Walk in reasonable comfort with their neighbors
Earlier this week I was attempting some spring cleaning of the cardboard box I sleep in, located at the top of the concrete towers at the foot of Mechanic Street, where I am forced to live.
In an old slipper stuffed in an empty baked-bean tin under my pillow, I found the following ancient manuscript, actually a newspaper column I wrote in 2005 when I was a real working-for-money newspaper editor and not just the ghost of one.
Reading it through I was disturbed to find the similarities betwixt then and now, and realized that if I were to offer it to the modern editor in lieu of my normal weekly nonsense, I would not have to write anything fresh this week.
So I did.
* * * * *
For what it’s worth, I attend church with people who do not accept many of my most important beliefs, and vice versa. Why does this matter, and why is it worth writing about?
Liberals and conservatives are all over each other at the moment in the Dear Old USA, trying to forcibly compress irreconcilable extremes of religion and politics into the same cubic space of fissile material. Judicial nominations, the right to die, abortion, Iraq, homosexuality, Alaskan oil — pick any subject and watch it burst into flames.
All the same, I do not think the underlying problem is conservatism vs. liberalism. There will always be conservatives and liberals, so the real question is, how do we make it all work for everyone?
The biggest hindrance we face is an almost universal atmosphere of intolerance. Everyone is intolerant of everyone else, and if you don’t agree with me, I’ll knock you down.
But we have been here before and we did find a way out of it, even if it was a baffling solution for many, and others refused to tolerate it and left in Protest to become the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
I refer to 16th-century England and its fights over whose ways should dominate. Should it be the allegedly reform-minded Puritans, or should it be the more traditional-minded? It was not easy to resolve, but Queen Elizabeth eventually adopted ideas proposed by clergyman Richard Hooker, namely that there should be a middle way between extremes, a road where most people can walk in reasonable comfort with their neighbors, even when they do not wholly accept each other’s beliefs.
In a way that modern people might also find unsettling, Hooker looked at four important values, and with considerable intelligence suggested that no single one should be allowed to dictate the road ahead.
He identified tradition, experience, reason and scripture. For example, people who say they live simply by scripture can find themselves in a difficult spot when it comes to explaining why they do not chop off their own hands in order to avoid sinning, or why they do not approve of slavery. After all, each is a Biblical principle, if one is to be literal about it.
And so it goes with each of the four values. To simply adhere to any one of them can produce absurdities and the risk of extremism. It gets worse when one tries to translate such a single-minded approach into politics, which, of course, is precisely what is going on today.
Hooker also had a reasonable comment to make about people who think of God as some kind of severe schoolmaster, whether of the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim kind: “God is no captious sophister eager to trip us up whenever we say amiss, but a courteous tutor ready to amend what, in our weakness or our ignorance, we say ill, and to make the most of what we say aright.”
When was the last time anyone tried to portray God and religious faith in that way in the media? As a world-saving idea, I admit, Hooker’s middle way sounds fairly unspectacular. It did not prevent Civil War between the 17th-century equivalent of left and right in England, nor did it prevent burnings and excommunications by the governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who, after all, had left England because they did not want tolerance.
(Remember, Rhode Island was formed by people whose tolerance was intolerable to the Mayflower crowd just up the coast.)
But the desirability of a middle way, and of the four-way test of things, even though hidden from sight from time to time and perhaps now, nevertheless endures as one of the better ideas, I think.
The founders of the American system of government in the 18th century were indirectly influenced by it, and hoped for tolerance of a range of opinions and for a reasonable approach to making public policy in the new republic.
The middle way is not simply a question of ignoring differences. It is based upon the broad and reasonable belief that no man or woman is cut wholly of single cloth. Each of us is, rather, a quilt of different ideas, degrees of conviction, and variations on a theme.
Inevitably, too, it suggests that we be very cautious about making judgments of each other.
I find Hooker’s ideas to be sensible still, requiring that I take seriously all the claims of reason, tradition, experience and “scripture,” or what we might agree to call inherited codes of written conduct or even established law — what our legal system calls precedent.
If there is any genuine spirit of tolerance in any of us, I think these ideas will only reinforce it.
So although I tend to keep clear of active politics for my profession’s sake, I nevertheless attend a church riddled with Democrats, festering with Republicans, crawling with those who think homosexuality is a bad choice, replete with gay people, loaded down with the poor, and overburdened with the wealthy.
Somewhere in all of that I find a way to fit in, tolerating as best I can people who believe things I do not, and in return being tolerated by others who think I am a complete chump but are too polite — too committed to the middle way — to say so.
It’s not always easy. Only last weekend I tossed aside a book which proposes something I cannot swallow. But I’ll probably finish it, and when we discuss it I’ll make my case as persuasively as I know how, perhaps also trying to learn something.
This is no magic solution to all our ills, but I can only do what I think best for myself and urge you to think about it, too.