It has been some time since I've written in my section on Matters of the Spirit. And even though I have the KJV and the NIV on my Kindle, it has been a while since I've done much reading of the Bible. And no, I haven't been to church all month, nor much this season. For the grace of God I am not trying. Yet I remain engaged with matters of the spirit in my heart and mind and certainly every day am thinking about our great endeavors in the affairs of men.
I begin with a story about my girlfriend back in 1980 when Jamaica Funk was at the top of the charts. She asked me if I was afraid of Hell, and I said no. She asked me how I resisted the temptations of sin, and I made it clear to her that my relationship with God was structured as the Jesuits gave me structure, which was the evocation at all times to be Christlike. It was clear to me then that I had absolutely no difficulty in the pursuit of that moral ambition and understood that while I might fail from time to time, that my aim was right. From that, whatever righteousness I might possess would be evident to God and by his grace I would do well. I never trusted a preacher who called his flock 'saints' and invited all those who had accepted Jesus as their personal savior to stand or sit or perform some deed. In fact, I've always had a theological problem with the idea of Christ the Redeemer as Personal Savior. It seemed too immodest considering what deeds needed doing in service to His example. But I was aligned. All I ever wanted was to be good. I didn't need Heaven nor Hell. It seemed to me, a frivolous question, and by and large it still does.
Having a religious education beats a month of Sundays in church. It taught me how to think about God and morality and worldly ambition and a number of related matters. I was fortunte to have had things explicitly discussed. Today I hear mostly silence, even in all the talk about religion. Most Americans will never have what I had, which was a Catholic priest as a biology teacher and a computer science instructor who had been to Divinity School. The conflict between rationality and Christianity never entered my mind as a fundamental problem but as a philosophical debate about epistemology. But more importantly, what I came to an early understanding about my religion was that it was about the moral foundations of justice.
Everybody comes from somewhere on their way to somewhere else. Their measure of ambition often determines their speed. We are often admonished to 'remember where we came from'. Well, before I came from a Jesuit prep school, I came from a black neighborhood. More importantly I came from a family that was intellectually engaged in the Black Arts Movement. And specifically we celebrated Kwanzaa and heard extra clicks on our telephone calls in the years after 1968 when America was on fire. There is a passport photo of my mother and siblings. You see, we were prepared to leave. As it became clearer to most Americans that burning down the nation was a distinct possibility unless integration happened, there were certain Black Nationalist dreams that had to die hard as well. Our family closed down the Institute For Black Studies and went to church. My mother could never go back to the Catholic she had been. She went evangelical, in fact a rather millenarian flavor not quite to the handling of snakes, but far into faith healing, speaking in tongues and jumping Holy Ghost dynamics. I didn't take the Foursquare Church in stride, but there was the music. My father did not find it too difficult to return to his Episcopalianism. I chose LA's upscale Episcopalian slice of Christian lifestyle, that was leavened with the harder edge of my Catholic schooling. Crossover for me was relatively smooth. I had several flavors of Christian experience by the time I chose for my Confirmation.
And so from these traditions of social justice and struggle I emerged whole and in no way confused about my moral ambition, purpose or identity. So it was easy to answer my girlfriend's question. What remains is not doubt so much as curiosity. Still, life throws us curveballs for which we are not prepared, and every once in a while I have to go back to where I came from and think my way to the present. Sometimes I backtrack, sometimes I'm smug and sometimes I don't even want to think about it.
This afternoon, I received a note from one of my many associates in thought and spirit, David Theroux. And he asked me to consider his essay. In doing so he reviews some familiar ground implicit in what I have learned about matters of justice and liberty and what Christianity has to do with any of that. It is an area I think far too many Americans have not considered at length and I find in his essay a good provocation and framework for knowing some of what is important to know about secular humanism. I use the term with a smile because I used to mock the very concept before I was in any ways a Conservative. But let me excerpt a small piece and move forward.
However in the Renaissance, religion became viewed as a “private” impulse, distinct from “secular” politics, economics, and science. This “modern” view of religion began the decline of the church as the public, communal practice of the virtue of religio. And by the Enlightenment, John Locke had distinguished between the “outward force” of civil officials and the “inward persuasion” of religion. He believed that civil harmony required a strict division between the state, whose interests are “public,” and the church, whose interests are “private,” thereby clearing the public square for the purely secular. For Locke, the church is a “voluntary society of men,” but obedience to the state is mandatory.
There's a lot to unpack in just this paragraph, but it is I think, the central portion that must be made clear. In all things, I strongly believe that people should strive to be independent and self-reliant. I say this with as much forcefulness as my own inheritance allows me to speak as a descendant of slaves. A free man, in order to keep his freedom, must owe no debts of purpose or identity. Of those things, he must be self-possesed. What I have described autobiographically is some part of the experiences that made me just that. I am not morally indebted to a single politics, a single church, a single race, or any such singularity beyond whose gravity I have no hope to escape. And yet from every institution and experience I know that there is a singular moral law to which all of humanity is ultimately indebted and responsible.
To my way of looking at things, there are four primary forces in the world which leverage our aiblity to pass instituional knowledge and power. They are government, religion, education and commerce. I would like to elaborate on these and had written up another 500 words which were unfortunately lost. But the nut of the matter is that to see these forces in balance needs a philosophical recognition of which roles in human life each should take and in what proportion. The proper conservative wishes to see these balanced in such a way that government - the single institution of those four which posesses the only legitimate monopoly of coercive law and force of violence should take a minimum of autonomy from its consenting citizens such that their debts of purpose and identity remain more closely aligned with institutions they have more autonomy in controlling. In this way of looking at institutions, the separation of church and state is a necessary but only minimum requirement. All four should have overlap and interdependence but not be controlled by the others. I see Theroux's argument as a specie of that which says the four forces are out of balance.