Saturday, March 20, 2010

In Praise of Doubt

I just finished a book called "In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic" by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld. I had first heard of this book when I heard Berger on the Public Radio program "Speaking of Faith" in the fall, and then I hear him speak at the National Cathedral's Sunday forum a few weeks ago.

I knew from the very first minute that this book might very much "speak my mind" and know that I've finished it, I know this is so. I can also say that I suspect there is much in these pages that could benefit the Religious Society of Friends.

Increasingly, I am seeing myself as a 'bridge-builder'. Going back to my "coming out" days, when the conservative/military side of my family stunned me by being the only part of the family to unconditionally accept me, and continuing through my days of working with evangelical Christians on HIV and subsequently gay issues, and now in DC building bridges across the economic and geographic parts of this city, I see that this is something that, while not always easy or successful, comes natural. What I am clear about, however, is that I am not wishy-washy on issues. I am convinced that we need to have a cleaner environment, a less-consumer/greed driven society, and more equal footing from which all people start this journey of life. I also know that most people have the same basic values I have, but they may have different ideas of how to get there, where authority lies, who should call the shots, etc.

I am also convinced of this: no matter what a person believes, his/her intentions are good, he/she is intelligent, and love is some part of the equation. To be sure, there are fanatics, as Berger and Zijderveld write. "Fanatics" are those extremists who exist at the ends of any spectrum, and are convinced that their world view and their way is the only right way and, often, those who don't see it their way are clueless, amoral, unChristian, unAmerican, or some other demonized being. I try to not let that be me. I have run into my fair share of fanatics - both left and right - and what I find is that there is little room for dialogue, so really there is not much to be said, even though they, too, are often motivated by love (usually with a mix of fear and power). It is between the margins that I am convinced that the real possibility for transformation exists, for creating a more peaceful and just world.

In our modern society, it seems that we could use more civility as we deal with the problems that face us. No matter what the issue, leaders of the causes of these issues tend to push a "with us/against us" paradigm. For Quakers, this creates a dilemma: are we going to choose sides on issues, or are we going to try and bring greater civility (peace) to the discussion by committing to see the "others" perspective? To what extent do we achieve our aims by making the other "wrong", vs. being open to possibly being wrong ourselves? In a pluralist society, these are inherent challenges, and I truly believe that it is the Peace congregations and pacifists who could really take up this mantel of finding common ground. It is going to take a disciplined life, but it is something we can do. "In Praise of Doubt", similar to another book called "Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things", are great resources for grounding us in this without sacrificing what we believe.

As a tangent: "In Praise of Doubt" also raised a question of how we reactively respond to and adopt understanding of things without thinking more deeply. An example of this was in the discussion of liberalism, conservatism and socialism as the 3 points of the "democratic" triangle. Taken to extremes, liberalism goes to absolutist understanding of the market (libertarian), socialism goes toward a totalitarian control of institutions, and conservatism is a reactionary project of going back to some traditional sense of society. As moderating forces (basically bringing the best of each together), conservatism glorifies civil society (in modern day this means a democratic state and market economy), whereas liberalism and socialism understand the limits of both state (socialism) and market (liberalism). This understanding of liberalism is not one I had heard, but does raise the question: what do we really mean when we use the terms "liberal" and "conservative" to either define ourselves or the other?

No comments: