Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

From the Editor: Turning a Corner - by Ray Waddle

Author: 
Ray Waddle

Op-eds every day now lament the “two Americas” – pro-gun America and anti-gun America, PC and anti-PC, white and non-white, city and rural. This is nothing new. There were two Americas in 1860 (slave and free), in the 1930s (people with money and people with none), the 50s (segregationist and non-segregationist), the 60s (war and anti-war). The “United States” was always an article of faith as much as a sociological fact.

That’s not terribly consoling right now. The era is severely testing spiritual resilience and the democratic future. We need a bigger frame for understanding the partisan forces at work and getting things done. Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy says it’s time to get in touch with our inner strengths, our sense of adventure, and our power to choose – despite uncertainties everywhere. This isn’t optimism. It’s “active hope.”

Never mind the latest dispirited news about gangsterish leadership, data breaches, and gunfire. She argues we are entering a Great Turning, a period that is poised to repudiate unlimited-growth consumerism and recover the world. The Great Turning reconceives power as collaborative and open-ended. The old form of power – dependent on conflict, I-win-you-lose tactics, and, above all, a fear of looking weak – is handing us political paralysis and ecological crisis. It is slowly discrediting itself in an ethical collapse. Macy and co-author Chris Johnstone think we can do better than business as usual.

“Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act,” Macy and Johnstone declare. “Active Hope is … a readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love of life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,  the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.” <1>

None of these things, they say, “can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.”

Such high-spirited arguments are routinely outshouted. The furious matrix of nonstop media makes sure of that. The sensationalized effect, from TV to Twitter, feels like the opposite of hope. News and comment arrive in a blaze of alarm, but also with a barely concealed thrill – the anchorperson’s dopamine thrill, and ours – at the next squalid or horrifying revelation. Then cut to commercial. And so our wretched divisions are gleefully monetized. Nobody’s happy with this and everyone abides by it.

An outbreak of authentic hope might well soothe the national case of nerves. It might rebuild some trust and blunt some of the perfectionism that drives debate – the jargon, the sneer at compromise. Reform happens in the grit and tumult of each exhausting week, not in the pure air of some alternative universe.

As I hear it, urgent to all this is a creation theology, a sturdy conviction that a Creator underwrites all life and all matter. The world is worthy. We’ve been given reason and each other to explore it, praise it, understand it, reform it. It’s discoverable. Facts might not be 100 percent accessible, but evidence still matters. To paraphrase a commonsensical George Orwell theme, even if facts are just 70 percent reliable, that’s still better than 69 percent, and the difference is worth struggling for. <2> It’s certainly better than the nihilist’s zero percent acknowledgment of the world’s conditions and pain.

Other tribunes of hope come to mind: the writers in this Spring 2018 Reflections issue. They dare to take on hard sayings of scripture, the hard-shell disagreements coursing through 21st-century life, the hard task of facing conflict, defusing it, or even finding redemption in it.

“Walk with us in the way that we take,” the mystic-prophet Howard Thurman prayed, “lest our footsteps stumble in the darkness and we lose our way, Our Father.” <3>

Notes

  1. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy(New World Library, 2012), pp. 35.
  2. See Julian Barnes’ discussion of Orwell in “Such, Such was Eric Blair,” New York Review of Books, March 12, 2009. See nybooks.com.
  3. Howard Thurman, The Centering Moment (Friends United Press, 1969), p. 123.
Issue Title: 
Let's Talk: Confronting Our Divisions
Issue Year: 
2018