History is being made. Again and again we are told this.  Every time a war starts or ends, every time a stock market crashes, every time a tower falls. But is history really made in sudden, monumental, movie-montage events? Or does it move more slowly, in the time of dinner table conversations and daily commutes, in the twenty years it takes to raise a child?

I’m afraid I barely noticed when President Obama made his first public statement on same-sex marriage. I was lazily browsing BBC News, and to be perfectly honest, stories about the increase of plastic waste particles in the ocean (a 100% increase in the past forty years) and Google’s plans to develop driverless cars caught my attention much more strongly than this. Maybe it’s due to my social privilege as a person who has not been the object of sexuality-based discrimination. More likely, though, I think it’s due to the fact that Obama’s stance really wasn’t any news to me.  I’d known all along that he is a supporter of LGBTQ rights, even if in official discourse he previously hedged the issue. However, as scholar Sarah Wildman has stated in a recent BBC news article,

“Among many progressives, a feeble stance on gay marriage has become almost a political liability. Witness the quick hurrah! response from Nancy Pelosi and Mike Bloomberg to the president’s statement.

But it is far easier to make a statement as a governor, a congresswoman, a mayor. The country needed the president to take a stand here. The country needed this statement to come from on high: a clear-headed recognition that these are people’s lives, that rights can’t be traded or put off for later. The pomp and circumstance of the White House is no gimmick. A major new direction has been announced for the country.

“Historic,” in this moment is not a cliche.

However, Wildman also takes the long view, noting that this moment is part of a long, gradual process that is unfolding. While there may exist a realm of eternal truth and good, we who dwell in Plato’s cave know only shadows…and the shapes and sizes of those shadows change over time. We are in the midst of a value shift that has been developing gradually over much time, and Obama’s annoucement is just one of many movements in that shift. I rejoice with Wildman in the implications of this change for human rights and freedoms.

“Malia and Sasha Obama might, rightly, be shocked by all the fuss this is causing. Certainly, by the time they are of an age when their peers begin to marry, 15 or 20 years from now, this day will glow with that Instamatic glow through which we view many of the civil rights successes of the past.

You mean women had to ask their husband’s permission to work? You mean interracial marriage was… illegal? You mean gay marriage was once… banned?”

Like many others of my generation, I find it impossible not to be a supporter of same-sex marriage. I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that marriage and family (and the lifelong commitment implied in each) are highly important moral institutions that should be preserved for the health of both the individual and society. Meanwhile, my postmodern education has suggested to me that traditions might be amended without forfeiting their integrity, that marriages and families can take on many forms, and that gender is a socially constructed as well as a biological category. However, when I try to discuss my perspective with my parents – who firmly see marriage as a union between a man and a woman with the goal of raising children – we reach a communicative impasse. On this particular issue, a gulf has formed between our values, and we stand on opposite sides.

But, for me the gulf is perhaps not so wide as it is for many of my fellow millennials. To an extent I can empathize with conservative journalist Rod Dreher, whose opposing BBC opinion piece concurs with Wildman in acknowledging that a value shift is occurring. But while Wildman rejoices in the change, Dreher laments it:

“As is commonly known, polling data show a stark generational divide among Americans on same-sex marriage. The younger the voter, the greater the support. The demographic tidal wave on this issue is undeniable…As long as the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage, almost universally held only 25 years ago, is treated as irrational hatred and nothing but by the media, business, and social elites, there will be powerful social and psychological pressure to shun it.”

Dreher discusses the many correlations made between the gay rights movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s (and tries to endorse the latter while distancing himself from the former). Ultimately, he argues that just as political and social pressure from elite opinion makers gradually forced small-town white Southerners to accept integrated schools, so this same pressure will ultimately force same-sex marriage opponents to accept the phenomenon as it spreads.

I believe that Dreher is most likely correct in his predictions, and while I don’t join him in decrying this change, I am intrigued by the conclusion of his article, in which he attributes the increasing support for same-sex marriage in America to a decline in religious practice:

Leaving aside the role of elites in forming mass opinion, it is not sufficiently appreciated why so many younger Americans support same-sex marriage.

It fits easily with what they already believe about the nature of marriage, of sex, of liberty, and of human nature. The high level of religiosity shown in US polls is deceiving.

More recent, comprehensive research by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and sociologist Christian Smith, indicates that young Americans are not only abandoning formal religious observance in large numbers (while still claiming to be “spiritual”), but they see religion primarily in therapeutic terms.

That is, they believe that God wants us to be nice, happy and self-fulfilled – and that’s about it.

As the late sociologist Philip Rieff observed in his great 60s work of cultural analysis, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Western culture had by then abandoned the Christian moral matrix, especially on sexual matters.

Given the haplessness of the churches as a counter-cultural force to the hedonism and individualism celebrated by popular culture, it should surprise no-one that arguments, Christian and otherwise, for traditional marriage are hard for young people to conceptualise.

Traditionalists keep winning battles, but we have lost the war at the level of ideas... Like it or not, this is what it means to live after the passing of the Christian era.”

It is on this point – the “passing of the Christian era” – that I can empathize with Dreher. Although I do not lament the increasing support for LGBTQ rights, I admittedly bemoan what I also see as the decline in religiosity in American society and the increase in what he calls the “therapeutic” mentality (so seductive, but so shallow in the end). I also think that there are many traditional values – particularly loyalty, commitment, and devotion to ideals higher than the self and individual well-being – that are worth preserving.

But, while I relate to Dreher’s concern about religion, I can’t help but notice the glaringly obvious flaw in his reasoning. What is the relationship between this decline in religious practice and support for same-sex marriage? There may be a correlation, but can we really say that one is the cause of the other? Most important, why does religious practice have to be coded as socially conservative? What about progressive Christians and LGBTQ churches and openly gay priests? Dreher speaks of the Civil Rights Movement – let us not forget that many of its great leaders, as well as its detractors, were professed Christians. The LGBTQ rights movement is different, but still, Dreher is incorrect in his categorical linking of religiosity with social conservatism.

We human beings are constantly making history, both collectively and individually, and we have a choice about which morals we want to preserve and which we want to change. It is true, as Dreher shows, that societal pressures will often compel us to choose one value over another…but ultimately, the decision is ours. And, these values do not have to come in a neat pre-packaged set. Being pro-same-sex marriage does not have to mean being secularist or nonreligious. Being a liberal does not have to mean rejecting certain traditions that one deems worth preserving. As always, values are messy. What matters most is to understand our own motivations for having them, their influence on our actions and their impact on other people.

 

I just stumbled upon a very interesting article on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/the-hunger-games-spiritual-but-not-religious/2012/03/21/gIQAgYJmTS_blog.html

If you haven’t read this chilling series, I would definitely recommend it (I can’t speak for the movie, but with a few exceptions books are usually better than their cinematic counterparts). Washington Post blogger Diana Butler Bass raises some interesting points about the absence of God and religion in Collins’ post-apocalyptic world that bears a disturbing resemblance to our own. God may be absent, she suggests, but religion is not. And ultimately, neither is faith.

It has now been about four months since I last wrote a proper post for this blog. A few things have happened. I studied for – and passed – my doctoral field examination, which means that I’m now what is commonly known as an “ABD” – “all but dissertation.” (In other words, I’ve completed my entire PhD except for the most important part).

What else has happened? I mourned the death – and celebrated the life – of my dear uncle, Robert Cummings, who passed away last November. I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas with my family. I travelled to southern Arizona -one of the sunniest places on earth – where I explored a cave, climbed a canyon, and reconnected with a dear old friend whom I hadn’t seen in eight years. I assisted with the organization of one academic conference and presented a paper at another. I spent some time pretending to write a novel (I’m currently at about 48,000 words; I hope to reach  60,000 in a month or two). And, as always, there are my 179 bright-eyed undergraduate student to attend to!

So now, as I approach this blog again, I can’t ignore a slight feeling of trepidation. It’s not unlike walking barefoot on a beach at the beginning of summer. There’s always a sting in that first splash of cold water over my feet! So, once again, I must try not to flinch at that chill and then step further into the sea, trusting that as soon as I can get waist-deep, it will feel as warm as bathwater.

Needless to say, readership of this blog has declined dramatically since I stopped writing on a regular basis (not that it was ever that high to begin with)! Nevertheless, I am grateful to those of you who have continued reading, as well as to those who have stumbled on my blog by chance. In mid-January someone was even so kind as to post one of my articles on Twitter, which definitely gave me a thrill. Like many aspiring writers I dream of reaching wide audiences, but at the end of the day that is not what this endeavor is about. If I can learn something by writing this blog – whether from the comments I receive or from the process of writing itself – then my time is not being wasted. And if there’s any chance that you can learn something, then my efforts are not in vain.

So, in attempting to dip my toes in the water, I’d like to start by sharing a few items that have been on my mind during the past four months – items that I would have written full posts on if I’d only found the time:

 – The US Health and Services Mandate for Contraception/Sterilization Coverage

The United States department of Health and Human Services has mandated that all institutions that provide healthcare to employees must now include coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortifacients in the healthcare plans they offer. In others words, the US Federal Government is obligating religious organizations who oppose these forms of healthcare to place their moral convictions aside and comply with the moral stance of the federal government. The Catholic Church and other religious organizations have reacted with indignation; in the words of  New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” Meanwhile, the entire conflict has sparked a national debate on the somewhat unclear boundary between the secular law on which our country is founded and the diverse religious and ethical stances which that law is meant to protect.

Where do I stand on this issue? If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you will know that I firmly oppose the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. Nevertheless, I cannot back the HHS Mandate. I believe that workers should have access to the healthcare they require, but I also believe that religious institutions have their own right to operate according to their conscience. I am not so sure that this is an issue of “freedom of religion” as some religious leaders are saying, but it is definitely too deep of an intrusion of the federal government into Civil Society. Therefore, I have signed the petition against the mandate, and I hope and pray for a peaceful solution to this dispute.

– The 2012 Presidential Election

Unfortunately there’s not too much I can say on this one. My vote doesn’t really count anyway, as my home state is true blue, but naturally I’m concerned about the outcome. This seems like another case of a “lesser of two evils” decision. Another four years of Obama seems unlikely to bring us anything good, but would giving the reins back to the other team really put us in any better shape.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve just said nothing. I’ll give this issue some more thought and get back to you in a month or two.

Poland’s 2011 Parliamentary Elections, which took place last October

“Huh? Poland?” you might ask, scratching your head in confusion. Yes, Poland. Given that this is supposed to be a Catholic blog, doesn’t it make sense that I would take an interest in what is arguably the most Catholic country in the world? Perhaps my interest goes the other way – my love for Poland is the very thing that has preserved my long-standing love for Catholicism. No matter. I bet some of you didn’t even know that Poland was a predominantly Catholic country, did you? Unlike in so many other European nations, where twentieth century Catholicism became a symbol for fascism and the old regime, in Poland it was emblem of freedom, of national identity, and of a well-loved culture that people refused to let forty-four years of totalitarianism wipe away. For the Polish people, Pope John Paul II was more than just a religious leader. His  invocation to “Be not afraid” became something of a rallying cry, and the Solidarity movement which  resisted (and ultimately defeated) communism during the 1980’s  transformed Christian symbols into national ones:

However, the Poland of 2012 is not the Poland of the 1980’s; as in many places, secularization – at least of the public sphere – continues to occur. In last October’s Parliamentary elections, Palikot’s Movement – a new political party led by the unapologetically anticlerical Janusz Palikot – garnered forty seats, or ten percent of the vote. Not bad for a political party that isn’t even two years old. Palikot’s popularity with Polish youth reveals that Poland (and the place of religion within it) is changing, and I for one will be watching these changes with interest over the coming years.

The New Translation of the Roman Catholic Missal

The first Sunday of Advent 2011 found Catholics throughout the English-speaking world bending over prayer cards and fumbling through once-familiar songs and responses. The wording of long-ago memorized prayers had been altered – sometimes quite significantly. Translation  – particularly literary translation – is a very strong personal interest of mine, so I am naturally interested in the Third Translation of the Roman Missal since the Second Vatican Council’s decision to replace the Latin Mass with the vernacular. This new version, which was initiated in 2002 by  Pope John Paul II, aims toward greater faithfulness of the original Latin, a more elevated use of language, and more lucid Scriptural references (even most Catholics are not aware of the extent to which the liturgy is based on quotations from the Bible).

In an essay entitled “The Task of the Translator,” philosopher Walter Benjamin has stated that the process of literary translation causes the target language to become foreign to itself. I have found this to be the case when translating Spanish literary texts into English – usually, when I look back at my first draft, I find that my English sounds strange, perhaps like Spanish, but not quite. I must admit that I experienced this same kind of dissonance as I struggled over the prayers last Advent and even into this year – the old prayers were always there on the tip of my tongue, empty and clanging. Indeed, the experience of learning the new translation has definitely been a cause for reflection, for greater attentiveness to the words that we are actually saying, to the many layers of meaning embedded in the strange prayer we call the Mass. The adoption of the Third Translation is a process that has not yet been completed, and I will certainly have more to say about it in upcoming posts.

– Movies

Yes, you heard me right. Movies. After years of rarely even setting foot inside a cinema, I found myself seeing many interesting films which I would have loved to have written reviews of for you. By now they are long out of theatres, but I’m sure that they are viewable by other means. Some of the films I have seen and enjoyed include the following:

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Once again, this fantastic director compels his audience to recognize the complexity of humn nature and  to acknowledge the violence latent in each one of us and, at the same time, the utter vulnerability and humanity of those who commit acts of violence. To make a long story short, this film calls upon us to feel compassion for a rapist…and due to Almodovar’s brilliance, we do.

The Way by the American Emilio Estevez. This is a Catholic film if I ever saw one. A middle-aged man, having recently learned of his estranged son’s death, goes to France to retrieve the remains and decides to walk the Santiago Pilgrimage Route through Spain. It’s a beautiful story of a spiritual journey, friendship, and self-acceptance. The going matters more than the getting there…in fact, there’s no such thing as “getting there,” for we are always there already.

Surviving Progress, a Canadian documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. The message is simple: we are destroying ourselves. All our technology, our urban development, our “progress” is ultimately leading us toward global catastrophe. However, this is not just another doomsday documentary; the makers of this film suggest that there is still hope to be found, though it will require a radical effort on the part of all of us. Specifically, the film offers interesting snapshots of modern China (where economic development is rapidly creating a new middle class of people eager for more consumer goods) and Brazil, where a government that purports to seek protection for the Amazon often has conflicting interests of its own. Overall, the film is sobering, but necessary – by far the most important I’ve seen in a long time.

Pink Ribbons ,Inc. which takes a critical look at corporate involvement in breast cancer philantropy, exposing the startling contradictions of corporations who purport to support breast cancer research while often using carcinogens in their own products. Another problem highlighted by the film is the undefined nature of the “research” that the funds are going toward – only a tiny amount of which is directed toward cancer prevention. The moral of the story? “Think before you pink.” In choosing your products, don’t be swayed by “pinkwashed” cause marketing. And should you choose to donate money to charity, try to find out about where that money is actually going.

There’s a lot more on my mind at the moment, but I think that this post is already far too eclectic. As you can see, each one of these topics could have been its own post, and I plan to say more about them in the coming months. Unfortunately, I suspect that my posts will continue to be somewhat sporadic, but I will aim for two per month at least. And, please be aware that my original goal for this blog was to open it up to other voices. I welcome your comments. I welcome entire posts on religion, spirituality, secularism, politics and culture.

On Living in Wartime

September 9, 2011

The simple truth is

That WWIII started

9/11/2001

 – Elfie S. Raymond

It was a bright and sunny Tuesday morning, and I was still lazing around in bed, taking in the late-summer warmth. I was eighteen years old and had just started my freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, just a forty-minute train ride away from Manhattan. I was filled with excitement, having met a group of formidably intelligent first-year students and registered for classes I’d never dreamed of taking in high school, like Surrealist Poetry and Anthropology of Religion. I was filled with anticipation; cool things were going to be happening this year.Then, the call came. It was my mother, and her voice was panicked.

“Jeannine, Jeannine, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!” she cried.

I did not panic. In fact, I did not react at all. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Okay. The idea that thousands of people- or even one person- had died due to this event somehow escaped me.

“Okay, well, it must have been some pilot error, right? Or-”

“You don’t understand. A plane has crashed into the building. There’s going to be a war…”

And then, the phone went dead. I tried calling back, but I couldn’t get through.

It was then that I started to wake up. I threw on some clothes and shoes and ran out from my dorm from the main administrative building where Geraldine, the quiet white-haired woman who staffed the desk, was sitting with a glum expression on her face. She merely pointed me in the direction of the television, where already a small group had gathered. I stared blankly at the screen, unable to comprehend the images that flashed before me. Another plane hitting the second tower. Both buildings filled with smoke. Panicked reporters describing the scene behind them, then shouting, “I’m getting out of here” and running away as wind blew rubble toward the camera. And- this was the worst…People the size of ants falling down from the highest windows of the building. Preferring to be smashed to the ground than burned alive.

This could not be happening. All right, maybe it could happen in some of the far-off places I’d read about in my high school history books, but not in the United States, just a short train ride away from where I was standing. This was the kind of thing that only happens to other people. Right?

I don’t recall much of what went on at Sarah Lawrence that day. Classes were cancelled, of course. The administration had scheduled some big event- I don’t remember what; it involved outside visitors rather than students – and there were plenty of snacks set out on long tables covered with fancy white cloths. When we got tired of watching the minute-by-minute coverage of the “Attack on America” we stepped outside and sat on the lawn, slowly eating this food without tasting it. There was an eerie silence over the campus, and what struck me as most bitterly ironic was the brilliant blueness of the sky- really it was too blue, chemical-blue, special-effect-in-the-movie blue. I just couldn’t believe that only a few miles south of where I now sat, hundreds of not thousands of people were being burned alive. And there was nothing that I could do about it.

I don’t remember much else from that day. At some point I went to the library and started sending emails (I’d only just set up my first email account and learned how to use it one week prior) to everyone I knew – my few friends whose email addresses I knew, my wonderful high school guidance counsellor, who’d urged me to write to her once I’d started school. “Are you all right?” I asked them, even though none of them lived in New York. It didn’t matter. This was an event that affected all of us.

Like so many others I was struck by the New York City mayor’s strength and courage in this terrible moment. Like so many others I was disappointed by our president’s angry, vengeful promise to “hunt down” the people responsible. There were few words of consolation for this violent act. Only the promise of more violence. I remember feeling queasy in subsequent days and weeks as I observed the subsequent changes- the Patriot Act, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, the plans for a war in Afghanistan. My mind was torn. I just could not believe it–Our country was at war? It was a reality that I just didn’t want to accept. A few weeks later, I found myself joining a group of Sarah Lawrence students and boarding a bus to Washington, DC, a city I’d only visited once before on my eighth grade class trip. But as I listened to my fellow protesters’ chants of “War is not the answer” and observed their “Down with Bush” signs, I felt that everyone was oversimplifying an issue that was too complex for any of us hippie college freshmen to understand. Of course I didn’t want a war. Just because three thousand innocent people had died in New York, why should more innocent people have to die in Afghanistan? At the same time…We could not just sit back and do nothing. We had been attacked by people who had reduced their understanding of the world to ideology and symbol; we could not leave them space to do it again. Was there any way to confront the people who had done us this harm and resolve this conflict without resorting to a simple “eye for an eye” solution? I could not think of an answer. Ten years have gone by, and I still can’t think of a satisfactory answer.

I remember being shocked in high school European history classes as we learned about the Thirty Years War and the Hundred Years War. I could not understand how any war could last that long. Then again, in more recent times Vietnam lasted twenty years. Now, the War on Terror has lasted ten, with no signs of any resolution in the foreseeable future.

Of course, unlike soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been fairly easy for me as an American to lose sight to the reality that the past ten years have been fraught with war. My life has progressed fairly easily: I graduated from Sarah Lawrence, spent the next few years travelling and working abroad, and then started a graduate degree. Over time, I stopped paying attention to the increasing death toll.

I think that one of the main reasons why my attention has wandered is the basic human weakness which leads us to become preoccupied only with people with whom they interact on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard to relate to the violence taking place on the other side of the world on an emotional level. I find myself especially vulnerable to this failing, until I remember that, despite all the money invested in American security, I am not safe. This really is the World War III, and the other problems which the world is facing – economic crisis, environmental problems, depletion of resources – are only making it worse.

I do not say this to instill fear, only to remind myself and others of the capacity for violence which lies in each one of us. Ten years after 9/11, what sort of progress are we making toward peace? Have we started treating people any better? Are we coming any closer to getting past our racial, cultural and ideological differences and respecting people for who they are?

We are living in wartime. And while I still believe that peace really is possible, I also know that we are going to have to wait quite some time before we learn from our mistakes and work to bring that peace about.

Note: this piece was originally published by www.lifeintheusa.com, a website for immigrants and Americans.