Friday, May 27, 2016
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.
*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
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.
Friday, May 13, 2016
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.
* 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
We can't go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds*
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."
* Elvis Presley, "Suspicious Minds"
** with Londa Schiebinger, Stanford University Press, 2008*** Oxford University Press, 2015.
Friday, April 29, 2016
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?"
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.
Friday, April 22, 2016
When we first moved to Colorado, we lived in Highlands Ranch (a Denver suburb). One of the perks we enjoyed was the opportunity to visit the recreation centers there. With two elementary-school-or-younger kids, it was great . . . . especially during the winter months (and accompanying vacations). When playing in the snow lost its fascination (or it just got too cold), a trip to the rec center and the humidity of the swimming pool was a welcome respite. It was in those rec centers that I first encounter "zero-entry pools". Since I am NOT a swimmer by choice, I'd never had occasion to be in a place where the entry to the pool resembled a sandy beach, i.e., that the lapped onto the "shore" rather than into a recessed "return. For small kids, it was GREAT! Certainly the water increased in depth, various levels marked by float-lines, "preventing" those who weren't swim-qualified from getting in over their head. As an adult (who could swim, by the way), I did see others (both kids and adults) who never ventured beyond the limitations of those float-lines; they hadn't learned to swim. They were having fun, to be sure (or at least it appeared so!). But even I, who only swim on occasion, knew that there was a different level of satisfaction being out in the "over-my-head" water. I had some responsibility for my survival; I had to exercise in different ways just to stay afloat. Not surprisingly, I see something analogous here to many other situations. People won't try new foods, staying with their favorites ("Mmmmmm, Mac-and-cheese from a box again! Why would I EVER want home-made!?"). I recall a student who, upon graduation from university, found himself headed to graduate school in another state on an opposite coast. . . . the first time he'd ever been any further away from his birthplace than a few counties. It was frightening for him to contemplate. For many of us, it's simpler to stick with what we know, or to follow the stream of culture/society. The proverb (with some reference to "Whack-a-mole"" in some totalitarian countries is apt: "Don't stick your head up; it's more likely to be bopped!" In other words, "Conform!" Or, to review the metaphor from above, "Don't go beyond the 3-1/2' line!" Given that all-too-common human tendency to seek safety or familiarity, then, it seems striking to me that many of the major religious leaders throughout time have called their followers to go beyond the culturally familiar. It doesn't take a particularly close reading of the Hebrew Bible book of Exodus to realize that Moses' call to the Israelites as he physically led them away from Egypt (literally and figuratively a foreign-but-familiar culture. His--(or God's--instructions to the people were that they were NOT to (re-)adopt the practices of other peoples (including both the Egyptians that they had left, or the peoples of Canaan to which they were headed). The Israelites were to be a unique, peculiar, people in relationship to their God. Easier, to be sure, to "be like everyone else", but not what God called them to be.
Similarly, it doesn't take a particularly close reading of the New Testament Gospels to see that Jesus was calling his followers to adopt a different way of being in the culture/world. His famous "beatitudes" overturn cultural norms (I like Luke's version, 6.20-26): "Blessed are the poor: blessed are the hungry; blessed are those who weep". Those kinds of sentiments are certainly not in vogue now, nor were they 2000 years ago. Or, we recall the woman who came to the Buddha wanting to be relieved of her grief over the loss of her one-year-old son. The Buddha instructed her to bring him four or five mustard seeds from any family she could find who had not known suffering and death. Her task, of course as she discovered, was impossible. She became a follower of the Buddha, recognizing that the normal, human, desire of a comfortable, suffering-free, life was an illusion.* The prophet Muhammed (PBUH) called his followers to leave the cultural influences, practices and rivalries of the tribes of Arabia. the founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah, as well as the gurus of Sikhism, likewise summoned their followers to go beyond the "normal" order of things. This invitation, or demand, to transcend the fears and customs that beset and surround us seems to me to be as much a common factor among religions as the more-oft cited "compassion". (Compassion, of course, can be pretty counter-cultural!) The usual, the expected, is safe; it demands little. Our religious leaders, however, call us to something greater. They ask us to leave the shallow end of the pool, to get in over our heads, to exercise different muscles, to attain something greater.**
* A version of the story of the Kisa Gautami can be found here.
** This footnote aside, I had to struggle NOT to make any political comments above . . . . . That would have been too easy, and I'm trying to transcend that impulse!
Friday, April 15, 2016
As I write this, we're anticipating at a major storm dumping inches of snow on Denver this-coming weekend (although it may be rain -- those weather-forecasters! By the time you read this, however, the form of precipitation may have been settled!). Lots of plans have been changed because of the weather . . . At least one DU sporting event has changed venues (it's difficult to play tennis, for example, in rainy/snowy conditions). My son's Boy Scout campout has been postponed a week (as currently forecast, NEXT weekend should be in the '70's! -- it's Colorado!). "The best-laid plans . . ." So, is it a "disaster"? It could be, to be sure, for some folks -- some things WERE only scheduled for this weekend. But maybe not! For some parents, the weekend is lost to gardening, and will be spent with kids indoors. While my son may not be learning outdoor skills, we will get some other scout-requirements out-of-the-way.
This-coming weekend's severe weather cannot be evaluated from only one perspective. Indeed, most things can be viewed from a least a couple of vantage points (without saying "every cloud has a silver lining"). This came "home" to me last week as I was attending a meeting of one of DU's religious student groups. A member of the group had suffered a severe medical emergency a week or so earlier and remains in the hospital. At one point, the prospects for a recovery looked pretty dim.* The question was asked of the group how each individual made sense of, or found solace in, a situation like this. The answers were varied, as one might expect. But most focused either on the difficult nature of the tragedy, or on the inscrutable nature of God's will. I wondered (aloud) whether there were another way of looking at the entire situation. That is, that the tragedy had produced a major effort on the part of the community. People came together, supported room-mates, supported the student's family, prayed together. YES, the student's situation was dire -- we had to trust the medical professionals, the student's will-to-live, and the power of prayer -- other than that, there was little we could "do" for the student. But what was produced BY that concern was amazing. How we look at things is NOT limited to only one perspective.
A similar "take-another-look" reminder came to me this morning in a blog-post by the Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center, Omid Safi. He tells of being invited to Salt Lake City to give a series of lectures, remarking that he had never had such an extended period of time to spend at the epicenter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (my words, not his!). He writes of how much he learned, not just in terms of "history" but of people's real lives. He learned how different, but how similar the Mormon experience was from the Muslim. And, of course, he came under criticism WHILE there. Yet he chose NOT to write of the critics, but of the hospitality and hope he found. The title of his blog-piece is "Shine a Light on the Good and Beautiful".
In all of my thinking about this, I have to admit that I'm very influenced by the theory/philosophy of managing change known as Appreciative Inquiry. At its core, AI focuses on what is good, what works. It does not deny that there are problems, but chooses not to focus on fixing them, but rather accentuating the positive. One writer, Jackie Kelm (popularizing AI as "Appreciative Living"), uses the image of a movie screen, where many of us see life's film with only half the curtain opened -- leaving us with a negative impression of what's going on. She argues for opening the other half of the curtain where we can see a more complete picture, to also, to use Safi's words, to "shine a light on the good and beautiful"; the negative isn't gone, it's simply complemented by something more nuanced, more constructive. It's takes discipline to look at things this way, but (I've found) a very useful discipline.
Another way to "look" at this is through the lens of optical illusions. Regardless of how we first see the picture above, after a while (even if we need to be shown), we'll probably see something more that we originally thought. Is it simply a mountain range, or is it a person's face? And, of course, for those of us in Colorado anticipating a lot of snow, we know that mountains bare of snow tell one story, but those with snow another -- yet they are the same mountains, only with a different look.
*They look MUCH better now, thankfully!