A Little Matter Called Discernment
By now, everyone has seen Ron Susskind's devastating portrait of George W. Bush in this morning's New York Times Magazine. I note that the same three or four paragraphs have been quoted all over the place, with little remark on the theological significance of Bush's "faith" positions. Here is one passage I found telling, and why I found it so:
This is one key feature of the faith-based presidency: open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker. Nothing could be more vital, whether staying on message with the voters or the terrorists or a California congressman in a meeting about one of the world's most nagging problems. As Bush himself has said any number of times on the campaign trail, ''By remaining resolute and firm and strong, this world will be peaceful.''
As Susskind makes clear, Bush's branch of Christianity (it is his own brand, since he doesn't go to church, but there are any number of rightist evangelicals who share it) doesn't allow for doubt. This flies in the face of religion as it is practiced by billions of people around the world. Doubt is and has always been a significant part of faith. I'm a spiritual director and tell my directees (and myself, on a regular basis) that spiritual maturation happens on those days when faith gets ahead of fear by even a whisker. That's what doubt is: it is fear, one of the primal emotions. How do I know this? Personal experience, that of the people I've been directing for years and 3,500 years of recorded human history. People have been feeding the writing jones since they invented writing.
Bush is so reactive on doubt: fear that he can't even have it mentioned in the same room with him. This is a fearful man who went looking, not for "faith," which grounds reason in experience, but for certainty. The spiritual truth of our existence, if I may make such a brave claim, is that we are all grounded in a mystery which we barely understand even though we experience it constantly. Bush wants to reduce this enigma to "his gut." There are some strands of Protestant theology which like to do this, to make the individual the only prophecy, the only truth bringer. I think they are wrong and that decisions which are not grounded in community (even when they challenge and harrow the community, yet remain in relationship with it) will stumble and fail. "With us or against us" fails the test of community.
We have a "leader" who fears us, yet believes God is on his side. In the great swath of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we've developed a little more nuance in a matter which is called "discernment," the attempt to hear what God is actually saying in our real circumstances. God does speak, and uses the materials at hand, but we have to be very careful to sort out if we are listening to the voices of our own desires (who tend to be very loud) or the still, small voice. Generations of spiritual writers have designed dozens of tests for this. I like those of Ignatius of Loyola the best, but the Heart Sutra is just fine, too, thank you. Or pick up any volume of Aidan Steinsaltz's invaluable commentary on The Talmud. Humanity has been grappling all its life with how to understand what it means to be human, what we are called to do on our little planet.
Bush has it all worked out. I'm afraid of that.