Havel and Hitchens

A few years ago, the department of defense conducted a study on the impact of alcohol on air force pilots.  The results were predictable.   Most pilots who drank any substantial amount had impaired ability to fly.  But one unexpected result was the discovery that 1 in 12 actually had improved coordination and focus.  

It’s not enough to change our laws about alcohol.  Nor is it information we would want to be taken advantage of.   

But it might explain how Hitch was able to drink and write so effectively.  I have, myself, attempted the same, but with unimpressive results.  After the third glass I resort only to watching repeat Louis CK or cat videos.  

Clearly Hitchens entertained his many admirers, which is perhaps one reason he was able to resist how the media trivializes the serious.  With a prodigious memory, Hitchens could pump out witty, trenchant and convincing articles about many number of political and literary subjects.    He could seem authoritative in spite of a lack of authority on any given issue.

He did, however, know who to read.  He was friends with great authors; he knew who had inside information and what parties to attend.  If being a “liberal” means a skepticism of any authority, he maintained that position with some confidence as the local gadabout to whom the media turned

Havel, however, though a liberal, understood the limits of media.  In a sense, Havel remained someone who valued integrity, thought he would be outmaneuvered by a more politically sophisticated other Vaclav, who understood that the currency of power was more convincing than the currency of international adoration.  Hitch’s liberalism he gleefully attached to the neo-conservatives, who would admit no sense of failure in the war upon Iraq, blind to the many deaths his commitment to secularism would justify.    What’s an Islamic life when we’re delivering godless government to the Arabs?  

At their best they were both uncompromising toward some sort of authority, offering a voice of the individual conscience against the state and any sort of ideological tyranny, unyielding in exposing hypocrisy.  Yet although both loved engaging others, Havel practiced the hard work of politics. Hitchens was satisfied with writing about the suffering of others, but although he was impatient with any sense of grey aside from the people he supported.

While I occasionally admired Hitchen’s aggressive, take no prisoner’s style, Havel, the philosopher, was patient, searching.  Hitchens attacked weakness in personal shortcomings while Havel sought to expose the big lie.  

 And God?  Although Havel was an agnostic he was comfortable with religious language, and understood its place within human experience and literature.   It may be that Havel, having placed beauty, love and truth at the forefront, understood how atheism’s truncated imagination fit well within totalitarianism, adopting a reverent agnosticism that was plastic, magnanimous and forgiving.  Although Havel was no lover of religion or its institutions, he understood that the religious impulse could equally threaten the powers of tyranny, and not merely justify them. 

I wish, of course, Hitchens had actually debated a religious intellectual of some stature.  Although he had some quick and effective ripostes that revealed the ignorance of his opponents, he could get sloppy when speaking of religion.  Would not the Archbishop of Canterbury have found delight in sitting across from him?  Perhaps not.  ++Rowan lacked the quick soundbite or the irreverent humor.  The theologian David Bentley Hart had the erudition and an equal vocabulary, but probably lacked the charm.   Was there not a single theologian who could correct Hitchen’s misrepresentations, or expose his cleverness as simply poetic shoddiness?  He was routinely opposed by charlatans and mediocre intellects.

I admit, although I was occasionally enthralled by his attacks on Islamic Fundamentalism, I believe Hitchen’s understanding of Islam was shallow.  He ignored the data how the political and economic instability and oppression anchored of third-world hostility towards the west.  He could give some lip service to his opponent rhetorically, but ignoring it with his quicker, glib retorts. 

Of course, Hitchens  believed that analysis was capitulation.  It meant he got some issues seriously wrong.  As he said, vindication was one of his greatest pleasures, and he was hesitant to give it up.  

But in both of them we have lost two public intellectuals – men not confined to the academy, forced into tightly narrow disciplines, or seduced by it; who engaged and entertained, who were not shy in speaking their mind.  They read far and wide.  They reveled in communicating with princes and presidents, with writers.  Our age does not reward wide reading or memorization, but on glib, infuriating or optimistic soundbites that conceal, rather than reveal, our current plight.  Our academics are specialized and Balkanized, relying on the paycheck of demanding institutions, lacking the time to contribute to the needs of the public.  And they do not develop the skill to speak on Fox News.    

I will miss both witers, and hope that other intellectuals may rise to take their place in the public and in politics. 

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Is this the Church’s Moment?

Christopher Hedges recently gave a speech challenging churches, in particular Trinity Church, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.  When Christopher Hedges boldly proclaims this is the church’s moment, my ears perk up.    Christopher Hedges knows religion, he knows church, and he’s philosophically sophisticated.  And I’m sympathetic, but as someone in the religion business, here are some instructions about how to reach out to church leaders and congregations.

Most pastors are an open-minded, well-read, sympathetic bunch.  And like everyone else they have their anxieties.

But of you want to engage or make demands upon churches, learn who they are.

It’s not hard.  Call the church and make an appointment.  Don’t make demands or ask for a favor.  Just to learn about the priest and the challenges of running a modern church.

In a busy church you may instead talk to a curate or a priest for community formation.  Get to know them also, though they might not be in charge.

Meet the sexton, the person who cares for the building.  Also meet the lay leader who has some authority in the church.

Why? Those people get work done.  Church people are hard workers.  They gather in order to solve problems.  They want to help.   They’re doing a lot of the unsexy serving that happens on a regular basis.   Over the last 40 years, they’ve done lots of work that has been ignored by the media.

In bigger churches, it will be easier if you are an “institutional representative.”  If you’re not intending on joining the parish, it’s easier to get some time if you have connections with other people.  That’s what “institutional representation” is:  a way of verifying you’re not just some random person who wants time, but someone who has relationships and represents what others believe.   Clergy sometimes are very available, but in busy parishes, like corporations, they allocate their time and have gatekeepers.

Our culture has become so radically balkanized between church people (who feel besieged) and the non-religious (who are perplexed).   Churches have been burned by social justice groups.  And social justice groups seem to find most churches ideologically suspect.

I can affirm that when I visited Occupy Wall Street, I was met with unexpecedly friendly and supportive faces.  I’mused to people fleeing when I’m in my collar, as the world puts me in an unsavory category.   Here, instead, they sought my blessing.     And I, instead, felt myself blessed.

However, our institutions have resisted, by and large, commodification.  Although we are imperfect, we’ve been negotiating the public-private debate for decades.   We’re private organizations who exist for the public.   This makes us responsible in a way that our government is not.

And we may get things wrong.  But I’m sure, in the case of Trinity Wall Street, that Dr. Cooper has a lot on his plate.   He has many voices he needs to consider, and his sympathies are most likely pulled in multiple directions.  I would argue that it is not his role to take sides, but to maintain connections.    And for this reason, it is crucial that an institutional representative of Occupy Wall Street sit down with any clergy for the sole reason to help every priest discern what is actually going on.

Because occupying property owned by Trinity Church isn’t actually occupying Wall Street.  That would mean trying to enter the buildings that house the institutions of power.  Trinity might actually be able to help the occupiers, but offering space might be the least effective way it can help.  But we don’t know.

Any movement, whether Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, that does not lay a foundation by getting to know the players in other institutions such as the church, may find itself disappointed in the church’s reaction.  This is not because we aren’t sympathetic:  but we seek to fulfill our obligations also to all sorts of conditions, including those who are not part of whatever movement is around us.  Our reticence is not disapproval.  And our hesitation should not be interpreted as cowardice.

When I was asked in my class about how I felt about Occupy Wall Street, I hemmed and hawed.  I said I was sympathetic:  the social contract had been undermined over the last forty years; those who’d been most responsible had not been brought to justice; and our system seemed devoid of character and virtue.

But over the last few weeks, it has simply been: I don’t always know what is going on.   I’m sometimes skeptical of authority, while appreciative of its effectiveness.  I think it is an emerging movement rather than a focused one.  I’m baffled by those taking it to the university (why there?) or the ports.  But I’m attracted to its energy.  It’s intriguing how social media has transformed the national dialogue about wealth.   I hope it will invite a better discussion of how our nation builds wealth, and the complexities of class.  But as a priest, I still exist in the world of face-to-face relationships and am instinctively wary of ideological posturing or movement politics.

Chris Hedges is surely right to ask churches where they stand.  We must be more open about talking about our economic condition, the roots of our current malaise, and clear about the system’s shortcomings.

But churches do not properly engage movements.  They engage individuals.  When there is danger, of course the church must offer shelter.  But sustained engagement, one that offers the hospitality of the church, requires first that people in the movement and in the church do the necessary work of listening and learning about one another.  It is through these relationships we can build the bonds that can sustain us as we critique our disastrous system.  Occupy Wall Street will only strengthen if it builds relationships with other institutions, or else the movement will fizzle.

This is hard work.   We are in a culture that values immediacy and quick answers.  To ask OWS and churches to sit down first and learn about each other seems like a waste of time.  I suggest that this view of “time” suggests that capital itself controls the game, commodifying the work it takes to strengthen the bonds of trust that can build alternative organizations.  It is when we first sit down, without demands, to listen to each other that we can understand what is actually going on; and from there, what work needs to be done.

And that work is the challenge.