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Coffee & Wisdom 02.81: The Common Task Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about the common task.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation, and this is coffee and Wisdom. This week we are considering the idea of a common task. Yesterday, I was talking a little bit about how many people of a religious bent argue that it’s impossible to have a common task if we don’t have a common religious heritage within a country. Well, that’s not going to work out here in the US for various reasons. One, there’s a whole lot of religions here. And, two, there are a lot of us also who are secular people who don’t buy into a particular religious bent. So is there a common task? What can we look at outside of the traditional way of seeing this? I do want to mention Nikolai Fedorov, 1829 to 1903, a futurist, a Christian mystic, a friend of Leo Tolstoy. He famously wrote a book, “What was Man created for? The Philosophy of the Common Task.” And you’ll find him pretty easily if you begin to do a little Web search on this idea of a common task. Again, he’s coming out of a Christian viewpoint, and so he thinks that Russia would do well to follow a common Christian path, in his case, certainly Eastern Orthodoxy. And his friend Leo Tolstoy and he eventually fell out because Leo Tolstoy became less conventionally Christian as his life progressed. Eventually, Tolstoy says, “In affirming my belief in Christ’s teachings, I could not help explaining why I do not believe and consider as mistaken

the Church’s doctrine, which is usually called Christianity.” Leo Tolstoy later becomes a pacifist, a Christian pacifist, and much more of a Christian socialist pacifist than was popular during his lifetime. He was reading some Unitarian and Universalist writers from the U.S. to get at these ideas, famously. But back to Fedorov, who says this about the common task: “Must man be the exterminator of his own species and the predator of nature, or must he be its regulator, its manager and the restorer to life of his own kin, victims of his blind unruly youth, or his past – that is, of history as fact?” As a futurist, Fedorov thought that we could be good stewards of the land and take care of ourselves, but we would have to face up to historical wrongs that had been going on within various national states. And that brings me to the current cover of the Atlantic Monthly: “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” an article written by David Treuer. This is called, by the way, “vicarious intergenerational moral responsibility,” a Fedorov term translated from Russian, but a vicarious intergenerational moral responsibility. That is what Fedorov was talking about people needing to take up. And that indeed is what The Atlantic Monthly is talking about this particular month. David Treuer has written a book called “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America 1890 to the Present.” And he was recently interviewed on National Public Radio. “No one’s seriously just suggesting, why don’t we just grant the entire country back? But what I am saying is that this kind of reparation is a chance for the country to put into practice its best ideals, its noblest impulses.

America needs to be reminded of its capacity for justice, fairness and compassion. And so for that reason and even that reason alone, I think this is an idea worth considering.” That is, returning the national parks to native peoples. And if you’re interested, do find the Atlantic Monthly from this month. But “vicarious intergenerational moral responsibility,” one of Fedorov’s ideas. Interestingly enough, this is going on in several quarters at the moment. This is from The Washington Post – an opinion by Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist, from April 22nd. Gary Abernathy is a very interesting guy in that he is one of the few people who was writing in major publications in support of President Trump during his presidency. The Washington Post discovered right after the election that none of their staff writers, even the most conservative ones, were in agreement with Trump, so they had to go searching for one, and they found Gary Abernathy. So he’s fairly right of center, shall we say, and he has this to say: “Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, is among the progressive lawmakers whose blunt liberal outspokenness regularly annoys me. Recently, she particularly upset me while discussing the latest congressional study of reparations for descendants of enslaved people, when she said, “If you through your history benefited from that wrong that was done, then you must be willing to commit yourself to righting that wrong.”

OK, that’s not a popular statement among the right wing. But then he goes on to say, “Like most conservatives, I’ve scoffed at the idea of reparations or a formal apology for slavery. I did not own slaves, so why would I support my government using my tax dollars for reparations or issuing an apology? Further, no one in the United States has been legally enslaved since 1865. So why are Black people today owed anything more than the same freedoms and opportunities that I enjoy?” That’s the conservative line. So, “it is a tenet,” he goes on “of conservatism that a level playing field is all we should guarantee. But that’s meaningless if one team starts from an unsurmountable lead before play even begins. It’s not necessary to experience “White guilt’ or buy into the notion of ‘White privilege,” a pejorative that to me suggests Whites possess something they should lose, when in fact such benefits should extend to all. Supporting reparations simply requires a universal agreement to work toward, as Jayapal said, ‘righting the wrong.'” So interestingly enough, we do have one of the most “right” conservative columnists in The Washington Post saying, yes, reparations are a good idea. Isn’t it interesting that this seems to be coming together at this particular moment? Some of us have been in support of reparations for many years, and there have been organizations through time doing this. But for some reason, it does seem to be bubbling up at the moment.

Again, back to that quote from Fedorov. “Man must be the exterminator of his own species and the predator of nature, or must he be its regulator, its manager and the restorer to life of his own kin, victims of his blind, unruly youth, of his past – that is, of history as fact?” So he would equate the past wrongs with the mistakes of a youthful, more youthful humanity, and that now we can go back and say, hey, let’s fix those wrongs that we’ve done. This leads me to another a little bit that’s been going on. This is from Axios, a website online. “Americans agree about more issues than they realize,” a column by Stef W. Kight. “What Americans want versus what they think society wants for the future of the country.” This is a very interesting article to to look over- if you get a chance, make a note. Americans agree about more issues than they realize, because what they do is they ask people, “what do you think most Americans want, and then what do you want?” So what’s your opinion of what others want? And then what do you want for the future of the nation? This article goes on, “Nine issues showed up in the top 15 priorities for both parties’ voters. Biden and Trump voters both expressed a sense of urgency to address five issues: access to high quality health care; safety in communities and neighborhoods; criminal justice reforms; help for the middle class; and modernized infrastructure.” I’ll break those down just so we can think about them:

Access to high quality health care; safety in communities and neighborhoods, criminal justice reforms; help for the middle class; and modernized infrastructure. Notice something about this particular list: There’s no church and state involved. And one of the things we talk about constantly in the U.S is the separation between the extreme religious right and the secular people on the left – and all all the time we’re talking about these problems. But hmmm – interestingly enough, self-reported as Americans we say, yes, the other side wants this, this and this. But actually, I want this, this and this. And when we look at the evidence, both sides are really prioritizing mostly the same things. Interesting, isn’t it? I did mention yesterday Charles Taylor. He is a philosopher from Canada, a Roman Catholic who talks a lot about, from his famous book, “The Secular Age.” And he says this: “There is a widespread sense of loss here, if not always of God, than at least of meaning.” But what if the “common task” has nothing to do with religion? That’s me talking. And I think maybe Charles Taylor and some of our religious friends may have overblown the idea of how much we need a religion or a God to have a common purpose. It seems that way, since we seem to have secular problems. There are a couple of books that have come out fairly recently looking at these particular issues and thinking through, well, when was America on a more common path? This one is called “Inventing the American Way” by Wendy L. Wall.

And the blurb from the book says this: “This book also suggests that the roots of that consensus political culture lie not in the postwar years,” that would be after World War II, “but in the turbulent decade that preceded U.S. entry into World War II, The social and economic chaos of the Depression years alarmed a diverse array of groups, as did the rise of two ‘alien’ (quote, unquote) ideologies: fascism and communism. In this context, Americans of divergent backgrounds and agendas seized on the notion of a unifying ‘American Way’ and sought to convince their fellow citizens of its merits.” Some of us, of course, are old enough to actually remember this particular consensus that did develop after the Second World War. Wendy L Wall, going back and thinking a little bit about how the politics of consensus developed during the New Deal era of the 1930s and then came apart during the civil rights movement. I will talk a little bit more about that tomorrow. But on to another book that I have mentioned recently. It just came out called “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” by Robert D. Putnam and an accomplice, in historian Shaylyn Romney Garrett. You know Robert Putnam from his famous book “Bowling Alone,” talking about how American structures of meaning and companionship have been collapsing over time, how fewer and fewer Americans know very many people at all – even the person to call up if your car won’t start.

So in this isolated age, what do we do? Well, Putnam is talking in this particular book about how America came together in the past, not in the 1930s in his case, but in the Gilded Age. So here’s the publisher’s blurb from this book: “Deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism – Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times. But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the 20th century opened, America became – slowly, unevenly, but steadily – more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another, and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarray.” And yes, both sets of historians are agreeing that the late 1960s is the key to the fraying of some kind of a consensus within the United States. They’re disagreeing a little bit about when this begins, but it’s very clear that there were various kinds of communal actions in the 1890s. We’ve talked about that before with the social gospel movement that comes directly out of this time and really hits its stride in the 1920s, and then begins to fall apart in the 1930s.

But the reason for that is that other people were getting involved in larger social issues, not just liberal churches. So there is something to this that I find very interesting. I’m going to talk tomorrow again about this writer Alec Ryrie is professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University and a professor of Divinity at Gresham College in London. His book, “Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt” that I’ve talked about before. Ryrie is a professional in the field of Protestantism from its rise in its early days until where it’s going in the future. His next book is going to be about Christian Protestant missions and how that movement started. He says this toward the end of his book, Unbelievers: “The religions that will prosper in this environment” (that’s today, secularism) “will be those that work with the grain of humanist ethics” (secularity) “while finding ways to offer something that humanism cannot.” And there is what he sees as the opening for how Protestantism can survive in Europe (he is an Anglican) and also here in the United States, as well. So maybe he’s right. And maybe the common purpose does have something to do with secularity. We’ll have to explore that a little bit more tomorrow and this Sunday, 10:30 a.m., Central Time, I’ll be talking about burying the lead, the power of May Day, various stories from May Day, including International Workers Day, and what those kind of add up to as we look toward the future of our post-pandemic world. Thanks a lot. And I’ll see you tomorrow.

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