This most recent trip to India, South Africa and Turkey brought me into even closer proximity to some of the most persistent, larger-than-life issues like belonging, tribalism, identity, belief. In looking at those enormous ideas more closely, it is impossible to not see just how fragile—and unavoidably subjective—our methods for assembling a sense-making narrative actually are. In addition to the horizontal axis of present day travel that makes moving from a predominantly Hindu culture to a predominantly Muslim one—as well as the doggedly bifurcated post-apartheid world of South Africa—so easy, I was also influenced on this trip by the additional vertical dimension of the past. Digging down into the history of ancient cities that once flourished along the Aegean coastline—Pergamon, Ephesus, Didyma, Miletus, Priene, Magnesia— those same questions take on another set of meanings.
My reading on this trip was also part of that questioning. The historical account of World War I, Lawrence in Arabia, written by Scott Anderson, is a compelling explanation for the complexity that is still being sorted through in the Middle East. Quite different in intention but thematically linked in an unexpected way is an exquisite novel by Lily King, Euphoria.
King’s book is a historical novel based in New Guinea in the early 1930s involving anthropologists Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and her future partner Gregory Bateson. As pioneering anthropologists they are eager to crack the code of how human society and culture are mapped. They felt they might “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” The character Nell (based on Mead) craves that rare moment of euphoria when she first feels she truly understands a place. “We’re always, in everything we do in this world, limited by subjectivity,” she says. “But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl…The key is to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is ‘natural.’ ” She observes that at about two months into a new environment, the culture begins to make sense. “It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”
This runs alongside a thoughtful passage from the writer George Saunders in his conversation with Jennifer Egan in the New York Times:
We are coming to believe that our minds are entirely sufficient to understand the universe in its entirety. This means a shrinking respect for mystery—religion vanishing as a meaningful part of our lives (or being used, in its fundamentalist forms, to beat back mystery, rather than engage it); an increasing acceptance that if something is ‘effective’ (profitable, stockholder-enhancing), then that answers all questions of its morality. This insistence on the literal and provable and data-based and pragmatic leaves us, I think, only partly human.
To round out this meditation on how hard it is to make sense of our world, present and past, I have just one more excerpt to share. This is from an extraordinary review by Irshad Manji of two books, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, and Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Jonathan Sacks:
Enter Jonathan Sacks, a former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his sobering yet soul-stirring new book, “Not in God’s Name,” Sacks confronts “politicized religious extremism” and diagnoses that cancer crisply: “The 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning. Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning.” Given that “no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion,” and given that believers are proliferating, Sacks predicts that the next 100 years will be more religious than the last. Bottom line: Any cure for violence in God’s name will have to work with religion as a fact of life.
That is where Sacks’s brilliance as a theologian radiates. He thinks two matters need tackling. There is “identity without universality,” or solidarity only with one’s group. Then there is “universality without identity,” the unbearable lightness of humans in a transactional but not transcendent world. Sacks wants to preserve the joy of participating in something bigger than the self while averting the hostility to strangers that goes with tribal membership…Meanwhile, back at liberal democracy’s ranch, we must “insist on the simplest moral principle of all…If you seek respect, you must give respect.” This does not mean always having to agree, but it does mean viewing one another as worthy of candid, constructive engagement.
God bless the don’t know mind. Which for me is code for “Keep talking, I am trying to understand.”