What this dotted man teaches us about spirituality, politics
I used to be that dotted man on the right.
Holding my well-packaged, perfectly-circular worldview in my fingertips (you know, so I could throw it at others). On the inside, however, I was insecure and confused. Dotted and fading. Robbed of a soul—my mind, intellect and emotions—because I had placed it into a system, a formula. But as long as I could hold my polished worldview out in front of me, I could efficiently mask my dotted being, blocking others from looking me in the eyes and seeing me for who I really was.
The sketch that I am describing, featured above, is from German philosopher Paul Tillich’s book, My Search For Absolutes. Thank goodness the version of this profound book that I own includes illustrations from artist Saul Steinberg because God knows most of Tillich’s words went right over my head. Perhaps it was God’s way of getting me to read philosophy: “Give that idiot down there a book with pictures; he’ll read it.”
I “read” My Search For Absolutes a couple months ago and found myself drawn to this particular illustration. (By the way, I have no idea if my interpretation was intended by the cartoonist, but such is the beauty of art.) In the aftermath of this exhausting presidential race, I’ve found myself once more thinking about it. And I think this illustration might be exactly what this country needs.
I initially found myself drawn to the picture because of my own journey. If you are familiar with my story, you might know that I was raised and confirmed Catholic, then baptized Protestant before plunging into evangelicalism. And, ironically, if you are familiar with my work, it seems like all I do now is quote Catholic mystics and theologians.
Contrary to many of the progressive Christians today who bash evangelicals, my experience in right-wing, conservative evangelicalism was a positive one—one that sent me on an intellectual journey that I will forever be grateful for. Were there some negatives? Yes, of course. There are negatives in any doctrine. Yes, even progressive Christianity or mysticism. But since I believe the journey of a curious theologian is one of deconstructing and reconstructing, of consciously choosing—in faith—to believe and then critiquing that belief, my experience in evangelicalism is one that I am overwhelmingly thankful for.
One of the negatives, however (not necessarily of evangelicalism, but of my intellectual maturation during my formative years), was that I naturally began to believe that I had it all figured out, that I held the answers to life’s most complex questions in my fingertips. I had unknowingly constructed what Irish philosopher Peter Rollins calls, in his book How (Not) To Speak About God, a “conceptual idol” —“any system of thought which the individual or community takes to be a visible rendering of God.”
At one point, I even began to believe that my Catholic family had it all wrong and that one of my callings in life was to convert them to Protestantism. This shows how perfectly-rounded my theological sphere in my fingertips seemed to be and how insecure and desperate I was to believe it was so. If only I had known that I was the one who needed to be evangelized, that I was the one who needed to be critiqued, that I was the one who needed to learn instead of teach, and that I was the one who needed to listen instead of speak!
So how does all of this apply to the election?
It’s so easy to become set in our ways, isn’t it? To convince ourselves that we hold the ideological key to prosperity? I’m not sure if there is anything that tempts us quite like politics to become that dotted man on the right. We are forced to take sides and draw conclusions and believe that our way is the right way. We are, in some senses, bounded by an unfair binary system that sometimes feels more like immaturely picking sides in a high school tiff.
Rollins, the Irish philosopher who I mentioned earlier, calls this phenomenon “splitting”—a dualistic approach to the world which labels some people as “good” and others as “bad,” or, in a good Irish accent, “goodies” and “baddies.” It’s what I had done doctrinally with Protestantism and Catholicism—thinking that I had it all figured out. And I think it’s what most of us have done with politics, judging by the vitriol I see every day on social media.
The most shocking example of this is a recent poll (not that I trust polls anymore) revealing that half of democrats believe republicans pose a serious threat to the United States and that over half of republicans believe the same thing about democrats. No, not Hillary. Not Trump. Democrats and republicans. Two groups who have historically made our country better by standing up for different things.
I’m not saying that we ought not to stand up for what we feel is right or wrong. Sometimes even splitting is necessary. It can help one to grieve or formulate beliefs or bring awareness to suffering. All I’m saying is that there is always room to adopt the posture of the man on the left—a posture of openness and unknowing. Maybe those who are marching in the streets this week aren’t sore, stubborn losers but instead are those who have felt oppressed and targeted by some of Trump’s reckless comments; maybe they have something for us to hear. And maybe all Trump supporters aren’t idiots or racists; maybe some of them feel like they have been forgotten and left behind by the system and also feel oppressed; maybe they too have something for us to hear.
In Thomas Merton's brilliant book of essays and social critiques, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he writes: "We are all convinced that we desire the truth above all...But actually, what we desire is not 'the truth' so much as 'to be in the right'...What we seek is not the pure truth, but the partial truth that justifies our prejudices, our limitations, our selfishness."
One of my favorite things about the drawing above is the dotted circle that the man on the left is holding. Notice that it is not only comprised of dots but is also far from being perfectly rounded. It is as if he understands that there is still so much for his worldview to gain, and because of this recognition of his doubts and inherent unknowing, he is even more of a man because he accepts his limitations. No, I do not think the man on the left is offering to us a paradigm that involves a reckless acceptance of truth, but is rather offering an acknowledgment that what we believe could become even more true, might not be entirely true, or could possibly even be entirely wrong. He is offering a posture of humility.
This past summer, I attended Mass for the first time in a long while at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina. I had not received Catholic communion in over 12 years because I no longer believed in transubstantiation, a fancy word for the belief that the bread and wine is truly the body and blood of Christ. On this day, however, I began to think about the invitation into mystery that Christ offers to those who follow and how there are far more outrageous things about Christ that I believe—like a virgin birth and a physical resurrection—and for the first time in over a decade I began to believe that what Catholics believed about communion could be true.
So I went up, opened my hands and received the Eucharist.
It is for us to arise and journey into the unknown instead of sitting in our ways, to open up our hands instead of clinching our fists, to humbly receive instead of projecting our own beliefs onto others.
And in doing this, like the man on the left, we become more alive.
By Stephen Copeland
This blog was first published on copelandwrites.com.