Monday, January 14, 2008

Multi-culturalism and other thoughts

I’m in one of those weird moments in life when I feel bombarded by thoughts on all sides, on the verge of making some kind of connections, but they are just somehow beyond me. This past week I’ve been intrigued by some of the discussions at Mad Priest’s about multi-culturalism, first prompted by Bishop Nazir-Ali’s remarks about Muslims in Britain. While it seemed easy to dismiss his remarks as, well, Nazir-Ali, it did seem to strike a nerve with some Brits who, while they see themselves as generally tolerant of cultural diversity, are fearful of being overwhelmed by the religious and cultural differences brought by recent immigrants who seem more religious, insular, and less inclined to adapt to British culture than others. Two issues lurking in the background are (1) class differences, with social and intellectual elites in the government and academia and maybe even parts of the church embracing diversity while working class people are the ones who have to live side-by-side with the changes; and (2) the difficulty many progressive Christians have with finding the balance between being respectful of and tolerant of persons of other faiths and, at the same time, being comfortable with asserting their own faith.

At the same time I ran across a number of articles by Frank Furedi, a sociologist and professor at the University in Kent, who is about to publish a new book on terrorism. [After reading him all week, I am now amused to discover that Furedi (whose family is from Hungary, and who has lived in Canada and, for the last 30 years or more, in Britain), is a libertarian Marxist (can’t say I don’t have eclectic tastes)]. His premise is that there is an absence of meaning at the core of contemporary Western culture that leaves it confused and powerless in the face of the kind of radicalization that comes from “a growing number of people developing relatively strong destructive urges and backward-looking ideals.” He says:

But what strikes me is that in contemporary society, one of the most powerful influences on public and social life is fear and anxiety, and the politicisation of fear and anxiety. The second feature is that our political and cultural elites are very disorientated and are uncomfortable with the values into which they were socialised and therefore are very reluctant to uphold them. And when you have both cultural disorientation and elites who are distancing themselves from their own societies, and who regard their own people with contempt and find refuge in politicising fear, I think, yes, that serves as an invitation to terror, an invitation to try to destroy us, if you like.

[From "The war on terror is a symmetry of confusion."]

For various reasons, I find his concepts of risk and terror fascinating and relevant to a number of different topics, including the way the worldwide insurance industry has responded to various kinds of threats, geobiological as well as sociological. But for the purposes of their relevance to religion and cultural values, it seems like he has described something that progressive Anglicans seem to squirm a lot with, leaving conservatives like Nazir-Ali and others, in both the C of E and the Roman church, to “fight the good fight” against Islam, atheism and its proponents like Dawkins, and anyone else who does not buy into “backward-looking ideals” of the brand of Christianity advanced by Nazir-Ali, Wright, Benedict etal.

In the context of discussing the co-called culture war over Christmas ["Do They Know its Christmas?"], Furedi wrote:

The attempt to restrict the public role of Christmas is encouraged not so much by a hatred of religion, but by a profound sense of moral malaise. It has become commonplace in contemporary Western society to assume that it is not possible for us to have a common language through which we make sense of the world. It is assumed that there are no durable values that can transcend differences in identity, culture and religion. Instead of attempting to uphold values to which all humans can subscribe, we are counselled to respect difference and celebrate diversity. From this perspective, it is offensive to wish ‘Happy Christmas’ to someone who is not a practising Christian. Such sentiments are now fairly widespread – at least among sections of the middle class and in public institutions. . . .

The bewilderment that surrounds Christmas is symptomatic of the far wider problem of not knowing how to behave in circumstances where we lack a moral language for expressing right and wrong. We feel far more comfortable describing something as safe or risky than in making a value judgement using words like good or bad.

This last bit – the change from describing something as morally wrong to describing it more or less amorally as risky or preferential behavior – was discussed recently in a scientific context concerning the nature of “The Moral Instinct” (hat tip to Chuck Blanchard), Steven Spinker writes in this week's New York Times Magazine:

Much of our recent social history, including the culture wars between liberals and conservatives, consists of the moralization or amoralization of particular kinds of behavior. Even when people agree that an outcome is desirable, they may disagree on whether it should be treated as a matter of preference and prudence or as a matter of sin and virtue.

At the same time, many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality…. This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault …. In fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it….

This is critical in his analysis, or at least the hypothesis that it is linked to identifiable neurological processes – that there is kind of an off/on switch. He describes moralization as characterized by two features that seem to cross cultures: (1) “that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal” and (2) “that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished.” He also describes what most would recognize as the feeling they have towards something they deem immoral:

We all know what it feels like when the moralization switch flips inside us — the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause

Id. This kind of analysis supports the kind of either/or thinking of Furedi (call it Marxist dialectic, if you will) – that it is difficult to stand in the middle and not be actively “for” or “against” something, whether it be matters of social morals, religious faith and practice, or even political ideals.

Yet so-called Post-Modernism makes it difficult to take sides or create and affirm a new view that bridges the old exclusive ways of thinking and believing. In thinking over the everyday realities Mad Priest raised with regard to amplified Muslim calls to prayer, cultural competition, and concern for the parts of diverse cultures that arguably are “backward-looking” – e.g. repression and discrimination against women and homosexuals, autocratic and patriarchal religious and political structures – I recalled a visit made to our area over a year ago by Samoa’s Archdeacon Taimalelagi F. Tuatagaloa-Matalavea (“Tai”), who then held the office of the Anglican Observer to the United Nations. Unfortunately, I was not able to hear her in person, but heard both from someone who did and saw the DVD presentation of her work. I’m afraid I don’t recall the details anymore, but what struck me deeply was the way in which women were working in all parts of the world to help other women and their children to enable women to have more power over their lives, to run businesses, farm, or whatever it takes to help feed and care for themselves and their families, to promote education for all children, male and female, and to alleviate the suffering brought by hunger, war, and other kinds of violence. There was a kind of implicit understanding and agreement of what needed to be done in ways that crossed cultures, recognizing how certain practices and attitudes supported by tradition needed to be changed but working towards change as much or more by doing and aiding rather than waiving ideological banners -- all without apologies for viewing some traditions critically and acting upon such criticism. She didn’t address these issues directly, but I would have loved to have had the opportunity to talk to her about them.

Reminiscent of what I think she was trying to convey are what I’ve heard and read about Dr. Jenny Plane te Paa, an Anglican theologian, teacher, and leader of social service projects, whom Jane Redmont and Richard Helmer have met and written about on their blogs. In a speech she recently gave, "Each of us was given grace," posted at Inclusive Church blog, she spoke most eloquently about how the conflict in the Anglican Communion is both distracting and damaging to the kind of work that needs to be done and the need for absorbing what she calls the lessons of “inclusive relationality.” There’s much to be found in the speech, but I was especially struck by the following:

I can’t help myself when I want so much to cry out in rage, about anyone who dares to ‘fuss’ about who is worthy of participation in the orders and offices of the Church while so many in our shared family are suffering and dying needlessly. I want to rage on about what a travesty of faith this kind of attitude and behaviour represents, about what an abuse of the gift of God’s grace all of this is and then I am reminded that the more I focus upon blaming and judging, anticipating and reacting the less I am present and able instead to develop what Thomas Cahill describes as the narratives of grace, ‘the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by the circumstance.’

And this I realize is what being ‘drenched in grace’ is calling me into – is calling us all into. We are being challenged to find within ourselves renewed appreciation of all that is good and true.

I think many of us want to cry out with her. But sometimes we stumble at both talking about and doing what is needed to further “the good and true.” In my search for some of her words, I happened on report from early in 2007 from Richard Helmer about Epiphany West 2007: Re-visioning Anglicanism, held at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California. In it he spoke of a paper, "From Modernity to Post-Modernity: Rethinking the Myth of Anglican Communion" by Carlos Eduardo Calvani, Director of the Anglican Center of Studies in the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, Porto Alegre. Richard writes of Calvani:

"Truth" itself must be recovered as a viable term for a post-modern era. It strikes me that post-modernism is sometimes perceived as most threatening because it implies relativism, leading to the dangerous slippery slope of anarchy. But this fails to see the deeper reality that Calvani raised up for me in his paper: modernism sees "truth" as essentially exclusive. For truth to exist, there must be some kind of opposite. Orthodoxy demands the existence of heterodoxy. Religiosity demands the existence of apostasy. Faith demands the existence of infidelity.

All of these categories assume, in a very modern way, measurable quantifications of "truth." In the post-modern era, and indeed, in the hoped for future of Anglicanism, we recover the notion of "truth" as mystery: while not utterly hidden, not utterly knowable to us either, but glimpsed in the organic communion we call The Body of Christ, whose boundaries are beyond the span of a single Christian, Church, or even the world or time. This means our understandings of truth must always be held provisionally and with humility. Such an understanding subverts the terribly violent ways we have used "truth" to attack those who disagree with us.

That is not to say that truth cannot or should not be defended, particularly in the face of human suffering and against all kinds of oppression, but it must be seen as contextualized in an organic way, not held out as an abstraction or universal for all time. Nor can it be inflicted, but truth can only be embraced through the inspiration of the Spirit.

Id. This really struck me in contrast with Furedi’s and Spinker’s writings. What Richard writes strongly resonates with my own beliefs and attitudes, but it makes me wonder whether and how we can really hold “our understandings of truth… provisionally and with humility” and at the same time defend truth “particularly in the face of human suffering and against all kinds of oppression.” How can we act on behalf of moral and religious “truth” and find the “good and the true” from various traditions without doing so as an expression of our moral sensibilities which may be binary? Or to put it more simply, when and how do we articulate what we are for and against?

I know this touches on big issues such as universalism in the realm of theology and multi-culturalism in religious, social, educational, and political institutions. I know I can read (and have read) much further on Modernism, Post-Modernism, Naturalism, and all the latest in psychology, sociobiology, etc. No doubt I will. But I confess to have some difficulty translating all the complex perspectives to be gleaned there into everyday realities – like what to do with and about Christmas, prayer calls, veils, and the deeper questions of when and how one should actively work to change some cultural traditions and practices. Conservatives certainly have their own answers to these questions, most of which I reject. But as much as I dislike the snarky way they often raise them, they do, I think, have a point as to some of it.

When and how do we profess to be Christians? How do we witness that in a multi-cultural world? How do we advocate for some features of Western humanistic thought and culture? How can we possibly do any of these without being, at least in the short-run, for or against certain things? Is there a way to speak to atheists, agnostics, and adherents of other religions in ways that can actually persuade them to adapt and change to new ways of thinking and acting (and keep us humbly listening to them and re-considering our own notions of the “good and true” without losing our passion and commitment to them?) What can we do to help form, reform, and modulate the operation of our moral “on-off” switches? These are the questions floating through my mind lately. I don't know if they are "taboo" for progressives or not, but here they are.


o-mom said...

At 6:24 in the morning? At this point, I think I'm representing the working class here. Obviously, I can't speak for anyone in Britain, but in the Midwest, we see the what goes on in Muslim countries. There is little publicity about the strength and splendor of various cultures involved. However, we hear about the murder of girls by their brothers and fathers for minor infractions. We hear about the genital mutilations and arranged marriages. Some of this is clearly a first-generation- immigrant problem. Neither Britain nor America wants to become Afghanistan. While I'm clearly out of my league, I don't know that I agree that there is a "moralization sense". There is some evidence for moral development in children, but clearly some people don't develop much, or as much, or in the same way. The need to "to recruit" may also be the need to control. There are very likely only 2 motivations for human behavior- (beyond basic physical needs). People act out of love or they act out of fear. Follow the guy who is truly loving.

klady said...

Someday I'll get back to this -- or not. I've read some stuff on altruism research before and it all the research and analysis strikes me all as being more speculation than observations of any clear links between neurological behaviors or patterns and the kind of moral reasoning posited. Nevertheless, I find the ideas interesting. I don't think any of it is so simple as bare instinct -- rather more like what someone (Chomsky?) said about a moral "grammar" one may be born with but which may be used quite differently or perhaps not at all depending on various factors. So, in that sense, nothing is fixed. Yet what the article I sited in the NY Times Magazine seemed to be saying is that once one develops that moral sense, it is pretty intense and functions if not like and on/off switch than at least something one either feels intensely or does not feel at all.

I've been reading and writing quite a bit at or around religious blogs for sometime now (and before that political, ADHD, and environmental issues -- way before that, health-food and EFA diets). I veer way too easily towards moral outrage -- always have -- and besides trying to control it (hard to do when dealing with religion, or at least the politics of religion), I'd like to understand it better. Where is the passion and commitment of faith without wanting to storm the barricades (or, God forbid, burn a few witches)? That's tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I don't seem to ever find the language or piety that I can put to good and consistent use, if that makes any sense.