Wednesday, December 19, 2012

the fly in the ointment

A part of what caused me to linger and listen to a TV program last night was the fact that there was no canned laughter. Neither, to the best of my recollection, was there any background music, the soupy, insecure connective employed in so many topics groping for cohesiveness.

Instead, there was just a discussion of the efforts and tussles involved in shaping the United States in the 18th century. I paused partly because a part of the focus assessed the force of religion as the pre- and post-revolutionary colonies sought to shape the principles of a new and uncertain nation.

Jesse Owens salutes during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin
Perhaps you need to be advanced in years to consider it, but it crossed my mind several times during the show: Imagine trying to create a brand new nation out of disparate and sometimes strongly diverging views. When George Washington became the first president, for example, it wasn't entirely clear what his role should be, what he could and couldn't do, what he should and shouldn't do. The colonies knew they didn't want to be the imperial England or Europe of the past ... but what did they want to be? It might be kool to say "liberty" and "freedom" and "rights," but what, in practice, did any of that mean? In a sense, it was like conjuring a country out of thin air. It is one thing to say with ardor what you don't want, but quite another to codify what you do.

And within that framework, there was the matter of religion. Many of the founding fathers were deeply religious men who simultaneously were deeply, deeply distrustful of organized religion. Nor were the colonists themselves in agreement about going to church. I think there was a statistic that suggested only 20 percent of the population attended a particular church (I am not sure if I am remembering that statistic correctly).

At any rate, the shapers of the new nation had to contend not only with the philosophical and political framework they hoped to codify, there was also the matter of religion woven into this mulligan stew.

And what kept me watching the show was the capacity to think that these men showed. Imagine that -- people who can think! Not just fall down in some emotional snit-fit of passion, but think things through to whatever best resolution they could. When it came to religion, they settled for the god-given right of individuals to believe what they chose ... belief was not a matter that any institution could interfere with, let alone impose. Given a past in which the church had been founded in a power to mandate what was OK and what was not, this was pretty revolutionary.

Imagine that ... people who thought things through. It was such a warming delight that I watched and watched and watched ... even when I dozed off.

And then, despite all the best thinking anyone could bring to bear, there were the flies in the ointment -- the flaws that invariably afflict man-made philosophies. On the political front, the notion that "all men are created equal" blithely ignored the slavery that pumped financial blood into the new nation. Some of the founding fathers -- many of them patricians with slaves to work their land -- were keenly aware of the hypocrisy. Some thought long and hard about their own two-facedness ... but none, to the best of my knowledge, took any personal action to bring principle and practice into synch.

A fly in the ointment. A flaw. A lie within the grand truth of a brand new nation.

And religious freedom spawned or included its own corruptions ... as for example the burning of witches in Salem, Mass.

The fly in the ointment. The failure inherent in success. The flaw that in other times may loom large and perhaps upend the whole, 'perfect' apple cart.

And it crosses my mind that every day, human beings get out of bed in the morning and create a whole new nation. With skill and effort and a little luck, they shape their agendas. Some think long and hard. Some seem hardly to think at all. Either way, there will be a fly in the ointment. The imperative to shape this new nation is unavoidable; the imperative to bring forth the flies is also unavoidable. Doing nothing, trying to escape into some smarmy silence, is not an option. So ....

As best I can figure, a healthy lifestyle rests on correcting the inevitable mistakes that occur in pure and impure agendas alike.

And that goes for god too.

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