For the last two months my wife and I have been out and about. On purpose I have been without radio, TV, email, internet, newspapers or even much conversation about what has been going on in the political world. I needed to see the world with fresh eyes. We were in Muslim countries, nations of the former Soviet block — including Russia and what was East Berlin, the Christian capitals of Scandinavia, and throughout the Midwestern Bible Belt of the United States. I have garnered a few impressions during these weeks
We would all be poorer without the marvelous inventiveness of the Muslim world. The Blue Mosque in Istanbul matches for beauty any of the European cathedrals. The Muslim world has also given us: coffee, the toothbrush, algebra, the first universities, surgery, the first flying machine, optics, the crank, musical notations, hospitals, an ethical sensitivity and much more. Unfortunately this progress stopped dead when some centuries ago Islam became preoccupied with religious fundamentalism.
For centuries Mother Russia found her meaning in the Orthodox Church. When the Soviet took over and installed both a political and atheistic fundamentalism, a grayness descended from which Russia has yet to recover. A wise old woman in St. Petersburg opined that for centuries the church offered a solid cultural ethos. Then came atheistic communism, and when that dissolved Russia was left with no sense of who she was. From that vacuity she has not yet emerged. She currently has no story which tells her people just who she is.
For centuries the Scandinavian nations were steeped in a Christian ethos. In recent years they have drifted into a liberal secularism, which still relies on a Christian ethical system, but has abandoned doctrinal and ecclesial control. All surveys tell us that these previously Christian socialist nations are the happiest healthiest, best-educated, most-contented people on the globe.
Much of the American Midwest and South has reverted to an angry Christian fundamentalism. Massive evangelical churches are everywhere. We saw, along a major highway, two mammoth white crosses visible for twenty miles and unconnected with any religious institution. Scattered throughout the land were billboards linking religion to a virulent opposition to Obama and the Affordable Care Act.
While for decades we have believed that the world has grown much smaller, it has also been narrowed through a variety of religious, economic and secular fundamentalisms. When any society or social group is squeezed into believing that it has all the truth, which is what fundamentalism is all about, it is bad for everyone else. The more we have seen of the world, the truth of that axiom becomes increasingly obvious. A healthy society is best served by a mixture of religion and secularism, as well as by a variety of economic and political notions, capitalism and socialism, including an openness to multiculturalism. At best ours really is a very large multifarious world, and we had better learn to accept each other.
In the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay:
The world stand out on either side,
No wider than the heart is wide.
Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand’
The soul can split the sky in two
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And those whose soul is flat — the sky,
Will cave in on him by and by.