“Angels in America” as personal secular theology

Among the non-religious, the religious idea that there are layers to a particular book, layers which can help you understand the world differently depending on what you need often draws derision. But I am deeply sympathetic to it because that’s been my relationship to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Whenever I’m in a time of crisis and confusion, I read it and gain…something. Sometimes, I’ll find two contradictory ideas and meditate on how to resolve them. And other times, I’ll read it and come across a line and just go “wow that’s deep, man” and spend the entire day thinking about it (the most recent example of this was “It’s the price of rootlessness. Motion sickness. The only cure: to keep moving”)

Here’s an example of the kind of theological thinking. Consider these 3 quotes from Kushner from this recent interview:

1. “Angels in America makes it clear that to be born involves being a Jacob and that everyone – gay or not – wrestles with their own version of an angel.”

2. “The play is about people testing human connectedness and, in Harper’s case, about how pernicious loving the wrong person can be. It is also about what to do when you live in a world with no grand theory to guide you.”

3. “The more you are aware how much you need other people, the more you realise you are composed of connections to others – what they give you and you them – and you become aware their loss is going to be calamitous.”

Here’s a question: So what happens when you love the wrong person? After all, even if they are the wrong person, their loss will be calamitous. We could try claiming “well, not leaving them would be more calamitous” but that strikes me as self-serving equivocation about “calamitous”, just a convenient way of justifying what we want. Kushner would instead point out that there is no theoretically sanctioned answer about whether you should leave this wrong-person-to-love. Kushner will point out what happens if you don’t leave. He will also point what happens if you do leave:

HARPER: In your experience of the world. How do people change?

MORMON MOTHER: Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.

HARPER: And then get up. And walk around.

MORMON MOTHER: Just mangled guts pretending.

But you need to choose.

Instead of a model of ethics where you plug in input values, gears audibly turn, and an output churns out about what to do, the model is here is more “it should be the questions and shape of a life, its total complexity gathered, arranged and considered, which matters in the end, not some stamp of salvation or damnation which disperses all the complexity in some unsatisfying little decision—the balancing of the scales”.

And that’s so inadequate. What can this tell us about what to do? Which ends to pursue? But it’s a vision of ethics free of the assumption of a universal theory, and it’s something…honest. You can still read Peter Singer and Kant and all the analytic moral philosophy you want. But I’m with Levinas here (I think, who knows with Levinas?): “the small goodness from one person to his fellow man is lost and deformed as soon as it seeks organization and universality and system, as soon as it opts for doctrine, a treatise of politics and theology, a party, a state, and even a church. Yet it remains the sole refuge of the good in being.” A sense of visceral responsibility is preserved with Kushner, and that’s something I find I’m drawn to.

As for any non-religious person viewing a particular religious ritual, this might all seem completely bizarre. But it is a fantastic piece of work, and recommend working through it multiple times. And who knows, it might call to you too.


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