A Surprising Ecumenism…

This is the first post in a series by Cynthia Bourgeault. The second post, “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal” was posted July 26, 2017. The third post will soon follow…


Both my spirits and my hopes have been raised by the recent appearance of an important and already game-changing new article in the most recent edition of La Civiltà Cattolica.  This is a prestigious Jesuit publication, whose contents are personally vetted by the Vatican Secretary of State and which can thus be seen as a bellwether if not a de facto mouthpiece for papal policy. Entitled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, the article is the first attempt I have seen to drive a significant intellectual wedge into the murky moral alliance between conservative Catholicism and Protestant evangelical fundamentalism that helped to catapult Donald Trump into office and is still a cornerstone of his support.

The article created a well-deserved stir when it first began to circulate widely on the web during the week of July 9-16. By the end of that week internet access had been severely curtailed (presumably at the instigation of the publisher), while at the same time the remarkable analysis offered here began to catch the attention of the international news media. I am glad I printed myself out a copy before it disappeared from public sight; certainly it has already been a rich stimulus to my own creative thinking. Over the next two or three blog posts, I’ll share some of the reactions and implications it’s been stirring up for me.

In this learned yet accessible article, co-authors Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa (a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian pastor, both of them respected editors and close friends of the Pope) trace the rise of Protestant Fundamentalism in the early twentieth century, exploring its major doctrinal assertions and detailing its increasing infiltration into American politics. They conclude with a sweeping rejection of these doctrinal claims as antithetical and dangerous to authentic Catholic belief. The article’s “blockbuster” assertion (understandably receiving wide play in the social media) is that there is basically no ideological difference between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam: both draw their juice from an identical “cult of an apocalypse”, featuring a final confrontation between good (“us”) and evil (“them”) which will destroy the planet as we know it and usher in the reign of God.

The article represents a significant intellectual milestone and augurs a significant potential wind-shift in Vatican political activism (no doubt this is what has most caught the media’s attention). It is worthy of close study and discussion in our Wisdom circles if folks can get their hands on it (you can still sometimes get in by going directly to the La Civiltà Cattolica website and clicking on the Italian version of the article; an English language option will appear at the end).

While there are few surprises here for those already familiar with American religious history, the most welcome surprise is the message clearly being signaled here that the Vatican is finally waking up to the theological implications of this “surprising” alliance that a significant segment of American Catholicism has found increasingly tempting and is now taking a firm intellectual stance against its three constituent threads: the aforementioned “cult of an apocalypse”, the “prosperity gospel” (which has deeply influenced several US presidents including our current one), and a particularly distorted notion of religious liberty which sets the Church in permanent mortal combat with the presumed secularity of the state. The article powerfully calls the question on the present “ecumenism of hate”, as the authors name it, and lays out in contrasting detail Pope Francis’ vision of impartial and active engagement with the secular state in the hopes of securing a sustainable future for all humankind.

I applaud their work here because it lays a firm theological foundation for articulating the dangers implicit in the growing entanglement of the Catholic Church in American rightist politics. The article sets out clear standards by which, for example, self-styled über-Catholic Steve Bannon (specifically mentioned in the article) is in fact peddling a dangerously distorted version of Catholic teaching. It lays out clear benchmarks by which Catholics can sort through the confused rhetoric of evangelical fundamentalism and name its widening drift from classic Catholic doctrine. While the authors could have done more to clarify that evangelical fundamentalism represents a perversion of Protestantism as much as of Catholicism (not merely another of Protestantism’s myriad confusing expressions), their analysis is nonetheless a solid intellectual milestone. It is also reflective of the Pope’s strategic way of thinking: his preference for first building a solid theological and historical foundation for reflection and action, rather than simply leaping in with rhetorical or knee-jerk responses.

But the elephant in the room remains…

While I am deeply gratified for the breakthrough this article represents, I must say that I find it naïve to expect that it will shift a single stone in the present Catholic/fundamentalist political alliance. Because, in a glaring omission from the presentation, the real basis for this alliance is not fully exposed; hence, the analysis remains incomplete and its practical applicability limited. The article mounts a strong case theologically, but in so doing it manages deftly to sidestep the crucial point: that the real basis for the alliance is not theological but strategic. Nor is this merely a minority viewpoint, to be laid at the doorstep of a small subset of Catholic ultraconservatives; it represents the united “bottom line” of the Roman Catholic Church in America: the vast majority of its bishops, seminaries, and the message percolating into the parishes. The real root of this alliance, I believe, lies in the Roman Catholic Church’s continuing fixation on the abortion issue, together with its lesser but ever present and now vigorously reemerging sidekick, birth control. This is the practical motivation behind the devil’s pact with fundamentalism; if it takes casting one’s lot with a “cult of the apocalypse” to ensure that Roe vs. Wade is legally overturned, well, that’s the unfortunate cost of doing business.

It seems unfortunate that in an article otherwise so thorough and scholarly, this rather sizable elephant in the room escapes mention. The article thus creates the impression that all we have to do is wake up to the theological errors inherent in the alliance with Protestant fundamentalism, and Catholics will come streaking back to a more inclusive and life-affirming version of the gospel. Well, maybe. But if you think this translates into any significant flipping of the Catholic vote in 2018, don’t hold your breath.

To their credit, I am not sure that from the European (or even South American) perspective, the Vatican can really understand the ferocity of the way in which the abortion issue has enthralled the popular American Catholic imagination. It’s a quintessentially American stew, comprised in equal doses of high principles and sentimentality run amok. One need only to drive the interstate almost anywhere in the American South or Midwest and see the fully emblazoned billboards with a flat-lining EKG announcing “ABORTION STOPS A BEATING HEART” to begin to appreciate the pungent mix of sentiment and sentimentality that makes this particular issue such a moral flash-point. I personally know many Catholics (in fact, probably the majority of my Catholic acquaintances) who, although good, solid, thoughtful people, not otherwise inclined toward hysteria, feel so strongly that this issue is so essential to their practice of Catholicism – and so underrepresented by any other advocacy group – that they will reluctantly sacrifice the entire rest of the gospel’s “pro- life” teaching (as it might apply to immigrants, Muslims, accessible medical care, gun control, capital punishment) in order to secure this one point. It is this “unholy alliance” that really has provided the undefended back gateway – in fact, sluice-way – by which unethical politicians can continue to occupy their seats in congress, pawns in a game whose real movers and shakers are in fact the Ayn Rand-style kleptocrats (such as Paul Ryan, The Koch brothers, the Trump dynasty) or apocalyptic Armageddon-mongers such as Steve Bannon.

My continuing hope – which I have alluded to in articles and posts before – is that our brilliant and committed Pope will move increasingly in the direction of giving issue-specific theological guidance and direction to begin to confront this Gordian knot in a way that is both respectful of Catholic tradition and profoundly responsive to the desperate need of our one planet, trembling on the brink of environmental and social collapse.

In the face of this unprecedented global crisis, it is not enough merely to name and proclaim the ways in which the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism represents a perversion of Catholic doctrine. It is not enough merely to repeatedly denounce those currents in American politics fueling radical isolationism and environmental irresponsibility. It is not enough simply to continue to decry the Muslim ban, or lament the moral corruption of our present executive and congressional branches. These stances are all good insofar as they go. But we need to connect the dots. What is really needed – and comprises, I believe, the real Catholic moral priority of our time – is to develop specific guidelines for faithful Catholics detailing how, when push comes to shove, to weigh priorities and difficult trade-offs so that abortion does not become the tail wagging an increasingly rabid and dangerous dog.

I am not a moral theologian – or even a Catholic for that matter, so I recognize that I will have no standing in that particular conversation. But as a Christian Wisdom teacher and a concerned planetary citizen, I know that it is important for this conversation to be taking place and for imaginative new thinking to be invited from all quarters. Deliberations on this all-important topic so far left in the hands of the Catholic experts have yielded us no appreciable results; they’ve merely solidified the impasse. This is a human dilemma, and it is as a human family that will solve it.

And so I propose here to engage this conversation among our Wisdom Community, asking us all, from our collective data banks of spiritual insight and life expertise, to engage this crucial impasse and see if the act of intelligent conversation can itself generate a bit of third force. Over the next two or three blogs (writing not yet begun but intention herewith signaled) I will attempt, first of all, to lay out a potential pathway toward a new social contract with regard to the abortion issue, a pathway which, though admittedly a compromise, might be one that both Catholics and non-Catholics could live with. In the following, more extended blog, I will reflect on what light the Wisdom tradition has to shed on the beginnings of life and the nature of the soul, both key components in the present gridlock.

A good start has been made in this article, and I commend it to you all for deeper study and reflection. But in accepting its conclusion that joining forces with a distorted Christian fundamentalism is not an option, the next step is to move courageously to confront the “root of the root” of this nefarious allegiance and speak directly of – to – the elephant in the room. 

31 replies
  1. Carol
    Carol says:

    Thank you for your willingness to take on this difficult conversation, Cynthia. With your wisdom and skill with words, you give me hope for some pragmatic guidance on having conversations about this difficult, polarizing issue. Raised and educated a Catholic (16 years of parochial education from liberal religious orders TBTG!), I found a wonderful home in the Washington DC Episcopal diocese 20 years ago. As a high school senior in the early sixties, my paper for religion class was on abortion. My conclusion then was that, while abortion does entail the intentional taking of a human life with all its potentiality, it is often a tragic choice and, as such, should not be defined in civil law. My experience as a physician has only strengthened that conclusion. Now over 70, I am grateful for never having to face a pregnancy that was forced or that came when I was unprepared to care for a child; I honestly don’t know what choice I would have made had that been the case. Experiences over the years have convinced me that abortion, sadly, may sometimes be a compassionate, though regrettable choice. In medical school, we were required to care for patients seeking abortion but not required to participate in the procedure itself. One of my patients was an 11-year-old impregnated by her pharmacist father; I can still see her small face above teddy bear pediatric pajamas as she was wheeled into the OR. Which l life should have been sacrificed? Such decisions belong in the realm of thoughtful, soulful deliberation between family and wise spiritual counsel, not in the realm of impersonal, rigid laws promulgated mostly by men who bear no responsibility for the outcome. The data are clear: the best prevention for abortion is the combination of early sex education and effective, accessible contraception. I look forward to the future blogs with the hope that they will guide me and others to productive, compassionate conversation.

    Reply
  2. Sioux
    Sioux says:

    Cynthia: Love how you are taking Spadaro’s and Figueroa’s good work and courageously pushing the conversation to the next important level. So many Christian leaders won’t speak up. I love you and respect, so much, your intelligence, your clarity, and your bravery. You’re doing what you can, lovingly, to make our world more in the liking of Jesus’ wide open heart.

    Reply
  3. don salmon
    don salmon says:

    What great responses! Such and interesting and necessary challenge.

    I want to add something I don’t hear as often as I would like in regard to cross-cultural/cross-political/cross-faith dialog. Putting it in the dry language of black letters on a computer screen may make it sound more radical than it actually is, so…… let me see if I can articulate it softly.

    There are genuine values, I believe, on any side of a polarity – pro choice/pro life, pro business/pro government, spiritual-but-not-religious/institutional church, etc.

    But I fear that people of good will, whose nature incline naturally toward dialog, are often not wary enough of intentional distortions of a position for the sake of power, having nothing to do with genuine thoughtful views.

    I’ll give two examples:

    1. Materialism/physicalism/naturalism vs non-materialistic (ultimately, non-dualist) views.

    Although I gave up my childhood enthusiasm for materialism (I was a born again fundamaterialist at age 7) when I was 17, I am quite happy to say, 47 years later, I can see many values of honestly-arrived-at materialist views. Many secular materialists know nothing of deeper religious or spiritual views, and grew up only knowing the most dogmatic, fundamentalist, and often hateful religious views. They often are not at all philosophically inclined, and in fact, i’ve found that very often, when presented even the most basic philosophic contradictions of materialism, can see it quite clearly.

    Then there are biologists like Richard Lewontin. Lewontin doesn’t even make the slightest effort to hide his dogmatic views. He has written he doesn’t care how ridiculous, how absurd and irrational materialist views are in explaining the cosmos, evolution, and consciousness, it doesn’t matter one whit to him. Why? Because the alternative (granting legitimacy to religion) is SO much worse, he calls on scientists to defend materialism in the fact of all challenges. You can’t have a dialog with such a person – they belong to a cult. This doesn’t mean, by the way, you can’t talk to them, but you would do so, I think, as a cult deprogrammer might talk to someone who was a member of Jonestown.

    2. Right wing authoritarian libertarians. I, like many of my New Left friends of the 70s, have extreme skepticism of big government social programs, though I look on them like Winston Churchill (I think it was him – or maybe Ben Franklin?) looked on Democracy – the worst form of government, but better than any other we have). I can find excellent values among conservatives as I can find limitations in liberal views, and vice versa.

    But the current incarnation of libertarianism is not in even the remotest respect a view arrived at honestly. The original libertarians of the 19th century were left wing socialists who distrusted both big business and big government, and the best of them fit with Sri Aurobindo’s description of “spiritual anarchy.” In the 1940s, a number of very wealthy businessmen got together with economists like Milton Friedman and told him point blank, “FDR has won over the country for big government. We have to come up with some way to make the American people think that policies that would harm them and favor the wealthy are patriotic.” Friedman got together with folks like Frederich Hayek (who favored universal health care and a universal guaranteed income, among other horrific “socialist” schemes) and with the help of Ayn Rand’s psychopathic writings, cobbled together a creed that for more than 60 years has very intentionally hid the motives of those who promulgate it.

    Again, you can talk to authoritarian libertarians, but I don’t think genuine dialog is possible. I had a two year conversation online with a very intelligent libertarian, and realized within the first month that it had the feeling of a conversation I’ve often had with psychiatric inpatients diagnosed with various personality disorders. he functioned very well in most aspects of his life, but he sounded genuinely crazy when it came to his hot-button issues. I often felt provoked and overreacted, and it was clear the times we had a meeting of the minds is when I donned (pun intended) my role as therapist, which may make for successful de programming but does not an intimate relationship make!

    So, hope that helps to keep in mind. Choose your dialogic challenges with care.

    Reply
  4. Phoebe Love
    Phoebe Love says:

    As a spiritual director, I hear many sides of Christianity and find few people fit into a rigid definition even within their faith tradition. They hold to what they value based on background and experience but wrestle with its truths when life gets complicated. Most believers are trying to live out their faith the best they know how whether it is left, right, or somewhere in between. Social issues and politics are a vital part of the Christian calling but they do not bring about transformation in and of themselves. It’s the deep work of the Holy Spirit reaching into hearts and minds cultivating attentiveness, humility, and discernment, characteristics often missing on both sides of the national rhetoric. The contemplative path is for everyone though not all seek it. But for those who do I trust you will be theologically inclusive as you continue to lead us all in the life of prayer.

    Reply
  5. Cristy Jane Coates
    Cristy Jane Coates says:

    Hi All from down here in Oz! What a wonderful conversation! I always love reading and listening to your insights, Cynthia, and the interesting conversation that ensues. I’m a first time commentor, longishtime follower.

    I write today as a born and bred Catholic, with all of my primary and secondary education completed within a very moderate and inclusive Catholic college in rural South Australia. While I have not got the tertiary credentials to add to this discussion in any meaningful theological manner, my upbringing was actually very rare, in that my mother was a natural, then formed, contemplative (moving from Religious Education Coordinator then, to Spiritual Director, Retreat Leader & Pastoral Care Worker now). Her reflective influence allowed for some insights other children didn’t seem to have privy to, for which I am extremely grateful. I can’t say I came through completely unscathed 😉 However, I’ve seemed to be able to hold onto the baby while slowly draining the bath water so to speak. For me, that’s involved letting go of a lot of dogma, including church on Sundays.

    It is with great interest (and often despair, I must admit) that I watch the unfoldings of particular religious influence both across the sea and in my native Australia. Having had the influence of a relatively progressive and beautifully symbolic education; reflective and religiously inclusive parents; and a moderate form of Catholicism that emphasised social justice and helping the most vulnerable in our society, I have found it very challenging to reconcile the politically and religiously conservative stance with my own social-democratic understanding of the world, which I know has been formed significantly by the version of Catholic faith I was exposed to.

    I think your point about the shared Pro-Life stance between conservative/ fundamentalist Christians of all denominations is extremely poignant, and I look forward to what more you have to say about your observations. Personally, I find the divisive vigor on both sides of the issue incredibly challenging, and I do hope we can all find a way to be with these important discussions in mutually respectful and inclusive ways. Without going into my own personal understandings in any depth what-so-ever, I would simply like to say it seems to me the argument itself seems to be missing the more meaningful points. There is SO much more to this particular conversation that is being bogged down by ideals, judgments, condemnation and emotional turmoil all round. If either stance is truly led by Love, then one would hope that Love is self evident in the ‘how’ of each party; and, that the Love comes from an ever-deepening understanding that evolves through spiritual practice rather than dogmatically held principles that may once have been a great revelation of Love. To me, dogmatic approaches are those once-inspired ideas which have devolved over time to become a law of judgement that must be defended and upheld at all costs, rather than an approach that is focused on the principle of Love from which the original understanding arose. The idea becomes frozen in time and space, rather than being an alive principle that awakens anew in each moment.

    I am writing this away from the internet, so I’m not sure how much this adds to the intent of the conversation, as I don’t have your article to refer back to!

    In any case, I thank you. You’ve no idea just how much finding your work has meant to me in terms of my own faith, Cynthia. I no longer feel like a complete outsider, and I can find the richer depths I had been seeking inside my faith of origin.

    Blessings x

    Reply
  6. Cynthia Bourgeeault
    Cynthia Bourgeeault says:

    Thanks, Don. Yes, now I have your comment in its entirety, and it’s even more helpful than I thought. Iain McGilchrist has been on my radar screen for some time; now I will make a more concerted effort to dig him out. When we’re considering attention, I’d also recommend a wonderful new book I’m working my way through by Meg Salter called MIND YOUR LIFE: How Mindfulness Can Build your Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary (Toronto: MegaSpace Press, 2017). A committed practitioner of the Unified Mindfulness Method, she offers a broad, practical—and sounds to me less oppositional/polarizing—approach to bringing our attention (both selective and expansive) into full service of our present moment awareness. Great stuff!

    Speaking of “great stuff,” the over-the-top best part of what you have to say here are your brilliant, funny, and compassionate accounts of your personal attempts at dialogue with those coming from opposing perspectives. To do so at all is courage; to do so effectively is pure genius. I am much in your debt for sharing these.

    So far, this is exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping would ensue. Thanks to you, Don, and to all who have participated so far.

    Reply
    • Lee Warren
      Lee Warren says:

      Cynthia, I, too, am working with Meg’s book and am preparing my review. (She welcomes others, particularly in the US, as she’s so far receiving mostly Canadian reviews. Meg and I first met and spent 11 hours delayed in La Guardia and an overnight in Bangor getting to your ME retreat last year. I observed her wisdom and equanimity as three of us quickly determined our retreat was actually beginning in the airport. I encourage others not to zip through this book and then put it on the shelf but to slowly make your way through the practices. Meg sees this as a resource book and I do also. They remind me of the weeks of beneficial work (twice repeated) of your Gurdjieff course.

      Reply
    • Meg Salter
      Meg Salter says:

      Thank you for the mention Cynthia , of Mind Your Life. Yes, there are integrative ways to develop sensory present moment awareness. This is actually a framework that integrates many of the classic wisdom traditions into one schema, with universal language. Shamatha or jhana practices? == Focus on Rest. Vipassana or insight practices?== Focus In. Dzogchen or Mhamudra? == Do Nothing. awareness of impermanence? == Focus on Flow. Centring Prayer?== anchor sensory attention in the heart area, turn your face toward G*D and drop all other intentions….
      And I too am loving this conversation. Alas that pre-modern, fundamentalist conversations have become so dominant….. Meg

      Reply
  7. Peter Muller
    Peter Muller says:

    It’s a little confusing that several people have responded in their comments (on the article page) by somehow thinking that Cynthia wrote the article — when the byline under the headline clearly says that it is by Miranda Harvey. Adding to the confusion is that the Facebook post (which actually led me to it), also seems to say that Cynthia wrote it. Could anyone clear this up please?

    Reply
  8. Nancy Sylvester
    Nancy Sylvester says:

    Thank you, Cynthia, for your reflection and alerting some of us to that article. If we could ever find a way to address the obsession with abortion, birth control and sex that so pervades Catholic morality it would be a remarkable contribution. Looking forward to your next entry.

    Reply
  9. John A Davies
    John A Davies says:

    “This is a human dilemma, and it is as a human family that will solve it” .. Courageous.. necessary.. “to engage this crucial impasse and see if the act of intelligent conversation can itself generate a bit of third force” … As a human family it is later than we think on this issue, going back to steadfast positions of us and them is not a solution and historically has been a disaster… New think.. new know is needed…… Yay.. go cynthia… with you on this… x

    Reply
  10. Bill
    Bill says:

    I’m grateful for the original article in La Civiltà Cattolica. My denomination, The United Church of Christ (UCC), stands in contrast to the Protestant Fundamentalist vision of Christianity.
    It gives me hope to know others see through their distortions.
    Thank you for sharing the article link and you’re insights on it.

    Reply
  11. Loren Clark
    Loren Clark says:

    So excited about this trend among critical thinking Christians who are concerned with how the gospel has been distorted by Protestant fundamentalism. I grew up in that kind of cult thinking. I saw this political movement among fundamentalists begin in the late 1950s and it has morphed into a Donald Trump administration. We need more of this kind of thinking and dialogue. Cynthia brings a breath of fresh air with her thinking. Looking forward to this discussion.

    Reply
  12. Margie
    Margie says:

    Why don’t you just be honest and say you hate Donald Trump. I bought all your books and now I deeply regret it. I will say your books sent to some wonderful authors who I do identify with. I watched you on Richard Rohr’s last seminar and you almost got honest enough to say you hate Trump. I truly hope you give all your book earnings to the poor. Heaven forbid you make a profit.

    Reply
    • Sam Hermanus
      Sam Hermanus says:

      Thank you for publishing this article. I continue to learn from Cynthia’s teachings. May those who have ears hear.

      Reply
    • Catherine Stratton
      Catherine Stratton says:

      Margie, I’m holding you in my heart space because hate seems to have you by the balls. Open this subject up to Jesus when next you meet. Also reflect: where is Jesus in any of what Trump, Bannon, or any of the other proponents of prosperity or apocalyptic Christianity say or believe?

      Reply
    • Matt
      Matt says:

      Why would Cynthia’s books no longer hold value if she “hated” Donald Trump. I am sure she doesn’t hate him but I am sure ahe thinks he is a dangerous individual for noth our nation and the world. Either way hiw would that tender her writings devoid of insight.

      Reply
    • Sioux
      Sioux says:

      Margie, I recently met a student of Cynthia’s who told Cynthia that he voted for Trump. I was part of the conversation. Cynthia thoroughly appreciated this student’s honesty and respected his experiences that led him to vote for Trump. It’s okay if we have differences – we can still be kind to each other. Love to you, Margie.

      Reply
  13. Lawrence Willson
    Lawrence Willson says:

    Eye-opening reflection on a topic of breath-taking reach regarding interfaith dialogue and “cults of the apocalypse.” More, please, Cynthia.

    Reply
  14. Katherine Bull
    Katherine Bull says:

    Dear Cynthia,
    Thank you for initiating and engaging the Wisdom Community in this global healing conversation. The more we can unite to address our planetary and humanitarian crisis, the better our chances of sustaining the future for our children. I look forward to reading the next chapters of your blog.
    Gratefully,
    Katherine Bull
    Le Jardine Esprit Founder

    Reply
  15. don salmon
    don salmon says:

    Beautiful, heartfelt and elegant statement – and an important one here.

    I’d like to add something from the psychological perspective.

    Karen Armstrong, in her writings on fundamentalism, makes the crucial point that, while many secular folks think of fundamentalists as expressing medieval views, the mindset of fundamentalists could simply not have existed prior to the emergency of 19th century materialism.

    And, according to British psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, the root of modern materialism is not a philosophic view as much as a form of attention. Put in neurological terms by Buddhist teacher and former neuroscience professor John Yates (in his “The Mind Illuminated” – the best manual of Buddhist meditation i’ve ever come across), he describes two major attention networks, one responsible for selective attention (SA) and one for peripheral awareness (PA). On my recommendation, Yates looked at McGilchrist’s work, and agreed that McGilchrist’s “left mode” and ‘right mode” thought (somewhat related to left hemisphere mediated and right hemisphere mediated attention) are closely correlated with SA and PA.

    What characterizes the mode of selective attention? It is linear, is comfortable with what it can control and quantify, is primarily analytic and linguistic, and tends toward the literal and concrete. The more one functions in SA, the more the little, separate self is strengthened, and the more alienated one is from the body and emotions. Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” is the quintessential extreme SA perspective; Ayn Rand is another example of extreme SA functioning, which at its most extreme, McGilchrist suggests, may be a major contributor to the rise in autism and even play a role in schizophrenia. Empathy is sorely lacking in extreme SA functioning.

    Peripheral awareness sees the forest (though at its extreme, may lose specificity, having difficulty identifying the trees). it is non linear, qualitative, at ease with metaphor and paradox, connected to body and emotions, and has great empathy.

    When you look at (christian, islamic, jewish, hindu etc) fundamentalism – or for that matter, the fundamaterialism of the 4 horsemen of new atheism – you find a similar extreme selective attention and an inability to “see” or intuit the whole (which is seen as nothing more than a collection of parts), an obsession with control (particularly control of emotions and the body – and here we begin to touch directly on the abortion issue).

    But, leaving aside all these distinctions and leaving aside black and white views of fundamentalism, when one makes a sincere effort to engage with fundamentalists, one finds something very different. As a (very secular) New York Jew who ended up in Greenville, South Carolina after living in very Left Wing very avant garde/bohemian NY East Village for nearly 30 years, I made regular efforts over the 8 years I was there to engage with the Bob Jones University (Southern Baptist fundamentalists) students on a regular, at least weekly basis (at a nearby Starbucks and Barnes and Noble).

    Almost invariably, they listened politely – and often engaged with surprising wisdom – when I challenged them, providing passages from the Bhagavad Gita, or Dhammapada, or Rumi or many other non dual texts from various religions – including Christianity – and as long as they felt safe and their foundational beliefs were not challenged – they were quite receptive. I met one former Baptist preacher who was struggling with dualistic views. I led him through a 1 minute exercise based on a Dzogchen/Jack Cornfield exercise on hearing thoughts as sound, and recognizing there was no barrier between “inner” thoughts and sounds from “outside.” I then repeated, “God is He in whom we live and move and have our being,” and he “got it” – quite dramatically.

    Finally, not long after I (finally!!) moved north (and way Leftward) to Asheville, I was at a cafe near my office in Travelers Rest, South Carolina and overheard a conversation with a New York City liberal woman and a young protege of far right Heritage foundation president Jim Demint. I apologized for eavesdropping, and noted that the young man, who was in the midst of a political campaign for state office, was genuinely trying to maintain his composure while the NY woman was being quite aggressive. I then said to him, “I bet we can find common ground on abortion and gun control.”

    He smiled, and said he was game.

    I asked him if, given certain knowledge that a woman would die if she gave birth, would he be in favor of her having an abortion. He answered “yes” without hesitation. “So we’re both pro-choice, but simply draw the line in different places in terms of how far choice would go.” Again he assented. Finally, I said, “Would you accept Hilary Clinton’s goal of zero abortions?” He again agreed. I said, “Well, then, we’re both in perfect agreement. You would prefer the authoritarian state socialist means of enforcing this, whereas I would be in favor of the more conservative approach of achieving it outside the law as a matter of individual choice.” He smiled and did not argue.

    (He agreed to support gun control when I pointed out the simple fact that he would not want a 5 year old child to be able to walk into a convenience store and purchase a gun).

    Going beyond black and white, going beyond duality, seeing Christ in all (but not in a vague ignorance of diversity but rather immersed in unity while celebrating diversity), I am perhaps irrationally optimistic about moving forward, reconciling the centuries long “conflict” of liberty and equality with a true fraternity rooted in the knowledge that “the Divine is in all, all is in the Divine, and there is nothing else in the universe” (Sri Aurobindo, Synthesis of Yoga).

    Reply
    • Lawrence Willson
      Lawrence Willson says:

      Bravo, Don Salmon. So plainly said, a white boy from a coal mining camp in Birmingham, Alabama can read, understand, and (I dare say) agree with every word.

      Reply
        • Lawrence Willson
          Lawrence Willson says:

          Amen, Don. As an avid reader of Ken Wilber, I got onto Cynthia’s work (informed by Teilhard’s) through Richard Rohr’s Integral Christian blog. I’m ordained in the United Methodist tradition with an abiding interest in Zen (through D.T. Suzuki). My one zen teacher for a single day was David Aitken Roshi on Maui. So it goes without saying, I’ve much in common with a New York Jew: interested in everything, nothing scares.

          Reply
    • Marty Schmidt
      Marty Schmidt says:

      Thanks, Don, for this very thoughtful response. So much good stuff in this, including some writers to follow up on. Really like the idea of different kinds of attention, which fits in very well to “bringing the mind into the heart.” Thanks!

      Reply
    • Bill
      Bill says:

      Don you give me hope! Thank you for the examples on how to engage in a constructive manner with opposing view points.

      Reply

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