Friday, October 21, 2016

Well, what do we expect?

    In a wonderful interview* with Krista Tippett of "OnBeing", New York Times columnist and NPR commentator David Brooks tells of an encounter with a group of corporate Chief Financial Officers. His address to them followed his work on (if not publication of) his last book, The Road to Character (Random House, 2015). One of the chapters focuses on Dorothy Day, the social activist and Catholic convert. That chapter was apparently on his mind as he stepped in front of the gathering of (as he describes them) grey-haired white men who had just been discussing all things financial. He reflected (in the interview) that he wondered WHAT IN THE WORLD he would have to say to this group of hard-cored businessmen. Much to his surprise, as he began talking, the room grew profoundly quiet. He discerned that these people were hungry for something that went much deeper than dollar signs, debits and credits. Despite their "success", there seemed to be something missing in their lives that a "holy woman" (in many people's minds) possessed, something that couldn't be bought.
     Brooks' expectations were blown.
     As I listened, my mind was drawn back to several churches I attended when I used to live in California (although I KNOW the situation is not unique to that part of the country). All of these churches were attended, primarily, by very well-to-do people. Indeed, the parking lot of one of them was crowded on Sunday mornings with Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, Mercedes-Benz's, and perhaps a Bentley or two.  CEO's and CFO's, engineers and bankers, filled the pews (much like Brooks' audience). I initially had the sense that this congregation was a place "to see and be seen". And it might have been that.
      It might have been that. And, perhaps, for some it was. But this congregation had chosen, in the mid-1980's, to continue using a particular worship style that employed traditional language -- when most of the rest of the (national) church had gone to a more contemporary style. Certainly one could argue that these were "conservative" people, equating their politics with their liturgical preferences. And, again, for some that may have been the case. But the traditional language that they preferred also characterized the congregation as quite needy and sinful.** That is, as the congregation prayed, they "acknowledged and bewailed" their "manifold sins and wickedness" that they had "grievously committed by thought, word and deed" (The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 331). I would have thought that such a congregation would want to run and hide from such admissions.
       My' expectations were blown.
       Brooks' experience, as well as my own, called to mind that not everything we see (or assume) about people is ALL that there is. Indeed, there is often a public persona that obscures (whether intentionally or not) a private set of desires, needs or fears. In the case of these folks, there seemed to a yearning for something that might provide interior meaning in an externally-focussed, and driven, world. Many of these folks were asking, "How do we deal with success, especially as we're not sure we 'earned' it?" Or, "We've succeeded! But why do we feel so empty?" Or, "We've been given such a responsibility to steward these resources! What if we blow it?" Hard questions, and even raising them may make the individual questioner seem "weak", not knowing "all".       At their best, our religious traditions help answer those questions, and, certainly, earlier generations seemed to understand that. The same understanding, research data seems to suggest, isn't shared by many folks today. But, Brooks, early in the interview, comments that, in his experience, a certain level of dissatisfaction with religion among younger people is countered by an interest in things interior. Affirmation, or building up, too, is sought, in a world that seems to devalue folks. "Affirmation" in connection with an admission of "sinfulness" might be seen as strange bed-fellows. But I think not. We are neither wholly wonderful nor wholly awful. But we do want to be accepted as whole. My suspicion is that the businessmen that Brooks encountered, as well as the church-goers with whom I shared a pew, were looking for a place to find that inner wholeness. And, apparently, it wasn't in a ledger, but a different Book.


* The section in which Brooks relates this encounter is in the "unedited interview" found at the OnBeing website. By the way, the interview is both with him and fellow NPR commentator E.J. Dionne.
** "Sin", while not a particularly popular word these days, figures pretty prominently in the Brooks/Dionne interview!

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