Lost in the Present

By John Thatamanil

The climate crisis, the COVID pandemic, the global rise of authoritarianism—these are just the handful of quandaries human communities must confront in our time. But how? What resources do we have to help us through life’s overwhelming hurly burly?

Life is too complicated to just muddle our way through. Still, muddle through is what most of us manage to do.

Without glorifying mythic pasts—a toxic temptation embraced by wannabe fascists everywhere—I wonder what resources we lose when we fail to consider, or are deprived of,  the vast orientation-granting narratives afforded by the world’s religious traditions and their philosophical interlocutors and opponents? Without big-picture stories and symbols, how can we hope to order and direct our brief lives between the nothingness before awareness and the nothingness that comes after death?

Admittedly, there is some luxury in being able to ask big questions. For some, the scramble for the next meal, the difficulty of finding water for children, or safety from warlords—these and other terrifying obstacles steal precious time needed for imagination and reflection. Still, it is a lie and an affront against dignity to claim that the forcibly marginalized do not or cannot think.

On the contrary, clarity of thought is often only possible from the margins; the privileged have little interest in examining the conditions that grant them special benefits at others’ expense. The pleasures of on-demand, one-click consumerism as well as the enforced busyness and distractedness of contemporary life inhibit genuine reflection more effectively than material deprivation. The marginalized routinely have to think against the grain; the privileged can buy into anodyne myths that reassure them things are just fine as they are.

What I wonder is not just whether we have the time and inclination to think. I worry about what we have to think with.

I grew up in a Christian family that emigrated to the United States from India. As a nerdy child still adapting to my new country, I spent a lot of time alone, thinking. Although I was part of a working-class family—neither of my parents graduated college—I never had to ponder what to think with. I tried to make sense of my life with the resources of the Christian tradition, the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the big symbols of cross and resurrection, and even the thorny problems of the tradition: are human beings truly free if God is all powerful and, in some sense, in control? Why is there evil? Over time, by studying Hindu and Buddhist traditions as well as the philosophical traditions of the West, most especially existentialism, I tried to get at the big questions with help from several other sources. I am still muddling along but I have enormous resources that help me push through.

What helps you muddle through if you have neither religious nor philosophical traditions to think with? Our questions are so many. What do I owe my neighbor? How do I make sense of this pandemic and the fires and floods of the climate crisis? Why is there a climate crisis in the first place? How did we get here? What do I teach my children about how to be a decent human being? Just what is a decent human being? What virtues should I cultivate in myself and encourage in my children? What form of economic system works best to give human beings a decent shot at health, happiness, and flourishing?

The benefit of religious and philosophical traditions is not that they offer neat and convenient answers to these questions. They don’t. Worse still, they have sometimes offered flawed answers. What is best in religious traditions are the intense millennia-long debates about these questions. Religious traditions offer the resources of scriptures, visual art, music, poetry. They also offer a range of stringent objections posed by rival thinkers together with a number of possible answers to those objections. Religious traditions are pantries and spice cabinets to think with and think through life’s questions.

When I browse the resources on offer in the Christian pantry, the stock ingredients that I find myself reaching for include: Jesus’s commitment to “the least of these,” the poor and the oppressed; the prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible; the writings of mystics like Meister Eckhart and Howard Thurman; the theological profundity of Paul Tillich: and the lives and witness of exemplary Christians like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not one of them holds out prepackaged answers or simple solutions, but they all grant me priceless resources for reflection.

But religious traditions don’t just give us resources to think with. They also grant access to concrete practices that lead to self-transformation. Prayer, baptism, eucharist, prayer books, service in love to neighbor and enemy—these are some of the core ingredients that go into the composition of a Christian life. Without some therapeutic regime—some set of disciplines for personal and social transformation—to go with our worldview, our ideals fail to take on tangible flesh in our daily lives. Now, through study and practice of ingredients borrowed from the Buddhist “pantry,” my Christian living has been further enriched by mindfulness meditation which helps me be more present, attentive, and compassionate toward self and neighbor.

Human communities now face unprecedented challenges that require us to rethink our relationships with each other, our animal kin, and our planetary home. But as churches and other religious institutions lose cultural clout, as institutions of higher education decimate their liberal arts programs, human communities are starved of the cultural resources we desperately need to confront contemporary crises.

It’s not the old answers we need so much as the hard-won habits of imagination, critical reflection, and disciplined practice that form the inherited stock of ancient religious and philosophical traditions. Bereft of these compelling imaginative frames and critical resources, we are vulnerable to the false promise that the free market will solve all our problems. Some are vulnerable to fascist fantasies of the “good old days” in which white men were men and women and minorities knew their place. Worst of all, some fall prey to the wildest narratives afforded by conspiracy theories such as QAnon.

But some might ask: aren’t the narratives of religious traditions also wild and incredible? Perhaps, but what distinguishes them are millennia long traditions of debate and disputation with both insiders and outsiders. At their best, religious traditions have also robustly engaged the sciences and in so doing enriched the repertoire of resources they have on offer. Lacking such resources, human communities can fall into narrative deprivation. They are ripe for capture by shallow substitutes peddled by conmen, private and public.

When I first wrote this, a thin orange haze was hanging in the air here in Victoria, British Columbia. Smoke had traveled hundreds of miles from the Washington State fires over the Salish Sea. Canadian border agents can stop Americans still in the throes of the first wave of the pandemic. But they are powerless to police American airborne particulates. Although I was an asthmatic trapped inside my apartment, my primary worry was not for myself. I worried instead about how we, on both sides of the border, will find the intellectual resources we so desperately need to cope with climate grief, find courage for collective action, and love our planetary home, even as we fall into forgetfulness.

How can we hope to live with wisdom and creativity in the perilous present if we have no access to the treasure-laden past?


John J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament and the forthcoming book, Circling the Elephant: Constructive Theology through Interreligious Learning. He teaches courses on comparative theology, theologies of religions as well as a course on Gandhi and King. He is a past-President of the North American Paul Tillich Society and the founding chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Theological Education Committee. His Op-Eds have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a variety of sites online.

A different version of this blog was published on ABC’s Religion and Ethics on 14 Sept. 2020.

Counterpoint blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 14 October 2020.”

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