A Good Heresy and A Bad One (Some thoughts on polarization)

Polarization has become more acute in our nation in the past few years. What might be our spiritual response?
 2017-10-22 OOS Image


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There’s someone who lives in my section of town who drives around flying a huge Confederate flag on the back of his old pickup truck, and he scowls at me like he isn’t interested in becoming my friend.  I imagine he’s well armed and I’m wary of tangling with him.  I’d be OK with him moving away.  Or take that guy who culturally weaponized his loud large pickup truck with “coal runners” (aka as “Prius repellent”) that intentionally spews black diesel smoke out the rear of his truck to show his contempt for those who think that climate change is caused by us and is really happening and that we should do something about it.  Wouldn’t mind not seeing him again either. 

In fact, there are many folks in our country who have certain attitudes and beliefs that I think are misguided and deluded at best and too often dangerously deranged. I’m not anxious to interact with them. And, in fact, my wish not to see or interact with those who think – or don’t think but blindly believe irrational stuff – is generally being fulfilled. 

Observers of American society note that, more and more, we’re on a path that leads us to live, work and socialize with like minded folks and avoid those who hold opposing views.  Some call this “the big sort” (as in sorting out different colored socks).  Who could blame a person for wanting to enjoy the company of kindred spirits and avoid the unpleasantness of dealing with those at the opposite end of the social, political, religious spectrum?    

For example, take the climate change denialists. Please take them away!  You might wonder how anyone could doubt the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change or hold other unenlightened views that ignore or deny irrefutable evidence.  And you might despair, as I have, at the futility of reasoning with those who embrace irrational, unreasonable “alternative facts” or narrow minded oppressive views.  

Well, here’s some unsettling news: There’s a growing body of evidence from the fields of cognitive science and social psychology that debunk the idea that we are rational people able to have reasonable, fact based, objective, truth seeking discourse.  Studies show that people tend to uncritically embrace the information they first hear and will seek out that which confirms those initial views and ignore inconvenient facts that challenge this (it’s called “confirmation bias”). 

And get this – studies further indicate that over the eons people have primarily used the gift of reason not so much to seek truth or solve abstract, logical problems, as you might expect, but rather to seek how to belong – fit in – to one’s tribe or group.  What this means is that it’s hard to build intellectual, ideological, philosophical bridges from one group to another since everyone is primarily interested in protecting their group’s perspective and fitting in their group’s bubble rather than objectively seeking the truth.  That’s why, for example, there are sections of the country where you can’t even talk about anthropogenic climate change or why some of us here might feel ill at ease here in arguing certain conservative political viewpoints.  

Now, thanks to the vast, ideologically segregated internet we can all get our information about the world from sources that will, in most cases, confirm our current perspective.  The Federal Communications Commission used to enforce a “fairness doctrine” that ensured that whenever a particular viewpoint was expressed through publicly owned airwaves an opposing perspective had to be given equal time.  No more.  Now, the most egregiously slanted, mendacious viewpoints have free reign and the truth never gets a hearing in some circles.  We now have a “polarization industrial complex” of pundits and conspiracy theorists who exacerbate and handsomely profit from polarizing society.  Some historians say that America is more politically, socially polarized than it has been since the time of the Civil War.

Yet polarization is nothing new.  In fact, “us vs. them” thinking is an ancient, prehistoric phenomena.  It has often found expression in religious thought.  Consider the ancient religion of Manichaeism, which was for a time, a serious theological competitor to Christianity around the time of the Roman Empire.  Manichaeism stated that good and evil were roughly equal forces in the cosmos and are in continual conflict in our world – it was a dualistic philosophy.  It’s most famous adherent was the man who would later convert to Christianity and become known as St. Augustine of Hippo.  

Now the Church ruled with an iron fist back in those times and did a lot of damage in squelching dissent, but one thing I’d say they got right was in declaring Manicheism to be a misguided, even dangerous, heresy.  Why so?   Because dualistic views that posit roughly equal and opposing forces of good and evil/ light and dark/ right and wrong, seduces individuals and groups into seeing themselves as good and all who oppose them as evil – sometimes so evil that it’s OK to persecute and exterminate them.  On the other hand, a monistic view affirms that we are all part of the same great reality (an interdependent web), that life is not divided up into separate camps of good guys and bad guys.  Each one of us is capable of doing harm or doing good, but humankind is essentially one.  At their best, all the great religions affirm such a monistic view.

The paradox of Manichaean thought is that it seduces people into committing evil the the name of eradicating evil.  The instances of this happening in human history are far too numerous to name and ongoing.  The Nazis saw the Jews as evil and sought to exterminate them, thus perpetrating the evil of the holocaust.  Seventy years ago Hindus and Moslems in India saw one another as evil and the result was a massive, mutual genocidal carnage that claimed around a million lives.  A few years back in Rwanda the Hutus tried to exterminate all the Tutsis.  Today there are those who would like to utterly destroy the state of Israel and those who would like to remove all Palestinians from their native land.  These and the countless other instances are dualistic, Manichaean desire to utterly destroy an “enemy.”  It was wise of the ancient Christians to perceive the great danger in dualistic theology. 

So it’s a great theological irony that Augustine, who thought he was abandoning Manichaeism thinking was one of the main culprits who unwittingly enabled it to insintuate itself in the Christian tradition. How so?

In the first five centuries of Christianity there was no official doctrine of eternal damnation.  During this era notable Christian theologians affirmed a belief in the ultimate salvation of every soul in the world.  Yet eventually, the temptation to posit an eternal hell – where people you don’t like or who don’t think or act like you tell them too would go – became too great.  After all, what better tool to have in your arsenal than the threat of eternal damnation.  Sometimes I’ve wished I could use such a tool to my advantage.  What power!  Augustine, in many ways a brilliant and admirable figure, read some flawed Latin translations of the biblical text and concluded that this doctrine was biblically sound (it’s not).  He played a major role in integrating the doctrine of eternal damnation into standard Christian theology, and this has led many Christians to see humankind through a dualistic lens – the “elect” and the “un-elect,”/ the “saved” and the “damned,”/ “believers” and “nonbelievers”).

Ironically and tragically, Christian belief in hell in the afterlife mainly served to create hells on earth it was now believed that not only evil people would go to hell but anyone who wasn’t a Christian, as doctrinally defined by the church.  The dreadful consequence of the doctrine of eternal damnation was the persecution of “heretics,” religious wars, massacres, intolerance, enmity and injustice.  And thus it has long been a practice in our culture to demonize, disparage and dismiss those who are different, to see them as the enemy – to say “to hell with them.” 

In the late 18th century some brave souls put themselves at risk of being branded as heretics and demonized by re-embracing the ancient, pre-Augustinian belief in Universal salvation.  These were our Universalist forbears who could not reconcile the notion of a loving God with the truly dreadful doctrine of eternal damnation.  So they wholeheartedly embraced the vision of a loving God and said “to hell with the doctrine of eternal damnation,”  “a loving God saves everyone.  No exceptions.”   Thus began the Universalist Church of America, which would, over a century later, merge with the Unitarians to form the UUA. 

Over time Universalist theology evolved.  Universalists recognized the full implications of Universalist theology.  Not only did this mean that they no longer believed in a God who condemns, it also meant that they had to give up demonizing any other members of the human family.  In truth, whether you believe in a God or an afterlife Universalist thinking pulls the rug out from under polarized, dualistic thinking.  A Universalist can be angry or disappointed with someone.  Even outraged.  But a Universalist view does not allow for permanent, absolute condemnation of others – it never abandons the vision and hope for change, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, love in the human family.  A Universalist, and by extension, a Unitarian Universalist, is called to give up eternal hate and enmity.

I think now of that man who I’ve seen driving around with the Confederate flag.  That is such a hateful, racist symbol.  Who is this man?  What’s his story?  Could he change?  

Recently I read the story of a man who was imprisoned for fire bombing a synagogue and had bragged about beating blacks with a baseball bat.  In prison he associated with other white supremacists until he was put into solitary confinement.  Away from the noxious influence of other white supremacists he began to explore his own heart, away external voices of hate, the edifice of racial hatred began to crumble.  

One day he received a letter from a young black woman whose grandparents had once been abused by the KKK.  She wanted to explore the possibility of a dialogue.  The time was ripe for this.  A meaningful connection was made.  He wrote:  “it does give me a sense of happiness that I am no longer full of senseless hatred.”  In one letter he quoted the black South African leader Nelson Mandela:  “A person’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden, but never extinguished.”  He went on to say “I did some terrible things but now I’m trying to let that goodness shine.” 

This is a good reminder to me that there is an inherent worth and dignity, an innate goodness within – sometimes hidden deeply – of those whose views I may oppose and that under the right conditions a person can find a higher truth and change. My Unitarian Universalist faith won’t let me forget that.