Thursday, October 04, 2007

Covenanting tonight

Covenants first come into the world in a religious context. They entail a new understanding of God with the belief that a particular man or people is entering into a covenant with the one God who is sufficiently loving that he will allow himself to enter into a covenant with mortal man. God will take an interest in a particular, historical, flawed but free man or people who can keep as their horizon the goal of living up to a covenant with God. To keep his side of the bargain, God must allow man to be a creature who can live with the expectation that God is loving and reliable, that he will not, through arbitrary whim or fancy, terrorize man and destroy man's faith in his own freedom to live up to the responsibility of the covenant. Man no longer has to bow to idols or to perform violent sacrifices to propitiate the gods. When man suffers, it must thus either be a sign of God's displeasure for man's failure to live up to the covenant, or simply a sign of man's freedom to live and learn; and when man succeeds it must be a sign of the reverse.

But if you are not religious and are about to stop reading here, let me assure you that all this can be explained in terms of a secular anthropology (though explanations that set out to reduce religion to an irrational and ultimately unnecessary byproduct of evolution explain much less about religion and the species that practises it than those explanations that respect religion as a rational form of anthropology itself). Faith in a covenant with God becomes, to the secular mind, a sign of how a culture can renew itself by putting faith in itself, by freely making sacred certain signs and understandings that will create new possibilities that could not otherwise exist according solely to the dictates of secular expertise or authority. The covenant that arises as an act of shared faith will allow the group to exercise a greater degree of freedom in its own interactions, so that it may hopefully grow and succeed both internally and in conflict with other groups.

The covenant is thus a mechanism for setting up terms of group self-rule, for freeing the group from the arbitrary dictates of its own big men or women. The covenant that the Bible tells us God first made with Abraham is a sign for the eventual emergence of self-ruling democratic nations in the Western world. It makes no sense, to my mind, to talk up respect for secular democratic freedoms, while slamming the Judeo-Christian tradition as some writers presently making a lot of money from atheist polemics are doing. It also may make no sense to call Islam an Abrahamic religion if there is no possibility - but this is to my mind still an open question - of a belief in a loving God who wants man to be free emerging from the traditional morass of orthodox Islamic theology in which God is absolutely transcendent, arbitrary, and in which man must be a fatalistic being who has only the eternal and immutable word of the Koran, the word coeval with Allah, to follow, and thus must have no hope of becoming a free agent in history with the ability to define himself and to be defined by his historically-specific reworkings of his covenant with God, the covenant that allows man to be free and thus a historical, changing, growing, being.

All these thoughts have been on my mind as I went and got myself stuck in a larger writing project that I wasn't able to post to the blog yet, given limited time to just sit and think. So, when it comes to my now weekly ritual of providing a post to announce our weekly public, covenantal, meetings, every Thursday in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, central branch, 7-9 pm, in front of Blenz Coffee (look for the blue scarves or the Israeli flags - the symbol of the first covenant between man and God), these preliminary thoughts are all I have for you.

But, if you are thinking of joining us, you can rest assured that my friends and I will be talking more pragmatically about our times and problems and the practical terms by which we ordinary people must renew the national covenant of Canada. But this post is a remind that we can also talk up the larger question of what is a covenant. After all, a covenant is a compact between the empirical and the transcendent, or between the historical or particular and the universal or eternal.

Today, we live in a country where we can no longer rely on our "big" men and women to lead us in the renewal of our culture. The amount of resentment that is today focussed on the few public figures who manage to crawl to the top of the professional piles where one has a platform to speak and be heard by the Main Stream Media renders them incapable of both maintaining their top positions and taking too many chances to advance new ways of seeing or covenanting. They must spend too much energy deflecting the resentments that all the "losers" in our professional hierarchies focus on them. Thus our "winners" today seem reduced to talking relativism and making odes to "multiculturalism" in an attempt to give a something that is really nothing to everybody and thus to keep the peace. Or, perhaps in a last gasp to our traditions of charismatic religious leadership, they talk up the apocalypse of global warming. But really, these gestures are just marking the passage of time and fiddling with the terms of an earlier covenant that is wearing thin.

So the renewed national covenant will only come from below, where competent, engaged, people remain desirous of exercising their God-given freedom. It must bubble up from thousands of ordinary conversations in all kinds of places, online and off. We offer you a chance to engage in such conversation, every Thursday at the Vancouver central library. If you can't come there, start your own conversation somewhere else.

Finally, let me remind that the spirit of covenanting is not just about us, about our need to renew our nations. It is about saying to the world that a world in which all peoples are free to covenant, to belong to self-ruling nations, is the world in which we want to belong. We don't want people any longer to be ruled by the arbitrary dictates of local tyrants or the only slightly softer tyranny of the group-think of the unaccountable, anti-national, anti-ordinary people elites who sign themselves as the "international community" and who belong to various extra-national bureaucracies and academic networks and believe that they have a conscience and intelligence and expertise that ordinary people don't, the ordinary red-neck dogmatists who are creating war and environmental catastrophes and so on through their feckless desires and market freedoms that must be controlled by a superior wisdom. This is what the "winners" say when they need a negative counterpart to their saccharine odes to "multiculturalism" and moral relativism.

As I say, I am in the midst of a larger essay, so I will just leave you with a quote that I think is not going to be included in the larger piece. It invokes the religious importance of the covenant to some of the poorest people in this world. But, again, one need not be religious to recognize the profound human truths at stake in the conflict between those who believe in national covenants and those who don't. I give you "Spengler" of the Asia Times:
The success of the State of Israel, for that matter, provides one of the most powerful arguments for Christian evangelization in the global South. If God fulfilled his pledge to this tiny and apparently insignificant nation, restoring them to their ancient and promised homeland and its capital Jerusalem, then why should others doubt the same promise of eternal life to all the nations who come to him? Given the competition between Islam and Christianity for converts in Africa, the humiliation the Muslim world feels at the presence of a Jewish enclave in what for some centuries was Muslim territory also constitutes a powerful argument for Christianity, by attenuating the claim of Islam to be a final revelation. The more the Muslims rail at Israel, the more Africans will admire the potency and faithfulness of the Jewish god.

As Philip Jenkins, the world's authority on the subject, reported in his book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, the newest Christians identify profoundly with the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible.

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