Our Anxious Time

Ours is an anxious time, a fearful time, an insecure time. We feel it in our bellies.

This morning we’re moved to consider anxiety, fear, and insecurity. For that purpose we turn to philosophical theologian Paul Tillich* (scroll down) and philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg** for whom the questions were passionate and all-consuming over their lifetimes. Even so, they were not the best of friends.

Zuurdeeg was a severe critic of Tillich’s attempts to create a theological system. He saw every system as a flight from finitude and ambiguity into what he called “Ordered World Homes” that make sense of, and defend against, the anxiety intrinsic to finitude. For Zuurdeeg, to be human is to be thrown into chaos and every philosophy from Plato to Hegel to Tillich is “born of a cry” – the cry for help, for sense, for protection, for a security that lies beyond one’s powers.

Reading Tillich’s Systematic Theology again after reading the news this morning leads to the conclusion that Zuurdeeg and Tillich were very close, as is often the case between critics of one another. One thinks, for example, of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in a similar manner.

For all their differences, Zuurdeeg and Tillich were joined at the hip by their shared experience with madness in society and the demise of once-trusted foundations of western civilization. The rise of the German Third Reich led them to a lifelong search not only for answers but for the questions that might lead to insight into the existential situation into which Hitler’s madness threw the world headlong into chaos and destruction.

Anxiety, said Tillich, is distinct from fear. Fear has an object. We fear an enemy. We fear Iran; Iran fears us. Israel fears the Palestinians; The Palestinians fear the Israelis. “Objects are feared,” said Tillich.

A danger, a pain, an enemy, may be feared, but fear can be conquered by action. Anxiety cannot, for no finite being can conquer its finitude. Anxiety is always present, although often it is latent. Therefore, it can become manifest at any moment, even in situations where nothing is to be feared….. Anxiety is ontological; fear, psychological… Anxiety is the self-awareness of the finite self as finite. [Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1,  p. 191-192, University of Chicago Press, 1951]

Anxiety is the self-awareness that we are mortal. We are excluded from an infinite future. We were born and we will die and we know it. Despite every flight into denial, we know it in our bones. We have no secure space and no secure time. “To be finite is to be insecure” (Tillich, p. 195). In the face of this insecurity, said Zuurdeeg, the individual and the human species itself seek “to establish their existence” in time and space, though we know we can not secure it. The threat we experience in 2015 is the threat of nothingness. Politicians pander to it. Preachers pander to it. Advertisers prey on it. They eat anxiety for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Again, Tillich, writing as if for our time:

The desire for security becomes dominant in special periods and in special social and psychological situations. Men create systems of security in order to protect their space. But they can only repress their anxiety; they cannot banish it, for this anxiety anticipates the final “spacelessness” which is implied in finitude. [Tillich, p. 195]

So this morning I sip my coffee aware of and thankful for this moment of finitude, and determined that I will not turn over my anxiety into the hands of those who promise security from every fear. Willem Zuurdeeg and Paul Tillich looked directly into the heart of human darkness and saw a light greater than the darkness. I want to live in the light of their courage and wisdom.

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965)

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965)

*Born and raised in Germany, Paul Johannes Tillich was the first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position in 1933 following the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany for his outspoken criticism of the Nazi movement. At the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, he and his family moved to New York where Tillich joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary. He went on to become one of the best-known philosopher-theologians of the 20th century, publishing widely from teaching from chairs at Union, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago. His best know works are The Courage to Be, The Shaking of the Foundations (a collection of sermons),and his three-volume Systematic Theology.

Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg (1906-1963)

Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg (1906-1963)

**Born and raised in the Netherlands in a family that served as part of the underground resistance to Hitler’s pogrom, Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg spent his life asking how western civilization’s most sophisticated culture (Germany), could fall so easily into the hands of a madman. His Analytical Philosophy of Religion became a major text for undergraduate and graduate philosophy of religion classes. When Professor Zuurdeeg died of cancer as Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, he left behind an unfinished manuscript later completed by his friend and colleague Esther Cornelius Swenson, the title of which is Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry. Click HERE for photographs of Willem Zuurdeeg and the family that gave Jews sanctuary in the Netherlands.

My Grandmother’s Rifle

My 90 year-old Grandmother kept a revolutionary war rifle under her bed in Rockport, Massachusetts. She wanted to be safe. When she showed it to me, I could barely drag it out from under the bed.  How she would have gotten it out and lifted it to point at an intruder was a puzzle, but my Grandmother, like many of us, thought a gun would make her safe.

My Grandmother's revolutionary war rifle.

My Grandmother’s revolutionary war rifle.

Security, weapons, and freedom make strange bed-fellows. Guns will not produce security, and the freedom to buy and use the weapons of war equates pulling a trigger with free speech.

In America the mixing of the right to bear arms, the search for security, and the sanctity of personal freedom without limits are the ingredients of a national security state…and a state of permanent anxiety.

We are not safe in America. The six-year-olds and seven-year-olds of Sandy Hook were not safe. Their teachers were not safe. Their town was not safe. The five-year-old and the two-year-old in Minneapolis who found a pistol under the pillow in their parents’ bedroom were not safe. The two-year old is dead. The five-year-old and his parents will never be the same. Nor will the people of Baghdad, the U.S. Army base at Fort Hood or the folks killed at McDonald’s. We are not safe either at home under Homeland Security or in the places around the world where un-manned drones kill and maim not only those who threaten our safety but innocent children, under that banner of freedom, democracy, and national security.

The U.S. Constitution is a work of genius and wisdom depending on how well it is interpreted by the Courts. The First Amendment the right to free speech. The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, a right originally intended to maintain the power of the people, collectively, to overthrow another King George or a government that did not serve the well-being of the American people.

Among the “arms” protected by the Second Amendment there was no assault weapon able to shoot 100 times in 60 seconds and then reload or a pistol capable of 30 shots before reloading. What the framers of the Second Amendment had in mind was muskets.

“Load… aim… fire…..  Load… aim… fire.”

The Second Amendment never imagined the likes of the M-16 or its knock-offs or a semi-automatic pistol concealed in one’s purse or trousers. The weapons used against a mother and elementary school children in Newtown and against customers having a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s were the furthest thing from their time-bound imagination.

There were no McDonald’s when the Second Amendment was adopted and there were no semi-automatic weapons sold at gun shows. Today, ABC News reports that, according to the 2011 statistics of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there were 4.17 times as many federally-licensed retail gun dealers and pawn shops(58,794) than McDonald’s (14, 098) in the U.S – more death shops than places to eat a Big Mac.

ABC News also reported that “2012 has been a record-setting year for gun sales. As of November, the FBI recorded 16,808,538 instant background checks for gun purchases for 2012. Even without counting December, which has historically been the busiest month, this beats last year’s record by more than 350,000.”

Argument for strict Constitutional interpretation by Justice Scalia

Argument for strict Constitutional interpretation by Justice Scalia

Strict Constitutionalists like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia know full well that my grandmothers revolutionary war rifle was the “arms” the Second Amendment had in mind. Every citizen in America has the right to have a revolutionary war rifle –  a single shot “load…; aim…; fire… re-load…; aim…; fire…” under the bed… or under the pillow in the parents’ bedroom.

Freedom was never intended to produce a domestic or international killing field. If we Americans have learned anything from 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbine, Red Lake, and Sandy Hook, it is that our security is not found in a gun or a drone in every home. Neither was the nation’s security license to monitor the phone calls, emails, texts, bank records, and personal movements of citizens.

I exercise my right to free speech by writing and publishing words as the weapons of persuasion in hopes that they might contribute in some way to a national introspection and action that minimizes the human impulse toward violence and destruction. I have to believe that words are more powerful in the end than the Bushmaster .223 assault rifles and drones that kill at home and abroad – all in the name of keeping us alive and “safe”.

According to strict judicial interpretation of the Second Amendment, everyone in America has a right to own a musket or, perhaps, pull a revolutionary war rifle from under the bed.

Alice in Wonderland – Did I Miss Something?

President George W. Bush

Official portrait from the George W. Bush Presidential Library

Sometime my stuff gets published. Other times it doesn’t.  This one was submitted to several major outlets eight months before the 2004 Presidential election that re-elected George W Bush. It never saw the light of day.

I wrote this following a Presidential Bush news conference. I was disturbed by the President. I was equally disturbed by the press. Here’s the piece as originally submitted…and rejected.  This morning, all these years later, the editor of “Views from the Edge” accepted the submission!

 

Did I miss something?  I watched the President’s news conference Tuesday night and scratched my head over the media coverage that followed it.  Time after time when asked to address reasons for concern about his truth-telling, the President of the United States sidestepped the question like a running back seeking to avoid the hit of a middle linebacker.

Question: “What about the pre-Iraq war claim that we needed to invade Iraq because we knew beyond any shadow of doubt that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that we knew where they were?”

Sidestep: Saddam Hussein was an evil man.  He was a threat and the people of Iraq and the world are safer because a brutal dictator is gone.

This question and response typified virtually every exchange between the questioner and the President.  It was as though one were speaking English and the other Greek, as though the one responding were deaf, or as though the President believed that if he just repeated his handler’s lines again, the American people would follow him.  Does the President believe that we’re willing to trust authority, exchanging truth for falsehood, for the sake of security?

If ever there were grounds for impeachment, surely it is this President’s use of disinformation to mislead Congress and the American people into a war and occupation that have alienated traditional allies and fanned the fires of hatred of the U.S. across the Arab and Muslim worlds.  In the name of a “war on terror” this President continually makes up reality to suit his mission: the export of Western democracy everywhere in the world, supposing that of course everyone would want what we have.

Did I miss something?  At virtually every turn of the press conference the President repeated answers to questions that were not being asked and refused to answer the question that was being asked.  Nowhere in the mainstream press or television media have I seen this most obvious disconnect addressed head on. They all back off, like bit players in a king’s court.

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Kevin Phillips, the conservative Republican critic of the Bush Presidency, author of The Bush Dynasty, spoke the truth about this President’s deception and the long-lasting devastating consequences of his policies.  Asked about John Kerry’s presidential candidacy, Mr. Phillips answered that it remained to be seen whether Kerry had enough fire in his belly to “go for the jugular.”

What will it take for us, the American people, to recognize that this President has taken us into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where up is down and earth is sky and falsehood is truth?  What will it take before all of us insist that the Mad Hatter not define our reality? Have we become so cynical about our democratically elected officials that we expect evasion from our questions?

Did I miss something?  Did not this President once again refuse to take any responsibility for peddling disinformation that has placed 135,000 American soldiers directly in “harm’s way” while putting all of us at home in the sights of growing numbers of people around the world who see the truth and hate us?

Impeachment will not happen, of course, because no one has the stomach for another partisan wrestling match, and because a Presidential election is only eight months away.  As the recent DFL ad here in Minnesota regarding sexual offenders reminds us, neither party is immune to demagoguery. But in the name of sanity, this President must be turned out of office and our political discussions must shift boldly to insist unfailingly that real questions receive real answers rather than shifty side-step speeches that only take us further down the rabbit hole of national illusion and implosion.