewal—and why we work so hard to make those real in people’s lives. Religion brings people together in a wider sense as well. The great stories of faith give us images of God, concepts of creation and community, with messages of radical expectation in terms of generosity, compassion, and service. Christianity holds the sweeping account of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection as the message that binds all things, people, and experiences together. These great stories are the meta-narratives that help us to make sense of the little ones we experience each day.
The framing power of Scripture, along with the 4,000 years of human-divine interaction it rises from and continues to illumine, is a resource not to be wasted in times like ours. Our faith will not address the constitutional questions about an “individual mandate” in healthcare or the policies of the Federal Reserve. Religion per se does not have solutions to the consequences of economic shifts, nor will it be able to create jobs and restore the housing market. Faith can, however, hold debaters, protesters, voters, and decision-makers accountable to the higher principles of our humanity: those that have come from consistent revelation. Faith can provide perspective on where we have come from, holding ever before us the vision of what we seek to become.
While anger and frustration have a narrowing impact on vision, focusing one’s energies on specific people, events, and ideas, faith has an opposite broadening eect. Loving our enemies cannot be left to instinct, nor can caring for the poor be expected to emerge naturally from unfettered capitalism. In our great story, stewardship of the earth was made a human responsibility before the fall of man; but our sinfulness has not negated the command or the consequences of ignoring it: it has only made reminding us more important. While we concern ourselves with protecting our borders, faith reminds us that God’s love, concern, and compassion are not constrained by our concepts of who is in or out. Some speak of American exceptionalism as a measure of privilege, but in our great story it is clear that it is a measure of responsibility for those “to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Faith and faith’s story, God and our living relationship with God, pull at the hard edges of human anger, frustration, and fear, seeking to channel that which is headed for bitterness, conflict, and vengeance toward mercy, grace, and peace.
Societies ask their institutions to hold certain values for the common good. Our need for education has been largely given over to schools; our concerns for health and healing are in the hands of the medical profession; the rule of law is tended by legislative bodies, police, and the courts; and national safety is entrusted to the military. Religious institutions have been given the responsibility of maintaining the meta-narratives that call forth our better selves and help us to sort through the impulses, fears, and hopes that make up our experience of life. For society to forget to look to religion, or for religion to forfeit its responsibility in troubling times, would be a breach of common consent and understanding that should give us great concern.
The faith community has the perspective the great stories provide, and we have the experience of living by those stories in a way that would benefit many of those who constitute Time’s Person of the Year. The anger, angst, and turmoil that the protester embodies tend to drift on the surges of passion. Strong feelings about the bleakness of where we are and the wrongness of where we are headed can topple governments and capture headlines, but they are ill-suited for crafting the future. The experience of faith can oer much to the protester.
The tradition of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam began with our spiritual ancestor’s positive response to God’s invitation: to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). The faith journey from that day to this has involved leaving the known and stepping into the unknown, trusting in God’s guidance. The only thing clear in God’s proposition is about what is being left behind; the land God will show is as unknown as the future. The Protester is in a similar situation, with sharp clarity about what is to be left and only the vaguest of notions about what is to be found ahead. But what connects the known past with the unknown future is the presence of God on the journey from one to the other.
People of faith have learned to walk through valleys of many shadows: death, despair, grief, and even the kind of confusion and anxiety that characterize our age. To return to the imagery of Yeats, our great stories have trained us to listen for the falconer— to hold and be held by the unchanging center, even while we careen in ever-widening circles. It has been said that the good news of the Gospel is summarized in Jesus’ greeting to the disciples as he came to them through the storm-tossed waters of the Sea of Galilee: “Do not be afraid, it is I.” Knowing the nearness of God in turmoil, hearing the Word of God in the clamor of discord, walking confidently in shadows, letting the perfect love of God cast out our fear and the perfect presence of God guide us to a land we do not yet know: these skills are not born of immediate necessity but are rooted in the disciplines of faith. Again turning to Yeats’s powerful words, the source of “conviction” in the best among us can grow out of a living, moving relationship with God allowing us to counter the “passionate intensity” of the worst.
Finding the Truth
There is one more thing that people of faith have to oer the current scene. It is an insight that we ourselves are particularly prone to forget, as the many failings of religion attest. In spite of our record, the great story we treasure makes it clear that God’s truth is a large thing—much too big to be held by any one person, system, or creed. The wide concept of mystery that surrounds and permeates our every thought and understanding is one expression of that fact. This person may have a shard of truth; another has a separate piece. One system of governance or economics may claim a large or small bit of it, while a dierent way has another claim. Almost all understandings of God and life provide some kind of illumination, even if the separate adherents are reluctant to be illumined by one another. And God’s truth is of such a nature that greater truth only emerges when people put their separate pieces together. If our creeds and systems had physical shapes, they would undoubtedly look like jigsaw pieces—each in need of the others to make a whole picture. Our tendency toward polarization; the demonizing of others; the trivializing of genders, races, creeds, and aspirations: all work to keep our grasp of truth small and contentious. We can only hope that some time in the future Time’s Person of the Year will be the “Other,” because we will have begun to realize the importance of those who dier from us.
That the world is full of tension and conflict is hardly news. That the Postmodern Age is trying to face them without the benefit of a binding narrative, a source of guidance, or a broadening impulse is more than a little disconcerting. The collective purpose of our religious institutions—including cathedrals, dioceses, congregations, schools, and programs—is to play the re-binding role, to counter the narrowing forces of anger with the broadening message of love, to keep the great stories as a backdrop for history, to be places of quiet where the falconer’s voice can be heard, to be a haven where the bits and pieces of truth can be shared.
No one knows what or even whether some “rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born,” in Yeats’s memorable image. But we do know that, whatever comes, we are in the midst of God where truth is to be found, divisions healed, and fear banished. That knowledge and trust are no small oerings in the contentious year of the protester.