People need a way to deal with the global changes suddenly surrounding us. As often happens, second-hand opinions are gaining the most power. The vocabulary on the left speaks of positive change, a new order, rising prosperity in what used to be the third world, and creative possibilities. The right employs a darker, more pessimistic vocabulary of turmoil in the credit markets, military threat from China, the need to seize on traditional values and exclude immigrants. The basic difference comes down to embracing the emerging global community or holding tight to isolated nationalism backed up with military threats.
Yet both attitudes are second-hand, and as people take sides, passing around the same few slogans and attitudes, something important is being missed. To deal successfully with turbulent change, you have to envision a new life for yourself. Despite the instinct to contract and defend, the real need is to expand and create. Unless each of us can see a new life for ourselves personally, there can’t be a new world — or if one arises, we will be left behind. The basics of existence are up for renewal at this moment, and people are asking themselves some very basic questions:
–Can I find a new way to be happy? Americans have long been addicted to over-consumption and wastefulness — with only 6% of the world’s population, we use 30% of its resources — and yet we consider waste to be a negligible byproduct of pursuing happiness. Is there a better way that doesn’t lead to ecological contamination? Can we prosper without earning the resentment of the whole world?
–Can I find a new way to be healthy? This society leads the world in developing new drugs and surgery because we don’t want to sacrifice the fantasy that a magic pill equals health. Is there a way to nurture well-being that avoids the medical system almost entirely?
–Can I live as long as possible with real quality of life? The outworn concept of old age as a time of decrepitude and inactivity gave way to “the new old age” twenty years ago, and now aging is gradually being absorbed into the human life cycle as a positive contribution, not a depressing decline. What will my place be in this new vision?
–Can I find a new way to grow spiritually? The rear-guard action in defense of organized religion mounted by fundamentalists, although loudly voiced by the right wing, is at odds with reality — organized religion has been fading for decades in the developed world. Yet instead of seeing this as a loss, new avenues of faith have opened. How will you fulfill your spiritual yearning ten or twenty years from now?
In all these cases, the individual is far ahead of society as a whole. Every society is essentially a conservative institution. It forms a framework for personal freedom, but it cannot be expected to dictate how that freedom is best used. The new world that is being born contains as much strife and uncertainty as the old, its great advantage being newness, ferment, and clearing the stage of outmoded behavior and beliefs. In this clearing process lies enormous possibilities, but these will be defeated if you cling instead to the fixed attitudes of any faction, right or left. You are the great possibility, something worth remembering every day.
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An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question:
Three in 10 Americans acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice, and yet 9 in 10 say they believe in God. How does racial prejudice reflect on one’s religious beliefs?
It’s very hard not to see God in color. From childhood everyone is taught to imagine God as a person, and inevitably that person has skin the color of those who worship him. Not that the gender “him” is any more accurate than the color black, white, or brown skin would be. A humanized God in any faith is a projection, not a reality. Blue-skinned Krishna is symbolically significant to Hindus but not to believers who see that image as pagan and primitive. Cultural judgments abound in religion, and these quickly deteriorate into the inane argument over whose God is better than someone else’s. Matters grow worse when the argument turns violent.
Religion has always been linked with conversion, and conversion with “lesser” races. For centuries the map of the world had two kinds of blank spaces: the places yet to be explored and the places yet to be Christianized. The moral duty to spread one’s faith doesn’t always imply using force, but the whole enterprise of converting the heathens was tied up inextricably with empire and conquest. And so, if military power was needed, squeamish missionaries and monks could avert their eyes until persuasion had cost enough blood. Generally they didn’t bother to avert them, however, since God had damned the lesser races anyway, salvation being their only hope. Kipling thought he was being supremely moral when he wrote “The White Man’s Burden.” (This isn’t to say that other religions didn’t convert by force, since of course they did.)
In the aftermath of colonialism, deep scars remain, and the question of racism is entangled in people’s minds along with religion. Outright condemnation of the British empire, for example, doesn’t erase how successful Livingstone and less famous missionaries were — the Anglican church today is dominated by Africa, not the home country of England. In the U.S., outright condemnation of slavery can’t erase the tradition of black churches and their stabilizing role in the community. Sadly, the general tendency remains the same: defining yourself by your faith also defines who you aren’t. Racism won’t disappear from religion until religion stops being exclusionary, a profound flaw that modern believers (some of them, at least) struggle to overcome.
In any system of organized religion, belief trumps first-hand experience. Such an experience, when it is truly spiritual, brings a sense of universality, far beyond our concepts of race and creed. In the most liberal denominations, one senses the color-blindness is real and sincere. but as long as other denominations preserve the concept of “pagan,” the specter of lesser races will hover over the altar.
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Barack Obama’s eloquence in the defense of idealism hasn’t changed since Iowa, but reaction to it has. He is accused of favoring uplifting rhetoric over hard policy choices. Some commentators complain that for them, the thrilling speeches of the primary season now produce little or no reaction. Obama speaks of a renewed world, but most old-timers, cynical or not, expect the world — especially the one inside the Beltway — to roll on without much change. Inertia will prevail over hope. We are fortunate, however, that Obama himself doesn’t believe any of this.
“Rhetoric” is what George Bush offered when he promised compassionate conservatism and insisted that he was a uniter, not a divider. The words were a cover up and a pretense, empty of sincere meaning. All along, one supposes, Bush’s right-wing agenda was firmly in place. Canny advisers knew the agenda wouldn’t sell, so they mounted a distraction that quite handily fooled enough of the voting public to achieve the desired results.
Obama’s words ring of sincerity, but that’s not the key thing: they grow from a much wider basis than one politician’s desire to be elected. It may be true that he resorts to cliches when speaking of a new world and dignity for every person, but the impulse behind them is shared by millions, not just in this country but around the globe. Spontaneous upwelling like this occurs rarely, and it often signifies radical change. The mechanics of mass movements baffle historians. Many kinds of simmering emotions never coalesce into a movement. Eastern Europe changed under Communism for forty-five years to no great effect except mass grumbling and depression, and those uprisings that did occur in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were quelled in a matter of days by brute force.
We aren’t talking about might against might now but something subtler. Obama was right to mention the Berlin Wall multiple times in his visit to that city, because the Wall was not pushed over by force, unless you mean the force of consciousness. Right timing and mass will came together perfectly; resistance and opposition were rendered powerless. Can the same magic strike again? We have immovable walls in the U.S., and no one knows if Obama will be like Woodrow Wilson, whose ideals about peace and international unity were crushed, or like Kennedy, who caught a wave of change stronger than he ever expected (his 1960 campaign, viewed objectively, was full of standard Cold War rhetoric).
Clearly millions of people, the majority of the electorate, want a new start on many fronts. Taken piecemeal, Obama’s chances of reforming Washington, reversing the enormous national debt, updating the tax code, offering universal health care, and establishing a new image abroad seem slim. Idealism, we are told, will come a cropper when it hits its head against solid reality. But that so-called solid reality was built on intangible ideas, hopes, wishes, and needs. Obama grasps this. He understands that tough policy decisions, which of course must be made, aren’t the stuff of inspiration. His campaign is a litmus test for whether a critical mass has formed or wether we are witnessing winds of change that will soon die down. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, but the future of America’s self-image does. National awareness has been stuck for eight years, and breaking it free needs the inspiration Obama is trying to apply.