I find myself organically feeling the national angst as I ponder the profound political and cultural polarization afflicting American society.
The binary, antagonistic, ideological divide that buttresses the formative political foundation of this country – conservative and progressive – was envisioned to keep and hold a creative tension in the national psyche and the democratic experiment.
That creative tension ostensibly was envisioned to be an ideal that aspires to lead us as a people to a golden mean. But in the last 40 to 45 years, it seems like that generative tension has turned into a cleavage.
That cleavage now appears to have become a chasm of animus. I feel it emotionally and psychologically, saddened and distressed by the unraveling of our social fabric.
Like the epidemic of the COVID-19 virus currently sweeping many parts of the world, there is a social, political and moral virulence assaulting the American body politic.
Virulence, simply defined, is a pathogen’s or microbe’s capacity to infect or damage a host by breaching and overcoming its immune system and establishing a colonized niche of infected cells in an otherwise resistant host.
This extreme polarization has permeated every level of our social consciousness. Every argument, opinion, cognitive construct of rational thought, even assertions of science, all now seem to be filtered through an inescapable dualism with pejorative, adversarial categories – it is either liberal or conservative, right wing or left wing, Democrat or Republican.
In short, this dualism has blurred the complexity of the cosmos, the wonder of nature, the ineffability of beauty and the complexity of the individual confronted by the multivalent possibilities of everyday existence.
On the most ordinarily level of our personal interactions with another in the public sphere, the dualistic, ideological antagonism infecting our society has commandeered our perspectives into the funnel of only two irreducible modes of understanding the world.
As a Christian, my default gaze is primarily turned to my fellow believers in the community.
It is distressing to see that many Christians – some of whom I personally know – have been so caught in the grip of this binary, antagonistic and opposing ideological forces that their theologies, their understandings of the world and of the ethical life are now articulated only in the vernacular of these opposing political ideologies.
On the other hand, many have become cynics, deeply distrusting both sides as equally corrupt and driven only by self-interest; they have chosen to detach themselves from participating as interlocutors in the political discourse.
The cynics say all politicians are corrupt, they are all the same. Trapped in its own vortex of endless “whataboutism,” that perspective resigns itself to the inevitable why-take-any-side inertia.
But herein lies the snare of the binary ideological trap: Both ideological sides masquerade as its own closed, self-contained system of moral absolutes. Both systems demand undiluted, pure loyalty because of its claim on ultimacy and dominion over the other.
In the presumption that both ideological camps are equally corrupt, the cynic is led to believe that detaching one’s self from the moral crucible of day-to-day living, by eschewing solidarity with either ideological camp through total disengagement, is in itself an ethical decision. The cynic then feels justified in declaring non-allegiance to either side.
This is a legacy of the moral idealism especially of Immanuel Kant, which understood the ideal of the ethical life as being situated in knowing the truth because when one knows the “ought,” one grasps the “can.”
But ethics in the cognitive realm only convinces the individual of one’s obligation and duty, but in actuality renders the individual powerless to effect it.
Soren Kierkegaard critiqued this formalistic ethical system as trivializing the existence of evil and sin and erroneously understands sin only in quantitative terms.
Rather, Kierkegaard argued that sin is “total guilt,” which cannot be quantified by adding up guilty acts.
This ethical system, Kierkegaard said, is wholly inadequate in addressing the single individual confronted with the many possibilities of daily existence.
We understand the totality of guilt, of humanity’s wholesale imperfection, when we place our guilt – not in relation to a particular ideology – but in relation to God who alone is perfect.
And so, he argued the ultimate aim of the ethical life is not merely accumulating enough knowledge to know the truth, but instead to become it – not to produce objective truth, but to submit one’s self to be transformed by truth.
Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings.