Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Wonder of Hope

I must admit, my roommates are patient. I have been enjoying the sweet sounds of holiday music for the past week. Most people can only stomach this stuff once a day, yet it seems to emanate constantly from my computer. With holidays on my mind, I have been questioning religion lately. Why is it a thread so inextricably woven into the fabric of history and into the tapestries of so many of our lives? Why am I so drawn to this music? What does it represent?

It represents the type of knowledge we rarely find in a classroom.

My few years of college have taught me that we can prove next to nothing. We can predict next to nothing. On top of this, we live in a disharmonious world—one where our experiences, beliefs, and ideas of the “good life” often collide with others’ in resounding discord. At the same time, we have entered into a civil society—a structure where we are asked to recognize our fundamental connectedness and obligation to one another. This structure, of course, has been polluted by a rampant individualism, which is fueled by bordering idyllic praise of individual power and ownership, and leads to an economy of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and in many tragic cases, self-isolation.

It is no wonder that, in such a perplexing world, religion provides an outlet for many. In a positive sense, religion enables us to proceed with a quiet confidence and resounding hope. Truly, faith is the belief in that which we cannot prove, which we cannot know (by empirical standards), and which, by the power of our imagination, we come to embrace. Rituals enliven symbolism: participants can recreate, reenact, and reveal a process they imaginatively and emotionally cherish. In this sense, process may trump substance. (Thanks, Pita!) Religion can represent the highest form of human community—a recognition that something greater than individual selves exists, connects us, and provides hope for this world.

Of course, I regret to report, as you all know, that this is often not the case. Religion has been used in this world as a source of coercion, and has been used to justify groups dominating and oppressing other groups. Religion has been used to stratify societal roles which defy our concept of autonomy and self-determination. I often think the answer to such dehumanizing efforts to use religion for coercion is found in a pluralistic society: one where our differences of faith do not divide us, one where we allow each to pursue their concept of the “good life” absent a comprehensive definition of the good life (barring that our concept of the good life doesn’t impinge on the autonomy or safety of another).

Honestly, I have everything in common with no one. So why try to create societies where we agree on what to believe substantively? Isn’t better to create societies where we agree on process, not substance? In its purest form, is not democracy a continuum of channels of communication? Can we have a successful democracy that attempts to enforce the substance of what we believe (i.e. one God, woman's role, etc) instead of the processes we jointly believe in (i.e due process, representation, deliberation, mediation)?

I began to explain the irony of democracy to the students from my freshman seminar on US government, which I serve as a teaching associate. We were out to dinner (my second dinner of the night. A major plus of being a Rhodes Scholar is that you get many free dinners). In the midst of our conversation, we began discussing the seeming dichotomy that separates freedom and security. My freshman had intelligent, but simplistic arguments. I began to explain that the irony of democratic government, “One would think governments that exercise the most control are the most powerful. Such a thought undermines the grit of people to react against systems that impinge their autonomy in life. The governments we have seen that are the most powerful are the ones that give their citizens the freedom to pursue and define the ‘good life’ without attempting to substantively define such a way of life.” Our imperfect democracy is a suitable yet lacking example. At the very least, in this country, one’s religious and cultural identity is not subject to government-sanctioned systematic persecution. Of course, we can hope for more.

When we discuss how government treats religion, gender, and other aspects of self, we are referring to parts of one’s identity. When a part of one’s identity becomes a source of oppression or persecution, they are likely to react. Alternatively, when one is asked to mold their identity to fit stratified societal roles, they are likely to react. How come Catholics in America aren’t rising up in an “intifada” right now? Because their religion is not a source of persecution generally.

In the end, we all come to the table with unique identities. We each have a multiplicity of parts that make up our identity. As author Amin Maalouf explains, “A person’s identity is…like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” When government—as a collection of citizens—falls into the parochial hubris of trying to define citizenship in a way that a thread of one’s identity is pricked, it will face resistance.

The beauty of the ideal (perhaps non-ideal) of pluralistic democracy is that it encourages us to pursue an unfettered exploration of a moral life without arbitrary barriers to our moral and spiritual imagination. So long as thirst for imaginativeness is commensurate to our capacity for wonder, human beings will explore the empirical and spiritual world. We will seek to know fully that which we can prove, and believe or disbelieve that which we cannot prove. And some of us are fortunate enough to live in a place where we can do so most of the time.

In the end, the history of the relationship between government and religion is a worrisome one. Drawing upon a history of unquestioned religious dogma becoming a source of societal persecution, I think we have a duty to re-examine this relationship. Can any government enforce the will of God(s)? Can any group of elites know the source of life and heaven and govern from grace? I think the answer is “no.” Thus, in the distinction between public and private life, I think religion is a gift of the former life and government is a gift of the latter life. I use the word “gift” to imply that we must work to give ourselves and our fellow humans both access to a private life of unhindered spirituality and a public life of unobstructed access to the processes of democracy and fairness.

The spiritual life is of equal importance to the public life. Perhaps it is the common hope of religion that explains its success in forming communities. Processes of government give us little hope for this life or one after—but they can provide us with the protection to hope in our own vein. I certainly disagree with much of what my religion says and teaches. And this is my right. But the quiet reflection and hope keeps me going. In my exploration of a world where I understand so little yet desire to understand so much, I often find myself exhausted. So when I return to my bedroom, it is no surprise I find hope and rejuvenation in holiday music. I am reminded why so many seek spirituality as I hear the words that emanate from my speakers, “The thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morning.” I begin to think—even if just for a second—we are connected by our hope.