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Coffee & Wisdom 02.80: The Common Task Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about the common task.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden and the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is coffee and wisdom. We’ve been going five days a week in recent months, but starting in May, we’re going to be going live on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We have lots of prerecorded content if you’ve got to do something in the morning at 9:00 a.m., but we will be live on Tuesdays and Thursdays through the summer season, and then we will begin a new program year after the leaves begin to turn. This week. I want to look at the question of a common task, and this is a major point of discussion right now in our culture. I want to go back to someone I’ve mentioned several times, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. His book from 2007 “A Secular Age” is considered game changing in terms of secularity and theological speculation. He has this to say about our contemporary era, “The dark side of individualism is a centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society.” This is a constant within the more theologically inclined philosophers to say that secularity is about me, me, me, and that the more religious aspects of culture are about us. So that’s what I want to kind of think about this week is, is that true? And if it is true, what does that mean, etc.? So that’s kind of the starting point on our theological and sociological speculations for the week.

One of the right wing think tanks does a an online magazine called “First Things”. It calls itself “America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life”. And one of the things that came out a couple of years ago was a manifesto from this group called “Against the Dead Consensus”. And this is a conservative Christian speaking. And they say, “We believe home matters. For those who enjoy the upsides, a borderless world brings intoxicating new liberties. They can go anywhere, work anywhere. They can call themselves ‘citizens’ of the world. But the jet-setters’ vision clashes with the human need for a common life, and it has bred resentments that are only beginning to surface. We embrace the new nationalism insofar as it stands against the utopian ideal of a borderless world that in practice leads to universal tyranny. Whatever else might be said about it, the Trump phenomenon has opened up space in which to pose these questions anew. We will guard that space jealously and we respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism and foreclose honest debate.” So here is a right wing think tank group of a lot of ministers and Christian thinkers saying that the new nationalism is a good idea. It’s putting us back in a an “us” phenomenon that has been ignored within secular humanism, as they would call it. Yesterday’s New York Times for April 24, 2021. Ross Douthat, one of the opinion columnists, he is a Roman Catholic and conservative thinker, said “The Two Crises of Conservatism”, He headlines things yesterday. “The GOP doesn’t know how to win majorities. The right doesn’t know what it’s conserving any more.” Well, that’s an interesting that kind of argument. He says, “But beneath this party crisis, there is the deeper one having to do with what conservatism under a liberal order exists to actually conserve.” Two weeks ago, for Coffee and Wisdom, we did discuss this idea that liberalism doesn’t mean being liberal, as it does in the U.S., entirely. There are two forms or ideas of liberalism, one being the older idea of liberalism as as the “freedom from” and the more contemporary American liberalism, which is “freedom to”. Then he goes on to say, “One powerful answer is that conservatism-under-liberalism should defend human goods that are threatened by liberal ideas taken to extremes. The family, when liberal freedom becomes a corrosive hyper-individualism. Traditional religion, when liberal toleration becomes a militant and superstitious secularism. Local community and local knowledge, against expert certainty and bureaucratic centralization. Artistic and intellectual greatness, when democratic taste turns philistine or liberal intellectuals become apparatchiks” (party-liners). “The individual talent of the entrepreneur or businessman, against the leveling impulses of egalitarianism and the stultifying power of monopoly.” I want to look at those a little bit more closely, just to be sure that we’re catching how he is lining this out. So, “The family, when liberal freedom becomes a corrosive hyper individualism.”

And again, you see the pattern here. Charles Taylor, a religious thinker, saying secular society is all about individualism, Then, Traditional religion when liberal toleration becomes a militant and superstitious secularism.” So this attack on secular humanism. “Local community and local knowledge, against expert certainty and bureaucratic centralization. Artistic and intellectual greatness, when democratic taste turns philistine or liberal intellectuals become apparatchiks.” And the liberal talent of, the individual talent of the entrepreneur or businessman, against leveling impulses of egalitarianism and the stultifying power of monopoly.” So these are his ideas for what conservatives can stand up for. In his article, he does refer to another of his conservative opinion makers in The New York Times who yesterday wrote, David Brooks, who wrote, “The GOP is getting even worse. Trumpians are having a venomous panic attack.” Yes, and we know that David Brooks very often writes about exactly the kind of secularism that is a central idea of Charles Taylor in the secular age. David Brooks has this to say, “When asked in late January if politics is more about “enacting good public policy” or “ensuring the survival of the country as we know it,” 51 percent of Trump Republicans said survival, only 19 percent said policy.” So we are in a place, David Brooks is going to argue, in which people, many people, are in survival mode, not in a mode in which they’re dealing with some kind of idea of public policy. He goes on to say, “The level of Republican pessimism is off the charts. A February, Economist-YouGov poll asked Americans which statement is closest to their view. ‘It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated’ or ‘Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.’ Over 75 five percent of Biden voters chose ‘a big, beautiful world.’ Two-thirds of Trump voters chose ‘our lives are threatened.’ This level of catastrophism, nearly despair, has fed into an amped-up warrior mentality.” So this is David Brooks arguing that we have this big separation of opinion in the U.S. about what even reality looks like. He goes on to say, “Liberal democracy is based on a level of optimism, faith and sense of security.” Already he is referring back to that first group, in other words, the optimistic group that it’s a beautiful world. He goes on to say “It’s based on confidence in the humanistic project, that through conversation and encounter, we can deeply know each other across differences; that most people are seeking the good with different opinions about how to get there; that society is not a zero-sum war, but a conversation and a negotiation.” Now, again, we have discussed this with Coffee and Wisdom that the older form of liberalism coming out of the Enlightenment period certainly was about the idea of taking various viewpoints and conversing about them, voting on them, to come out with some kind of consensus, or at least a lumped up version, a lumpy version of what various people have to think. Brooks goes on to say, “Republicans and conservatives who believe in the liberal project need to organize and draw a bright line between themselves and the illiberals on their own side. This is no longer just about Trump the man; it’s about how you are going to look at reality — as the muddle it’s always been, or as an apocalyptic hellscape. It’s about how you pursue change — through the conversation and compromise of politics, or through intimidations of macho display.” Again, the muddle is what good old-fashioned liberalism has always been about, the muddle of understandings that we keep jumbling around as we discuss these issues. And of course, we know that from the Eric Hoffer book, “The True Believer” that I’ve quoted before, how extremism works, Hoffer has some very good ideas, I think, he says, “The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.” So the rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes. So again, Hoffer arguing that liberal democracy can’t exist within a set of absolutes. And one of my favorite metaphors coming up here, “Why are the Tolerant Left so Intolerant?” As another headline I read recently that Hoffer has this to say, “Intolerance is the Do Not Touch sign on something that cannot bear touching. We do not mind having our hair ruffled, but we will not tolerate any familiarity with the toupee that covers our baldness.”

Interesting metaphor here, but what Hoffer is saying, I think, is that probably one of the reasons for the absolutes in American social thinking at the moment is that each side of the discussion has really seen that the other side is getting at their true natures and are actually threatening to the very ideas themselves. So Eric Hoffer from back in the 1950s, warning us about the idea of absolutes and intolerance and how it works. Now, I do have to ask, what is this all about? Are we, what’s the common project? Are we dealing with a society of “freedom to” or “freedom from”? And how does religion play into this? Because we know that religious freedom is now a discussion about how to protect conservatism, but we also know that there are religious liberals out there talking about something very different. That’s the subject I want to talk about this week, Charles Taylor’s idea of individual secularism and what it really means. And if it’s even actually true. This coming Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Central Time, I’ll be talking about Burying the Lead: the Power of May Day. What’s May Day all about? And yes, it is a set of stories about religion and politics and fertility rituals that we will be getting to on Sunday. Thanks a lot, and I’ll be back tomorrow to consider the common purpose. Thank you.

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