Visions of Daniel
“The best of times” and “the worst of times”—with these words Charles Dickens described the French Revolution. These words describe our era, too, but a new brand of social upheaval….
In this wrenching status quo, what overarching vision could inspire global harmony?
The Lost Paradise
I grew up in a world that was safe and secure. There, in my neighborhood and city, we all knew who we were and how we fit. We belonged. Life's meaning was clear; its values were strong. Religion guided the way. Our religion did what religion is meant to do—re + ligare, from the Latin, to tie back, to restrain: religion held us in place; it held us together; it gave us a common vision and purpose. Our perspective was broad; it reached around the globe and beyond, all the way to heaven and life hereafter. Our goals were lofty. People were good. Life was simple, if not always easy. Our neighborhood was truly a community.
That was South Side Pittsburgh, home of Jones and Laughlin Steel. People made a good, honest living in the mills. No one I knew—except the priests and the nuns—had ever been to college. No one in my family had ever finished high school. But the people were intelligent, thoughtful, and shrewd. They knew how to make life work.
People were proud of their homes and their neighborhood. They took care of them. On Saturday mornings in summertime, they washed down their front steps and swept their sidewalks. They helped one another, especially the elderly, shovel snow, and the men organized crews to clear hilly Pittsburgh streets in the wintertime.
Almost everybody in that Polish community was Catholic, and life revolved around the local parish. The church bells rang the Angelus as a call to prayer at six AM , noon , and six PM every day. The bells tolled at funerals. On Sundays, the bells sang out a symphony of sounds, summoning people to Mass. Neighbors met and talked as they walked to church, and later they congregated in front of the church before going their separate ways after Mass, the women near the church steps, the men across the street in front of the war memorial.
Everyone knew everyone else. They all had strange sounding names—Szymkowiak, Barszczowski, Wesolowski, Ruszala, Pokora, Balmunczek, Janiak—which we took for granted although I was never able to connect the names with the faces as accurately as the grownups did. We kids had adults watching out for us, and watching over us, everywhere in the neighborhood. They would call us on misbehavior, and, although we grumbled, we listened to them; and our parents would always find out about the incidents.
We all attended the parish school. We walked in church processions, brought flowers for the classroom altar, and contributed nickels and dimes for missionary efforts to “ransom pagan babies." Each Sunday of the month was assigned as “Communion Sunday” for a particular group—the Women's Sodality, the Men's Holy Name Society, the Choir and Ushers Club. To prepare for Communion, people had to go to Confession at least once a month: there was subtle but firm social pressure to stick with the program.
When we kids hit adolescence, we began to go our separate ways, and our world broadened a bit. My family exemplified the narrow range of our diversity: my sister went to St. Casmir's High School, I went to St. Michael's, and my brother, to South Vocational High. Even so, we were all part of the same neighborhood mix that made up the “Sa-side.” Petty ethnic rivalries and inter-school competitions were ripples on a pond in comparison to the monolithic worldview and consistent values that were sunk deep in that world of yesteryears.
I grew up in a community that enjoyed an unusual coherence. Literally and figuratively, the community centered on the local Catholic Church. Religious celebrations were community celebrations and vice versa; there was no real difference. The two overlapped almost completely. The alderman would speak at the blessing of a church monument; the priest would pray at the installation of the alderman. While you were in South Side, Pittsburgh , regardless of what you were doing—shopping at the stores, studying at the parochial or public schools, swimming at the public pool, repairing the sewers or sidewalks, voting at the polls, or petitioning a politician—religion inevitably carried the day. Virtually everyone was Catholic, so you were always dealing with a fellow believer. Religion colored everything, and religion mattered more than anything else: people still believed in God, heaven, and hell.
To all appearances, religion held the community together. In fact, as things were then, it did. However, deeper analysis suggests that, not religion per se, but the shared beliefs and values that are a part of religion are what actually held the community together. Even without the religious connections, the effect could have been the same as along as everyone still bowed to the same values and held the same beliefs.
As it was, the Catholic faith of that day encapsulated the values of almost everyone in that community. Undoubtedly, the very same effect occurred in other communities, and they might not be Catholic or even Christian, at all. The important thing for social cohesion is that people believe alike. What they believe, the specific religion they follow, is secondary.
The point I make is rather straightforward. Logically, it is easy enough to grasp. However, more than logic plays into religion. My suggestion is that it does not really matter what religion a group holds, as long as people all hold the same religion. But who would accept such a claim? The implication is that differences in religion are irrelevant, that one religion is as good as another. No faithful adherent of any religion would agree. None could agree without betraying his or her own religion. And in a pluralistic society, there's the rub.
When I grew up in South Side, Pittsburgh, there was little religious diversity. At best, we had heard that certain people living up the hill were Protestant. I knew none of them personally. They were just an idea.
Nowadays, we all know people of other religions—Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, Mormon, Wiccan, Bahá'í—and of no religion. Knowing them person to person, we realize we can get along. We recognize a basic human goodness in them. Our prejudices fall away as we admit, “Wow, they really are good people.”
What our hearts perceive and what our minds conclude is that, despite the differences in outlook, we have something in common. “Basic goodness” is no monopoly of any one religion, culture, or people. This chapter explores the basis of common, human goodness.
…We hear of “the human spirit,” our “common humanity,” and “the demands of justice” all the time.…
Perhaps a more precise understanding of the human spirit would help move things forward. Perhaps a more solid grounding for talk about the human spirit would bring people together.
In fact, more solid grounding in more precise understanding is available. It is possible to point out not only the general characteristics of the human spirit but also the specific “structure” of its make-up. It is possible to move from mere inspirational talk via symbols and metaphors to a detailed account of the human spirit. Such an exposition is the focus of this chapter.
In South Side Pittsburgh where I grew up, we had a strong sense of community. The same was undoubtedly true in every village, tribe, and nation in the pre-modern world. Everyone pretty much believed the same as everybody else, so everybody got along. When petty disagreements arose, at least we agreed on the principles to settle them. At the core of that shared worldview in South Side Pittsburgh was our belief in God. Luckily, there was no doubt about God. Our Catholic faith of that era left little room for uncertainty.
But the times have changed. Not only is there fragmenting debate within the Catholic Church itself; but the same word God also obviously means different things to different people committed to different religions….
This chapter explores the notion of God and proposes an understanding that would allow God to be God and us to be us without confusing the two.
Intoxicated as a child by drinking in the experience of a harmonious community, I continue to dream of a world at peace. The movie Equilibrium presented a not too distant future in which all the world was at peace. But the cost of the peace was extreme. It had been concluded that the wide range of human feelings was the cause of discord, so every person was required to take daily injections to dampen sensitivity and prevent emotions (just like Prozak and Paxil, Zoloft and Cymbalta, in our own world!). Then the world proceeded undeterred along a rationalistic course. Of course, as the story unfolded, humanity reasserted itself, that rationalistic plan for world peace eventually failed, and people again delighted in the beauties of life—and, presumably, also indulged again in its atrocities.
This book might seem to be proposing a similar solution to the challenge of our pluralistic age: level all religions and, in the process, also dampen the sensitivities of our diverse souls. Of course, this caricature is not what I am suggesting, but the concern is worth addressing.
…Besides belief in God, other religious questions also need attention. In this chapter I address some of them: trust in Divine Providence; visions and voices, angels and entities, and extraordinary religious experiences; the experience of God and mystical union with God; and life after death and life before life. What validity could these religious notions retain in a global community of the post-modern era?
The community in which I grew up was stable and coherent, but it was not as idyllic as my descriptions thus far might suggest. Of course, there were problems in the neighborhood, and, of course, these centered on “problem people.” In my own generation, there were some kids who, as they said, were “bad.” They got into fights, broke into people's yards, and sometimes were caught stealing. Drug-abuse was not a problem at that time, but drinking and smoking were also “bad” things that some of my peers did.
Among the older generation, the most prominent vice was over-drinking, alcoholism—but nobody called it alcoholism at the time. As in all “moral” failure, the problem was supposedly a matter of “willpower.” Most people were able to drink moderately, and others periodically just did not want to. But many of the heavy drinkers were simply unable to stop drinking, despite the pleas of their families, the warnings of the priest, and their own best efforts. They displayed their drunken excesses before the whole community, bore the shame, and continued to drink.
My own struggle with teenage “sexual temptations” seemed a parallel case. This thing came upon me all unexpected and uninvited, and I knew it was wrong—as well as I could have known anything to be wrong at that time: the church had declared all sexual thoughts, desires, and acts mortal sins. So wearily and weekly I confessed my “sins,” did my penance, made a firm resolution not to sin again, received Holy Communion, prayed for strength, involved myself with wholesome activities—and inevitably ended up “sinning” again.
Juvenile delinquency, over-drinking, sexual acts—all were lumped into the same category: sin. All supposedly resulted from moral weakness, and all had the same remedy: personal determination and the grace of God….
…This same, myopic approach lives on in that old-time religion. Simple conversion to Jesus or pious reading of The Good Book is supposed to miraculously eradicate the problems in one's life. Thus far in this book, but without appeal to God and grace, I have also emphasized that spiritual dimension, and I risked giving the impression of a naïvely optimistic picture of the human situation. This chapter redresses the balance by delving into the messiness of the human condition.
Nostalgically I remember my childhood, and I muse about a world at peace. I do not think my dream is childish fantasy. Having experienced true community, I know it can be real. Having tasted true community, I am unwilling to settle for less.
My neighborhood in South Side Pittsburgh held together because the people shared common beliefs and held common values. A common religion and common culture made community a natural. Today the older generation has passed on, and the world is changing fast. Yet I still find basic goodness among the people who grew up there. The ties of religion are dissolved. The younger generation hardly attends church any more, but these people remain golden—kind, honest, generous, supportive. They are living off the moral capital generated during that earlier time of religious commitment. But what will happen when that spiritual inheritance runs out?
The challenge of community today is greater than it used to be. Life was simpler then. The task then was to get along with people much like ourselves. Today we must get along with people who are different from us. We must respect and reverence—not just tolerate—others who are strange to us. We must find common beliefs and common values to hold us together, and they cannot be religious or cultural. The only option I see is that they emerge from our very humanity. In search of this source, I have highlighted a dimension of humanity that is universal—not our bodies, not our psyches, but our human spirits.
Diversity arises from differences in place and time. These affect our bodies and psyches. But the spirit transcends space and time, and it is the same in everyone. It is what makes us human. Accordingly, the beliefs and values that can hold us together must be those that naturally emerge from the human spirit itself. Not ancestors, not culture, not religion, not revelation, not even “God,” but only a set of ideas and ideals common to all humanity could structure a global community.
That idea sounds great, but what does it mean in practice? How realistic is it? What would it look like in the concrete?
…After his beating by the L.A. police, Rodney King voiced the perennial plea, “Why can't we all just get along?” In some ways, I have been addressing this fearsome question in this book. I believe I have explained something of what it would take to get along. And I believe I have suggested some ways to move toward that realization. I am aware that what I propose is the task that religion has addressed for millennia and with discouragingly limited success. In my secular garb, I am still the idealistic priest concerned for the peace of the human family.
I take up this task, eyes-wide-open. Why apologize to secular amorality for a good intention? I remember my upbringing, the people from whom I came, the community that they—poor and uneducated—were able to create. I envisage such community again. But I know that, if it is ever to exist, it must now function on a global scale.
Honestly, I do not expect to be overwhelmingly successful in my task. I do not expect success where giants before me have consistently failed. And surely, there will be no success when pessimistic naysayers and self-serving manipulators concoct unending excuses for inaction.
I do look for some progress. Today we know more about psychology, medicine, economics, and the like than we ever have. We know what makes people tick and societies function. Today we can realistically expect success where prior efforts failed. Hope burns in my heart. I am not asking for much. I would be grateful for the dawning of just a little new light. Ah, yes, my dear reader, I would be content—and my task advanced—if you would only choose to make this task yours, too.