Living Life Well: conspiracies and considerations
By Jim Shere
When I was a child, on Sundays I would walk through the fields and woods of west county, out near the Sonoma coast, to a little church where I would join the other people of the village to sing lusty old anthems and hymns. I found the interminable sermons of the pastor unnecessary and boring, but the music and the poetry of the parables were deeply moving. I never believed that what the parables told really happened, but I knew each one portrayed an important and deeper story.
When I heard the story of Adam, Eve, and the Apple, I thought the Original Sin — our Big Mistake — was in deciding that things are either Good or Bad; I knew, of course, they weren’t. The Apple may have been known as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but some might call it instead the Tree of Fake News. Before the Big Mistake we all lived happily with the other animals of Eden according to the laws of nature, joining in the company of one another and flourishing in that generous garden for an allotted time.
Our Fall from Grace was falling for a cynical conspiracy theory, that there’s somebody else sinister at fault for the terrible situation that we think we find ourselves in. When God showed up, Adam blamed Eve for eating the Apple, and Eve blamed the serpent— who, ever since, has been believed to represent pure evil. But as Shakespeare’s Cassius said in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” The fault lies in the narrowness of our minds, and in the extent of our naive credulity.
Unfortunate as it was, Hillary’s reference to a basket of deplorables during her campaign for presidency in 2016 was descriptive not of deplorable people so much as it was of unfortunate people caught up in a deplorable situation. None of us are deplorable, but the deplorably narrow mind can become so easily overwhelmed by complexities — and the human condition is extremely complex.
Back in December, I wrote about our rich diversity, which requires that “we do not stereotype anyone according to our naive opinions, forcing them into polarized baskets of the ballyhooed or the deplorable.” Then, last month, I said, “We must know they are here, among us, and we must at least care about them.” But as Walt Kelly’s Pogo said a half century ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We need to understand our own part in the Big Mistake, and finally recognize our own foolish culpability.
I think the problem at the root of this narrow view is a self-conscious shame, and the desire to deflect attention from what is wrongly thought wrong with a complaint about others, rather than addressing the situation with a sense of personal responsibility. God realized Adam’s Big Mistake when He saw his shame at being naked. We can feel so terribly vulnerable to scorn, not realizing it is our own scornful opinion that has condemned us. Recently, a fellow who had learned this told me, “I thought I had made mistakes in my life; now I realize they were not mistakes, they were discoveries.”
Narrow beliefs in conspiracies are superstitions — like those who believe parables are literally true — and reject the larger context of a reality in which the facts that they refute are well established. In defense of their beliefs, they adopt convoluted explanations to account for them — explanations that confound rational discussion and refuse refutation. And then, when a conspiracy is exposed as bogus, and the true believers begin to doubt themselves, we have come to a moment of truth. I think we are getting there today, and it is time to address our error.
A paper published by Charlotte Ward and David Voas in The Journal of Contemporary Religion back in 2011, entitled “The Emergence of Conspirituality,” coined the term as a portmanteau of conspiracy and spirituality, citing the reduction and conflation of New Age ideas with American Exceptionalism — the belief that we are superior to others and have a unique mission to transform the world. My sense of how this came about lies in the reduction of the popular adage “question authority” to the shibboleth “reject authority.” Hence, the superstition of Q.
It’s time, past time, to rise above the spreading antipathy of contention. It is time to work together to extirpate racism, sexism, ageism, and all those other isms that set people against each other. For this we need something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established after Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994. The commission was established in response to the injustices of the racist apartheid past and its continuing impact on the present. It adopted the progressive, non-contentious paradigm of restorative justice — as opposed to the regressive paradigm of retributive justice, the Nuremberg-style prosecution of offenders.
The crime we must address is not simply the constant incidents of rank racism and all other ignorant biases, but also the need of the narrow human mind to reduce what could be inspirational to something instead mundane, tangible, and often contentious. I remember standing with the others in that little west county church, glowing with the inspiration to be generous, to be caring, and to be part of the community and the cosmos at the same time. And as I walked back home through the fields and woods of my childhood, I brought that glow along with me — never pausing to wonder what the others were bringing to their own homes.