On the precipice of hope

Barack Obama's official Presidency PhotoOn the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I’m reflective. Most of my friends — in fact, I think, most of the world — are ready for this, and the expectation level for his administration is incredibly high. It will be an interesting period in world history, that’s for sure.

We’ve just been through a long season of assigning blame for our woes. Honestly, hasn’t that been the theme of public debate since the campaign started? Enough of that! We’re entering a season of change, and here’s where I see the real challenge for our new rock star President.

Despite a headline in The New York Times this weekend (Poll Finds Faith in Obama, Mixed With Patience), we need something bigger than Barack Obama to believe in — all of us — and I think nobody knows that better than the President-Elect. It’s one thing to espouse hope but quite another to place that hope in human hands. The end of modernism’s dominance, about which I’ve been writing for years, includes closing the book on the religions that have preceded this time in history, for clearly they’ve become a net liability to our culture. I say that believing that we need a revival of religion in the West, but not one that represents anything from the past. We’ve screwed that up. Let’s all just admit it.

In his brilliant 1986 book, The Naked Public Square, Richard Neuhaus argues that, in a democracy, the public square is clothed in the common beliefs of the people it represents, and that it cannot sit naked for long. The challenge for America, he wrote, is “the reconstruction of a public philosophy that can undergird American life and America’s ambiguous place in the world.” This is Barack Obama’s greatest challenge, and I think he knows it.

In premodern times, the Roman Catholic Church dominated culture in its top-down, centralized, command-and-control form. While “the church” still flourished in modern times, it faced the challenge of new gods — intelligence and reason — which formed the real religion of modernity: atheism. The problem with atheism in a democracy is that it carries no internal governor, no restraint against its own selfish wishes, no threat greater to self than the state. Lack of faith in a higher power cuts one’s attachment to and responsibility for each other, and this is a problem for our culture as our new President takes over.

Every survey I’ve ever seen on the subject shows that America profoundly believes in “God,” but this is not reflected in our behavior or the advancement of our culture. In fact, as I survey the landscape that is America circa 2009, I see little evidence of God, and that’s a shame. For all that de Tocqueville is quoted these days, you rarely hear his statement that it was America’s churches that, he thought, made it great. He was referring to the common internal governor that justified self-sacrifice, something foreign to our contemporary, “every man for himself” culture.

Kevin Kelly recently posed the fascinating question of why science was developed in the West and not in China or elsewhere (“The Origins of Progress”). Here was my comment to that brilliant piece.

The only thing I can add here is that we’re in the midst of a second Gutenberg moment, in which knowledge (The Jewel of the Elites) is spreading throughout the globe like a giant mushroom cloud, and I would argue that this significantly will alter any future projections, just as the first Gutenberg moment did centuries ago. The task, it seems to me, is to help that knowledge growth be in the fields of science and rationality, for we can’t even speculate what the results will be.

As to why science came from Europe rather than China, I think it’s fair to point again to that first Gutenberg moment, for the fundamentals of logic and science demand a degree of faith and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good that came from the source of knowledge of the time: the Bible.

The only downside to science, IMO, is a tragic dismissal of that book and its place in history, for I believe it contains the source code for Western Civilization. When Wycliffe completed his common English language translation, he made this remarkable statement: “This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people and for the people.” That’s as true today as it was back then, for democracy requires an internal governor, which the faith of the people provided.

Finally, man wants to be God, and it’s always been that way. This quest is what fuels all progress. We want immortality. We want to overcome time and distance. We want omniscience and power. Nothing wrong with any of that, but I would love to see science actually acknowledge it some day.

We too easily dismiss today the faith that put this thing we call “the West” in place, and the more we try to destroy it, the more we’re actually committing a slow form of suicide. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss faith when the only fruit of it that we see is man’s inhumanity to man, in the name of God’s eternal love. Yeah, right.

I’ve written in the past that humankind will no longer accept the “God, the Father” concept, because it just doesn’t work anymore. We’ll simply never agree on interpreting the rules that such a being would demand, much less which “prophet” of His (or Hers) to follow. The second Gutenberg moment is rapidly destroying that. I do believe, however, that we can and will accept a “God, the Holy Spirit” concept, because the more we learn about the space between the atoms that make up all of life, the more we’ll question the force that holds it all in place. Is it the Matrix or is it God?

I settled this issue for myself long ago. Life is God. God is Life. You want to see God? Look at your neighbor and all that surrounds you. We are nothing compared to the whole of it, and that knowledge alone is sufficient to change everything in the world.

Barack Obama has interesting spiritual roots, and he will call upon them often during his Presidency. Will he inspire us to restart our culture? I certainly hope so, because the alternative isn’t very pretty. I think the U.S. has shoved its grubby fingers in the eyes of Life for a very long time, and if we want to be in sync with “It,” we simply have to behave differently. “You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into,” wrote Steven Covey. Behaving differently, in this case, means beginning with the acceptance that, as Dylan wrote, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Like other institutions of power, religion is being disrupted by that which connects us all through electrons. What’s to come will spring up from the bottom, like everything else in the postmodern, post-colonial, post-Christian world. Human behavior in a networked world will, of necessity, have to be different than what we’ve tolerated in the modern world, and one hopes we’ll learn that, in Life, the significance of the individual is rendered insignificant in the face of Life itself. A humility of that sort would serve us well.

I think I see that humility in our new President, and I’ll be judging him from that perspective. He speaks of The Audacity of Hope, but hope in what? Our own abilities? Our institutions? Our government? Business? Academia? Our leaders? Each other?

Or is our hope in the faith that even if we fail, it won’t be the end of everything, because there’s something “out there” and “in here” that’s bigger than our silly plans? Like Columbus, we’re setting off for new worlds, but will we carry with us the banner that Life itself is moving us forward, or will we settle for the belief that we’re on our own? What will move us to sacrifice for another generation, the knowledge that we’ve done a good thing, or belief in a future reward for ourselves? These are difficult, yet extremely important questions.

Barack Obama encourages us to get involved in the process of rebuilding America, and that’s an inspiring, highly Kennedy-esque charge. But is that encouragement enough to actually get the job done? I’m not so sure.

However, the President-Elect has one thing going for him that his predecessors didn’t have, and that is the reality of our increasingly networked, postmodern world. “I experience, therefore I understand” is the mantra of the PoMo, and what better experience can there be than that which drives an understanding of culture itself. PoMos trust each other and want need to be involved in their world. This is the unknown, that which is “new under the sun.”

From my seat as an observer of culture, it’s going to be an interesting thing to watch.

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