I listened to Obama’s short speech at the recent vigil for the Newtown shooting victims on the way to work this morning. It was a spiritual experience. If you haven’t watched it, you should (here’s a link to a transcript and video).
I spent the presidential campaign holding forth on the need to keep religion out of the public square. I now admit, somewhat sheepishly, that one of the reasons I voted for Obama is because of his religious beliefs.
Toward the end of his speech, Obama observes: “You know, all the world’s religions, so many of them represented here today, start with a simple question. Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?”
“Yes,” I say to myself, “those questions seem to be the headwaters of religion.”
“We know our time on this Earth is fleeting,” Obama continues.
Obama’s transition from a short list of life’s mysteries (Why are we here? Meaning? Purpose?) to a simple truism (i.e. our time is short) is jarring (and it catches my attention). He acknowledges religion by reflecting on its origin (life’s mysteries), but purposefully leaves religions—all of them—in the breach between imagined heavens and the reality we wake up to every morning. It’s not so much a slight, as it is a subtle statement, by omission, of his epistemological stance. Every religion is built around the same mysteries. Every religion is sustained by the spiritual experiences of its adherents. Given that spiritual experiences cannot be compared across individuals (e.g. bet you $10 dollars my experience was more profound than yours?), debating the relative merits of different belief systems built on top of these experiences is fruitless. “And that,” I think to myself, “explains Obama’s silent leap.” The questions are real. Our impending deaths are real. Everything in between is light and shadow.
Obama continues: “We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain, that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that, no matter how good our intentions, we’ll all stumble sometimes in some way.”
“This has a nice ring to it,” I think to myself. This paragraph is a blank slate. Falling short? One could insert the Christian belief in a Redeemer. We all stumble? One could think of this as an acknowledgment of our collective imperfection. I suspect this paragraph is an olive branch to literal Christian believers.
Obama follows with this: “We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.”
“Yes,” I think. Belief and faith are, by definition, “groping in the darkness.” Religion is our best effort to convince ourselves that the mystery of our own consciousness and the vastness of the universe can be understood if we can just locate the light switch of truth (and many of us will spend our lives groping around for it).
At this point in the speech, Obama again returns to what it real: “There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.”
I’m struck by how much Obama’s beliefs mirror my own. For many, spiritual experiences are the light switch that illuminates eternal truths. For many, it’s disconcerting to discover that what these experiences illuminate for one individual is often not the same as what others discover through the same means. It is the search for meaning that unites us, not the answers that different groups of us may think we’ve found. We–as in all of humanity–are in this together. Until God himself (or Herself) descends from the heavens to make things clearer, we should focus on what we know.
Or, as Obama puts it: “There is only one thing we can be sure of, and that is. . . love. . . .”
We’re all just doing our best to figure things out. Before any of us realizes it, our moment on the stage will be over, so until then, let’s focus on helping each other out. It’s cliché, of course, but how we treat each other, viewed from this perspective, is the only thing that’s real (and it’s the only thing that matters).
Obama’s speech at the Newtown vigil is already widely recognized as one of the most powerful and profound of his presidency (and deservedly so). For me, it was a reminder of the power of religion in politics. Did I vote for Obama because of his policies, or because he sees the world (and life’s mysteries) in the same way I do? Yesterday, I would have argued that it was his policies. Today, I’m not so sure.
[Prior MCS Post: 46 Girls Can Change the World]