Wendell Berry’s been saying it for years, in the context of culture, agriculture, and community: America is on an unsustainable trajectory. The soil– literally the earth, and metaphorically the source of moral and emotional nourishment– is wearing thin. In the midst of material excess and frantic busy-ness is spiritual depletion and physical exhaustion. We have lost our way.
There exists no shortage of people in the political realm who have the answer for what ails us: the Tea Partiers are ascendant for now, having supplanted the Obama-hopers, who in their ascendancy supplanted the Cheney/Rumsfeld neoconservatives. Such political lability in itself suggests that, politically speaking, no one really knows what to do.
Much of what passes for religion in America today offers two kinds of response to this age of anxiety, neither of which is satisfactory. The first offer is personal salvation (and I mean that broadly to include not just Christian notions of “accepting Christ” and “going to heaven,” but also New Age/Western-inflected Eastern philosophies of “enlightenment”), a spiritual stance that looks inward and emphasizes the individual’s relationship with the Transcendent One (or Transcendence in general). This way is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t address the wider cultural system that generates our anxiety and depletion. It’s a way to cope, but not to transform.
The second response of religion in America today is to be more outward-looking, and to engage society from a religious point of view. While pointed in a more helpful direction (outward), the way religion in America generally engages society today is to join political battles on political battles’ usual acrimonious, highly partisan, highly anxious terms. Politics calls the tune; religion sings its assigned part, “conservative right” and “liberal left.” This is unsatisfactory because it unreflectively engages the wider cultural system as it is. It replicates the patterns that lead to anxiety and depletion, rather than offering an alternative narrative.
There is no easy answer, no tidy prescription. Part of what’s helpful is to sit with the dissonance, the unresolved chord– and listen, and wait: listen and wait in the hopeful expectation that God knows what’s going on, even if we don’t.