The Question of Wilderness, Part II

The Question of Wilderness, Part II July 24, 2012

Maybe one doesn’t have to be an anthropologist from as far away as Mars to imagine that the divisions in Utah are perhaps more like family feuds, a split in a personality of a whole people, two siblings of the same civilization that symbiotically insist on and perhaps even create differences in order to perpetually seek to vanquish them. Like siblings who choose different paths and whose choices, then, feel like betrayal, we are afflicted by class, religious, ethnic, and yet sometimes literally familial conflicts, and our demonstrations at the steps of the Capitol building and other expressions of political activism are, in part, rituals, like football games and parades, that shore up our sense of identity. The hot button issues that seem to polarize us into groups, in other words, as real as they are, are often made so hot precisely because they allow us to avoid the hard work of finding common ground, or even more risky, to see ourselves in the mirror when looking at the other side. I don’t mean to suggest that it in the end doesn’t matter if we explore wilderness area for shale oil, or if we allow roads and ATVs or not. Nor do I mean to suggest that all sides are equally right or wrong. There are real issues at stake. What I want to throw into question is how and why these issues get tied to the wagon of identity, why for all the world we often end up preferring to be right about the issues than to be good, decent, civil and committed to working out our differences. If we can agree that it is a problem that the conveniences of modern life have created the illusion that we can be autonomous and free of restraints, it should at least give us pause that this freedom from being answerable to others is often what motivates our social and political lives.

There are two pieces of wisdom I have kept with me for many years. One is from former N.J. Senator Bill Bradley who, when speaking some years ago now about racial tensions in our country, noted that if you didn’t have a friend of a different race, you were part of the problem. Friendship across the aisle in politics, religion, sexuality, class, or race goes a long way to ensuring we don’t create false images of our enemies. A second piece of wisdom comes from the Mormon thinker Eugene England who said that the church is as true as the gospel. What he meant by this is that the experience of serving in a lay church was as important to our spiritual health as the correctness of our ideas about God. In Mormonism, we don’t get to choose our bishops, our congregations, or those we serve, and as a result we Mormons are almost masochistic in our willingness to accept awkward or unpleasant circumstances as the will of God for our instruction and benefit. Which is to say that I have spent a lot of time learning to love a lot of people who have very different political views and personalities than I do. When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, my fellow students and I shared liberal passions and loved to collectively complain about the legacies of Ronald Regan and George Bush, Sr. (I dare say those two seem downright liberal to me these days), but it became apparent to me in the way that most of them talked that they had actually never met or at least gotten to know a Republican.

If England was right, the LDS church could provide the socialization that Senator Bradley was advocating. Which begs the question about why Mormonism, at least in Utah and especially in its various intermountain small communities where Mormons make up the vast majority, has thus far produced political homogeneity—a kind of large scale clique. One reason, it seems, is that it can feel restrictive to rub shoulders on a daily basis with people who think differently. We want relationships that enable our most instinctive desires and tastes. So rather than doing the hard work of building a big enough community to include real diversity, a civilization truly worthy of our landscapes, we Mormons have mastered the art of making community easier by shrinking or repressing our differences. In our religious zeal for being agreeable, we have never learned how to disagree with each other very well. When disagreement rears its head, we tend to find it beyond comprehension and, often, beyond our sphere of responsibility to answer to it—so deep difference easily gets cast out. As a result, both the prospects of genuine dialogue or even finding broad common ground are diminished. I don’t mean to suggest that Mormons are all that unusual in this regard. Liberals and conservatives, believers and nonbelievers, we all tend to seek likeness, embrace and cultivate it, even if we also preach tolerance and acceptance. The bottom line is that we would prefer not to love our enemies.

And yet love of our enemies is the ultimate test of what is supposed to define Christianity of any kind. At least one reason is that it enables us to see when we have actually wanted the divisions that beset us. Let’s face it: divisions make us feel good. We like and even need them. Why else would we expend so much energy selectively constructing an image of our enemies that confirms what we wanted to believe about them. It also means we must be willing to sacrifice our firm hold on identity. As St. James tells us, to be religious is to learn to think or imagine impartially, to learn to live in a reality that consists of much more than our own ideas, passions, convictions, and tastes. If religion didn’t challenge our partiality, it would give divine justification for all our impulses, a very dangerous prospect indeed. To accept the power of God is to willingly and consistently ask yourself, could I be wrong? Is there something I haven’t thought of yet that I need to know or do to become better? What are the limits of what my experiences can teach me?

What Senator Bradley and Gene England taught was something about the power of vanquishing our instincts through committed desire to love, even when we can’t find it in us instinctively or naturally. Something there is about the desire for more transcendent community that empowers us to find common ground, to build relationships of trust, but also to “speak the truth in love” even or especially when the truths we hold to would otherwise divide us from others. Communion, in other words, does not mean we drop our differences. Nature is ailing and in its unprecedented fragility, it is asking us to learn to think and act collectively, despite our differences. If our shared love of nature means anything, it should exhibit itself in our willingness to be forbearing, to listen, and to respect the dignity of our enemies. We could fare no better, and nature deserves no less.


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