The Fanatical Situation

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Under the Fence: Everything Is Shaking

Everything is shaking. And it’s not because of the fence that now divides us. No matter how high the fence between Trump-ers and Never-Tump-ers, the earth shakes under the fence and on both sides of the fence. The ground itself is quivering, seizing, lurching, caving in on itself, like a sinkhole that stops traffic on a street we assumed to be secure. Everything is up-for-grabs.

Deeper and Wider than Politics

What haunts us across America is not primarily political. All politics rise from something deeper. Like oak trees and poison ivy, the shape and substance of what we see spring from depths we cannot see.

Photograph of Willem Zuurdeeg.

Dutch philosopher Willem Zuurdeeg, author of Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born of a Cry, and An Analytical Philosophy of Religion (APR), uses a phrase that may seem strange.

Until we pause to think about it.

Search for solid ground

”The establishment of one’s existence is the background against which imperialistic and fanatical claims have to be understood.”

Zuurdeeg, An Analytical philosophy of religion, p. 89

To ‘establish’ one’s existence is to ‘secure’ it, to keep it from blowing away. We become fanatical and aggressive because we are insecure. We grab for something solid. When we feel the ground shaking, anxiety grabs for something solid. Something that will stay still. Everything is soul-sized. Something in us gasps at the knowledge of human frailty, our mortality, the inevitability of death. The gasps turn into grasps for a secure foothold.

Fanatical Zeal from Hidden Anxieties and Insecurity

Professor Zuurdeeg proposes that we speak of “fanatical claims” rather than “fanatics.” Like most books published in 1958, An Analytical Philosophy of Religion‘s speaks in the gender specific male pronouns. We cite the following paragraphs from page 81:

We have to say: The 'fanatical claimer' sees his own group as more than just a group. It is a fanum. The word "fanatic" is derived from the Latin fanaticus, and this word is related to fanum, a temple, a sanctuary. Fanaticus meant: first, pertaining to a temple; second, inspired by a divinity, especially with the meaning of a frantic zeal for such a divinity. We can say that for the fanatical claimer his group is such a fanum, a sanctuary, a privileged domain which relieves him of his hidden anxieties and insecurity. 

The fanatical Nazi is "the victorious German nation" (his fanum); the Orthodox Dutch Calvinist of the war against Spain (1568-1648) is the Chosen Nation, and is his God of Old Testament wrath. The fanatical claimer cannot permit his basic presuppositions to be questioned because such questioning would imply a doubting not only of these convictions but of the whole structure (his own person, his fanum, his God) cemented together by the process of identification.

-- An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, p.81

It is through the lens crafted in Zuurdeeg’s workshop that I have come to see the world. In the days following the 2020 election, stunned by the “alternative fact” alleging that the election was rigged and stolen, watching the mob storm the Capitol January 6, and hearing the deadly silence of the President of the United States of America betraying his oath of office to enjoy the show, I saw the frantic zeal of a fanum.

The Focus

But there is more. Drawing from French existentialist philosopher-playwright Gabriel Marcel‘s Man Against Mass Society (1952), Zuurdeeg expanded his analysis:

“Marcel justly points out that there is still another element in the convictional situation of the fanatical claimer, the focus. Marcel suggests that such a focus is an individual; and that is sometimes the case, as with Hitler or Stalin.” (APR, p. 81-2)

Photo of Gabriel Marcel (c. 1951)

America 2021

Everything is up-for grabs. The ground is shaking under our feet. We look for someplace solid, a sure foothold against the chaos. I see the world — or try to — in these terms. But the wise professor and the playwright-philosopher urge us to go deeper than what can be seen and managed, for we are “complex and ambiguous being(s)” who only know ourselves partially. “We are therefore not allowed to speak of a non-fanatical person.” (APR, 84). Although I think I know what Zuurdeeg and Marcel would say if they could see us now, they caution me that only a “fanatical claimer” is without doubt.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief commentaries on faith and public life, Brooklyn Park, MN, October 20, 2021.

Our Only House — John Lewis and Kosuke Koyama

Introduction

John Lewis never knew and had no reason to care that we held some things in common. We shared a point of view that comes from reading the Psalms (“The earth is the LORDS’s and the fullness thereof…”[Ps. 24:1]), and the Book of Micah (“What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8]), singing the same hymns in our Baptist and Presbyterian hymnals, and finishing theological educations at Fisk and McCormick.

John Lewis knew what a cracked head was

Yesterday’s Views from the Edge’s post pointed to what might be considered the centerpiece of John Lewis’s life — the conviction that “we all live in the same house.” John Lewis lived that conviction before and after the batons cracked his skull at Edmund Pettus Bridge.

John Lewis knew what a cracked skull was, and he knew that the Crackers’ skulls were cracked worse than his.

John Lewis and Kosuke Koyama

There is no evidence that John Lewis met Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama or read any of Koyama’s books on the anguished heart of God. But focusing on the Congressman’s witness in word and action brought the two of them together in my cracked head. I’m even more confident that John Lewis never knew of or read “The Economy: Only One House,” “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism” or “The World in an Oyster” in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, the collection of essays dedicated to Koyama. (Note: Click the above link to Amazon, click “Look Inside,” open the Table of Contents, and click the titles to glimpse the essays, or read “Just One Country” published May 2, 2012 by Views from the Edge.

A Poet’s bow to gentleness and strength — Peggy Shriver’s Haiku to Koyama

The haiku tribute to Koyama by his friend and faculty colleague at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York featured on Be Still!‘s dedication page, expressed how I felt after Ko’s death in 2009. Today the last stanza of Peggy’s haiku puts words to what I feel about John Lewis.

Gentle and strong, as trees
Bend gacefully in wind,
You stand — and I bow.

Peggy Shriver, 2009

Gordon C. Stewart, author Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, July 21, 2020.

Elijah with Grandpa and the Postage Stamp Monologue

Two year-old grandson Elijah engages grampa in a telling conversation

Good morning, Elijah. Whatcha doin’?

Playing etch-a-sketch on our iPad. Did you draw when you were liddle?

I did. But not like that.

Like what, then? Was it a different App? What kind of Mac did you play with in your carseat on the way to day care?

It was a long time ago, Elijah. A very long time ago. It was a different world. We didn’t have day care. We didn’t have iPads and cell phones. We used to lick postage stamps back in the day.

picture of U.S. postage stamps

What’s a stamp and why did you have to lick it? Were you being punished for being bad?

No, it wasn’t anything like that. We didn’t tweet back then. The only thing that tweeted in our world was Tweetie Bird on Loony Tunes.

How’d you talk if you couldn’t tweet? I tweet all the time. Watch! Mom hates it when I do this. I like FaceTime better. It’s more personal.

We sent letters. We wrote them with a pencil or a pen, put them in envelopes, licked the back of the postage stamps — if you had lots of letters, it took a long time — and we took them to the Post Office. The letters would arrive in two or three days, sometimes a week. We had to be patient back then. Everything was slower.

And we dialed phone numbers on rotary phones. I still remember our number on Church Lane, EL6-1490. Teddy Bonsall’s was EL6-1476. And sometimes, when I’d pick up the phone to dial Teddy, somebody else was already talking to somebody else on our phone. It was called “a party line“.

Wow! Did you have parties every day?

It’s hard to explain, Elijah. Maybe this will help. Search for the Postage Stamp Monologue on Mom’s iPad for a better feel for how grampa feels most of the time in your world.

“The Postage Stamp Monologue” from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a play by Christopher Durang, performed at the Goodman Theater.

Wow! He’s really mad, grampa! I’m glad you don’t have to lick postage stamps anymore or dial 999-999-9999, like Vanya. I got an idea! Let’s FaceTime Uncle Andrew and Calvin!

Uncle Andrew and cousin Calvin answering FaceTime call.

Gordon C. Stewart (Grandpa), Chaska, MN, Nov. 7, 2019.

‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name

Robert McAfee Brown is not a household name for most folks, but it is for a dwindling multitude shaped by his life and teaching. Few of us sat in his classes at Macalester College, Union Theological Seminary in New York, or at Stanford, and few of us marched with him for civil rights or an end to the Vietnam War. Although we never met him, he seemed to know who were, and spoke of God in ways that struck a chord with adolescent ears itching to change the world.

One of the people who did know him personally was Jo Bede. Jo knew him up close as his student assistant at Macalester College, typing the manuscripts for the books he published. All these years later, Jo is in a Memory Care Center here in Minnesota. Like many other members of the multitude, she no longer remembers his name or the name of her alma mater.

Unlike many members of the Robert McAfee Brown multitude, Jo remembered everything until Alzheimer’s stole’s her powers of recognition. Many other members remain unaware of their membership, though they read (or didn’t read) Brown’s book used in Presbyterian confirmation classes all across the United States. Like most kids that age, we didn’t pay attention to the author. We didn’t want to be ‘churchy’. But if The Bible Speaks to You sounds ‘churchy’ to you today, it’s likely because ‘church’, as Robert McAfee Brown understood it, bore no resemblance to the churches that decades later would replace intelligent faith with platitudes in the era of Donald Trump.

Some things are stranger than strange. In 2019 few things feel as strange as the likelihood that a young Donald Trump had become part of the multitude as a member of the confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica Heights, NYC. He was just another kid who didn’t give a thought to Robert McAfee Brown or crack the book we were supposed to read.

“We can be sure that ‘Trouble’ is God’s middle name,” he wrote, “and that such a God will be alongside us in the midst of trouble rather than off in a remote heaven practicing neutrality. And if we begin to make that most difficult switch of all — away from the gods of middle-class values and upward mobility, and gilt-edged retirement plans — and if we can explore, even tentatively and gingerly, what it would be like to think and act for those who are the victims, we just might uncover ‘the most unexpected news’ of all: that God got there before we did.”

All these years later, I imagine Bob Brown inviting all of us to his home in Palo Alto for a reunion of the crowd we didn’t know. Jo, Donald, and I are in the Browns’ living room. He begins the welcome by turning to Jo, whose head is down and who appears to be asleep. “Jo, it’s so good to see you after all these years! Do you still have that typewriter?” Jo lifts her head and smiles at the sound of her old teacher’s voice. “And, Donald and Gordon, Carolyn, Woody, Ted, Bob, Dottie, and David, I can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with your lives.” We go around the circle, introducing ourselves to each other from across the country. After the last of introduction, there is a silence while all eyes return to our host.

“So . . .,” he begins with a kindly smile, “how are all of you doing with the God whose middle name is ‘Trouble?'” All eyes lower into a deafening silence. Before any of us speak, he asks the second question for which he has brought us together:

“‘How are you doing with the switch?”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, from the wilderness, August 10, 2019.