Think About These Things

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8

 

Today is Independence Day in the United States. It is, perhaps, the foremost annual celebration of national identity and civic pride. It is the primary ritualization of American secular religion.

In truth, however, there is little to celebrate this year. Wherever one stands on the extremely limited political spectrum, there is a sense of resentment, rage, and intellectual pollution that leaves little room for reflection on what is honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise. The coarseness, brutishness, meanness, and stupidity of professional wrestling has now become, in symbol and reality, the mode of political discourse and engagement.

It is with fear and trembling, and with a sense of pathos, that the words of Abraham Lincoln reverberate:

. . . that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln fully understood that the survival of the American experiment was dependent on the reality of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  It had to be a governance in which its people were wholly engaged and for which they were responsible. Today we, so-called citizens, find ourselves in what seems such an impotent and hopeless place that all that is left is for us to turn on each other. Even our religious leaders seem to work at stoking our grievances with each other, turning our attention toward those whose differences from us we are to perceive as imagined and somewhat paranoid threats to our religious liberty.

In today’s passage from Philippians, however, St. Paul may be affording us a way to regain our sense of call as citizens and to recover our potency for effective political action. The way he proposes is to change our mode of thinking. It is to turn from our dispersed and dissipated obsession with the bizarre and insane entertainments of our public figures to an attentive thinking about and meditating on what is true, honorable, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise. It is not by putting our own religious symbols at the center of our common spaces that we submit our commonwealth to God’s sovereignty, but it is rather by turning toward God in humble and obedient contemplation of God’s life and will that we shall be moved to make it real in our common life.

Back in the 1990’s John Ralston Saul delivered the Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto. Those lectures became the source of a book he entitled The Unconscious Civilization. We citizens, Saul maintained, are unconscious of the fact that our lives and societies are dominated by a corporatist ideology and corporate interests. If this was true in the 1990’s, it is so much more true today. From the economy, to education, to all of social policy, to our modes of leisure and entertainment, we live largely enthrall to corporatism and unconscious of the toll which this is taking on our distinctive human potencies and on our social and personal lives. In light of Paul’s teaching in Philippians, we might ask, “What do we think about?”

For the past several months, I have felt more constant outrage than at any other time of life I can remember. With every report of another infantile and unacceptable act from our civic leaders, my level of disturbance and rage increases. Outrage, however, is quite addictive. Our unconscious seeks only discharge. The more rage I discharge, the more I seek the next cause. A few days ago, a man shot and killed a young recent high school graduate in what has been termed a case of road rage. Such violence is the inevitable result of our increasingly shared addiction to anger and rage. Meanwhile, as we turn on each other, the structures of corporate dominance and power remain intact.

In living unconsciously, we tend to forget who we really are and all we are capable of and being called to be. Our deepest potency as human persons lies in our spiritual identity. Our capacity to live Lincoln’s vision of governance of, by and for the people is realized only by free and responsible choice. Such free choice can only emerge in us out of a sense of self-awareness and self-possession that comes when we are at peace with and in ourselves. As Paul writes, when we “think about these things” that constitute our true identity, we begin to realize them in our very ways of being and acting, and so we discover that “the God of peace” is with us.

The Jerusalem bible uses the phrase “fill your minds” with these things rather than merely “to think about” them. Paul is not calling on us to think about these things in the way that we think about items for our shopping list. He is rather calling on us to “ponder” them, to meditate on them, to contemplate them. He is summoning us to know and to touch what is just, pure, lovely, gracious excellent and worthy of praise in our very souls. These are our most distinctive human qualities. This is who we are called to be in the public sphere. This is what it means to bring faith and religion into the public square.

Corporatist ideology has a sinfully reduced vision and understanding of the human person. When corporations can be legally declared to be persons, then what is a person? When money becomes speech, then what is speech for? When the only measure of value is monetary, then how deep are our values? In recent days, we hear appeals for civility in our political discourse. The danger, however, is that what is being appealed to is but a “civilized” cover for our continuing pursuit of profits and individual wealth and advantage. Paul does not ask us to ponder politeness, but rather justice, honor, truth, purity.

The great crisis we face on this “Independence Day” is the danger that we as individual citizens may have forgotten, or at least are forgetting, our human potency as persons and as citizens. We may readily come to feel helpless and impotent. As a result of the continual propaganda to which we are exposed from all sides of the corporately dominated culture, we are in danger of “losing our minds.” As counter-intuitive as it may seem, perhaps we must, above all, detach ourselves from all that would grab our attention and dominate our consciousness and think about who we really are, to whom we belong, and for what we are truly responsible.

Equilibrium, in the Western experience, is dependent not just on criticism, but on non-conformism in the public place. The road away from the illusions of ideology towards reality is passable only if that anti-conformism makes full use of our qualities and strengths in order to maintain the tension of uncertainty. The examined life makes a virtue of uncertainty. It celebrates doubt.

Common sense, creativity, ethics, intuition, memory and reason. These can be exploited individually as a justification for ideology; or imprisoned in the limbo of abstract concepts. Or they can be applied together, in some sort of equilibrium, as the filters of public action.

The virtue of uncertainty is not a comfortable idea, but then a citizen-based democracy is built upon participation, which is the very expression of permanent discomfort. The corporatist system depends upon the citizen’s desire for inner comfort. Equilibrium is dependent upon our recognition of reality, which is the acceptance of permanent psychic discomfort. And the acceptance of psychic discomfort is the acceptance of consciousness.

John Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization, pp. 189-90

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