I was very impressed with Bill Moyers’ recent interview with three progressive theologians, Cornel West, Serene Jones, and Gary Dorrien, about the state of the world, capitalism, even metaphysics, and the state of Christianity. I had somewhat despaired of seeing much from the corners of my former faith to indicate that it was still evolving and adapting while remaining true to itself as a religion. Where I had seen this the churches seemed in terrible decline, but these people had a vibrancy and a relevancy that expresses the best qualities of the faith without abandoning its precepts:
BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the story of America right now? If you had to write that story, very briefly, what is the story that’s unfolding, as we talk?
SERENE JONES: It’s a story about sin and grace, and it’s about the brokenness of human beings and our capacity to delude ourselves, all the way into the international collapse of all that we stand for. To get caught up in fictions that we write about the ways in which we should structure our lives together. We are seeing, played out before us, that classic Protestant claim that we can be caught up in sin and not even know we are in sin.
When Christianity is at its shining best it isn’t afraid to overturn the tables of the moneylenders in front of the temple, as well as looking after the poor and sick. Christianity, like any other faith, structure of thought, or pursuit of mind and spirit, needs to embrace the truth and tell it to the world to remain legitimate. And it’s in a rare position to point out certain behaviors that are ‘of this world’ because the cultural conditions of the New Testament map to our own cultural conditions so well. We live in a very Imperial Roman age, and a religion born of that age should have a lot to say to us- the Christian community has been tragically slack about this. Much of modern Christianity yoked to a dead theology that often seemed to require profound intellectual dishonesty, and falls into the same sick traps as the rest of the society.
But Serene Jones tells the story of what has made us sick beautifully:
SERENE JONES: But I think we can never underestimate the crisis of desire. That it wasn’t just that there was – it didn’t have enough social strength, or a good enough analysis. That what turbo capitalism does, is it – the biggest, sort of, war zone is interior to us – where it takes over your desire. It makes you into a creature who wants to buy the commodities. So you could have a great political analysis. But what you’re doing, on the ground every day, is you’re fueling this turbo capitalism. And it’s in the churches that another kind of desire should have been being crafted. That’s where you can get people in their bones and really begin to force the question of, what is it that you want? What makes you happy? What makes your life mean? What, you know, it’s those deep questions of want.
SERENE JONES: I think one of the reasons that it happens is that we are living in a very overwhelming time. And it’s always going to be the case that a conservative familiar neo liberal agenda sounds safer.
Because it’s what we know. But the truth of the matter is what we know is what got us in trouble in the first place. So it’s one of those moments that everybody faces in their own life. We happen to be facing it structurally right now. Is everything collapses, what do we do? In the midst of that fear, do we grasp for what’s most familiar? That’s what’s happening. But the very thing you’re grasping for is the thing that got you there in the first place.
That last line- “But the very thing you’re grasping for is the thing that got you there in the first place.” is an unmistakable description of addiction, and what’s more, addiction heading for its bottom. The signs and trappings of a culture surrendering itself to addiction, to the co-opting of want, are the water we swim in these days. They are our whole context, and the substance of choice we return to in our hours of need.
It always impresses me when the things I am thinking about come together, because I believe Infinite Jest is about the same thing, a culture heading for a bottom.
To paraphrase from AA and Infinite Jest, our best thinking got us here. I find myself agreeing emphatically with these people whose faith I do not share- it’s going to take a revival of love to get us out.