The Problem of “God” in Obama’s Newtown Elegy
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine a public leader doing a better job than the President did last Sunday evening as he executed a priestly role from the stark lectern of the Newtown vigil. His posture was saturnine, yet buoyant. His oration, as always, was pristinely measured in pitch and tempo. He presented empathy, dignity, and resolve as he worked to embody the dumbstruck sentiments of not only the nation, but everyone on the planet aware of the slaughter. But his carriage and his message clashed, as they must, whenever the grief of the flesh is interrupted by metaphysics. Listening carefully to what he said, one hears the friction of two dissonant languages: existential gravitas and religious consolation.
The middle portion of his speech delivered existential gravitas: we can barely comprehend the events of our normal lives, let alone the chaos of a massacre; words alone cannot resolve trauma; our children are that part of ourselves we are always surrendering to the world; we cannot be happy or even functional without each other as community; we are this world for the children of others, as others are this world for our children, and we have no choice but to take responsibility for each other and the world. But for reasons both political and psychological these somber and inarguable facts required a religious framework to be digested or even considered. And so the speech was bookended by references to the soul and the mysterious intentions of an omniscient and omnipotent god.
I understand he was speaking within the context of a religious vigil, and in this sense his statesman/rhetorical choices, even if they insulted the non-religious, were as appropriate as covering one’s head in a synagogue, or removing one’s shoes in a Hindu temple. I also know that the President is a believer. His language was a reflection of his firmly held convictions about how human life is made both meaningful and consolable through the presence of an unseen soul, an unseen god. I have no doubt as to his sincerity, although with many other agnostics and atheists, I question his assumptions.
Admittedly, the very structure of his role carries an implicit metaphysics. The President’s flesh, especially in moments of public sacrament, is not the flesh of a single human, but the totem of everyone invested in his office. This is the origin of the “royal we” in courtly etiquette: his flesh is a sublimation of our own. In terms of socio-mythic structure, he is not a man speaking about god’s intentions, but rather a seeming conduit of the intentions themselves. Given his role, it would be very difficult to not deliver the metaphysical goods. Hundreds of millions of viewers would feel that a sacramental contract had been broken. They would feel abandoned by the god the office is unconsciously constructed to project.
Risking outrage, I’ll pose this problem of the two languages harshly. One language is descriptive. With quivering breath and a quickened pulse it attempts to register the visceral horror of twenty children, six teachers, and the shooter’s mother, each executed with eight or nine bullets that ripped through their tender flesh, exploded their faces, sprayed their blood and sinews over bedsheets and blackboards and crayons and newsprint art projects and desks and bags of cookies for snack time. It is a language of flesh, and evidence. Alongside it, trying to distract and soothe and comfort it, religious language calls out through an unfindable soul to an unprovable god, a meaning-maker beyond ourselves. It speculates on divine intention, and envisions a perfected afterlife.
For those it does not offend, religious language might serve many good purposes. As a trauma response, it may provide immediate relief from the horror of the descriptive. It may allow the narrative mind to momentarily relax its demand for causation and closure for long enough for the flesh to recover from shock and regain the innate courage and perseverance of the autonomic nervous system. Religious language may allow us to direct a deep breath to the places in which we are gripping and contracted. The sonorous recitation of prayers and creeds may allow oxygen and blood to return to the organs, while the hands and feet regain their warmth. As a shared heritage, it makes a choir of a tribe. When a hymn swells, its singers naturally reach for each other’s hands. In these moments, the dogmas presented within the language might be irrelevant. Religious language may simply invoke a relaxation response, help to digest emotion through sharing, and give us the resolve to return to matters at hand with renewed resilience that says: come hell or high water, our flesh persists. We want to be here, together. We shall nurture each other. We shall not be moved.
Ideally, anyway. For the problem with religious language and metaphysical referents is that they can also allow their speakers to absent themselves indefinitely from the visceral experience of trauma, and then hover there, within dissociation, distracted from evidence that is plain to see, fantasizing about the mysterious will of either God or the Founding Fathers, endlessly repeating to themselves articles of faith, psalms of propitiation, and misreadings of the Second Amendment. Former pastor Mike Huckabee’s empathy has been so twisted by this dissociative aspect of religious language that he could not tolerate for a single day the weeping exit wounds of twenty children without consoling himself and rallying his constituency with the insane notion that the children were victims of those who insist on church-state separation. Pastor Huckabee, standing at the edge of a pit of slaughtered babies, turned his back and babbled about his god.
It was a masturbatory performance. Huckabee surveyed incomprehensible suffering, and to relieve his tension, he retreated – publically, belligerently – into a self-soothing private fantasy of revenge, where god’s justice, though unfathomable, somehow establishes order and safety by deciding who shall live in privilege and who shall die in absurdity. What a festering heart to live with: to be so invested in a god that that god is the first thing you think of and must pontificate about when you are confronted with real people trying to scrub real blood out of the library carpet. Of course he will ignore evidence: from gun-violence statistics in agnostic cultures to temperature data from climate scientists. He is interested in his fantasy, not the world he lives and votes in.
Someone should give Pastor Huckabee a job. Hand him a roll of forensic tape. Or a scrub-brush. Or a small hammer, to tap finishing nails into the tiny coffins, and actually feel the world again.
Some will say that Obama and Huckabee are talking about different gods. Obama’s god is a New Testament god, a process god, a god of renewal and resurrection. Huckabee’s god is an Old Testament god, the psychopathic god of Abraham on the mountain, a god of wrath and punishment. I think these are minor differences when considered against the broader issue of how metaphysical language itself is used. Pastor Huckabee actually agrees with me here: he praised Obama’s spiritual invocations. He’ll happily lay aside the obvious differences between their theologies – liberal and evangelical. Why?
Huckabee approves of Obama’s scriptural references because they harmonize with the general dissociation of the arch-religious and socially conservative mind, which rarely seems to focus on people and relationships except in terms of disgust, while fixating upon ideals and laws-by-fiat that they believe will protect them from change and death and growth. Pastor Huckabee is happy when Obama endorses through his Pauline references the root Abrahamic myth that happiness and love are paid for in blood sacrifice and that human violence is intrinsic to the divine plan. His traumatized psyche is most pleased, perhaps, with anything that distracts us from evidence.
So here’s the problem with Obama’s ministry: “god” is not a safe or neutral meme in the rhetoric that tries to soothe trauma. Not only because “god” has little meaning for a demographic that grows by the day, but because too many people will use “god” not to heal their torn human relationships – their real relationships, the only relationships they actually have – along with the material conditions that support them or degrade them. They will use “god” to avoid relationship altogether. Ontologically, affirming an eternal mansion in heaven, or having a “personal relationship with Jesus”, or the deeply offensive notion that “god has called” the children of Sandy Hook “home” is no different from “knowing” that the Founding Fathers intended for school teachers to be armed. Such positions harmonize in the symbolic order, where the fearful retreat to escape the pain of blood on the cafeteria wall.
For the intellectually honest, metaphysical language must be metaphorical. It plays a poetic role, not a judicious one. I can’t assess Obama’s intellectual honesty, but I would imagine that as he is speaking, and transitions from the crushingly granular focus upon the boy who wanted to protect his teacher with his white-belt karate moves to the vision of god calling that same boy’s dead friends “home”, he can feel his cognitive faculty move from the descriptive order and diffuse into a symbolic horizon. We can feel the exact same thing in a less charged manner as we sit reading this post, if we look down at our arms and say “This is my shirt”, and then close our eyes, soften our focus, and say: “This is my life.” The oscillation between detail and abstraction is a primary tool of poetry, and we know that poetry heals something within us. Neurologically, it strengthens the bonds of the corpus callosum, which coordinates the perceptual and cognitive biases of the two hemispheres. I think this is what the President is doing, what he wants to do.
But I hope he becomes more self-aware. Perhaps then he’ll find another way to console – a way that does not stand arm in arm with Pastor Huckabee (or by extension Wayne LaPierre), and fuel the public masturbation of traumatized dissociatives. A way to console that doesn’t obscure actual causes and conditions, and cuts a clear path towards correction. Those who are truly intellectually honest understand that every metaphor comes at a price, and will strive to use their symbols to strengthen our gaze upon horror, and to act as swiftly and as certainly as parents who see harm approaching a child.
I’m making the same point that Sam Harris and others have made ad infinitum regarding religious-moderate language: invoking a forgiving and intelligent deity rationalizes the deities of sacrifice and punishment, not to mention nationalism. When the President invokes god as metaphor, he holds the rhetorical door open for Pastor Huckabee to invoke the pride and vengeance of Yahweh, and for Wayne LaPierre to blubber in evidence-free jabberwocky.
The poetry of the symbolic order should give us the space we need to come back to the real, breath renewed, to face calmly the material duties we are called to. In this case, the material and realistic duties are obvious: change the conditions by which a suicidal young man can destroy the flesh of children with a weapon designed for armageddon.
There is a clear difference between the realists who know that a weapons ban is the only meaningful answer to civilian bullets ripping through the flesh of six year-olds, and gun-rights-metaphysicians who counter that such restrictions are limitations upon “freedom”. The realists are able to use the symbolic order therapeutically, to descend from it as they know they must, restored in some way from their shock. The gun-rights-metaphysicians cannot. They float from symbol to symbol, from fantasies of violence to fantasies of god’s will, to fantasies of freedom, assiduously avoiding the gore of what remains of these little boys, these little girls.
I don’t imagine that these dissonant languages will ever untangle themselves completely from each other to clarify our existential expediency. We have evolved religious language for good reasons, and it won’t be leaving us any time soon. I myself still feel it well up within me in circumstances of joy and grief: this is my heritage as an ex-Catholic. I am glad that religious language can comfort some of the mourners of Newtown as they bury their dead. They need all the help they can get. But it would be best if metaphysics – in its religious, nationalistic, and legalistic forms –were eliminated from the hard work that is always at hand.
I can hear, if I get really quiet, an embodied sacramental language of mourning. A language that is aware of the function of its poetry, and doesn’t allow its poetry to bury any evidence. I’ll end by rewriting the first paragraph of the President’s speech in such a language, removing or at least grounding anything that might dissociate. I long for a speech that does not invite us to fantasize ourselves clear of our trauma, but links our trauma firmly and without distraction to what we are called to change with our hands, given the evidence of right now.
Scripture tells us: “…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
Those who are wise tell us: the seasons change. We rise and fall like wheat, but sometimes in rhythms that defy understanding. Even so: do not lose heart. For as we suffer, we feel empathy, and empathy overflows to connect and bind us more strongly, even to our future. As individuals, we are not here for long. But our actions remain in this world that abides, this home, to be enjoyed by those who follow. Our love today will become their food. Our policies today will become their civility. Our flesh will become their soil.