Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Note on Community, Character, and Shared Values, Because Sometimes Obvious Things Need to be Said

Most of us here, I'd venture to say, have left institutional religion, which is why so many prefer to use the term "spirituality." In academic worlds "spiritual" is a technical term and academics protect their authority much the way medical professionals do when we try to call Trump "mentally ill." Be that as it may, most of us here too did not leave familial religious customs like Christmas or Jewish holidays, and we all know that the imprints and shadows of our upbringing, religious or not, are never going away. We want a host of things from that religious/spiritual feature of our lives but here are four to think about.


First, we want from our inner lives, our spiritual contemplations one of the most important things we want from intimacy. We want our autonomy, we want to feel secure and protected to lay claim to our own experiences, preferences, and desires. We want to feel like those experiences are valid simply because they are ours. And since no one can tell what _your_ experience is, we want some kind of validation that is more than our own. Humans are too social, too collective not to want to feel that personal feelings need some level or kind of validation. We all want to know we're not isolated or alone or delusional. Well, some of us do. But the point is simple enough: we want some kind of family, friends, or community to validate and protect our private experiences.

This takes us to point two. Whatever our relationship to family or immediate community, or to the strained, difficult, nearly impossible forms of polity in which we survive, we want community. We want to have a sense of shared interest (turns up the temps) and importance, that is, things we care about enough that give us pause. Community is fractured in our post-institutional religious lives because that is one of the most obvious features of what religions do: they give you a community that extends beyond family, that acts in ways as an extended family. We need that because we only flourish when we are more than a few, isolated. Contemporary nomenclature has seized on a kind fo pop sense of the word "tribe" for this but that's too narrow and too parochial. The "problem" is that community does _in fact_ impinge on one's privacy and autonomy because community creates constraints, expectations, and provides some form of standard. This is a very good thing when it promotes character --- we see the world, we act to help a world greater than ourselves encouraged and rewarded for that effort. Community gives us a chance to find our courage, to act out of good character, to tell us that it's okay to succeed and to fail. And it is in that latter matter that community can fail us terribly: community can punish, shame, or dictate when it needs to hold a more complex role that accommodates, adapts, and welcomes even as it creates boundaries and values.

Third, communities need to form provenance, a sense of the values that endure and to do that communities need institutions. But I thought we left institutional religion? We did because they impinged on point one, our conscience, our autonomy, and on point two, as community becomes more coercive than it does supportive and constructive. But what we have learned from Trump is that communities need institutional values and that those values are fragile, precarious, and must be supported by real efforts. What institutions provide, like it or not, is a greater accountability and responsibility. Who among us here actually KEEPS COMPLETE TRACK of, say, your daily bank account. Sure, you have an eye on it but it is the bank that does the math. It provides an institutional reliability and when institutions fail us, like Wells Fargo or FB with its privacy invasions, we are particularly angry. We want institutions and we should be vigilant and wary of them too, but we have to admit their value if we are going to be _civilized_ and take this being human seriously.

Fourth, we want stuff that religions do well. Religions give us myth, ritual, art, music, dance, storytellers, poets, and nearly all of the real content of symbolic thinking and feeling. Did you have a wedding ceremony? Don't all of us here know that we don't want to live without the myths and poetry of life? Religion does this well because when it is done well (rarely) it knows that we need artistry and indirectness in order to become more adept at thinking and feeling.

So that's the sermon-y part of this sermon. The rest below is something of a repeat and a revision of a post that was buried in a reply I wrote this morning. It's sort of a summary of the points I made above.

We need more than ourselves when the tests of character emerge. We need each other to help and just to be there. When we know we care about others and what others will think and say and do, then we are truthfully more likely to rise to the tests of character. Lemme put it simply. I don't want to let you, all of you, down. You inspire me to be good and to do good. Your trust and company, your decency and examples, make me a better a person because I want to be as good as you are, I want to do what I can to help you. That sounds maudlin, soporific but I'll be damned, it's true.

Next, we need the community as something _like_ an _institution_, much like the FBI needs its culture and atmosphere of "rule of law" to be better than partisan and try to be fair. That has not always happened and Trump wants to destroy our faith in every institution to take all the power, as does every two-bit authoritarian huckster guru charlatan fraud. The alternative is that we have each other in an ethos, an atmosphere of collective accountability. I feel that with our Rajanaka "community," most of which exists apart or just virtually. WE make something that helps all of us, even when we are not physically together.  We try to become an example of what communities and institutions can be: honest efforts to be human together with values.  We don't always succeed, each of us fails and has all the usual human foibles.  We try and it's done us all some good.

It sounds corny or overstated and it might make you worry, but I say, don't worry, in the age of Trump what we have further learned is that Rajanaka is something like an "institution" because we have 20+ years together of trying to keep it real, keep each other cared for, holding us together to do good work and realize what we want as free individuals. We support each others' dreams as a collective. That is what I mean by an "institution" and in the Trump age we need this more than ever. That "vigilance" that I speak of in the list of matters--- that is what we are doing and what we continue to do when we take care to respect and honor the community's needs _and_ don't forget to take care of our individual lives, hopes, dreams and all.

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