Bright Wings @ Mary Southard. Ministry of the Arts. Used with permission. https://www.ministryofthearts.org/
"Other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine."
Local Loyalty and World Loyalty
In the house of idolatry there are many rooms: family, nation, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation. An idol is a finite good to which a group of people are so attached that it becomes the central organizing principle of their lives, such that they shut out all alternative and competing voices. Two reigning idolatries in our time are family and nation. Too often we make gods of them.
Make no mistake: a finite good is itself good. Families and nations are contexts in which we bond with one another, survive, and sometimes flourish. We enjoy what process philosophers call “richness of experience” through familial, cultural, and national relations.
The richness of such relations in local settings is what leads process theologians to celebrate local community. John Cobb makes the point this way in discussing patriotism:
"Although we are in relation with all other creatures, the relations with our nearer neighbors are of far greater importance than those with remote creatures. Our responsibilities are correlative with this importance. That is, we can make a much greater difference in the lives of those who are most closely related to us than in the lives of those who are remote. If we tried to care equally for all children, our own children would suffer terribly. If everyone cared equally for all children, all children would suffer terribly. Viewing matters from this perspective, special love of our own country makes sense as an extension of special love for those with whom we are most closely connected."
And yet community can itself become an idol if we are so attached to it that we lose respect and care for other communities. Even as we enjoy local loyalty, we need world loyalty. John Cobb puts the point this way.
"Process theology strongly encourages us to view the world as we believe God views it. From that perspective all creatures are important and among them human beings are especially important. Human beings in one culture or nation are not more important than those in other cultures and nations. Further, all are interconnected. It is the whole that should command our loyalty and concern."
Thus, we are presented with two good things: local loyalty and world loyalty. This is why Cobb and other process thinkers speak of the highest ideal as a world consisting of communities of communities of communities.
This rest of this page offers springboards for thought on two kinds of communities that are good but that can become idols: family and nation. The essays, one by John Cobb and one by Leo Sandon, do not offer a final word, but they do offer a warning. Be careful when you love your family or your nation too much. You may then neglect other families and other nations. You may forget other hearts in other lands are beating Other communities do not matter less than our own: human and with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine." All are equal in the sight of God. Let our song sound like Finlandia: "This is my Song, O God of all the nations.
Question: Does process theology have anything to say about patriotism?
Publication Month: December 2001 Dr. Cobb’s Response
We are surrounded by a great resurgence of patriotism. My neighbors have had a flag out ever since September 11. Knowing them, I do not doubt that it expresses a healthy love of our country. But there are good reasons for Christians to worry that patriotism passes over too easily, and too commonly, into a religious nationalism that is unacceptable. There seems to be a lot of that around. Does the process perspective throw any helpful light on this?
Process theology has two implications that at first blush seem to be in considerable tension. On the one hand, it strongly encourages us to view the world as we believe God views it. From that perspective all creatures are important and among them human beings are especially important. Human beings in one culture or nation are not more important than those in other cultures and nations. Further, all are interconnected. It is the whole that should command our loyalty and concern.
From this point of view, we could view nations as necessary evils which should in time be superseded by global unification and government. We could argue that caring more for the people in one nation than for those in others is a violation of our deeper duty. If we reason in this way, it seems that patriotism is misdirected loyalty, a form of idolatry. The second implication cuts in a different direction. Although we are in relation with all other creatures, the relations with our nearer neighbors are of far greater importance than those with remote creatures. Our responsibilities are correlative with this importance. That is, we can make a much greater difference in the lives of those who are most closely related to us than in the lives of those who are remote. If we tried to care equally for all children, our own children would suffer terribly. If everyone cared equally for all children, all children would suffer terribly. Viewing matters from this perspective, special love of our own country makes sense as an extension of special love for those with whom we are most closely connected.
For process theology it is important to hold both sets of implications. Furthermore, it is not enough to hold them in tension with one another. We aim at coherent thought. We need a vision of the world under God that does justice to both sets of implications. And that is not as difficult as it may seem.
Whitehead sees the world as made up of individual occasions of experience. Some of these have no stable patterns of relations, and these make up empty space. The creatures in which we take primary interest are organized into societies. The organs of the human body, such as hearts, kidneys, livers, and brains, are societies, and the primary character and role of the member occasions is shaped by participation in the society. When some cells cease to participate positively in the societies of which they are members, cancer may occur. The health and well being of the organs contribute to that of the body as a whole and depend on the health and wellbeing of the body as a whole. The relations among people have important analogies to those among the organs in a single body. As the human body is a society of societies, so also we can think of human families as societies of societies of societies, and of larger grouping of human beings as societies of societies of societies of societies — and so forth,. A nation is one of these more inclusive societies. The whole of creatioin is a much more inclusive society of societies . . . . When any subsociety acts without regard for the wellbeing of the larger society of which it is a member, the result is analogous to that of cancer in the human body.
Of course, the analogy has limits. One limitation is that human beings have capacities that individual cells do not. We can be aware not only of the most immediate societies to which we belong but of the larger societies of societies as well. It is possible for children to be indoctrinated to subordinate their loyalty to family to that to the nation. Jesus called for a loyalty to his movement that subordinated loyalty to family. A globalist may ask us to subordinate all lesser loyalties to that to the whole. Human capacities for transcendence make possible such top-down patterns, and no doubt there are times and places where they are needed.
From the perspective of process theology, however, the subordination of loyalty to the more intimate society to the more inclusive one is not normally desirable. The whole is normally better served by healthy sub-societies. A nation in which parents fear that their children will betray them, is not a healthy nation. When family relations are broken by the conversion of individual members to a new religious community, much of value is lost. On the other hand, if members of a family forget that the family is a member of larger societies, both the larger society and the family suffer. The deeper wellbeing of a family depends on being part of a flourishing larger society. It is to the long-term interest of the family to contribute positively to that larger society even at the expense of its short-term desires. Hence each member of the family should seek to shape the family both for its own immediate well being and so as to contribute to the wider society. Prior to September 11, the problem seemed more an indifference to the well being of the nation as a whole than excessive concern about it.
The wider society exists at many levels and takes many forms. For the past several centuries the most important of these forms has been the nation state. Because of its real importance, it deserves special loyalty from the individual persons and the societies that make it up. On the other hand, the concentration of power and loyalty at the level of the nation state has had many negative consequences. The state has often demanded that “patriotism” supersede loyalties to the many societies of which it is composed and block loyalty to any larger society. When it does that, process theology must protest. The nation is but one society of societies and a member of a larger society. It has greater claim on the loyalty of those who live within it than does any other nation. But it deserves that superior loyalty only as it participates responsibly in the larger family of nations. When the nation fails to participate responsibly in the larger family, especially when it acts in ways that are deeply harmful to others and to the larger whole, love of nation requires efforts to change its behavior and, as a minimum, to protest. True patriotism will say that “I love my country right or wrong.” It does not say that I will obey the national leadership “right or wrong.” When one believes that one’s national policies are irresponsible and destructive, true patriotism expresses itself in calling for repentance for one’s nation’s sins and doing what one can to direct the nation’s activity in the right channels. For those who believe in God, it calls for reminding the nation that God cares equally for other peoples and respects their love of their nations. My own view is that the right direction today is to surrender some of the powers that have been concentrated at the national level to local communities and others to international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Court. But the real danger currently is that we surrender national power to transnational corporations and the global institutions that encourage their dominance. Hence, in the whole complex process of finding the right checks and balances, I find myself supporting patriotism as a provisional check on transforming power from political to economic actors. I also find myself allied to nationalists in their opposition to economic globalism. On the other hand, I oppose nationalists when they seem to believe that we have the right to inflict unlimited suffering on others if that preserves our own national security. In doing all this, I believe I am being patriotic, that is, expressing my love for country in a way that process theology encourages.
Dr. Sandon was professor of religion and director of American studies at Florida State University, Tallahassee. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 28, 1979, p. 335. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
One of life’s most cherished values is the experience of familial community. The love between husband and wife, parent and child, and between members of the extended family ranks high among our blessings. For most of us, home ties provide enduring joys. Unless we are world figures or persons of great office, our most important responsibilities are probably those related to being husbands, wives, parents, sons or daughters. As the traditional marriage rite observes: “No other human ties are more tender, no other vows more sacred than these you now assume.
The biblical perspective on marriage realistically recognizes both the inherent importance and the limitation of family bonds. On the one hand, there is the norm expressed in Genesis: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Here the implication is that such an interpenetration of flesh and spirit takes place that the marriage relationship constitutes what Karl Barth called “a full communion of life.” So basic is this assumption that the biblical and ecclesiastical traditions use the marriage metaphor to describe Yahweh’s relation to Israel and Christ’s relation to the church. On the other hand, particularly in the New Testament, the limitations of family ties are recognized. Jesus’ admonition concerning the forsaking of family loyalties led Ernest Renan to conclude that Jesus “preached war against nature, and total severance from ties of blood.”
Understandably, the claims of family tempt us toward idolatry. But alas, we are doomed to disillusionment if we allow marital or blood relationships to become the center of our lives and thereby close the circle. There are those spouses whose lives are so self-contained and whose windows and doors are so tightly latched against the claims of the wider community that their insularity is obvious. Such a closed society becomes inbred and dull and appears to others as downright stuffy.
Marriage does not bring ultimate fulfillment because we are so constituted that no human relationship can satisfy us totally. Those of us who have lived many years with a spouse are aware at certain moments -- perhaps across the table or as our mate is sleeping -- that, in a deep sense, we are living with a stranger whom we never will fully know!
Obviously the finitude of the marital relationship often manifests itself more negatively than through the reality of its partial nature. Every person brings to marriage weaknesses as well as strengths. Moreover, marriage partners do betray their vows. Inherent in the concept of fidelity is the logical possibility of infidelity.
Parenthood becomes idolatrous when we seek meaning through the lives of our children. There can be no vicarious immortality imputed by parenthood. Then, too, there is an inevitable mixture of agony and ecstasy in the parent-child relationship. Parents both bless and curse their children, because there are no perfect parents. Sons and daughters often disappoint.
If these realities were not enough to establish the fragility of the family, death does what no person is permitted to do: it puts asunder. Marriage partners vow fidelity “until death us do part.” Even those who speak of perfect marriages and of children “who never caused us any worry” finally must engage the fact that death terminates all human relationships. When death occurs, we confront the painful truth that even family ties are not absolute.
Augustine, who grieved over the death of his beloved mother, Monica, spoke about such grief in his Confessions. According to Augustine, we find the death of a loved one so painful for two reasons: First, we love those who are close to us as if they will never die. They should be loved as human beings -- as mortals. In light of the great commandment, love of one’s spouse and children comes under the rubric of neighbor love. Second, we look upon a loved one’s death as a loss, and we grieve our “losses.” This attitude indicates that we hold the other as a possession -- literally, “You belong to me.” Augustine reminds us that loved ones are mortal and that they are not ours. One of the essential characteristics of all idolatry is the notion of possession: we possess our idols as objects.
Renan errs in judging that Jesus had no love for home and kinship. His parables and metaphors reflect his gratitude for such natural human bonds. But Jesus did insist that earthborn loyalties must be held in tension with a higher loyalty if we are to serve each other in responsible love. Perhaps one way of saying this is that “home” must be redefined: our homes must be viewed from the standpoint of Home.
S. Paul Schilling, the theologian who introduced many of us in the English-speaking world to the work of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, reminds us in a sensitive meditation that Bloch speaks of “humanity as on its way toward its homeland.” In Bloch’s thought, “home” does not connote a static haven as much as a “direction” which he finds described in philosophy and literature as pointing to that which alone endures. Schilling observes that Bloch’s idea of the homeland sounds much like what the New Testament calls the Kingdom of God. Home is where people ought to be -- where they belong because they are accepted and loved for their own sakes. Home is where God is leading us, and we, like one of Christopher Fry’s characters, are commissioned to “make wherever we are as much like home as possible.” Schilling helps us all to sing with deeper meaning John Newton’s lines: Through many dangers, toils, and snares,