Arendt, Loneliness, and Totalitarianism

July 8th, 2018

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I just returned from Montana where I was with Kristin and Desmond and cousin Julian and my parents for two weeks of unwinding. And it took me that long to be able to relax and let my mind stretch out and become curious again and to let wonder refresh my prayer life.

And somewhere along the way, I stumbled across the philosopher Hannah Arendt. She is the person who coined the term the banality of evil, which she described as the inability to hear another voice, either within your own head, or from the outside community. And she attributed the banality of evil to loneliness. That was interesting to me. Her definition was different than how I had previously thought about loneliness.

Here is how she introduced it in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism: “What prepares people for totalitarianism, what happens in the heart, the psyche, and the society that makes these things possible is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience, usually suffered in marginal social conditions (like old age) becomes an everyday experience in the growing masses of our century.”

Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951 drawn from her experience as a Jew who fled Nazi Germany during the rise of Hitler.

Totalitarianism is a complex phenomenon and a loaded word, and given the polarization of our political landscape, a word that I am sure will provoke a wide range of reactions.

But what interested me most in the work of Arendt is not the context from which she developed her philosophical theory’s, but her conclusion: that loneliness is the fertile soil that can lead to the ripping apart of a society and that the antidote to loneliness is promises made to our neighbors within a culture of forgiveness.

As I thought about loneliness, and the antidote of promises made to our neighbors in a community of forgiveness, I thought of Epiphany, and I wondered about where the Holy Spirit is leading us.

I often talk about our living at the front edge of the age of the Holy Spirit: How there were two thousand years of the Abrahamic age of the Father; and two thousand years of the Jesus age of the Son; and how we are at the beginning of the age of the Holy Spirit being called, I believe, to renew and refresh the world through the Church.

And so, as I was on vacation, becoming acquainted with Arendt’s work, I was struck by how her thoughts on loneliness and the promises we make to our neighbors within a forgiving community are very much in line with what we are seeking to do, and who we are seeking to be, here at Epiphany.

Loneliness is something we can do something about but before that happens we must be clear about what loneliness is. Let’s start by drawing a distinction between loneliness, isolation, and solitude.

The loneliness that Arendt was talking about is not solitude. She defined solitude as spending time alone with one’s self. Solitude is a chosen state of being in pursuit of contentment and peace. And though this wasn’t Arendt’s perspective, solitude is a Christian spiritual exercise as well, where we seek time alone with God. Quiet time with God. It is a good thing and is not the same thing as loneliness.

Nor is loneliness the same thing as isolation. Isolation is being away from people and yet desiring to be with people. The solution to isolation is the presence of others.

The loneliness Arendt identified in Germany during the rise of Hitler was a loneliness where one lost the ability to have a moral dialogue within one’s own head; where one could no longer hold within their mind the perspective of another person that allows them the internal dialogue necessary for reaching moral clarity around a particular situation.

Let me say it again because this is Arendt’s definition for loneliness: loneliness is when a person can no longer hold within their mind the perspective of another person; when they can no longer have a dialogue in here (point to head), then they can no longer be in dialogue with their neighbor who holds a differing point of view.

When the internal dialogue was reduced to a monologue voiced by an outside source, in this case Hitler, then the external dialogues that naturally occurs in healthy societies between people of differing perspectives atrophied, and the society became polarized and then ripped apart. From here it was a quick trip to othering, ostracizing, and dehumanizing…Then came the laws, the camps, and the criminalization, as Germany lost sight of what was sacred in the abstract nature of the individual human being.

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about how Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer and Harvard Professor, who is a political supporter of Donald Trump’s policies, and how he is being a shunned from the social life he used to be part of on Martha’s Vineyard. I am sure this hurts Dershowitz’s feelings. It would hurt my feelings. Think about what that might be like for him.

Arendt calls thinking about another person’s circumstance moral imagination. Moral imagination requires thinking deeply about the other person; their circumstances, and their experiences, and their perspectives. To Arendt, thinking was not an exercise of mastering some piece of information, thinking was an internal dialogue that helps one reach a place of moral clarity. When we stop having an internal dialogue, when we stop thinking about what the other person is thinking about, the ground for totalitarianism is turned and readied, as the banality of evil erupts on the scene.

That is what happened in pre-World War II Germany, as tribalism, and nationalism, and racial identity became the monologue that silenced the dialogue and blotted out the sacred abstract nature of the individual human being.

Arendt, a secular Jew, was hesitant to articulate a solution to this problem of loneliness, but as I read it, I couldn’t help thinking about Jesus, and the core Christian belief that every person is sacred, every person is beloved, every person is a child of God. That is a core, sacred quality of the specific nature of a human being; and it is our privilege as Christians to call this out, and hold this up, not just as a higher good, but as the highest good.

I couldn’t help but think about what the Holy Spirit is doing here at Epiphany, and how we are seeking to help people thrive; how we are encouraging people to be comfortable in solitude, being OK with themselves, alone, and enjoying the company of God. And this is a good thing; how we are building community where people can come and break the cords of isolation that bind them; how they can find community, and be in community, and support others in community, and know a community that honors and includes people who are NOT just like they are.

And how, most importantly, we are a place that inspires moral imagination; where we learn to listen to the other, and hear their perspective, and maybe learn something, but more than that, to develop eyes to see beyond tribe, nation, and race to the beauty of the person; the human, the beloved child of God which is the core identity of every human being…

Now, I want to finish this sermon by talking about the two foundational structures that help strike at the heart of loneliness and inspire moral imagination. First: the promises we make to our neighbors; and second: the creation of a culture of forgiveness. These two things, the promise and forgiveness, not only reduce loneliness, but actually render it extinct.

Let’s take a closer look…We begin with the promise. To make a promise takes courage. It is risky. It requires committing our self, our time, our attention, and our resources to someone other than ourselves, and the type society it engenders.

Our promises are built upon the assumption that because you are a child of God, because you happen to providentially be my neighbor, we are connected, and we are responsible for one another, and so, I promise to bring you food when you are sick; I promise to help you raise your children; I promise to make this a safe community for you. Or more broadly, I promise to reach out to the person standing alone; I promise to welcome the stranger; I promise to meet you wherever you are on your spiritual journey.

Be brave enough to say I promise, and that I promise to honor the promises I make.But what inevitably happens in the world of “I promise” is that we break our promises. We forget. Things come up. We get busy, or we get a better offer, and our promises are broken, which brings me to the second foundation necessary for a community committed to moral imagination and the extinction of loneliness: Forgiveness.

Vibrant communities like Epiphany, can only change and try and experiment, in other words, we can only grow, if we are first and foremost a culture of forgiveness. Forgiveness is what allows us to risk being better, to act with greater justice and equity, because we understand that mistakes will be made, and hence forgiveness will be required, so we can continue to grow toward our best societal selves.

Loneliness is one spiritual malady we can and must strike back against as we seek to inspire moral imagination and turn off the loud, internal monologue that shouts a single point of view, in an effort to shut down conversation and scatter seeds of loneliness which can lead to the emergence of the banality of evil.

We must strike back against that!

Christian community is the corollary to the banality of evil. We are the response. Christian neighborly love is the antidote. It is the promise we make.

A community that sees the others as beloved, not a person to convince or win or turn or rule, but to be kind to; that is the answer, no matter what your political point of view.

That is what we do here at Epiphany and are trying to do better and better in response to the movement and guidance of the Holy Spirit in our midst.