Monday, December 8, 2014

In Favor of Adjacency

The best we ever do, it seems to me, is get halfway to somewhere. Every time I'm frustrated with scholarship that looks like it only gets halfway to somewhere, I need to remind myself of this. What we can walk away from, wasn't ours to begin with. And what we can't walk away from is always what keeps us from going all the way there. But we aren't meant to get anywhere; every second nature of ours will become something another walks away from. We are meant to journey together faithfully.

Some put all their effort into walking away from things, because they see somewhere they need to go but can't get. This path is fraught with needless violence and self-deception. Some put all their effort into insisting upon the things they cannot give up, and this path is also fraught with needless violence and self-deception. If there is a middle path, however, it is a hard balance to find. If we cannot hold on to things that are useful, who are we? If we cannot change things that are harmful, what good are we? But what will we hold on to, and what will we change?

True freedom does not begin with destruction—that's just a path into exile, even if you lead your way down it willingly. True freedom begins with the release of the captives, yourself included. This always involves walking away from things, many of which deserve it. And, in a world full of things in every direction, not everything will get out of your way obligingly, either. Some things will have to be fought, along with some of the people that serve them, for good or ill. Many things, and many people, however, are simply where they are, in our way. There are no straight lines in nature. Our ways must yield to at least some of these, our neighbors. We cannot fight them all, nor are we meant to, any more than they are meant to follow our paths.

This, oddly enough, sums up my problems with both the wide variety of religious hardliners I encounter, and also a particular array of religious readers in critical theory. They leave no room for ease, for adjacency, for the holding of valid difference when it does no harm. (On the other hand, this is only ironic in the second case.) One fears the death of its cult(ure), the other anticipates it eagerly, and between them the tradition becomes a monolithic thing, to be used or eschewed. One cannot be a good Barthian, or indeed a good many other things, and think this way.

The tradition is a field of difference, sometimes playground and sometimes battleground, and there are many things outside of it. What you can walk away from is not yours, and you should not boast against it; some of it may be bad, or badly used, but most of it is simply there to be learned from. What you cannot walk away from, what is part of you, is also a mixed bag of good, bad, and misused things. It would be easier if it were not so, and for many people it is easier simply to believe that it is not so. But ethics does not consist in this sort of pretense. Ethics, in the end, is about our neighbors more than the places we come from and seek to go toward. Build what you can, go where you can, and fight where you must, but be good to your neighbors.

This is as much a word to myself, as to anyone else.