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Retaining the center … of ourselves

Faithpoint | Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A regular reaction typically follows in the wake of an election like the one just completed. Aware of the divisiveness of the past months, many instinctively want to reforge the unity – however tenuous or illusory – that the campaign season has shredded.

Neither the polarization nor the reaction afterwards is surprising. Political battles encourage the drawing of clear differences, as competing candidates present themselves in as good a light as possible, usually by simultaneously diminishing the competition. With electoral pressure eased after the votes are counted, however, a long-receded tide of fellow feeling returns to cover the stark contrasts that the logic of electioneering catalyzed or uncovered. We can be one again, the post-election balm suggests, and embrace common purposes together.

Yet it is worthwhile – before simply moving on – to consider the costs of the polarization typical of elections. Political electioneering certainly encourages distortion in the portrayal of one’s opponents – sometimes even outright mendacity. Yet polarization shapes self-presentation, too, in misleading ways, as those engaged in contested environments imagine themselves in terms of the ever-present contest in which they have been engaged. Marginal differences with opponents loom large in self-presentation, while core values recede in the performative act of presenting the self. Thus polarization, at times necessary and desirable, can subtly distort self-perception.

Appreciating how polarized environments shape us represents a political maturity associated with responsible citizenship. But polarization increasingly shapes not only elections but our entire lives, both inside and outside the formal political arena. As someone committed to the church and the faith of believers, I care in particular about how ubiquitous polarization in church matters predisposes us to view religious beliefs and practices in ways that exaggerate the peripheral or marginal while submerging foundational aspects of our religious identity. It is all too easy, I believe, to think of our faith lives in terms of the features that distinguish us from others – not only from non-believers but even from fellow believers less like us. This is very dangerous.

I believe Jesus’ frustrations with the Pharisees, as depicted in the Gospels, reflect his (and, perhaps more decisively, the early church’s) instinct about the dangers of polarization in distorting our religious sensibilities. Christ not only rejected the Pharisees’ supposed hypocrisy, but also warned about how their very zeal led them to emphasize those aspects of their faith-based behavior that differentiated themselves from other Jews, at the expense of what they shared with them. Anxious to display their special status, the Pharisees (in the gospels’ portrayal, at least) paraded their works, emphasized their adherence to Sabbath regulations that burdened ordinary people, and delighted in showing how they exceeded required legal observances. In so doing, they risked de-emphasizing the central features of their faith. The logic of differentiation by which they determined their religious status distorted their self-understanding.

The Pharisees were neither the first nor last ambitious religious practitioners led astray by their very zeal. I observe these days that life in the church all too often generates the felt need to perform one’s religious identity in order to differentiate from rather than unite with. Zeal for holiness is to be applauded, of course. But when used for the purposes of self-congratulatory comparisons it is dangerous indeed, and not only for how it depicts others. We distort ourselves.

We need to remember that unity is work, requiring constant vigilance. It is more than a discovered result in the backwash of an event like an election, even if we can breathe a sigh of relief after the commercials have left the airwaves. Moreover, unity in faith is a religious duty. Unity among Catholics, between Catholics and other Christians, among believers in the one God, among those who embrace religious faith, among people of good will – at each stage and in various ways unity at each of these levels of human interaction does not come naturally. It requires the kind of self-awareness that sees how the instincts to differentiate that typically accompany polarization can seduce us. Such instincts not only foreclose avenues to deeper unity, they lead us away from the important features of our lives of faith. Phariseeism in the service of religious distinctiveness is an ever-present spiritual danger.

This week’s column is written by Fr. Paul Kollman, CSC, Assistant Professor in Notre Dame’s Theology Department. He can be reached at pkollman@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Faithpoint are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.