By Ted Furlow
While sitting at the dinette window sipping my morning tea and musing over the Cruise Director’s planned three-week safari to the wilds of Oregon, I noticed a New York Times article by George Yancy.
I asked Terri to put down the RV Park guide and her maps to listen as I read it to her. In the article, Yancy asks the provocative question, “Is your God dead?” I was interested since it echoed a 1960’s revival of Fredrick Nietzsche’s theme of “God is dead” … a hot topic when we were at college in San Francisco.
Nietzsche and Yancy share a common claim that we have conspired to “murder” God. In Yancy’s case he asks the reader if you have buried God in the majestic and ornamental tombs of your churches, synagogues and mosques. Perhaps prosperity theology, boisterous, formulistic and mechanical prayer, and skillful social oratory have hastened the need for God’s eulogy. The article suggests that we have separated and relegated God to be visited in a building or icons, not to be a part of our daily life, and have used His name to forward and sanctify our own ambitions, agendas, and narrowing views. I don’t remember much about Nietzsche’s approach, since things learned in the 60’s are well in my rear-view mirror, but Yancy’s piece rang familiar. I have been watching the degeneration of civility and the dissemblance of social order over the last 18 months, as it has turned from boorish behavior, to irresponsible rage, to a rise in everyday verbal and actual violence. A recent national survey indicated that well over 60 percent of those polled felt that common courtesy and civility has suffered in recent months.
It may seem unimportant to a percentage of Americans, but civility is the building block of religious, social, and political dialogue. Our democracy and our Christianity demand that we, who wish to live free in a constructive society, must be civil with one another. While Americans love the trappings of fundamental democratic values, our heroes, our mythology, our monuments, our laws, and structures, the fundamental Christian values of “In God We Trust” and “God Bless America” that support democracy have become a hollow hope without civility.
Civility isn’t just a political or social mandate, it is a religious truth that must be lived. We are all created in the image of God, not just those at your church, your neighborhood, your social circle, your ethnicity, or your political party. When you profess that God blesses you, but no longer see the “other,” and rage at the immigrant, the poor, the unemployed, the refugee, or the one with whom you disagree, you practice a destructive rhetoric of elimination of that “other.” That rhetoric is an idolatry of self that recognizes a God who only blesses you.
We may still disagree about issues, and to disagree civilly opens us to a human moment of relationship, a shared dialogue, and an understanding of different opinions. Civility encourages a diversity of views, without which we live within an internalized bubble of own opinions. In that bubble we are, in the words of William Shakespeare, “What we wish, what we readily believe, what we ourselves think, and what we imagine others also think.” Intoxicated with our opinions, they become our God; we seek only like-minded collaborators to reinforce them, and we demonize those who disagree with them.
Any thought that is solely mine without considering yours, any thought concerned with me but not concerned with you, is the empty sound of one hand clapping. In all things, society must put aside its lack of civility to seek a common place to stand, without it we not only miss the opportunity to recognize God in the face of the other, but by not loving our fellow man we do our part to “murder” Him.
A return to civil sobriety would be a good place to start.
Ted Furlow retired as Director of Pastoral Planning in the Diocese of San Bernardino and continues in marriage preparation ministry ib the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.