Political and Cultural Polarizations — Lynch Once Again

I am trying to write an academic article and just re-read a paper I’d given more than ten years ago. It struck me that it might make a good, though perhaps difficult, posting on this blog. So, for interested readers, here’s an updated and much abbreviated version of that paper. It’s title was “Politics, the Body of Faith, and the Vocation of Intellectuals In the Thought of William F. Lynch, S.J.” In what follows it I use the term “political” to mean both politics (in our modern sense of that word) and economics, as well as culture and society. I use it to mean the “City” (the “Polis”) as our classical writers understood that term.

I began my 2009 paper by evoking several “political moments” from that time of economic crisis and electoral frenzy as a way of providing some concrete context for Lynch’s ideas. Here I begin with just one of those past moments.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama and McCain were interview at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, a still very large and influential evangelical church   Asked about evil (whether it exists and how we should respond to it), both candidates acknowledged the reality of evil in our world.  Obama’s stressed that we had to confront evil, but that removing evil is finally God’s work and that a lot of evil has been done, and can be done, in the name of fighting evil.  That complex answer was met with respectful silence from the audience.  McCain, by contrast, jumped in at the very end of the question with a ringing “Defeat it!” which received loud.   He then went on to proclaim that he’d get Bin Laden “if I have to go to the gates of hell” and that radical Islamic extremists present “the transcendent challenge of the 21st Century” – all again to resounding applause.

That was then.

Now, with the Trump administration, we’ve seen a period of far worse polarization (between political parties and between other religious and cultural groups) where the stoking of such polarization has increasingly become a deliberate tactic. Think of Trump’s tweets and speeches. And of similar rhetoric from obsequious Republicans as well as by too many on the other side of the aisle.

In 2009, I asked whether Obama would be able to use the economic crisis of that time to lead us towards a fundamentally different form of cultural and electoral politics?  Or would that crisis, with all its accompanying fears, simply provide more fuel for the polarizations of our political and cultural wars, perhaps even leading again (God forbid!) toward the terrible violence which characterized so much of the 20th Century. Today I ask the same question about Biden and (hopefully) a new Democratic majority.

In 1973 Lynch published his last book, Images of Faith. There he most fully developed the idea that faith (not religious faith, but basic human trust and hope – to which, of course, religious faith may and thankfully often does contribute) – that such faith is fundamental to the very possibility of politics. Lynch asks us to imagine (that is, to really see) that such basic human faith and trust has “a body.” It is not some vague idea or “spirit.” Rather it actually exists (or fails to exist) as embodied in human relationships, embodied in the actual city — in its economics and politics, its institutions and folkways, its technical expertise and artistic expressions. For the city (or any smaller community, is the most concrete expression or body of human trust and hope. Of course, any human community, without foundational trust, becomes a “body of unfaith” which comes to expression in both political polarization and actual violence. More typically and perhaps more hopefully, the actual human city is at once an embodiment both of faith and of unfaith – of both trust and contempt, both cooperation and warfare.

Earlier, in his 1965 Images of Hope, Lynch gave a classic statement to his concern about foundational faith. “We are always faced,” he wrote, “with programmatic alternatives.  We can decide to build a human city in which all have citizenship, Greek, Jew, and Gentile, the black and the white, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, the mentally well and the mentally ill.”  This, he added, “will always require an act of imagination which will extend the idea of the human.”  It will and must be founded in basic human trust and hope. Or we can decide “to build various absolute and walled cities from which various pockets of our humanity will always be excluded.”  “They will pose as ideal cities [but] will exclude the imagination, the Negro, the sick, the different.”  He then warned that “these totalistic, these non-human cities offer an extraordinary fascination for the souls of fearful men and we are fools if we underestimate how strong and seductive they can be.”  Whatever their form, they are embodiments of contempt, not faith, and thus they will be “self-enclosed” and their citizens will “spend their time reassuring each other and hating everyone else.” 

Are those words not a compelling description of present reality?

Lynch’s writings continually call us to work for that first alternative – “to build a human city in which all have citizenship,” a city which embodies a fundamental sense of faith, trust, and hope.  Much earlier (1950), his inaugural editorial for Fordham University’s scholarly journal Thought was titled (in a Latin quite acceptable then in the world of Catholic scholarship) “Ingredere in Civitatem” (Enter into the City). It was a call for Catholic and other writers and intellectuals (readers of Thought) to reject the temptation to withdraw into sectarian enclaves of secure specialization, and to bring their talents to the post-war task of building a truly inclusive, human and humane city.  That call articulated not only Lynch’s editorial agenda, but the purpose of all of his later writing. 

In these writings, Lynch discusses the many manifestations of contempt and polarization, of the withdrawal into sectarian enclaves or walled cities. Think but of the role of religion, then and today, in too readily legitimating, energizing, and even leading the development of such contempt and hatred, such destruction of the body of human faith. 

Yet rather than focus on such analyses, let me briefly give some indication of Lynch’s ideas about the therapy needed if we are to move from polarized politics towards a rebuilding of our body of civic and human faith. 

 There clearly is, he knew, no quick fix, no one way forward.  We face on all fronts many important concerns and and important conflicts – and we will increasingly face such concerns and conflicts in an environment of growing inequality and increasing fears, resentments, and anger.  Today’s pandemic has simply (!) made such fears and anger more manifest. Deep concerns must be addressed and real conflicts negotiated, even fought out.  Yet for Lynch quite literally everything depends upon the spirit involved in such cultural and political conflict – whether it expresses a sense of fundamental human trust or becomes increasingly captive to the fear and anger and resentment. 

What we as a people need, to put the matter in Ignatian terms, is a sustained discernment of the fundamental spirits at work in our political and cultural life.  Put differently, there is need for a major transformation of the fundamental spirit and the basic sensibility which operates in our body politic – and this especially at the level of leadership elites.  We need a gradual recovery of faith, a re-building and development of basic trust. 

Here again, Lynch’s writings involve much discussion of such much needed therapy for the transformation of “our” sensibilities and spiritualities.  He draws, for example,  on Socrates, especially on Socratic irony, with its ability to break through various absolutes and pretensions And on Christ (two of his books are entitled Christ and Apollo and Christ and Prometheus). In Images of Faith he calls Christians and others to embody and live through “the irony of Christ” – the great irony that the messiah would be a poor man and crucified failure whose words and life subvert the various “magnificences” of the powers of the world.  (This topic of irony needs much more discussion. I mention it here not only because it is so central to Lynch’s thought, but because today we only know of a very different kind of irony — what he calls an “irony of contempt” which pervades and builds our walled cities.)

And, of course, for us today, as for Lynch’s readers back then, the challenge is to understand such ironic subversion of the contempt which is so prevalent. To imagine it, and then to make it a way of living which will help rebuild our human city.

It may seem very strange to speak of faith as irony, and of faithful living as the practice of irony. Yet a friend just wrote me that the best way to dethrone dictators of all sorts is to laugh at them, and in so doing not only to expose their pompous (and dangerous) silliness, but to shed light on our more basic human traits of trust and solidarity. If we can also laugh at ourselves, acknowledge the poverty of our own efforts and the limitations of our ideas and causes — then perhaps we can also learn how to laugh pompous contempt from the stage of our politics and culture — and even of our churches.


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