Monday, February 20, 2012

The Platypus and Theological Localism

My wife and I were listening the other day to Dr. Fred Sanders give a paper of California Theological Localism.  It was one of the more technical pieces we've heard from him, and it was fun to stretch our brains a little.  If I understand it right, the main idea of Theological Localism is that place matters and will shape the theology of its inhabitants in certain ways.  This could be seen as determinative, or merely as fodder for apologetic engagement, both of which Sanders rejects as insufficient or problematic.  What exactly is wanted seems to be a theological engagement with place, specifically California, in a way that Sanders and company feel has been neglected.  If that's not clear, the fault is mine as a listener or a writer.

Of course, the idea of a theology of place caught my attention and my immediate response was "someone should do this for New England."  New England, after all, is its own peculiar place with, by American standards, a long, varied, and rich history.  In its English antecedents, it goes back even further.  Some factors that came to mind for potential theological reflection:

1. What does it mean for New England to be a place where the bones of the Puritan Fathers lie thicker than glacial rocks in the soil?  What does it mean for every little village, township, city to be founded, quite literally, on the bones of a unique religious community?

2. How did the Puritan's eschatological vision shape New England?  Is there any sense in which "a city upon a hill" is still rooted in the cultural subconscious?  The Puritan emphasis on education has certainly remained, even if new England is now famed in the states for it irreligiosity.  What role does mass Catholic immigration in the 1800s play?  How inextricable is Puritanism from the story of New England?

3. Building off of two, how does the cyclical pattern of apostasy and revival shape New England as a theological community.  The Puritans founded it, but by 1775, McCullough points out that British troops were shocked by the number of brothels they found in Boston.  On the other hand, Massachusetts played host to the first Great Awakening.  The society that produced the American Unitarians also felt the power of the Second Great Awakening.  The eschatological fervor of New Englanders also lay behind Radical Abolition and the American Civil War.

4. De Tocqueville argues that New England is the type and cradle of American democracy.  How does this "long shadow" shape New England as a place.  Has the rise of California and Texas as "alternate Americas" made de Tocqueville's observations irrelevant or obsolete?

These are just beginning musings, but it's a subject I'm interested in.  Maybe as Sanders' project grows, I'll be able to piggy-back off of it and refine my thoughts.    


Jessica Snell said...

Hey, I'm not the only one listening to those podcasts! :)

I'm particularly interested in your point #4 . . . and the importance of point #4 might be proved by the fact that I'm not that interested in points 1-3. I'm very thoroughly West Coast, and often think of those Easterners with the same sort of puzzled amusement I might imagine the New Englanders felt when they pondered the Old Englanders. A sort of, "what are you talking about? Where are YOU living? because that's not what it's like out here . . ."

James said...

Hmm. I thought point 1 might appeal to you from a sacramental point of view. Point 4 really is the rub of it from a broader, "American" perspective. What you said does interest me in that it seems like New Englanders and Old Englanders are still on a much similar wave-length in some regards than New Englanders and West-Coasters. New England, while definitely not Europe, has prided itself on its ties to Europe and European culture in a way that only the eastern Southerners share and doesn't seem to have any parallel with how West-Coasters relate to New Englanders.

Jessica Snell said...

Your #1 actually reminds me of the sort of fantasy that Lars Walker writes (in a good way).

I think it's true that there isn't a parallel between West Coasters and New Englanders the way there is between New and Old Englanders. I think geography might have something to do with that. New England and Britain almost feel like mirror images, don't they? And weather-wise and such, they're fairly similar. They're also similar in scope . . . the West is just BIG in a way that neither England is. Plus, the West Coast is (much?) less homogeneous culturally, I think. (But my inexperience with New England might be leading me astray there.)

The funny thing is, as a West Coaster, I feel more kinship culturally to Great Britain than to New England. Though more loyalty to my fellow Americans.

James said...

I've heard a lot about Lars Walker. I'll have to put him on the list.

I think you're right about geography. When I visited Western Ireland, it reminded me a lot of New England (except that they grew palm trees) and I remember thinking "ok, so that's why my ancestors staid in New England for so long." I think you're also right about homogeneity. Immigration has had a huge impact on the east (remember, New York is right next door to Connecticut), but it's still nothing like the diversity you get on the West Coast. Thinking about New England, the power is still largely in the hands of families that arrived on the Mayflower or sometime over the next hundred years. Those families were mostly homogeneous in terms of class, culture, and religion as well. If you want to see what this all looks like when it goes horribly wrong, see H.P. Lovecraft.

That last bit, I think, helps answer the question of Anglophilia. England is a far more ancient and far more diverse culture than New England. Quite simply, there's much more there to latch on to. I dislike most English art, but I love the Pre-Raphaelites. In terms of literature, I'm not much of a Dickens fan, but so what; the options are limitless. On the other hand, if you don't like Hawthorne, Poe, or Melville, that's much more of a problem for New England. I think this is a general difficulty that American art and literature have when trying to recruit fans. In terms of old England, I'm not a fan of the 18th century, but that's just a drop in the bucket. If you don't like 19th century American literature, on the other hand, you're practically sunk.

That aside, we should bring up Texas. It's a real fusion of East and West that at any given time can feel like Connecticut, Georgia, or California.

Jessica Snell said...

I think you're right about Anglophilia. I actually like most of the New England writers (I find them strange, but I like them), but I have that problem with Southern writing, the other big part of the American canon. Even the stuff I almost like - Teasdale and Chopin, O'Connor - it's infused with this horrible sadness. And I understand why it is, and that it should be . . . but I can't like it. It's like it takes everything I like about English lit and it does it: 1) not as well, 2) twisted, and 3) sadder.

But . . . if you don't like Southern lit, you don't like almost half the American canon. We're such a young country!

Texas, now . . . what would you select as the archetypal example of Texan lit? L'Amour?

About local lit: it might be a pitiful example, but I was reading a romance recently set in "Alta California" and the hero (who was a doctor) was called to San Juan Capistrano because of an emergency . . . and I actually stopped reading abruptly, and looked up, and thought: "I know exactly what's happened". Because I've *stood* in the ruins of the mission church at San Juan Capistrano, and looked at the soaring nave that still stands, stark and white against the blue sky, one of the only things still standing after the great earthquake there, stood where hundreds of people died at the Assumption mass so long ago . . . and all of the sudden this little, tiny, not-important story felt very important, because my feet had been in the place where it was set. It *does* make a difference to have been where the characters are. I don't think I really knew how much until I had that experience.

James said...

Southern lit is difficult for me. I find that I can only enjoy it in small doses (though maybe that's because I'm under-read; no Faulkner for instance). In terms of California lit, Steinbeck is a genius, but he leaves me cold. Do we count Fritz Leiber or Aldous Huxley for the Golden State or do they belong to New York and England? I don't know what to do about Texas lit. The only thing that's coming to mind is Robert E. Howard. Conan's fun, but that's not saying much.

In terms of local lit, I think you hit the nail on the head. Even when I'm out of sympathy with a New England writer (say Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables"), there's just so much that relates to actual things I've seen and experienced that it still carries me along; Puritans, witches, class struggles, haunted houses, grave yards, grey houses with black and white trim and red doors, Native American lands, country clubs, Fall, snow storms, sarcasm, metaphysics, prep-schools... It's like meeting any countryman in a foreign land no matter how much you might have quarreled with them back home; there's just that immediate bond because "they know."