Opinion | My Hope for American Discourse

I know friends who prefer to slip out unseen from jobs, relationships or parties, a so-called Irish goodbye. I, on the other hand, need closure, slide show retrospectives, debriefing, confessional reflections, post-mortem relationship analysis, final words, rituals of departure. I need to go to the funeral. I need closing ceremonies when I move out of houses or cities. When I am leaving on a trip, I hug my kids like I’ll never return, even when they are too young to understand what’s happening or too old and cool to care much. I need goodbyes.

So, with this final newsletter at The Times, I want to say thank you and goodbye — to talk about what this job has meant to me and why I am leaving. And yes, OK, this may be a little self-indulgent — like my overly long farewells with my children — but I feel it is worth sharing in part because some of my reasons for leaving, while personal, touch on larger themes of faith in private life and public discourse that have featured in this newsletter and that all of us experience in one way or another.

I will miss getting to write in the pages of The Times each week. There is a stereotype among some conservative religious people that in media or other public-facing institutions, voices of people of faith, especially the more traditional sorts of faith, are marginalized and unwelcome. I think that this has some truth to it and have even experienced that in certain settings over the years. I have not, however, experienced this at The Times.

Amid a culture that often embraces hyperpolarization and self-righteous scorn for our political and ideological enemies, it takes courage for public-facing institutions to allow for a true diversity of ideas, especially when it comes to matters of faith and identity. It gives me hope for American discourse that in a single year of my tenure at this company, Tressie McMillan Cottom and David French were brought on as columnists — two talented writers who make me think, but who have quite different perspectives on the world. It encourages me that there are institutions in America that, however imperfectly, still seek to embody a commitment to pluralism and old-school, big-tent liberalism, that allow a wide range of voices at the table, so long as those voices are open to listening to others as well.

For this and many other reasons, it was a tough decision to leave. And as with any tough decision, my reasons are varied and complex, but one is that writing publicly about God each week can do a number on one’s soul. Thomas Wingfold, a character in a novel by the Scottish minister and poet George MacDonald, said, “Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.” Holy things, sacred topics, spiritual ideas, I believe, have power. Dealing with them is a privilege and a joy, but habitually dealing with the outside of them is inherently dangerous.

The “outsides” of holy things, to me, describes the difference between speaking about divine or sacred things and encountering the divine or the sacred directly. To be sure, we need more and better religious discourse in America. In my very first newsletter for The Times, I wrote that “we need to start talking about God,” and I still believe that. I believe that religion and, more broadly, the biggest questions in life are the driving forces behind much that is beautiful, divisive, unifying, controversial and perplexing about our culture and society.

Yet there is danger in becoming a pundit, particularly on matters of faith and spirituality. It can be deadening. I plan to continue to write about faith, to explore its impact on politics, study it sociologically, think about its metaphors and claims of truth. But for any person of faith, public engagement must be balanced with times of withdrawal, of silence, prayer, questioning and wonder beyond the reach of words. Otherwise, faith with all its strange and startling topology becomes a flat and sterile thing, something to be dissected, instead of embraced. And typically once something is fit only for dissection, it is dead. I bring this up because it is a temptation for all of us now. Social media and digital technology have made us all pundits. We are faced with a constant choice: Every experience, belief, feeling and thought we have can be shared publicly or not. In a single day, we can take in more information and ideas than was ever possible, yet at the end of the day we can still lack wisdom.

Constant connectivity empties us out, as individuals and as a society, making us shallower thinkers and more impatient with others. When it comes to faith, it can yield a habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things, fostering an avoidance of those internal parts of life that are most difficult, things like prayer, uncertainty, humility and the nakedness of who we most truly are amid this confusing, heartbreaking and incandescently beautiful world.

Public debate and dialogue are the crux of our democracy and an important way to seek truth. It is good to speak up and be heard — and I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to do so as a writer. But speaking up and being heard can be as addictive as a drug. And in our breathless, noisy and contentious society, this addiction must be actively resisted. In the 1930s, the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev argued that modernity is characterized by an externalization of the self, an outpouring of and obsession with activity, productivity, results and progress.

Modernity, he thought, was exhausting itself. Humanity could not “carry on any longer merely on the surface, a purely external life”; we must either “go deep or peter out altogether.” This deepening requires times of interiority, contemplation, rigor, invisibility, time with the inside of holy things.

There is also a tendency in our moment to prioritize the distant over the proximate and the big over the small. We can seek to have all the right political opinions and still not really love our actual neighbors, those right around us, in our homes, in our workplaces or on our blocks.

The former senator Ben Sasse wrote, “When we prioritize ‘news’ from afar, we’re saying that our distant-but-shallow communities are more important than our small-but-deep flesh-and-blood ones.” In our time of digitization and rapid information, our temptation is what the philosopher Charles Taylor called “excarnation” — the opposite of “incarnation,” it makes our life into an abstraction.

We become like Linus in the old “Peanuts” cartoons who famously said: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” True community, however, is made of real people with names, of friends with true faults, of congregations with faces, of the local, the small. Don’t get me wrong: Global and national news is important and I will continue to read news and opinion pieces nearly every day. But for me, as for most of us, the places we meet God — the places we become human — are not primarily in abstract debates about culture wars or the role of religion in society, but in worship on a Sunday morning or in dropping off soup for a grieving friend, in a vulnerable conversation or in making breakfast at the homeless shelter down the street, in celebration with a neighbor or in the drowsy prayers uttered while rocking a feverish toddler in the middle of the night.

The way to battle abstraction in our time is to embrace the material, the incarnation of our lives, the fleshy, complicated, touchable realities right around us in our neighborhoods, churches, friends and families. And this enfleshed, incarnational part of my life and work deserves some extra attention now, at least for a little while.

So, finally, if you’d indulge me a little more, in Anglican liturgy, we wind up our worship service each week with a departure ritual: a closing benediction. So, I want to say to my readers, to those who’ve written and told me about your lives, to those who’ve enthusiastically encouraged me or shared my work with others, to those who’ve disagreed with me respectfully, to those who have disagreed with me less respectfully, to those who are struggling and those who are rejoicing, to those who are afraid or those who are encouraged, to those full of faith and those full of doubt and those full of both at the same time: God bless and keep you. You have been a gift to me and I am grateful for each of you.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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