Parker Palmer on Creative Tension

Parker Palmer

We’ve been reflecting on the role of tension in society. On one hand, tension has the power and potential for good when it is held creatively in a healthy society; on the other hand, tension can lead to violence in a society that, for any number of reasons (material want, or historical enmity between competing groups, for example) is less resilient. Tension means that there is some kind of conflict. Conflict can drive adaptive responses that lead to growth and learning, or it can lead to levels of inflicted pain on others, that cycle through generations.

Parker Palmer– author, educator, and activist– has this to say about creative tension:

“In the end, the challenge faced by adherents of every tradition of faith or reason is the same one we face in our public lives: to let the stranger– and things we find strange– be who and what they are, allowing them to open us to the vexing and enlivening mysteries we find within and around us. Whether our Ultimate Reality is God or Reason, fear constantly tempts us to try to tame it and contain it within the boundaries of our comfort zones. Doing so dishonors the Ultimate, diminishes the scope of our lives, and keeps us from developing a key habit of the heart that democracy requires.”

— from Healing the Heart of Democracy (p. 150)

via Parker J. Palmer.


Recent News from Georgia: the Ku Klux Clan and Roadside Debris

Cleaners from the Ku Klux Klan, Hoping to Adopt-a-Highway in Georgia

The Ku Klux Klan’s application to adopt-a-highway in north Georgia has been denied by the Georgia Department of Transportation. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a similar case in Missouri went to court, where the KKK won its appeal. The court in Missouri ruled that the state could not discriminate against an organization based on that organization’s beliefs– a First Amendment case.

Specifics aside, this story is an example of something American society, in general, does pretty well: holding in creative tension the liberal idea that government must keep open, as much as possible, the marketplace of ideologies (distasteful as some ideologies are); alongside the conservative* idea that some ideologies call for governmental restriction because they threaten the common good. What is difficult, but healthy (if done in the true democratic spirit of listening and humility), is working through which ideologies are a threat, and which are merely distasteful.

The public debate over the definition of marriage is a great example of this tension. Some people fervently believe that any definition of marriage that would include homosexual couples is not just distasteful, but is a threat to the common good– and therefore merits government’s prohibition. This case of the KKK wanting governmental recognition to pick up litter is similar (albeit with fewer ramifications): is the KKK’s ideology merely distasteful (and therefore government needs to be neutral); OR is the KKK’s ideology a threat to the common good (and therefore government needs to be more assertive in its ruling)?

*I mean classically conservative, in the tradition of Edmund Burke and more recently Russell Kirk. I do not mean “conservative” as it is most usually used, as a synonym for today’s Republican party.

via KKK group seeks Adopt-A-Highway OK  |

Liberalism’s Blind Spot

Last week when we wrote about Lady Gaga’s concert in Jakarta being cancelled, we mentioned that item in the context of the tension between liberalism-modernity, and religious conservatism-tradition. One of the most important features of this time we live in, is whether this tension can be a creative tension, or whether it will inevitably devolve into violence, both small- and large-scale.

A helpful humility recognizes that both liberalism and conservatism need the correctives that the other offers. The innovation of liberalism needs the stability of conservatism; the emphasis on the individual in liberalism needs conservatism’s emphasis on community; the personal freedom espoused by liberalism needs the responsibility to others espoused by conservatism– and so on.

In our earlier post on Lady Gaga (, we identified how religious literalism/fundamentalism needs the corrective of openness, and for theological reasons: God cannot be captured by human schemes, customs, or traditions– no matter how important such schemes, customs, and traditions are for the preservation of social order. No matter how absolute are God’s decrees (and they are absolutely absolute!), they are always enacted and interpreted within a context. Religious fundamentalism forgets that God is God, and we are not. At its best, liberalism is a reminder that the world is many and various, not reducible to One Grand Scheme Which We Own and You Do Not.

Liberalism, however, is not a cure-all either. Liberalism, left to its own devices, likewise suffers without the corrective of community and tradition– or, to put it more generally, without the corrective of some kind of unity that transcends the individual. Without the check of some kind of transcendent authority (a moral code, for example), liberalism becomes a splintering force in society, promoting selfishness and aimlessness. Each self becomes its own center, the source of its own meaning, and the arbiter of its own truth. Literalist/fundamentalist religion recognizes this danger but over-reacts; balanced religion holds the creative tension that exists between two aspects even within the one divine being: the freshness of God’s creative spirit rising in every moment, AND the stability of the One who is beyond change.

Lady Gaga in Indonesia: Fear v. Freedom?

Indonesian Protest Against Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga found it necessary to cancel her June 3rd concert in Jakarta, because while some find her work and person to be an expression of freedom, others find her work and person to be an expression of evil. How do we make sense of this, in today’s world? Is there any creative outcome possible, for this quintessentially contemporary– and worldwide– tension: the tension between liberalism and individual freedom (often associated with secularism and the West), on the one hand, and conservatism and received moral codes (often associated with religious tradition and the East), on the other?

There is a real, rather than merely an apparent, conflict here. Considered as “isms,” these principles undo each other: zealous secularism is anti-religious; fundamentalism is anti-liberal; narrow liberalism is anti-communitarian; narrow Christianism is anti-Muslim; and so on. Considered in the abstract, mutual exclusivity is the rule here: a thing cannot be itself, AND something opposite of itself, at the same time.

In the world where actual people live, however, human flourishing depends on peoples and societies holding these conflicting ideas in creative tension. Sometimes a people or a society cannot hold creative tension, and events become, simply, tense– even violent. We know that– that’s not news. It was the threat of this kind of violence that caused the cancellation of Lady Gaga’s concert.

In today’s world, religiously inspired antagonism toward modernity needs the corrective impulse of liberalism. Such openness is not the perspective of Wahhabism, of the ayatollahs in Iran, of the Haredim, or of Christian literalist/fundamentalists in America. The deepest meaning of liberalism, however, has theological grounding. Simply, it is recognizing that one of the attributes of the Holy One is continually to renew the world. At its best, the impulse toward liberality is the recognition that all human schemes for capturing who God is, what God does, and what God’s will requires of us, are always provisional: provisional, because limited by human finitude. As Paul reminds us, we can see the Truth of God only partially, as through a glass darkly.

Curiosity about– and openness toward– modernity are faithful responses of religious people. What is also true– to the chagrin of radical secularists, I am sure– is that liberalism, too, needs the corrective impulse of religious tradition. More on that soon.

Here is the report on the cancellation of the concert:

“Little monsters lost to big monsters”, wrote an Indonesian television anchor on his Twitter account shortly after Lady Gaga cancelled her biggest concert in Asia, a sold-out event scheduled to take place in Jakarta on June 3.

The pop star’s fans, which she affectionately calls her “little monsters”, now have to accept that the woman they saw on Indonesian television, or discovered in DVD shops, cannot visit their country because of safety concerns.

Although a small group of Islamic hardliners rejoiced over the news of Gaga’s concert cancellation, many Indonesians started to wonder who really has gone gaga here.

In fact, this incident does not have much to do with the American singer. Instead, it illustrates a far deeper conflict that is dividing Indonesia.

The Lady Gaga saga started a few weeks ago, after some Indonesians opposed her visit, citing her exposed body parts and “devilish” lyrics.

The pop star soon became the centre of a debate between those who see her as a symbol of freedom, and those who see her as a symbol of evil. The fact that the Islamic Defenders Front IDF was successful in repelling her from Indonesia shows that threats of violence can pay off.

“The fact that police can’t guarantee security of the concert shows that our state is weak towards groups that promote intolerance,” said Hendardi, head of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace.

“It’s up to the authority of the state to guarantee freedom of expression and security as outlined in our constitution.”

via Gag on Lady Gaga stirs Indonesia fears – Features – Al Jazeera English.