Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Out in the pouring rain

The soul of the fascist disturbs me. I have unpitying libertarian Republican friends and Stalinist revolutionary terrorist Goth friends. They scare the bejesus out of anyone else I know. Nobody knows, including me, whether I make such friends because I need them -- because I require the peculiarities of subculture to fan my flame of curiosity about the world -- or because I hope to convert them -- or indeed because I have some sick lack of conviction about my own values. Nobody knows if their extremism comes from a lack of love for their fellow man or an overabundance of it.

But fascists aren't the only souls we worry about. My older professor friends worry about a generation that doesn't fall in love, but flees from relationship to relationship without conviction. My friends in churches worry about a generation without attachments. My friends in cities worry about people who live in suburbs, who never see the poor, or sympathize with neighbors of different backgrounds.

Studies show that religiosity flows in families. One cites five-generation-long successions of ministers. One knows atheists raised in hippie parents, children of priests who become yoga instructors and spiritualists. The gap of experience between the spiritual and the totally secular is so wide: the facts they highlight are spoken of so systematically in evidence by some and not at all by others.

The French psychologist and philosopher Gaston Bachelard said that it pained him every time he read a great writer using a word in a derogatory sense: Bergson using “drawer” to mean dustbin made Bachelard send tears. He righted the injustice by dedicating an essay to retracing drawers, nooks, corners, closets, and other secret compartments as technological auxiliaries of the soul.

One feels something similar when one of one’s friends dismisses one of one’s other friends. Disucssions with liberal activists somehow inevitably come around to shrieking at the soulless void of ethical breaches. They’re much in evidence. Guantanamo Bay is still destroying lives. On the ground in America we don’t know why; liberals and moderates alike are so confused by the failure of justice and investigation to produce change, so confused at the absence of an effective liberal power. Conservatives perhaps are paying attention elsewhere.

Tillich thought there couldn’t be such a thing as a human who didn’t believe in God: for Tillich had classified the experience of the divine as equally the experience of art, of all creative and sustaining forces articulated through human life.

Republicans aren’t the only category up for dismissal from the human condition. Asexuals are another candidate. If not asexuals, then the hedonist who goes from relationship to relationship without committing attention. People with ADD who can’t give a steady stream of attention to anyone else. Atheists who are outside of the church might one day be reclaimed, but atheists who make war on the church are unremittant sinners who have shown their fallen nature through this great gap of belief in the system.

I put myself forward here. I am an unrepentant cynic. I’m afraid of people who aren’t like me. I distrust my teachers, and my institutions, and my ideologies. I find myself skeptical of a way to justice when the world’s flagship democracy seems to propel us to ever greater examples of social injustice and exclusion. I doubt that knowledge can right wrongs when learned people accomplish so little for the good.

But Thursday was the feast of Corpus Christi. Here in San Francisco we prayed until dusk, and in the fading twilight, promenaded around the block as a congregation lead on by the eucharist carried under a sacred canopy. We passed by Thai restaurants and homeless people. We passed by rush hour traffic, singing hymns.

In the purple light of early evening, we stood in the church garden, the roses in full bloom, a few candles with their golden stems lighting a makeshift altar. The Feast of Corpus Christi is for the one body of Christ, the one body which one joins by taking communion, which one takes into the city in one's own body as one goes forth into the world every day, the one body which one sees in the faces of friends and strangers. The procession was strange, an archaic ritual to me, where I found myself again wondering if ritual was hollow. So baroque, so Victorian, so pseudo-medieval with all its trappings. My congregation is filled with old people and crazy people. I feel self-conscious around other Christians.

It was only later the same day as I was giving a long hug to a friend in some anxiety that I reflected on having walked around the block, entered the city, and walked around as the living body of Christ. Hugging my friend I kept praying, and the words echoed in my head: you are bound in one body; that which you bind is bound in Heaven. The feast liturgy instructs us that we go back in to the world not only serving Christ, but inhabiting Christ. It's a different kind of humility: not abasement, not pretending that one's actions do nothing, not reflecting on the inconsequence of everything. But rather embracing the consequence of all one's actions: and allowing a space where that consequence can be made over not by one's own paltry gestures or emotions, but by a foreign, outside, grander, deliberate force: the force of Christ acting through our very bodies, words, actions, far beyond any intention we have for them.

Christ is in the city. Christ acts more grandly than I can act. Christ's church persists where my faith fails. Neither my lack of faith, nor my dispair over my neighbor, will ever mitigate the divine presence. It persists everywhere: at all times, in all places, in every human face, each made in the very image of God.


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