In Exile

On Becoming Post-Liberal

Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and
looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God”

(Lk 9:62)

We’re a people losing heart.

There’s a loss of heart for almost everything: for fidelity in relationships, as less and less people find within themselves the resiliency needed to live out the tensions that long-term commitment inevitably brings; for church, as more and more people quietly or angrily leave their ecclesial communities rather than deal with their own and their church’s humanity; and for politics and the effort needed to build neighborhood, city, and country because less and less people find the time, energy, and heart to work for others. We’re losing ground most everywhere: there’s a loss of heart for children, for simple freshness, for romance, for innocence, for proper aesthetics, and even for manners.

Thoreau once suggested that we live lives of “quiet desperation.” That may have been more true of his generation, but it’s less true today. Our struggle is more with internal bleeding, though Thoreau’s right about its quietness. This hemorrhaging is mostly quiet and unrecognized, perceptible mainly in its effects. In itself, it looks only like tiredness, battle-fatigue. But it’s more.

Permit me a little thesis here: Two major proclivities have characterized the past couple of generations, at least in the Western world.

First, an unbridled itch for sophistication has driven us out in such a way that, for good and for bad, we’ve ended up shattering most of our former naiveté, debunking most of our former heroes and heroines, and wreaking havoc with most of our childhood faith and values.

Second, an ever-increasing sensitivity has progressively polarized and politicized life around marriage, church, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, culture, hierarchy, and values.

While much of this was needed and is in many instances a clear intellectual and moral progress, we’ve been slow to admit something else. This is also slowly tiring us, gradually wounding the heart and draining away much of its strength and resiliency. To be innocent, etymologically, means to be “unwounded.” The loss of our innocence has, precisely, left us wounded in the heart. A wounded heart seeks to protect itself, to find respite from what wounded it in the first place. Hence, more and more, we have less heart to put up with the strains and tensions of family, church, neighborhood, community, and country. Instead we protect ourselves by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people, safe circles, and we have too little heart for actually dealing with the tensions that arise from our differences.

We’re well-intentioned, but tired, too tired to be robust enough to deal with tension. Like the woman in the gospels suffering from internal bleeding, we too are finding that constant internal hemorrhaging is making it impossible for us to become pregnant with new life. Like her, we need healing. How?

First, by recognizing and naming this loss of heart. Our marriages, families, homes, churches, communities, friendships, and even civic communities are too much breaking apart because we haven’t the heart to deal with their tensions. If this is true, and it is, then we need to ask ourselves: What’s being asked of us today? What do we need to do to regain some resiliency of heart?

Things looked different in the past. When I was young, society and the church both suffered from an unhealthy naiveté and an unhealthy rigidity. The great social movements of that past 40 years, along with new attitudes and sweeping reforms inside the churches, have exorcized most of that naiveté and rigidity. A more liberal view of things has taken hold inside virtually all circles, government, legal, ecclesial, academic, the arts, popular culture. We live with the results: endless deconstruction of the old and an uncompromising emphasis on freedom, individual rights, social justice, gender equality, ethnic equality, multi-culturalism, wider tolerance, the ending of old privilege, and on the shortcomings of being naive. Part of this too, in terms of faith and the church, has been a strong, relentless, challenge to grow beyond an infantile belief, to face the dark corners of doubt, to not hide behind false securities.

Much of this, I believe, was good, needed, prophetic even; but I believe as well that it’s now time for a different response, at least for a while. Another shift is needed, though not one which tries to roll back the last fifty years. What’s required is not a conservative or fundamentalistic turn, though that clearly seems to be the temptation for many. We can’t unlearn, nor do we want or need to, what we’ve learned through these years of deconstruction.

We’re not called to turn back the clock, to become arch-conservative or fundamentalistic. We’re called instead, I believe, to become post- liberal, post-critical, post-modern, post-sophisticated, post- deconstructionist, post-ideological, post-hypersensitive, and post- politically-correct.

What exactly does that mean? How do we do these things by rolling the clock forwards rather than backwards? How is this different from the vision of the conservative or the fundamentalist? Answering those questions, beyond both the agenda of both the conservatives and the liberals, is precisely the task.


Ron Rolheiser 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson