Jerry and I have been attending the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meetings in Boston this weekend. That’s the venue at which Jerry continues his guiding activities in the subfield of “Theology Without Walls,” which he introduced at the AAR.
Flying is not fun any more so we decided to drive to Boston from Bucks County, PA where we live. We were on the outskirts of Boston when Jerry said to me,
“I have bad news.”
What? Has there been a nuclear disaster? Are the tires flat? What, short of that, could be bad? Jerry doesn’t usually say things like that.
“I forgot to pack the suitcase.”
Oh. You mean the bulging suitcase, stuffed with the right things to wear, articles de toilette, nightgown, underthings, socks and – not least – the packets describing Confessions of A Young Philosopher that I was planning to show to editors at the Books Exhibits? That suitcase?
Well, worse things have happened in this world of woe. It’s not a big tragedy, or even a little one. It’s not a tragedy at all. It’s just … a little thwarting?
I wasn’t really geared up to talk to editors about my new book, being now engaged in correcting proofs for the expanded reissue of A Good Look at Evil. Maybe that’s why I didn’t look to see if the suitcase was loaded, as normally we both would. A change of clothes, into something more dress-for-success, wasn’t mandatory …
In fact, it added heaps to the stress of the trip. The long walks across downtown Boston intersections to purchase the necessaries, exhausting for a person with neuropathy, the unrelated and peculiar pile-ups of inconveniences at the hotel (one restaurant closed on account of a kitchen fire, the other restaurant closed – we were told at the door — “two minutes ago”), the in-room phone that couldn’t reach the concierge or anybody else with any button you pushed … . Meanwhile, the absence of basic personal stuff put a floor-layer of distress under everything.
Jerry was chairing a number of panels on TWW. Some were almost alive with interest – like organisms (composed of the speakers and the people attending) that had sprung to life. We joined some philosopher-theologians for lunch or dinner, with interactions – personal and conceptual both – that were substantive and real. Theologians seem to me nicer than philosophers. Maybe they didn’t use to be, in centuries past. But they are now. You can watch them having breath-catchingly earnest private conversations in the hotel lobby or the café. There seems more the sense of a common quest and less the sense of a war-by-other-means that you get in philosophy.
The TWW project is to go beyond the boundaries of particular “confessions,” or religious identities, so as to draw on the wide fields of spiritual experience that belong to humanity as such. The purpose is to find out all we can know – from whatever sources seem veridical — about what God is like and how to orient ourselves toward the divine dimension in our lives. In a way, nothing could be more interesting, or more natural, than this exploration. What then is the concern, listening to my own reactions?
Really, cultures bestow the matrix of our personal choices. The drama of our lives therefore takes shape within cultures. And cultures, finally, are defined by what they take to be Absolute or Ultimate. Yet globally, we are at a fork in the road of human experience, where we can see that our cultural absolutes cannot contain us entirely. We all feel that there is more, outside the walls.
My private concern is betrayal. I want to be myself, the one who – very precisely – I am. That identity, that authenticity, turns out to have a Jewish thread running through it. At the same time, it’s God I care about, it’s truth I care for, most of all. Need these conflict? I see my own concern played out in theological discussions a slightly different vocabulary.
It’s the vocabulary of “cultural appropriation.” This seems to be the fear that the spiritual seeker from one tradition can reach for the treasures of insight and experience of another culture and these insights – taken out of context – will be misunderstood, used without paying the price they exact, or used in such a way that the culture where they originated is weakened. If we belong to that culture, have we betrayed the treasure we were supposed to guard when we allowed that borrowing to take place? Or, if we are the borrowers, have we tempted another to betray a trust? Or, have we allowed ourselves to be influenced in such a way that we ourselves have been disloyal to our own origins?
Those who want to read all this in the language of power relations don’t pose the questions in a way that interests me. Power relations are ubiquitous and the remedies are not theological.
I’m interested in these questions as they impinge on personal integrity. The prophets speak of “whoring after strange gods.” How do you keep from whoring, from selling out? How do you draw the line? Where’s the line, anyway? What’s it made of?
Does it come from a Tradition? But those who made our tradition were themselves new and untried, once. Where did they draw the line? How did they recognize it?
It’s not that there’s no line, no judgments to make. Like all of life, this part of it – expanding boundaries without betraying origins — is risky too. There’s a bit of trial and error, much at stake, much to lose and much to win.