08 October 2009

Surpassing the Pharisees

I'm not saying America's on the brink of an ideological civil war (although you couldn't prove it from the testimonies of our national unity-loving political media). But there does seem to be in this country a large and growing number of people, of nearly every persuasion, who think they're better than other Americans because of the political opinions they hold. Now I find this thought more than a little disturbing, if not tragic - especially when you consider the large and possibly growing numbers of people beyond our borders who seem abundantly prepared to destroy - or perhaps I should say sacrifice? - all of us, and for reasons that lie quite outside any familiar spectrum of American political and religious views. In short: if Now is not a good time to get a more proportionate view of of our domestic differences, then When?

But even if you don't consider apocalyptic Islamism the deadliest of threats to human life everywhere, I still think you have good reason to be disturbed by our present levels of domestic contempt. Think of it - to despise, or in some cases even hate, someone else, on account of a mere opinion! I could sympathize much better if the provocation had been some sick, twisted ideal, for which our opponent was prepared to kill and destroy and even die himself. Some Cause for which he was sure he'd go straight to Heaven (in which case, really, who else would want to go?) But of itself an opinion is such a thin, filmy, transitory substance on which to base and judge your superiority over someone else. Especially nowadays, when the current battle lines of opinion have been mostly pre-drawn for us little ones, and by media as public-spirited, as broadly patriotic, and as free from all taint of sordid motive as Fox and MSNBC.

In any case, even the most well-grounded, firmly-held set of opinions is seldom more than an infinitesimal pinprick of a point, perched uneasily atop that most intricately-vaulted and -corridored pyramid we call a human being. In other words, there are more things in human nature than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy. Even, I am told, beautiful, delightful, unimaginable things. Things for which, blessedly, we have an archaeological Guide more reliable than even Hamlet, or Hamlet's author. And One who is, besides, an immeasurably more interesting writer than either Karl Marx or Ayn Rand.

On the other hand, maybe we should be grateful our various and conflicting claims to superiority stand on ground as flimsy as a political opinion. What if we had more solid reasons for looking down on the next guy? Perceived superiority is always a dangerous thing to take too seriously, whether in ourselves or in others: and all the more dangerous when the perception is accurate. For all we know, the Pharisees may have boasted innumerable moral and spiritual advantages - and I mean genuine advantages - over their Sadducee rivals. But I don't notice it helped them much when there arose a Moral Test for which even they were unprepared.

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