Normal Nihilism and Tolerance

A generation ago Thomas Merton said, "we are free to buy a car but we are not free to own one." 63chevcorvairnova

Hunting for a "beater" with my son the other day, I thought we might not even be free to buy one. But that’s another story.

If you stroll West Edmonton Mall you’ll catch on to what, I think, Merton was talking about. Here is a world of choice that leads inevitably to more choice which guarantees the question of whether I will make the right choice.

Sociologist Stanley Hauerwas called this "normal nihilism". That is, having so many compact discs, lawn-mowers, cheeses, from which to choose that no matter which ones we choose, we are dissatisfied because we cannot be sure we have chosen what we really wanted. And there is nothing so wonderful for the "adman" than a climate of discontent and dissatisfaction. Because it always leads to more purchases. Consequently we are owned by what we buy (and don’t buy).

What’s more is that in this slurry of choice I am seduced to believe that I can purchase not just things but purchase a lifestyle. And of course a consumer lifestyle can itself be modified, changed and exchanged at will. In effect all "lifestyles" are devalued.

If lifestyle is radically individualistic, is merely personal choice and preference, then one lifestyle (You’ll gather I’m speaking of lifestyle as far more than fashion.) is inherently as good as the next; and because our lifestyle is a reflection of our values and attitudes, values and attitudes are by the same token subject to choice and preference. Now if my values bump up against yours… there is simply nothing to say.

You have your set of values and I have mine; I like coffee, you like tea, cela vie. This sounds like tolerance, but is it?

Tolerance is in itself a beautiful virtue but when used to escape navigating important opposing moral issues, it becomes something like the opposite of love. This evasion is as bad as the "fundamentalist" evasion that defers all things to the decalogue writ in stone.

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  1. Thanks Steve. Seems the bumping up of moral issues is happening again down in Jesusland.

    There’s a campaign under way on the gay marriage issue (as there always is) and the State of Colorado will head to polls, November 7.

    But this time there’s two dogs barking out on the issue – Norman and Sherman. On billboards and lawn signs, Norman “moos” indicating that he was born different, like gays. Sherman, the Focus on the Family response dog, barks on opposing billboards and lawn sign, because that’s just the way dogs were made.

    Reports indicate that the loveable dog debate has created a climate that enables both sides to talk about the issue without the venom that usually creeps in.

    The editor of FOTF writes: “Our strategy, not exactly the historical norm for Focus on the Family ad campaigns, was to match the playful and simplistic tone. They had ads that simply showed a dog’s silhouette and the word “Moo” — so we produced an ad with a dog’s silhouette and the word “Woof.” They had a Web site that featured information about “gay penguins,” we made sure our Web site included a story about ex-gay penguins.”

    Makes me think hand-puppets might be an effective way to bring peace to the middle east. Maybe it’s what you might call tolerant intolerance. Whaddya think?

  2. Great thought Jeff. A bit of distance is always a good thing for highly emotive issues. And maybe (he thought with hightened optimism) “tolerant intolerance” is that flicker for possible dialogue. (Hand-puppets…very good!)

    And speaking of dog’s that moo and vegetarian sharks, and issues gay, I’m always so amazed by James Alison’s self-deprication, his ability to see those who oppose him, some vehemently-and within the church that he loves-as simply fraternal partners in an unfolding drama.

    For my money, James Alison, who has been ostracized, released from professorships, barred from serving in certain capacities in his church, and who nevertheless continues to defend his Catholic church and faith, out of a deep and animating love, models a Jesus that is rarely observed in the FOTF enclave. Hard to understand how for some, all this non-resentment and love only counts if your not gay.

    Grow Mercy-steve

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