Posts of the Year: Clinging To The Wreckage, March 12, 2009

(This post came out of me in a rush, prompted by one particularly depressed afternoon in the office.

I guess one thing I have been forced to learn this past year is a little more equanimity, a deeper understanding that all earthly things decay, and all human institutions flawed and that these facts are only truly depressing if they admit of no possible reform or renewal. And the greatness of the Western system is that it allows enough air for reform and renewal to take hold - as it has, fitfully, in America this past year.

My faith teaches me that solipsistic dismay is a sin, because it does not allow for the possibility of grace, of God's transformation of the world through our souls opening up to his eternal and unconditional love. Reading a lot of Merton this year - that gruff, ornery but profound Trappist - has lifted me up - and taught me more clearly to follow what I constantly preach to others: know hope. - Andrew)


Blogging takes you into the ever instant-present, and the world's rapidly changing scene can prompt shifts in your outlook you never truly expected and don't yet quite understand. I realize that my passionate dismay at the Freeman affair, for example, was surprising to some, and even to me. I'm a passionate believer in Israel's right to exist and care about her security. But the changing world requires adjusting to new realities and past experiences. And sometimes events bring ruptures to the surface that reflect tectonic shifts underneath. And that requires some context. By its nature this post is therefore somewhat solipsistic. Please skip this post if my own internal angst is of understandably minimal interest to you. But I'm a believer in expressing conflicts, not inhibiting them. I don't work on background.

In the last decade, I realize that many of my most cherished institutions have failed - and failed in ways that are not trivial. Perhaps the institution dearest to me, the Catholic church, greeted the emergence of gay people in a way that never truly reflected the compassion of Jesus or the good faith arguments many of us offered as a way forward. This was sad to me, but not life-changing. I know the Holy Spirit takes time, as James Allison reminds us. But then came the sex abuse crisis. Like many others, the truth about the evil in the heart of the church, and the cooptation and enabling of that evil, and the refusal to take real responsibility for the evil, simply left me gasping for air. I realize now that my Catholic identity never recovered, even if my faith endures in a far more modest and difficult way.

Then my adopted country. Again, the frustrations nag, in my case the still-unresolved matter of how an immigrant who became HIV-positive a decade after arriving here can have a secure home and future. I still cannot, although I am hopeful the Obama administration will soon enact what the Congress last year voted for overwhelmingly and the Bush administration intended to change before it ended.  [Update: The ban is formally lifted next January 4]. And the fact that this country also treats my legal civil marriage as if it didn't exist, as if our love and family and commitment were worth nothing, wounds every day.

But again, I understand these things take time. I'm lucky to be here at all and have seen enormous progress in my lifetime. The real sucker-punch to my faith in American government was the embrace of torture against terror suspects. Since it came as part of a response to Islamist evil that I had supported, in a war I had aggressively mongered for, shock was intermixed with guilt, and guilt ceded to a kind of patriotic grief. It is the flipside of love - this kind of grief. It has not abated because there has been no real accounting and no real responsibility taken - just as in the church. The people who really held power, who really should have taken the fall: they are still unrepentant and defiant, even contemptuous of their critics.

The conservative movement is another institution of a sort that has come undone before my eyes. It really was a formative part of my identity as a young man, and yet, for all the reasons I spelled out in my last book, it is not a movement that I feel comfortable in any longer. It actually appalls me daily.

What I could once dismiss as minor flaws - supply-side nuttiness, near-idolatrous American exceptionalism, religious zeal - are now its core, defining features. The way it has responded to the economic crisis - a form of ideological autism - reflects a deep malaise. But, although Obama's pragmatic progressivism has many attractive qualities, I cannot be a liberal. I do not have liberalism's confidence in government activism, I do not share its collectivist instincts, I find its interest groups unappealing. I do not and never will belong.

Maybe this is adulthood finally arriving a little late: the knowledge that everything is flawed and you just need to get on with it. But a church perpetrating the rape and abuse of children through the power of its moral authority is not a flaw; it's a self-refutation. A movement betraying its core principles in office and then parading as a parody of purists is a form of anti-conservatism as I understand it. And a democratic country using torture to procure intelligence it can use to justify more torture, and prosecuting a war that never ends against an enemy that can never surrender: this, whatever else it is, is not America as its founders saw it. Again, it is a kind of self-refutation.

Where to go? What to do? You read me flounder every day; and you can find many less conflicted bloggers to read. Maybe I should take a break and live a less examined life for a while. Or maybe I should do what I am still doing: trying to make sense of where I belong, stay praying in a church that has sealed itself off from modernity, cling to a conservatism that begins to feel like a form of solipsism, hang on in the hope that America can reform itself and repair the world a little. I think, in fact, that this is obviously the right and only serious choice. Life is always a temporary and losing battle, an engagement with the deadliness of doing. It just feels deadlier than usual in these past few years of brutally unsentimental education.

Or maybe I should laugh more.

Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.