Is progress possible? Many are optimistic now, given the widespread outpouring of support for police reform and racial justice across the country. However, many others see the dystopian vision of America articulated by President Trump at Mount Rushmore July 4th as a giant step away from progress in human rights. Philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich’s view of progress might be useful as we navigate these uncertain times.
Tillich had served as a chaplain in World War I, and by the time he emigrated to the U.S. in 1933, he had already run afoul of the future fuhrer and had been dismissed from his teaching position at the University of Frankfurt. An essay of his appeared a mere 20 years after World War II, so it’s not surprising that it was fresh on his mind. He observed that, “The German rebarbarization was looked at with great astonishment by a world which was adhering to the faith in progress. But there it was. In one of the most highly civilized nations, decisions were made by individuals and followed by many which contradicted anything we consider to be human nature and human fulfillment. This was a tremendous shock” (The Future of Religions, Harper & Row, 1966, p. 71).
“Rebarbarization” – hardly a common word these days, but one that may become quite useful. To many Americans, the three and one-half years of the Trump administration have also come as a tremendous shock. Progress in human rights and the quality of civic life seem to have come to a standstill or even regressed. As with Germany in 1933, otherwise civilized people, even today, can turn their backs on their own civilization, their democracy, and become . . . barbaric.
Perhaps because of his still fresh memories of that tragic era, Tillich argued that continuous progress in any arena of human affairs is impossible.
Why? Because of human freedom. We humans are free at any time to act against established moral and political norms and decide to go another way.
Among his other remedies for blind faith in progress, Tillich suggests that we look for “the decisive moment.” The idea of the decisive moment is captured in the Greek term “Kairos,” meaning the most appropriate time, in the fullness of time as contrasted with clock or calendar time, ridged and unbending.
So, Tillich would have us be on the lookout for those times when events and people converge to create a new present from which a new future may emerge. The recent vote of the Mississippi Legislature to retire the 1894 state flag is an example of such a decisive moment.
That decisive moment continues even now. Along with the election of President Trump came Twitter and the President’s exit from international agreements on defense, climate, trade and the environment; the revolving door of his administrative appointments and a compliant attorney general; mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the rise of Chinese and Russian expansionist ambitions.
A perfect storm.
Add to this gumbo the accelerant of residual white supremacy, and the Black Lives Matter Movement and the stakes are even higher.
In the midst of all this chaos and uncertainty, how will the nation fulfill the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?
The next four months, July through November 3rd, are our national “decisive moment.” How shall we use our freedom in those days?
The Constitution, in its Preamble, spells out the six actions the Founders expected to set in motion for citizens of this new nation: “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
There’s our agenda for the next four months.
Let’s get to work!
There’s our refiner’s fire too, for burning away the pollutants that corrode our conversations in the public square.
Dick Conville is a retired college professor and longtime Hattiesburg resident.