All we know is that there are feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to recrystalize about it.”
If an angel took off the roofs of our American minimansions and suburban 3br 2 ba houses, she would find a museum of relicts left by once hot ideas and now dead interests: the wok in the kitchen, the dusty musical instruments in the kids’ rooms, the old magazines in boxes in the garage, a stray paddle from the white water rafting phase, etc. Where, exactly, is the enduring center, around which life crystalizes?
This is the problem posed by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Conversion is the name of the central chapter in that book, for good reason. It was a problem handed down by the puritans. It was a basic American narrative. It is at the existential heart of liberalism, even if liberals don’t know it.
One of the great words among the chattering and political class is “adult”. The great unwashed, the demos, may be “children”, but the elite class – the class that, broadly, embodies liberalism, in its present neo-lib varieties – pictures themselves as adult, a term that allows them, as well, to credit themselves with a youth they have sloughed off.
The opponents or contraries of adults are, of course, kids, teens. And this is no accident. James is very struck by the work of an American sociologist named Starbuck (a truly Melvillian name) who studied teens and religion. From his data, James draws certain conclusions: “The age is the same, falling usually between fourteen and seventeen. The symptoms are the same, - a sense of incompleteness and imperfection; brooding, depression, morbid introspection and a sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter, distress over doubts and the like.”
For good reason, Jesus said: Verily, I say unto you, if you are not converted and become as little children, you shall never enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
In the long liberal culture of adults, not entering into the kingdom of heaven, denying its existence, is part of the creed. Between a paradise that is essentially lost and a kingdom of heaven that is delusive, liberalism proposes an eternal in media res. At the same time, the society in which liberalism became possible was the same society that, through family household configurations, love marriages, and schooling created a youth culture – extruded from the world of work, but be-blinged with every consumer good. While age is affixed like a snitch jacket to the “adults”, all good things have shifted to the aura of youth. The culture of the aged – the sage – has been flushed down the toilet. The kingdom of heaven, now, is celebrity-hood – the fifteen minute kind, the courtroom kind, theInstagram influencer kind, and so on real world without end.
Among American conservatives, conversion is part of the everyday lingo – as it is not among the American liberals. The pathos of the American liberal is that he is always seeking the liberal under the conservative guise. What is your solution to poverty? What is your plan for health care? When of course under the conservative guise is a convert, who doesn’t think poverty is a problem but a judgment. Although certain conservatives, who tend to the libertarian side, speak of “solutions”, this is not the lingo of the brethren. Meanwhile, conservatives seek the conversion among the liberals. Surely they are secretly converted to something? Communism, pedophilia, something. The idea that, for liberals, conversion is a blank just doesn’t compute. And in fact liberals do, perhaps, worry about that blank themselves. To have no conversion moment, to regard existence as a perpetually in-between state of drift, is a curiously nihilistic attitude to found liberalism on.
This train of associations goes galumphing though my head every time I read a NYT article that analyses puzzles, like “why is the GOP audience not as shocked and moved by the Trump insurrection as we, who know the facts and are the adults, are?” Liberals seem incapable of turning such things into conversion moments – heavens, that would mean demagoguery and populism! Style, sometimes, is substance. Any convert knows this.