A Despairing People
A bit of a follow up to my recent post, Harshly Drawn Lines. In a recent editorial for a Comment issue on our ideologically polarized times, Anne Snyder talks about the “tribal hermeneutics” that increasingly dominate everyday conversation. There are few topics these days, she says, that can’t be pressed into the service of the all-important and all-consuming task of identifying which “team” someone belongs to, whether they are safe or suspicious, whether their views are pure or poisonous. We are forever in sorting mode.
The terrain Snyder describes is one that I suspect many of us know well these days:
This sort of tribal hermeneutic abounds. From vaccines to pronouns, what kind of coffee we prefer to whether we display the country flag, we are swimming in bizarrely banal signaling mechanisms that mark friend from foe. The litmus trolls guarding the moat between “us” and “them” are greedy and ever-menacing, their hunger for a totalist culture making each of us more fearful and incurious, dull and disturbingly uncreative.
I have long been frustrated by the tribal hermeneutic that Snyder describes. I find it irritating that we so eagerly and reflexively adopt such simplistic narratives of one another and the world. But that last sentence with all of its unflattering adjectives hit me between the eyes when I read it. Fearful. Incurious. Dull. Disturbingly uncreative. What a sobering and devastatingly accurate of our cultural moment. What could be duller and less creative than a bunch of people very committed to their own moral uprightness and very convinced that others don’t measure up? What chokes off understanding more effectively than fear?
Instead of reading Confessions and Christ and Culture, Letters from a Birmingham Jail and 1 and 2 Peter, we had slipped into becoming a nation where a surprising majority checked off the “Christian” box at the voting booth after sitting submissively before their television screens and drinking in Your Best Life Now. Instead of cultivating an appetite to learn from others, we gorged on spiritual junk food that told us we were already right.
I had missed the signs of a despairing people.
I had never specifically connected the lazy tribalism of our time with despair. But I think Snyder is absolutely right. Few people would look at the post-Christian west as a model of health and vitality. We are addicted, depressed, anxious, inattentive, and angry. So very angry. We are unhealthy in so many ways. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to describe us as a “despairing people.” Having largely unmoored ourselves from the deep wells of meaning provided by ancient stories about God, the world, and our place in it, we started casting about for something to take the place, something to give our lives meaning. All we could find—unsurprisingly—was ourselves, our identities, our ideological tribes, etc. “The rightness of me and my team” doesn’t sound like a particularly compelling narrative to give life meaning, but it’s far too often what we settle for. And so we sort and we sort and we sort…
Snyder’s editorial ends thus:
It’s time to treat today’s tribal pressures like the false friends they are. When it comes to renewing the world, the perfect should never be the enemy of the good. Yes, we should keep searching for coherence, and yes, we should want to build communities of integrity. After all, it is God’s image in us that makes us hungry for patterns to explain the chaotic and complex. But totalism? Purity based on anything other than our unfinished allegiance to Jesus Christ, and the living, ever-surprising dialogue that follows from that is not purity. It is idolatry.
We must take more care.
Yes. We really, really must.