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Coffee & Wisdom 02.82: The Common Task Part 3

David Breeden is speaking all week about the common task.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden. I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and this is Coffee and Wisdom. We are in our last week of Monday through Friday Coffee and Wisdom. Starting for our summer season, we will be going to live on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But there’s lots of content available on the Din of Conversation YouTube channel. So definitely check that out. But yeah, we will be trimming things back for the summer starting next week. On so, Tuesdays and Thursdays starting next week. This week we’ve been looking at the common task, looking at the idea of secularity and the civil responsibility which many religious people have argued can’t be done in a secular society. So we have been kind of considering how we might do that going forward. One of the central thinkers in the idea of what secularism means in the 20th and into the 21st century is Charles Taylor. His book, “A Secular Age” is considered by many to be the book about this. It came out in 2006. In that one, he says, the dark side of individualism is a centering on the self which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer and meaning and less concerned with others or society. This is kind of the common way that the idea of secularity and individualism is being dealt with these days. But Charles Taylor is quite the thinker and he has made this a little bit more complex than merely saying that secular people are all individualists.

So I take a little bit of a deeper look into some of what he has to say today. And he has himself said that his philosophical project, the main thing that he wants to talk about, is he wants to develop a convincing philosophical anthropology. What is a human being like in our secular world? It’s not as easy as it looks at first. He does claim and I have a suspicion that he’s probably right. One thing he says is the Enlightenment conception of the individual is based in assumptions of hierarchy. That so to treat people with dignity and respect, we need to take full account of their varied social situations. He says, you know, we have to think back on this Enlightenment idea of the worth of the individual. The individual meant a very different thing in those days. So we need to think about that. He sets up this conversation in a book called “Sources of the Self.” It’s an expensive book to acquire. It didn’t come out as a huge press run, but it is available at many libraries. So the Enlightenment conception that one of the individual is based on conceptions of the hierarchy. He has some other ideas about the Enlightenment and areas that it pushes us into, to make mistakes as well, one being language. In the Enlightenment period there was the printing press and there was the spoken word and that was about it. Well, that’s not how language works nowadays.

And also, Taylor talks a little bit about what the concept of the soul was about, coming out of the Protestant Reformation into the Enlightenment period and how we consider the soul nowadays. Yes, some religious people still talk in terms of the soul. And, yes, we even use it in popular parlance. But the idea of the soul, as it once was, is no longer how we think of the authentic self or the authentic individual. And this affects the way we approach the socialization of human beings. We have so many options, he says, that we are perpetual seekers nowadays, and that that is one of the reasons for what we call identity politics, the rise of identity politics. So this can produce extreme individualism, says Taylor. And it can be politically divisive, but it can also serve to call us to our better selves since we don’t have religions always saying, hey, you can be better, you can be better. Although I would think maybe it’s arguable whether religion ever did that. But you know, let’s give it that idea that religion once called us to our better selves. And since most people aren’t going that way anymore, what can call us to our better selves? And maybe this idea of being authentic is the way to get there. It isn’t, again, that Taylor is just an ivory tower philosopher. He lives in Quebec. He is completely bilingual. He grew up with a French speaking mother and an English speaking father.

He’s been very involved in Quebec politics over the years, has even run for office a few times, never having been elected. But he’s very into actual politics as it works on the ground, as he says, and as a Roman Catholic philosopher. His latest book just came out in 2020, and it’s called “Reconstructing Democracy: How Citizens Are Building from the Ground Up.” And the idea here is that we must reassess how we do democracy and we have to start from this idea of an authentic self. So this is the publisher’s blurb about this book. “Across the world, democracies are suffering from a disconnect between the people and the political elites. In many communities where jobs and industry are scarce, many feel the government is incapable of understanding their needs or addressing their problems. The resulting frustration has fueled the success of destabilizing demagogues. To reverse this pattern and restore responsible government, we need to reinvigorate democracy at the local level. But what does that mean? Drawing on examples of successful community building in cities large and small from a shrinking village in rural Austria to a neglected section of San Diego restructuring them, “Reconstructing Democracy” makes a powerful case for reengaging citizens and highlights innovative grassroots projects and show how local activists can form alliances and discover their own power to solve problems.” And so this is the latest statement from Charles Taylor in this particular idea of how do we start redoing politics from a new understanding, because the old Enlightenment understanding of liberalism simply doesn’t work anymore.

And as I mentioned yesterday, there are a couple of books here in the US that are also talking about these ideas. One is called “Inventing the American Way” by Wendy L. Wall, which discusses how the 1930s were formative in restructuring an idea of liberal democracy. And how that we can work together rather than as these abstract individuals arguing with each other all the time. And another book that just came out, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” from Robert Putnam, famous for “Bowling Alone.” His argument is that there was a restructuring, reimagining of American politics during the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 90s, and that that can be, again, re-accessed through some newer ideas. And I’ll get back to that in just a couple of moments. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this, that this photo that’s on the the front cover of Wendy Wall’s

book. It is famous. And here we have the world’s highest standard of living. “There’s no way like the American Way” is a huge billboard with the smiling white family with their little white dog and a line of African-American people in front of it. This has been often used as an example of the failure of America. And, oh, surely that’s a red line from the Great Depression.

Actually, it is not. This appeared in Life magazine in February of 1937, in an issue called World’s Highest Standard of Living. It’s a photo by Margaret Bourke-White in Louisville, Kentucky, in which in 1937, those of us who grew up along the Ohio River know that that was a huge flood disaster in the 1930s that destroyed thousands of homes and drove a lot of people out of their homes. And these are displaced people due to the river rise of 1937, not in a bread line. But it is a very famous picture and it does kind of graphically show something about the American way. But it’s not quite as easy as it first appears as it looks on the book from Wendy Wall. Well, what are the duties of an American citizen? We have these duties and we have these rights. We’ve discussed this before with Coffee and Wisdom that maybe we think about rights a lot more than we think about duties. That would be the idea of what secular people do, from the argument that only religion can get us to do our duties. There is a lot of discussion in philosophical circles about Plato’s Academy. This is the first Western school in our history, and indeed it was organized as a political science organization. Now, Plato himself disliked democracy intensely. He thought that it had nothing good to do. We know that if you’ve read Plato’s “Republic” in which they discuss these ideas of how democracy destroys any sense of striving, et cetera. But one of the things they were doing in the academy was training Athenians to be good citizens by teaching political science.

So the idea of how to be a citizen goes way back into our Western ways of thinking. Well, what are we supposed to do as citizens? Well, we’ve got to stand by Uncle Sam, of course. That is many of us registered for the draft to serve in the military. If asked, we’ve got to go serve our day in court, if we are needed. We need to pay our taxes. We need to follow the laws. And so there are some things that if you go to a civics class or if you’re a new American and have been studying about how to be an American, you’re going to have found out about. Standing, my dear Old Glory and Uncle Sam. And of course, we always mention this ‘we the people thing’ and the way the US Constitution begins as duties. It is important to remember, however, that the common purpose of US citizens are not mentioned in that Preamble to the Constitution. We, the people of the US, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, et cetera, et cetera. Well, guess what? The US Supreme Court held in 1905 that the Preamble is not a source of federal power or individual rights. Rather, all rights and powers are set out in the articles and amendments that follow, including good old Uncle Sam’s ability to own firearms.

So we do have to remember that even though it’s a great way to start a constitution, it has nothing to do with actual US citizen rights. But we do have this Bill of Rights and that’s a good thing to have. But it is a Bill of Rights, not a bill of duties or obligations. And does that, I think it’s a good question, merely underline our ideas of individualism rather than communal values. The Constitution, if you’ve tried to read it, as you know, is mostly about how we do procedural things in federal government, not about how to be a good citizen. I couldn’t help but paste in something from The New York Times, that’s just coming up: “Uncomfortable Timing for a Supreme Court Gunfight.” Yes, we are having lots and lots of mass shootings right now, but the Supreme Court will be looking yet again at our Second Amendment rights for guns coming up. And, yeah, it may be an interesting time for the Supreme Court to be doing that. So what are our rights? I’ve discussed this before and I want to talk about this more tomorrow. And that is, are there more rights that we should perhaps have than we do? The original Bill of Rights for the US Constitution are freedoms from, as we’ve talked about before, classic liberalism. But liberalism has moved on and hasn’t moved in another direction. A book that came out in 2006 is called “The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever.”

And that might be a good idea. These are more liberal as we define liberal nowadays. The second Bill of Rights that FDR discussed in 1944 would be everyone guaranteed a job and adequate wage and a decent living, a decent home, medical care, economic protection during sickness, accident, old age or unemployment, and a good education. Well, that would be some interesting rights to have. But as we know, FDR died a few months later and this never became part of any actual legislation after the Second World War and Harry Truman became president of the United States. But again, we talk about rights of citizens and a secular form of government, and this steps into a very different kind of secularity in which we would be talking about what people deserve, not just what they get to be free from. And that’s what I want to talk about a little bit tomorrow, is how Protestantism develops these ideas that will end up in the good Anglican idea of FDR for helping people in very different ways. So that’s what we’ll talk about tomorrow. Thanks for listening today. Do remember next week we’ll be going to a Tuesday and Thursday live format. This Sunday, I will be talking about the power of Mayday and what the Mayday means in story and song. Thanks a lot. And I’ll see you again tomorrow.

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