Friday, June 17, 2016

Eating humble pie



     Last Sunday, it happened again. A lone gunman opened fire in a crowded nightclub and killed or injured almost one hundred people. Thousands of lives were changed because of that man's actions. Immediately the questions arose, such as: "Was it a terrorist action?" "Was it a hate crime?" "Is there a difference?" "Where did he get his guns?" Certainly, in the days since then, we've learned some of the answers to questions like those. Knowing those answers will not change what happened. And, as we've seen in the wake of similar events, knowing the answers probably won't result in any lasting change in public policies.      Just as immediately, and regardless of any answers to the questions, fingers began pointing. It's the easy thing to do; fix the blame elsewhere. This serves to re-establish certainty and normalcy, the notion that the world works in a particular way where "those kind of people" do "those kinds of things". And, of course, usually, "those people" are different from "us". The manner of difference varies widely, but we know who WE are by who we ARE NOT. There's nothing new about any of this. Sociologists have pointed out this phenomenon for a long time, and have observed it in the scriptures and writings of just about every religion and people.      The problem is that these "easy" solutions don't, ultimately, work. Oh, some quick fixes might achieve some short-term results. Most often they simply serve to help us become even more entrenched in our own position, within our own tribe. They arise out of a place of fear. And those who would "have their way" with us will appeal to that fear, and we, too often, will give in. It's just easier.
     But what if we operated out of a place of hope? What if, when encountering difference, or something we just don't understand, we saw it as an opportunity for growth, a chance for a better future? What if, instead of putting up our dukes, we pulled up some chairs, poured some tea/coffee, and shared our aspirations? My experience in those kinds of settings is that the tribalism begins to recede once we get to know the other. Of course, that's more difficult. Not only do we have to be open to hear and understand the "enemy", we have to be open to understand ourselves! And it takes a lot of humility to admit we don't have all the answers.      Such engagements will not prevent what happened last Sunday. Tragedies like that are, unfortunately, part of our human story. As we have advanced in technology (from the rock, to the arrow, to the gun, to the atomic bomb), we have simply made the toll more likely to be higher. But our response cannot be to throw up our hands in despair, and retreat to our dens of fear. We need to seek out those with whom we differ, set aside our individual agendas, and learn together what we would like to see as a future.
     So, along with that tea/coffee, how 'bout a serving of humble pie. 


Blessings,

Gary

Friday, June 3, 2016

Evolving compassion

     In this week's episode of OnBeing, Krista Tippet hosts a conversation with Jonathan Haidt and Melvin Konner; the discussion is titled: "Capitalism and Moral Evolution."  Haidt made his "mark' in the academic/philosophical world with his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006). I found that book very provocative, as I did his subsequent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013). So I was really anticipating enjoying this interview. And I did . . . up to a point. As I listened to the three-way back-and-forth between Haidt, Tippet and Konner (who I'd not heard before), I became increasingly uneasy about some of the conclusions. 
     One of the main points, asserted early on in the conversation, was that there is a great similarity between Darwin's theory of evolution and the economic theory of capitalism. Neither a biologist nor an economist, the easiest way I could understand it was in the phrase associated with Darwin, "the survival of the fittest":  members of the plant and animal kingdoms travel through a long process of adaptation to a particular environment, in a sense, by trial and error. The argument made by Haidt was that capitalism (or the workings of the market) functions in much the same way:  what works (i.e., makes money) survives; that which doesn't fades away (anyone remember "New Coke"?).
      One of Haidt's points is that capitalism -- one of the darling theories of the political right -- really functions to turn people into liberals. Not recalling his precise examples, he infers that capitalism may lead to exploitation of workers or the environment which then "fires up" a younger generation who take corrective action (usually championing more "liberal" causes:  worker rights, environmentalism, etc.). I must admit that I found that a fairly interesting hypothesis. The longer I listened, however, and the more I thought about both Darwinian evolutionary theory, as well as the economic theory of capitalism, I realized that something -- from my point of view -- was missing.
      Let me be clear, I am no foe of either theory; I see how both of them have functioned. The fundamental flaw (or, perhaps, "lack") in both, however, is similar. Both have, at their base, the sense of self-interest. The "survival of the fittest" assumes that the species "desires" to survive for its own sake, and will adapt itself to do so. The "market" will rule, because the investor will adapt the product in order to maximize return/profit (and that benefits the investor).
      I know that there are folks  who argue that there is only a material reason behind every human action, often making these from neuro-scientific evidence. Not being a scientist, I have little with which to rebut those claims. On the other hand, I do believe that humans can can rise above mere materiality. And in this conviction, I stand in concert with most religious traditions.
      In a 
documentary the other night on PBS, Steven Hawking was using the help of some young adults to show how evolution could have occurred simply through the mixture of water, salt and amino acids. BUT, it took several drops of a solution containing bacteria to get anything going (and of course, the existence of bacteria wasn't questioned). But once the bacteria was added to the amino acid soup, all creation broke loose. And, so, I wonder what it would be like to insert "compassion" (a non-material, non-self-centered, impulse) into the petri dish of evolution and/or capitalism?
      Might we evolve differently going forward? As we wind up this commencement season, that would be my prayer for those graduating, that they not be driven blindly by "evolutionary" selection, or the forces of the "market", but rather by a sense that everyone and everything is worthy of their care, that everyone and everything is worthy of being raised up. Simply because their hearts tell them that it is right and good so to do.


Blessings,

Gary

Friday, May 27, 2016

Beginning to commence to start . . .


     While not frequent, I've heard grumblings the last few days at DU:  "Parking is impossible to find. The roads are crazy full." But those grumblings are a bit predictable; they happen every year in late May. The reason? Graduation season! Magness Arena, home to DU's hockey and basketball teams, is a favorite venue for many of the Denver area's high schools to hold their commencement exercises. During these days, I derive a lot of enjoyment from walking to the gym, seeing the happy grads in multi-colored gowns, ecstatic (maybe harried) family members carrying balloons and flowers, stopping--and holding up foot-traffic--to take photos. It is a happy time (all grumbling aside).
     It is, indeed, commencement season. In a week's time Magness will be wrested back from the high schools, and DU's own graduation ceremonies will take place.* We will be fortunate to have
Susana Cordova, acting superintendent of Denver Public Schools, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as our featured speakers. But, at this time of the year, many eyes are on the schools that were able to convince the President of the United States that he needed another honorary doctorate. In the past few weeks, President Obama addressed the graduating classes of both Howard University and Rutgers University. Listening to the reporting on those speeches, particularly that at Rutgers, I was struck by one theme mentioned by many who were interviewed. The President exhorted his listeners to remember that things don't happen quickly, to "take the long view" -- but that the time things take does NOT mean one shouldn't be engaged
     The implication of being engaged is dual-edged. There is a sense of hope, a feeling that NOW we can go out and make a difference. That hope is accompanied, I've come to learn through speaking with many students, with a nagging fear that "I'm not ready! I don't want to leave the "cocoon" of school! I don't have all of the skills that are necessary to do the job I've accepted!" And I often find myself telling them, "You're right! But, you'll never be fully ready! That would imply that you know everything now, that you'll never be surprised, that you're done growing." 
       I wonder what a seed would say (assuming seeds had consciousness and were able to speak) as a farmer dropped it into a hole in the dirt? "What am I doing here? This dirt is cold . . . and dirty!  And, wait, what?  Now the farmer is covering me up with MORE dirt? And . . . is that water?  I can add "drowning" to the list of offenses! I wasn't prepared for this! Let me back into the seed packet; at least it was safe there!" And, yet the seed survives. The nutrients from the water and the soil combine with the potential in that seed. The seed begins to transform. Its skin breaks a bit and something unexpected emerges -- a sprout.  And that sprout grows and, soon, emerges from the soil. The nutrients and the water are joined, then, by sunlight, and whole new "thing" appears.       A seed planted in the ground differs immensely, of course, from a newly-minted diploma-holder. The seed, basically, is passive, its potential being influenced and transformed by outside elements. New "diploma-holders" have the opportunity and--I would assert--the responsibility to engage in the act of transformation, both of themselves and the world around them. It may take more time than expected; it may be more difficult than expected. But it is what we would hope, we who send the graduates out. In this, I am reminded of the parable attributed to Jesus:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field;  it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13.31-32)
       May all who begin to commence to start this spring (whether commencing from Magness Arena or elsewhere) become such "trees" that provide sustenance, rest, and shade for a weary and hungry world.

Blessings,


Gary

*Of course, the graduation ceremony for DU's Sturm College of Law was held last weekend, as the law school is on a different calendar.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Acting or Transforming?


      At its origin, the word "hypocrite" referred to a stage actor in ancient Greece. An actor/actress "put on" an alternate identity in order, adequately and convincingly, to play the role demanded of them. In such a context, being a "hypocrite" was not a bad thing! But, then, as now, for a non-actor, especially a public figure, to attempt to deceive by being/believing something else is NOT a neutral thing, let alone a good thing. "Hypocrisy", as Wikipedia describes it, is "is the contrivance of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations, esp. with respect to religious and moral beliefs; hence in general sense, dissimulation, pretense, sham." Harsh, negative, descriptors!
       "Hypocritical" is used -- today as before -- as a (frequently well-deserved) critique of religions and religious leaders. "How can a religion preach love and act so un-lovingly?" "How can your tradition value charity while spending so much money on its own buildings?" "How can you prioritize certain scriptural texts while ignoring others (even in the same book)?" In other words, "Y'all are a bunch of hypocrites!" Those who are thusly criticized often have "answers" (and some of them are good and reasonable). But even the appearance of hypocrisy is usually enough to create a barrier to any further conversation or understanding. It is this real, or perceived, hypocrisy that, according to polls, is driving an entire generation (the "millennials") away from organized religion. (While this has been the case with young people for a long time, it is increasingly the case in the last few decades.)
       What many of these un-, or dis-affiliated people often imply in word and deed is that the traditions that were supposed to provide meaning (at the least) or transformation (ideally) shoot themselves in the foot in their public actions and pronouncements. These folks then find, or create, alternate structures to meet those needs (affiliation, community service, etc.) that are not as susceptible to organizational "posing". Their hunger is great. This problem is recognized by our institutions; few are very apt at correcting it.
       I suppose that's not too surprising, as the "hypocritical" institutions are filled with "hypocritical" individuals. Very few of us reflect our stated values accurately. We look in the mirror and see ourselves as something other than who we are . . . and we hope that others will see our "reflection" rather than our reality. "What matters most is how you see yourself" is a caption often accompanying the picture above. The "captioned" version is generally employed in a positive or motivational manner: "If you see yourself in some ideal way, you'll be able to aim towards that ideal." I understand that. But there is a big difference between recognizing the journey to the ideal and posing as something other than we presently are.
       Religious/spiritual traditions, at their best, must aid the "cat" in becoming something greater. Likewise, we, as people of commitment must be mature enough to set aside our pretense, our own hypocrisy, as we deal with those who seek to grow. We need to challenge false images, inadequate beliefs, harmful actions. We cannot "leave well enough alone". We must not equate mere acting with a commitment to transformation into a new creation.
     

Blessings,

Gary

Friday, May 13, 2016

Care-full conversations

      

     

      This last Tuesday, I had occasion to visit the
Radha Krishna Temple here in Denver. It is the home of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISCKON)  -- or the "Hare Krishnas" -- in Denver. I was meeting with one of the resident monks, an anglo who had joined the ISKCON movement during his college years. As we talked, he described the "congregation" that gathers every Sunday evening. It was, he said, incredibly diverse, both ethnically/racially and socio-economically. Different kinds of people, all finding answers to their deepest questions there.  Earlier that day I had gone to lunch at our International House, sitting with students from Vietnam, Nepal and Brazil. They were finding "answers" to another deep need - hunger! - but the casual conversation across nationalities was rich and enlightening.
       Yesterday, Thursday, I was in another "religious building" -- a church fellowship hall -- with a gathering of folks from various religious traditions.  The gathering itself was wonderful, because of the religious diversity (as well as a some racial/ethnic diversity). But, as the meeting was winding down, one of the Muslim members commented that over thirty-five different nationalities are represented at the Colorado Muslim Society (the Abu Bakr mosque on Parker). What an amazing diversity! What an amazing opportunity for people with a common bond (their Muslim faith) to learn from one another.
       Also, this week, I listened to an interesting interview with Sister Jenna, one of the initiators of "Meditate the Vote." The project itself is pretty interesting, but it was Sr. Jenna's description of the genesis of the idea that caught me. She said that she was on a mountain in India with thousands of other people from around the world, and what an awesome/inspiring thing it was to be surrounded by so many different people from different faiths and nationalities.  That called to mind MY experience last fall at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Salt Lake City. It was an "alternate universe" with 10,000 people from around the world, from every possible religious tradition, all committed to one thing:  peace, and religions' role in promoting it.
       I am struck by how often we say we value diversity, but how little many of us actually engage in conversations that cross ethnic/racial/linguistic/religious boundaries. I know that I often need a reason to go outside my bubble; certainly the churches I most often attend are pretty mono-cultural. I confess a fear, or at least uncertainty, that I'll ask/say the wrong thing, or that I'll be put in some other kind of uncomfortable position. That fear is almost always unfounded. Indeed, the opposite is generally the case: I am made to feel quite comfortable. And I come away blessed.*       Fear of the "other" besets us all. And there are many who would play upon that fear, as anyone who reads/hears the news from around the world can observe. But how debilitating is that fear! It prevents us from moving forward -- as individuals, as a nation, as a common humanity. We avoid, or silence, voices unlike ours to our peril. What I heard, or experienced, this week in numerous ways was the value of a gentle interaction between "others", care-full conversations that engendered hope in a world that seems hungry to depart from despair.
     
Blessings,

Gary

* I know that I'm often concerned that I won't know the right questions to ask, that the conversation will go nowhere. I've, fortunately, found a list of GREAT QUESTIONS that are easily malleable to any unusual situation!  They can be found at the StoryCorps website.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Suspicious Minds?



We can't go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds*

       When I was preparing for my doctoral exams, I put together a "summary sheet" for each of the books/articles I had to read. It had all the "normal" things one might record when reading:  title, date of publication, summary, strength of argument, etc. I had come to learn, however, that there was another question that needed to be asked, and it often required a bit more thought:  "Whose voice is not represented?" Certainly every author is trying to make a point, and there can be limits imposed by editors as to how much can be written. But it is often helpful to know whether there are counter-arguments. What is left un-said can be as telling as what is said.        I was recalling that experience earlier this week in two, unrelated, contexts. The first was while listening to an interview with Stanford professor Robert Proctor, a co-editor of the book Agnotology:  The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance.** Proctor argues that there is often a willful construction of doubt on the part of advertisers, corporations or politicians. He gives examples of the tobacco industry or the climate-change deniers -- those who would create doubt that the negative effects of tobacco or fossil fuels were "real." The implications of this promulgation of misleading or inaccurate information are pretty frightening -- even as we see them employed all around us.       The second situation that brought my doctoral preparations to mind was the monthly book discussion I host. Last Wednesday we read chapters from Robert Gregg's Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.***  We focused on the stories from the book of Genesis about Sarah and Hagar. Gregg's task in these chapters was to tell how the three religious traditions re-told the stories (both in words and in figurative art), re-tellings that served the purposes of those traditions, while omitting or altering portions of the story that may have been "problematic".  
       I had to wonder whether or not Proctor would read Gregg and conclude that agnotology has been around a LONG time! I suspect he would see some similarities, of course, but he might argue that the telling of stories within a group serves to strengthen that group's inner cohesion. That process is a different task than deliberately fiddling with, or omitting, facts to keep outsiders ignorant and, thereby, to influence their behavior in one direction or another.
       Proctor's overall argument was one I found quite compelling, and, as I noted above, frightening. We already are surrounded by "story-tellers" on all sides of the religious and political spectrums. They, of course, are framing arguments that will serve their purposes or strengthen their communities. But in a world where we can often get away with listening only to our own 
group-speak -- whether it's from our "friends" on Facebook, or the cable news channels that suit our political tastes -- we run the serious risk of heading into a future woefully unprepared for what we might face.        It may be heresy to argue with "The King", but I think that if we really want to "go on together," to "build our dreams", we have to have "suspicious minds."
     
Blessings,

Gary

* Elvis Presley, "Suspicious Minds"
** with Londa Schiebinger, Stanford University Press, 2008*** Oxford University Press, 2015.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Just say, "Me".



      Last evening (4/28), one of our PBS stations ran an episode of the series NOVA: "Rise of the Robots". One of the main themes of the feature had to do with making robots who could negotiate disaster sites, especially those that were rubble-strewn. Given how they are constructed, robots have a difficult time "walking" on radically uneven surfaces. Solving this problem could speed up rescue operations in dangerous environments -- sending in robots means that humans aren't put at risk. As the scientists and engineers were discussing all of the practical implications, one posed the question, "Well, if something goes wrong with (or because of) the robots, who will we blame?"
      Blame.

      Before I started watching the PBS show last night, I was at a discussion on the DU campus focused on Dialoguing about Race and Religion. At one point during the presentation, one panelist, Harold Fields, talked a bit about the "Circle of Human Concern" -- one of the ways we think about WHO we perceive ourselves as a group (nation, society, sub-group, religion, etc.).  The "circle" about which we're concerned defines who is in , and who is out.  OR, put another way, those inside the circle push others out -- expelling, or excluding them. Those outside then become invisible to those inside.
       Exclude.        These two incidents/stories came on the heels of a news story I heard earlier this week that referred to "scapegoats." That story had me thinking about the "tradition" of scapegoats, and their role in human history. One of the earliest mentions of the idea that some figure (early on, an animal -- yes, a goat) would be invested with the sins/faults of a people is found in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus (Chapter 16). On the Day of Atonement, two goats were selected for a ceremony. By lot, one was selected to be a sin-offering (and is sacrificed); the sins of the people would be "transferred" by the priest onto the head of the other goat. That goat, the "scapegoat", would be led into the desert--to Azazel, bearing (or removing) the sins of the people. (Interesting to note that the goat was randomly chosen -- by lot, AND that it was pure/innocent prior to the ceremony, i.e., it didn't have "undesirable" qualities).
        Since that time, the term "scapegoat" has come to be applied to anyone (or any group) that we want to "blame" or to "exclude": they don't look like us; they don't talk like us; they don't eat like us; they don't dress like us. That was certainly the context in which the word was used in the news story I heard. Whether the word is mentioned, we hear the idea scattered throughout our political debates these days: someone is to blame for our problems; someone must be expelled or excluded, taking our bad fortune with them!
         I suppose it is human nature to want to deflect culpability. And I know that there is great power in rituals that "cleanse". Whether it is sending a goat to Azazel, or going to private confession, or even burning a list of "sins", there can result a sense of a clean slate, a new beginning. Yet, the tendency becomes evil when we seek simply to place responsibility outside ourselves: "It's THEIR fault!" Here is a situation where a concept ("scapegoat") takes a dark turn. By blithely placing our "sins" on the heads of others, we don't have to look within. We don't have address our policies as a nation; we don't have to address our own individual greed, lust, sloth (or any of the other seven dealdlies). It's easier that way, I suppose.
       But it's no way to health. Why, when we ask the question, "Who will we blame?", is it so hard to just say "Me."  To take responsibility, make amends, and move forward.
   

Blessings,

Gary