Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends

Labor Day is over, and so that must mean the fall semester has finally, truly, begun. I've only ever taught at schools whose academic calendars began sometime in late August, and Friends University is no exception. I've never been able to handle that bit of scheduling well, mostly because I've always been off to the American Political Science Association's annual meeting just before the Labor Day weekend, with the result that my classes are interrupted for about a week only a week or so after they formally begin. Not the best way to build up momentum in the classroom. So, I've long since developed strategies for just introducing material for a couple of class periods at the beginning of the fall semester, without actually engaging it in a serious way; I always leave that for after the long weekend. Though this year I didn't go to APSA--the first time I've missed it in about eight years--so I suppose I could have plunged right into the material. I didn't though; old habits die hard. Anyway, now the game is truly afoot.

There was an interesting ceremony at the beginning of the school year here at Friends; a freshman convocation, which featured the university president, a couple of vice presidents, the athletic director and some others, all saying the usual things to the incoming freshman class. But a couple of things about it really struck me. First was the great effort that went into, at the beginning of the convocation, actually greeting all the new students, getting them to stand up if they were from another country, if they were from a state other than Kansas, if they were from a Kansas city other than Wichita, if they had graduated from this or that Wichita-area high school, if they were the oldest or youngest child in their families, if they were the first in their families to go to college, and so on. I liked the thoroughness of it; obviously it was doable only because Friends is a small place (our class of 2010 is around 300 people), but nonetheless, it really seemed to reflect an institutional desire for the students here to feel named and, well, enjoined. And this was emphasized further at the end of the convocation, when all the faculty and staff present joined hands and made a circle around the freshman class, and then bowed their heads to be led in prayer by one of the pastors who work here, for a blessing on the school year and those who had begun their sojourn through higher education with it.

Yes, Friends University is a praying kind of place, and I like that. The Quaker influence is still strong, though not in any way official; the actual religiosity I've observed here thusfar has mostly been mainline Protestant. I suppose what has hung on most from the institution's many years as a Quaker school is this general, often very pious, commitment to finding God in and through one's friendship with others. The atmosphere is mostly relaxed and informal, but with that informality comes a kind of spiritual seriousness: being friendly, being open and available and patient and fair, is what makes the world a better place, what makes communication with the divine (what one person here described to me as "your walk with the Lord") possible, what purifies the soul. Before faculty orientation, there was an invitation for those so inclined to get together for a small devotional, with discussions of our hopes for the coming year and prayers--free-flowing, conversation prayers--that we will be assisted in reaching our goals, and in reaching out to others as they reach for their goals. It was what I've always imagined pietist conventicles (which I've studied a little bit about for my work on Herder) were like, with a sense of community arising immanently from individual acts of confession and encouragement and exploration and concern; and not merely a community of feeling, but an actual binding between friends and fellowcitizens, a real circle of prayer.

There are, to be sure, criticisms of this Quakerish/pietist notion of friendship. Theologically, it often results in an undermining of the obligations of membership and faithfulness that make a spiritually enriching community of friendship possible; the form of friendliness takes the place of the substance which presumably premises it. And political theory often borrows much from that theological critique: the assumption is that the sort of friendship I'm describing here can only exist between family members, immediate neighbors, or others whose relationship is both longstanding and close-knit; to ascribe such a communal ideal to anything more expansive than that is either nonsensical or tyrannical or both. Besides, even if you could have such intimacy on a broader, more public level, who would want it? The result--so say many--would be a world stagnate with cloying connections, politics as a perpetual family reunion. You need ideas to get things moving, and ideas pay little allegiance to friendships (or friendliness, for that matter).

Joseph Epstein wrote a fine essay in Commentary back in July, titled "Friendship Among the Intellectuals," in which he discusses Norman Podhoretz's book Ex-Friends, and the phenomenon of breaking off a friendship solely because of a disagreement over ideas. He admits that, for him, "a person's general point of view is more important than his opinion on specific issues," but still that "it seems undeniable that general agreement on...major [political] matters is a great lubricant for a friction-free friendship." I suppose he's correct--and yet, I want to resist the notion that the ability of people to successfully trust in and connect with one another is usually dependent upon an abiding, prior agreement on certain key essentials. Obviously, if the point of disagreement between me and someone else has to do with the acceptability of pedophilia or armed robbery or something else that impacts upon my ability to live and take care of my family in an ordered and decent society, then all common ground has been lost. But most political disagreements fall far below that standard. I really do believe that it is possible to be civil with--and, through that civility, potentially realize the existence of a deep (and I think spiritually grounded) bond with--other people with whom one has even fundamental disagreements with. I don't think this is sliding towards the gooey, "everything's relative; let's just all get along" accusation which is (often though not always unfairly) leveled at the pietist vision of human relations; rather, I think it is an insistence that how one behaves (hopefully in a decent and friendly way!) is part of one's substantive beliefs--one's position on taxes or war or religion or the environment is inextricable from how one follows through on that position, and a primary manifestation of that "following through" is one's encounter with opposing positions. True, in the actual work of political decisionmaking, some are always going to be excluded from certain coalitions, and some lines will have to be drawn. But in the more everyday tasks of everyday life--including, for example, teaching a class or running a university--I don't think there need be any serious problem with simultaneously being firmly committed to one's ideas, and firmly bound to one's friends, and seeing both as part of a way of living that makes a person more than the sum of their parts.

There are personal reasons why I write all this, of course. I've been fortunate enough to pick up a lot of friends over the years, and at different times as opinions have changed, some of them have had serious disagreements with me, and I with them. But I treasure the fact that, so far as I can tell, I can still call all of them friends. A close friend of mine is about to come out with a book that is costing him a lot of friends; I have some major disagreements with the book (as well as some major agreements, both of which I'll talk about in a couple of upcoming posts), and admit that some of what he says about certain personalities in that book are borderline mean. Yet it perplexes me to seem him attacked as a "Judas" and "turncoat," and saddens me that there are people who have apparently lost all interest in him or his family or his life simply because he has decided he no longer shares some of their priorities. To which I can only say....um, so? I mean, obviously it matters a great deal from within the once shared base of belief; in matters of politics as well as religion, seeing an apostasy always hurts. But I don't see why it necessary must interrupt the ability of two or more people to continue express themselves--in regards to their beliefs as well as everything else--in such a way as to keep that circle an enriching reality.

An old teacher of mine recently commented on this, in a religious context: how to account for the fact that he can be friends with people who wouldn't be friends with each other? While there are many good answers to that question, the one I like best is pretty simple: he is a person who desires to find and keep friendships with others, rather than identify, quantify, and measure himself on the basis of who his friends are. I suppose that we all, if confronted with extremes such as I mentioned above, must go the latter route at least to some degree; I do not care to be the sort of person who can be friends with a child molester or a believer in human sacrifice or an unrepentant Enron executive. But take that latter route as the only one possible--that is, assume that the friendships through which you can experience a richer life can only exist on terms of prior religious or political agreement--and the result will always be, I think, at least a little self-centered. If I want to be part of a circle, that that means I need to learn from and take from and be moved by those on both sides of me, left and right. Sure, sometimes the circle will be broken, and sometimes it ought to be; hell, even Friends University will kick someone out if they can't abide by some basic rules. But we ought to work to avoid that result, and need to remember that it is a truly sad thing--and I mean real sorrow, not a self-justifying "well, I'm sorry if you feel that way...." sort of thing--if the circle can't be patched up. It is through friends--whether they be our family or just our fellow citizens--that we get by in this life; life's too short to cut people off unnecessarily, else one will find yourself unable to encircle and pray for--literally or otherwise--all that you properly ought to, in the end.

No comments: