On Edge in Charlottesville

Charlottesville, VA. As readers of my first post may recall, I am spending much of this semester at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, where I will be giving lectures several weeks from now. I have been here over a month, but am still making sense of where I am.

October 6, just a few days ago, marked two hundred years to the day since Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe came to Charlottesville to officially break ground for the first University of Virginia building, and there was a large gathering on campus to celebrate the beginning of the bicentennial.

At the very same time on Friday night, I had occasion to meet with 15-20 graduate students in the Department of Religion, and a few professors who were kind enough to come, to discuss a chapter of my current book project, tentatively entitled, Beyond Hindu and Christian Theologies: Instruction, Doctrine, Experience in the New Scholasticism. I am writing the book, but the immediately task will be to deliver the Richard Lectures here at the university in a few weeks. My thesis in its briefest form: the commendable progress we have made in the humanities, the study of religion, and theology, by historical criticism, the analysis of power relations, the detection of bias and exclusion, etc. has nevertheless left us less able to retrieve our own traditions, learn in an integrated intellectual and spiritual manner, as individuals and communites, and woefully unprepared for solid and substantial learning from and with the traditions around us. My proposal is that we need both to go back – the premodern roots of our current theologies – and out – to other ways of thinking about and contemplating the mysteries of God in the world such as have flourished in other religious traditons. By the close and slow study of old traditions, and other traditions, we will be able to “return” to our current era, bettter equipped to make the case positively for religious thinking and acting as essential to our society today, and negatively against the narrow, ignorant, and ultimately violent forces that seek to control both the mind and the heart for the sake of a fear-driven agenda.

On Saturday evening, October 7, I presided at the Eucharist at a local parish, and preached on St. Paul’s vision of community in Philippians 4, words that, by tradition, belong to his last testimony, as he awaits trial in Rome: Be grounded in Christ; build peace in the community, and go beyond expectations in seeking to understand one another; rejoice, pray always, and see that God is at work in all things around you; allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the mystery of the peace of God; and, “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” I did not preach on the violence in the city, nor on the violence in Las Vegas, though we did pray for the dead, the wounded, their friends and families.

On that same evening, October 7, there was a brief reappearance here in Charlottesville of the white nationalists who disrupted the city in August, using the excuse of defending the Lee statue as a platform for promoting a hateful white supremacist view of our society. It was a return visit, intended to warn everyone that the defenders of white supremacy would be back – again, and again. In August, you will recall, the protest  fell into the abyss when one of its participants drove into the crowd, injured many, and killed a young woman. This time, the gathering was brief, but even its 15 minutes far too long.

I mention together these four events — the bicentennial, my book project, the Mass, and the white nationalist rally — as a way of getting at the necessity of my thinking “on the inner edge,” as I am calling this new series of posts. I commend those who engage directly in the major issues of the day, and speak boldly and directly in the ugly face of white supremacist hatred. I applaud this very fine university as it begins to celebrate its first 200 years.

Nor do I think my particular kind of research to be irrelevant, even in our troubled era. Some of us at least need to step back from the news media, and resist the temptation to be ever outraged by the latest foolishness and wickedness, so that instead we can try to exercise an older remembering that draws on the strengths of where we come from, now interreligiously, for the sake of the longer view of our destiny. Unless we recollect the spiritual roots of all the ethnic and religious cultures mingling in America today, and unless we devise better ways of religious education that can transmit a broad and wise (and for some of us but not all of us, a Christian) religious learning in a pluralistic world, we will continue to watch helplessly the spectacle of extremist violence in word and deed.

And of course, as Saturday evening in my parish, we need to gather and pray, and hear again the sacred words of our sacred traditions.

But all of this is a matter of balance, the outer and the inner, and in these occasional posts, I hope to share with kind readers my own efforts to find out the best and the hardest places where that balance is needed.