Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A spiritual call to collective action

These words were spoken just recently about the various economic and environmental crises this world faces.

"The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being. That [is] heresy...
We are our siblings' keepers and knowers, and we cannot be known without them -- we have no meaning, no true existence in isolation. We shall indeed die as we forget or ignore that reality."

This is as radical an assault on protestant individualism as I have seen in a long time. It is actually a bit shocking in its theological break with most American fundamentalists who assume that salvation is entirely about an individual relationship with God. Moreover, this is a call to everyone to engage in the world. It is a firm statement that changing one's individual behavior is not a sufficient response to the present economic or environmental crises.

This was Bishop (Primate) Katherine Schori's opening address to the 2009 Episcopal General Convention currently taking place in Anaheim. If anyone was wondering whether there is diversity in Christian theology, take a deep breath and read it again.


Raised By Republicans said...


This kind of statement is why I would be appalled if politics becomes entirely limited to a debate between the religious left and the religious right. There is no room left in such a debate for secular individualism. Secular individualism is the basis for democracy. Without it, democracy fails.

I'm sure you are thrilled at this Christo-socialist appeal but I would side with the Evangelicals (who I despise for other reasons) against this person if the only issue at stake were whether the individual or the collective were the legitimate basis and origin of political rights and responsibilities.

Raised By Republicans said...

Allow me to clarify. The role of the individual is NOT the only issue at stake so I typically side with the Christo-socialists like Bishop Schori - and happily do so as well.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I am surprised that she would use the word "heresy" here... A breathtaking departure from much of what I understood of Protestantism, actually. I found the text of the full speech online.

She says later in the text, "I am because we are, and I can only become a whole person in relationship with others. There is no 'I' without 'you'..." She delves deep into a sort of religious existentialism here and acknowledges that shortly thereafter.

I would say that Schori has captured an important part of the equation, but she did not close the loop. You could also say, "we are because I am--because each one of us is." That is the part we dwell on most, so perhaps that is why she did not feel the need to repeat it. I appreciate very much her fascinating concept that, spiritually speaking, we exist together as a community... And yet at the same time the community exists because we, as individuals, make it so.

To me, what she is saying is that we are all connected. As John Donne wrote (pardon the lack of line breaks in the poem),

"No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Pombat said...

LTG, query on "It is a firm statement that changing one's individual behavior is not a sufficient response to the present economic or environmental crises" - I don't understand how you got that from what she said, nor what you're trying to say there - please explain?

I think I'm with Dr.S in saying that she's only captured part of what I see as truth - for me, every individual is part of a community; equally every community is made of individuals.

I agree that we should all engage in the world, I also believe that our individual actions - just as much as our collective actions - can harm or improve the world. Harm is caused by, e.g., someone such as Cheney damaging our collective humanity; improvement is caused by someone not just acting in a good way / changing things for the better way themselves, but inspiring others to do so too, e.g. anyone who's ever stood up against discrimination.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think Dr. S. and Pombat have expressed what I was trying to say in part. Of course individuals form communities and those communities are important but in their essence those communities are made up of individuals - who have their rights, responsibilities (to themselves and each other) and value inherently in their own being.

I took Schori's comment to be suggesting that value comes from the collective, not the individual. That the individual is secondary (if indeed, the individual is part of at all in her view).

To be honest, it sounds like a rather Catholic way of looking at the world. I'll admit to not being a particular expert on theology but my Lutheran family and Presbyterian Sunday school experiences lead me to understand that the initial break with the Catholic Church was over just this kind of world view. Luther believed in the personal (i.e. individual) relationship with God. If I'm correct in that understanding, then Schorri is actually engaging in a kind of Counter Reformation.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - it is a rather Catholic (or Orthodox) way of looking at the world. That is why it is sort of astonishing. It is one thing to say that we are our siblings' keepers. It is another to say that existence itself means community. (You will not be surprised to learn that Schori's background is as an oceanographer, a sort of environmental scientist who studied ecosystems as a whole).

It is worth pondering, and I am not sure how I feel about it. The idea that I get to have my own relationship with God, no matter what happens in the rest of the world, or with anyone else, that is something that I suppose I had assumed. It does sound selfish in some ways, though. The use of the word "heresy" that so surpised Dr.S was not intended lightly. It was meant to be a splash of cold water.

But Dr.S has hit upon the real political issue raised - what value this places on the individual. Context matters. Our baptismal vows, which the bishop knows well, require us to pledge to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?. In this context, I doubt Schori's intention was to assert that individuals do not matter except when they are part of a group. I am sure that the intention was to explain that the dignity of every human being must come from the group, and that - like all rights - it requires collective action to achieve. Rights cannot be possessed in the abstract, but must be respected and affirmed by a community.

The larger idea, expressed later in the sermon, was that salvation is a collective project for the redemption of creation, not just an individual project for the redemption of your own soul. Just as sin is to be seen as a collective fault, not just individual failings. (This is why we are comfortable with a communal confession rite, which is troubling in other denominations.). To call most fundamentalist Christianity "heresy" is intended to raise eyebrows, no doubt.

To call it "socialist," however, is not really accurate either - there is no commentary here about the ownership of the means of production. The more proper term, I think, would be communitarian.

Anonymous said...

I agree with RBR that when I read the passage, it sounded very Catholic. It seems to be directed at the uniquely American notion of salvation as practiced by evangelicals.
I think it hits at the heart of how the practice of religion in America has changed. What used to be a deeply private issue one practiced in community with others is now a highly public expression of oneself.
The mechanism of salvation has changed as well. Obviously, organized religions should not be the sole keepers of the keys to the kingdom. And it is an American notion that one should achieve happiness without regard to laws and regulations of any authority , secular or not. But, and perhaps it is a failing on my part, I have always had trouble with the notion that an individual can suddenly deem themselves saved by fiat (a discussion with God, or recitation of words). I believe that one "saved" this way cannot help but view themselves as an individual messenger of God, annoited to convert others on an individual basis.
I think this leads to religious participation in a cult of personality and focus on the individual's understanding of God and what God wants for themselves. I cannot help but think of the mega-church folks such as Osteen, preaching that the accumulation of wealth is pleasing to God.


Raised By Republicans said...

"I am sure that the intention was to explain that the dignity of every human being must come from the group, and that - like all rights - it requires collective action to achieve. Rights cannot be possessed in the abstract, but must be respected and affirmed by a community."

This is something that I disagree with. What's the point of calling them "rights" if they are subject to legitimate constraints by the group?

I think this oceanographer has come up with some inherently contradictory principles. On the one hand she asserts that rights flow from the collective rather than residing inherently in the individual. On the other hand she asserts that we must respect all individuals.

While I recognize that from a empirical point of view, rights can be violated by the group and so their exercise depends on the group, I am uncomfortable with a normative position that begins with the assertion that individuals have only those rights that flow from the group.

I meant "socialist" in the sense that the Schori's world view - as near as I can follow it - seems to suggest that the primary agency is the social group not the individual.

However, I'm willing to bet that Shori's views of political economy lean towards the socialist as well (just without the material foundations that Marx posited). Rather the Bishop sees socialist political economy as a mandate from Heaven rather than a natural consequence of the means of production.

Pombat said...

LTG: as I said before, I don't understand your comment "It is a firm statement that changing one's individual behavior is not a sufficient response to the present economic or environmental crises", as I don't understand how you got that from what she said, nor what you're trying to say there. Please could you explain? Thanks.

Am still agreeing with RbR, and Rolleroid, I think.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Pombat: Although she did not address environmentalism or economics directly like this, I think it is reasonable to take from Schori's comment that, at least in a spiritual sense, she believes that putting all the focus on individual acts elevates the individual too much and invites the sin of being too prideful. (Indeed, she argues that even one's salvation cannot be achieved by individual acts!) She makes no arguments regarding cost-effectiveness or anything like that... But she appears to be saying that acting together to confront problems as a community is a necessary part of the spiritual equation.

To be prosaic, even if each one of us could change our own lightbulbs just fine, getting a crew together to change the whole neighborhood's lightbulbs is good for the community's spirit. (It also is probably a good way to ensure everyone participates, but she does not make that argument, that I read.)

Pombat said...

Thanks for the answer Dr.S. I'd still like an answer from LTG, letting me know what he means though - I'm still waiting for an answer to my query at the very start (and again at the end) of his Individual Environmentalism & Climate Change thread too.

Bob said...

LTG: "I am sure that the intention was to explain that the dignity of every human being must come from the group, and that - like all rights - it requires collective action to achieve. Rights cannot be possessed in the abstract, but must be respected and affirmed by a community."

RbR: "What's the point of calling them "rights" if they are subject to legitimate constraints by the group? "

I don't think that's what LTG's quote asserts. There isn't necessarily an inherent disagreement between these two (although of course, you may disagree, but for other reasons).

LTG asserts that rights have to be positively affirmed by the community. Rather than assuming that rights are whatever a society defines them to be, I understand this to mean that a right doesn't, in practical terms, exist unless the society is actively affirming it. Freely expressing yourself in the wilderness is a bit like a tree falling in the forest -- if there's no one who could prevent or punish your expression, are you exercising a right?

Your concern seems to be where rights emanate from, which is frankly is a bit weird to me, but that's okay. Both the above quotes could be included under one theory, that the legitimacy of the society depends on the positive assertion of rights of the individual. A community cannot be neutral or inactive regarding individual rights: it either affirms them, or it fails to. Failing to doesn't mean the rights shouldn't exist; it means the society has failed to uphold them as it should.

This implies a societal obligation of members -- you can't be in (a legitimate, rights-respecting) group and be indifferent to the rights of others. The moral member of a society enacts the society's obligation to uphold individual rights. Without such (individual) contribution, the society can't be said to affirm those rights, and this challenges the legitimacy of the social enterprise, not the rights.

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