The Unseen Order of the World

This blog post begins as a response to something Rod Dreher wrote on his blog, about nature, technology and harmony with the “unseen order” of the cosmos. Dreher is a cultural conservative, and I am not — it’s where I’ve always disagreed with him most fully (even as I find him an interesting and compelling thinker). Read the original piece.

This was my response:

We don’t believe that the point of life is to seek harmony with an unseen order; we, as Americans, believe that we have the right to impose our own idea of order onto the natural world, damn the consequences.

Well, this would be Modernity’s problem. Of which America is the shining example.

But what is the “unseen order,” and who gets to say what it is? And how is it that traditionalists, whose notion of “unseen order” in nature is more abstract ideal than observation, also not engaging in the same practice of “imposing order” when they try to bend all of creation so it fits into the shape they believe it should? (In this, the conservative or traditionalist is very modern by wishing to impose an ideological order on the world.)

Rather than worry about order and harmony — and I agree, the “sin” here is the belief that technology and ideology can remake the world into a shape or form more pleasing to our beliefs about what the world, and the people in it, should look like — consider that even very disordered lives can witness to the grace and love (and mercy!) of God. That still small whisper after the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, is what we should be listening for. No matter how disordered those lives may be.

Because those kinds of lives have always been with us.

And one reader responded as follows:

Charles Featherstone, I appreciate your comments and their pastoral nature. I think you miss, however, the larger points Rod is frequently trying to make. These issues are not simply personal. They are cultural and they are political. Calling on us to recognize the humanity in even the most broken human beings is excellent advice. But it still doesn’t tell us collectively what to do or to think next.

Your post feels very Daoist or perhaps even deeply liberal. You seem to express a premise that social and natural order is both spontaneous and commanding. Man should not consider questions of “order and harmony”, for order will accomplish itself in its own due time.

Perhaps this is true. But if man sits and waits for spontaneous order, there will be millions of casualties along the Way.

I thought about responding in the comments section of Rod’s blog, but figured — this is important, and have my own blog.

* * *

So, let me make something clear: I don’t miss the larger points of Rod’s blog posts on the nature of culture and order. I get them completely. I simply do not care.

Because I really, truly, completely don’t care about the “unseen order” of the cosmos. And that’s because I do not perceive or understand (or apprehend, or appreciate, or whatever) any order to the world that I would ever be on the right side of. I can’t see an order to the world that would somehow ever give me a place in it, much less advantage or privilege. (Wanna know why? Read my book.)

To believe in an order is to believe in should, that there is a way people should live in order to be in harmony with nature or God’s will or whatever. Further, it is to believe, if you believe in some kind of “order and harmony,” then you also must believe in some kind of coercion, or force, or violence, that will compel people to comply with that order, to conform their actions and even identities and natures to that order. And that you are willing to follow through on that violence, that coercion, in order to accomplish “order and harmony.”

Which means, someone will always be made to suffer. Perhaps they deserve it. And perhaps they do not. It is secondary to the maintenance of order. The just world hypothesis tells us that most people believe those on the wrong side of social order have it coming.

I will always care almost exclusively about those made to suffer in and for “order and harmony.” And I will almost never care about the “order and harmony” itself. Certainly not so long as it compels people to suffer. That’s just who I am. Because it is hard for me to believe in should when I’ve been made to suffer for my failure to conform to should — and my futile attempts at trying. Don’t ask me to sign up for an order — any order — and support it with gusto if it’s going to beat me regularly just because it feels like it.

Yes, I take the order of the world as a given. It always seems to be there, and it always seems to punish some people simply for breathing, for the mere audacity of existing. The quality of the order always seems to run out by the time it gets to me (and to many of my closest friends). It has no place for us, no matter who makes it. No matter what sort of tolerance or acceptance it promises.

(And no, I’ve been no more welcome or accepted by liberals in liberal order than I have anywhere else.)

The most I will concede is that there are ways most people live in most places at most time. A kind-of gaussian distribution with long, thin tails. Because of this, I have come to appreciate that social and cultural conservatives generally do a better job of envisioning and describing actual community. But because of this focus on the folks closer to the center, on normative, on should, conservatives have almost nothing of value to say to those on the edges, to those who don’t or, more importantly, to those who can’t. I still fear there is little or no space for those who cannot conform to order, and little understanding or appreciation that some people are called, for whatever reason, to live on the margins.

To go to the example Dreher brings up fairly regularly in his blog, that of transgendered folks, it is just as much an example of modernity and the application of technology to say that such things are a delusion, or a disease, that people need to be cured of (and I am not claiming Dreher says this, though some conservative Christians do), as it is to say that technology can and should be used to alter one’s body so that it conforms to whatever ideas of gender a person might have. Neither approach appreciates that some people may actually be created and called — by God — to live in-between. And that very in-betweeness tells us something interesting about God, witnesses to something bigger than our ideas of what creation should look like or what we can or should accomplish with our tools and our technology. This is a tension moderns, whether they are progressives or traditionalists, are unwilling to live in. Because ideology, regardless of what it is, sees all difference and deviation as a problem, and every problem must be solved.

And yes, because of this, some people are called to live harder lives, to suffer more, to bear burdens others do not. I cannot explain it, and it does seem so terribly unfair. God is faithful. But God is not, however, fair. That’s a lousy answer, but it is true. And so I respond pastorally — that we who huddle on the edges are not alone, that we have each other, that God in Christ is present with us in our suffering. I have no other answer. None seems possible.

But that’s also a theological answer. Because I don’t see God in order and harmony. I see God in suffering.

Which is why I respond with something resembling hope — that those in center should listen to those of us on the edge. We have something to teach them about God. About judgment, about grace, about mercy, about forgiveness. About how God is present in their midst. I know those in the center don’t have to listen, and mostly they don’t. They don’t even have to pay attention. And that’s part of the awful tension, and the awful reality, we have to live in as well.

So, I will let others worry about the “unseen order” of the world. There’s no place for me in it anyway. I will try to remind them, to the extent I can, to the extent anyone will listen, that there can be no world without margins, no center without edges.

And that we who live on those edges matter too.

One thought on “The Unseen Order of the World

  1. I agree with this emphatically. Partly because God surely pays a great deal of attention to those long thin tails of the Gaussian curves.

    I am tempted to say that there is a division here related to the contrast between Catholic natural law and Calvin’s total depravity. That would be too easy, of course, and would divert the impact of your insights into conventional channels. Besides, Calvin himself found it easy to impose his own sort of order, perhaps a more totalitarian one, at least for a brief phase of history. God has humorously ordained that Calvin’s most outspoken champions are the contrary cantankerous Scots, who have sought earnestly to impose their system, both at home and in their diaspora, on societies utterly incapable of taking it seriously.

    Nonetheless, Calvinism has slyly snuck into popular culture via the hymn “Amazing Grace” (which I first heard sung in a recording by Appalachian folk, and then found out my grandmother knew it, years before I heard it anywhere else. Grace that “saved a wretch like me”, blind and lost. Paul puts it more emphatically – we are not just differently-abled schlemazels with no sense of direction; we were DEAD in our sins. Like a stone cold corpse. And God breathes life into us. God finds us and uses us.

    A concern for the margins can be found on the right as well as the left [though to use such terms is already to point out how flaccid they are]; that’s where the early Pentecostals thrived, the first self-consciously and fully racially integrated religious movement in the US, as far as I know (though that didn’t last), and yet socially conservative otherwise. I grew up in a pretty conservative family in a conservative part of the country. But my view of the country was never an Ideal Concrete. At best some sort of hazy ideal yet to be realized – a dream, mostly touted by liberals – most successfully by FDR. I grew up also the son of a down-to-earth-practical single mother who had plenty to say about corruption and the unfairness of life and the unreliability of institutions. [She also happened to love Richard Nixon, as a fellow veteran of hard times, who struggled and rose but was despised by the fashionable elite.] She worked as a book-keeper for her accountant brother-in-law (a firm Irish Catholic Democrat); when the topic of the IRS and audits came up in their conversations, their voices hushed just a little, as if government informants might hear otherwise – much as I imagine Sicilian villagers might whisper when speaking of the “men of honor”.

    Shomer ma mi leyl? Watchman, what of the night? The cold night in which we have hastily piled up our shelters and called them the Walls of Zion, surviving, waiting for the dawn.

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