A friend once confided in me that the problem with my politics, assuming I have “a politics,” is that its predicated on a romantic view of the past which cannot be ratified in the present. Never one to turn down an argument, especially a pointless one, I couldn’t help poking back a bit, inquiring over and over what my politics ought to look like in the light of the “reality” he assumed custody over. Nothing came of it. Nothing could come of it. For it was clear to me that the discussion was far less about what I actually believe (and why) and much more to do with providing him something to scoff at. People love to scoff, even if they don’t admit it openly. Scoffing provides a thin layer of surety that one’s own view(s) are intrinsically superior. If one could try to see things from another point of view and appreciate the merits, then what follows? Self-questioning? Reexamination? Doubt? Heaven forbid.
None of this is to say that my political views, to the extent they are advertised, are without a glimmer of romanticism. Most people’s views contain longings for a better world modeled either on the past (a “safe” but seemingly impractical choice) or an unrealized vision of tomorrow (a “dangerous” option given the hubris involved). Then again, one might say the same about most people’s religion, too.
On Sunday, driving home from meeting a friend, I had the gross misfortune of hearing an interview with Pico Iyer, a journalist of the “inner world” who desires a self-constructed, “new” spirituality for contemporary humanity. As he recounted his various stays at a West Coast Benedictine abbey, two things came to mind: (1) What is the point of spiritual tourism?; and (2) Why didn’t the good monks show this fraudster the door? But then it occurred to me that most people aren’t very spiritual at all and so even the arrival of a mystical snake-oil salesmen must seem like a real event. If charlatans, romantics, and wanderers won’t fill the monastic guest houses, who will?
A few still hold that the point of any religious tradition is to supply existential comfort, even if, at times, that comfort only comes by way of terror. “I am the most afraid of going to hell, ergo I will be saved.” There’s another way to put that, too: “My religion makes the most demands, thus it must be true.” The god who loves, but only slightly, and who is love, but only darkly, is the one all serious, devout men pursue until that point when either their souls buckle or they find something new to post about on Facebook.