Friday, February 22, 2013

Motivated Reasoning?

       This morning, I heard a brief interview with two directors of Oscar-nominated films:  Ang Lee ("Life of Pi"), and Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild").  One of the things they were both discussing was the line between "reality" and "imagination."  Lee spoke about the computer-generated images of the tiger that is so central to his film; real tigers WERE used, but, more often than not, to help the animators get a better handle on how to depict the computer-generated tiger.  When Zeitlin began speaking, he noted that with his 6-year-old star (indeed with most six-year-olds), the line between reality and fantasy was not one that could be clearly drawn.  He admitted that, as a child, he had an imaginary friend.  If, on some day, that imaginary friend wouldn't appear to play, he would experience real disappointment and sorrow -- a real emotion based on an imaginary event.  So, what is real?
       I began to think about this in relation to the papers from the first assignment I gave my students in my "Pets, Partners or Pot-roast" class:  "Based on the scientific, philosophical, and religious distinctions we've discussed, where do you (the student) draw the line (or distinguish) between humans and non-human animals?"  Some papers argued a strict "scientific" line; something like "Facts are all that matters, what we can measure, evaluate, etc.  All else is too subjective."  Others threw that argument on its head, something like, "Science is limited by its ability to objectively measure, i.e., how can we truly measure another creature's intelligence without imposing our, human, standards of measurement upon them?"  The students in the second group weren't disputing the actual findings of the science; they were, instead, disputing the meaning of the findings.  So, again, what is real?
      And, then, to add to the mix was a blog post related to "Discover" magazine:  "Why Facts Don't Matter", by Keith Kloor.  In the blog, Mr. Kloor bemoans how intelligent people will ignore, or discount, the "facts" given by reputable scientists about everything from vaccines to global warming to genetically-modified organisms.  He recognizes that there are going to be differences in how people perceive the facts; it is due our tendency to engage in "Motivated Reasoning" (referring to an article by David Redlawsk in the NY Times from a couple of years ago). Motivated Reasoning suggests "We are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested."  In other words, reality is, at most, a mirage.
      I remember many years ago realizing that it was pointless to argue "truth" based on a sacred text with another person who doesn't recognize that text as sacred.  I mean, my telling someone "The Bible says . . ." when that person might not accept the Bible's authority is kind of dim.  I'm almost embarrassed to admit at what age I came to that realization.  I am glad, however, that that lightbulb went on.
      What I've learned, and I've probably made this point before, is that it is less helpful to me to know what someone believes to be true, than it is to know why they believe it so. Conversations about motivation generally stem from personal experience; on that basis, regardless of "truth claims", we'll probably be able to connect as people, rather than as "bearers of an issue."  I mean, didn't most of us have an imaginary friend who was as real as ice cream?


Friday, February 15, 2013

Taxes? Aww, SNAP!

     'Tis that time of year for many of us. The deadline of two months hence looms: Tax Day! And so I have begun the annual hunting expedition, trying to find all of the paperwork necessary to verify my income or justify my deductions. Spending time updating my Quicken records reminds me that it is easier to do the job in little bits, rather than leaving it to the end-of-the-year! "Hmmmmm. Why did I write that check to . . . ?"
      And then, there's that moment of truth when I hit the "Return" button (oh, the irony of THAT!), and the annual Income/Expense statement appears on the computer screen. What a pretty mixture of black and red ink! (This is one of those occasions when shades of gray, or any other ink color than black, are not welcome!) And I'm faced with the hard evidence of choices I've made over the year as to where I spent (or sent) my money. And I'm shocked at the number for "Household Expenses: Groceries". Yes, there's a household of four to feed in my case, but . . . .
      Normally, seeing that number would give me pause. I would sit back and consider whether we were being prudent. How might we cut back? And I start remembering and thinking about the amount of food that goes down the disposal, or into the garbage can. Gosh, if we only utilized that food, we could cut the budget by . . . ?
      "Normally," I say. But today was the Friday of the month that I take DU folks toMetro CareRing. At the beginning of every day work-day at MCR, the staff and volunteers meet for the "Gathering". It is a time of connection, some announcements/updates about the day's work, and usually an educational piece. Today, we learned that many of the staff at MCR were going to take the SNAP Challenge (SNAP = "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan", or 'food stamps'). It is a one-week challenge to see how well one might eat on $4.56/day -- the average food stamp benefit in Colorado.* $4.56/day = $31.92/week, or, for a family of four, $127.68. I can tell you that MY numbers are WAY higher than that.
       After learning that sobering statistic, we started the day's work. We stocked shelves with surplus groceries, food that had been on the shelves of Target or Whole Foods or King Soopers that would have gone into the dumpster. One of the food items of which we had an overabundance was Green/Swiss chard. It is an incredibly nutritious and delicious green, assuming you know how to cook it. Most people don't, and so it doesn't move off the shelves very quickly -- at the store or Metro CareRing. We needed to make room in the walk-in refrigerator, and guess what had to go? Yup, chard. And I was tagged as the person to take it to the dumpster. It was hard throwing that beautiful vegetable into the bin.  (No, we can't compost it in Denver at this time of year!)
       I, who write this every week, and most who read it, are so incredibly blessed that $4.56 is barely equivalent to our daily coffee consumption, and that throwing edible veggies away is hardly noticeable.  And so the idea of taking the SNAP Challenge is pretty intriguing, yet incredibly daunting. I wonder if I could do it? What changes would I have to make to my diet, to my lifestyle? How much would I find myself relying on the kindness of strangers -- like organizations such as Metro CareRing. How would I explain it to my family as a discipline? What blows to my pride or self esteem might I suffer if it were my reality?
       Many Christians, including me, just began observing the fast of Lent, a (roughly) 40-day period of prayer, study, self-discipline, and penitence leading up to Easter. The question of "What are you giving up for Lent" rings a bit differently for me now. The SNAP challenge doesn't require 40 days. Nor is it associated with Lent, or any other religious observance. On the other hand, considering the issues of hunger and how to address them does have some Lenten resonances . . . and those food-justice issues are of concern to every religious tradition.



*As a contrast, the per diem rate allowed by the IRS for food expenses (and incidentals, like tips) while traveling in Denver is $66 per day!

Friday, February 8, 2013


     Yesterday, in partial observance of Black History Month, as well as part of its ongoing "Religion and Violence" series, the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies invited Professor Willie Jennings of Duke Divinity School to discuss his book The Christian Imagination:  Theology and the Origins of Race.*  Much of what Willie** talked about was the commodification of the black body.  That is, how the slave trade, and issues of "black" and "white" were related to physical bodies, property and land . . . and who owned them all. The talk was indeed much more nuanced than this brief mention would imply (the book reviews, for example, are glowing!).  But at the end of his portion of the afternoon, he posed three questions for our consideration:

  • How do we relate to one another? Why do we relate to one another? Is it just because of commerce?
  • To whom do we belong?
  • Who do we want to be? 

Certainly, given the discussion about slavery, especially as it relates to the way Christianity and slavery have been intertwined, these were fabulous questions.
      I immediately, however, began to shine a different light on the question.  For several years I have taught an Honors seminar called "Pet, Partners or Pot-Roast".  The students and I begin by examining the ways we distinguish between ourselves and non-humans animals through the lenses of philosophy, religion and science.  Then we turn to six arenas where the "rubber meets the road":  environment, research, livestock, service animals, pets and food.  Throughout the quarter, Willie's first question is almost at the heart of every conversation:  "How and why do we relate to our non-human animal neighbors?  Is it just because of commerce?"  In other words, are the animals just there for our use?  And, we end up considering the question:  "Do they "belong" to us?  Of course, I hope that, at the end of the quarter, we will all have a different answer to the question "Who do we want to be" than we had at the beginning.
      In thinking about this over the last day, I recalled a greeting that a friend of mine always uses at the end of his correspondence:  "Namasté".  Many of us hear that (if we hear it) as a greeting and farewell, something akin to "shalom" or "aloha".  The meaning is much more complex.  A quick surf through Google will provide complete etymological analysis, but one translation is that the word (derived from Sanskrit), especially when accompanied by the gesture of the palms pressed together in front of the chest, means "I bow to you."  A deeper meaning, or implication, is "That which is sacred/divine in me bows to that which is sacred/divine in you."
      Hmmm.  That certainly is NOT a commercial way of relating to one another.  The relation implied is one of communion.  It is also a tacit acknowledgement that one party does not belong to the other; if anything, both belong to a higher authority/power.  (I do need to say that my class is completely divided on the matter of whether animals--or which animals--have souls, so whether we would be acknowledging the sacred in them is another question entirely!)
      This concept of each individual being infused with the divine is a bit foreign to most western religions, many of which assume a very hierarchical or possessive relationship (I think, for example, of the apostle Paul claiming to be a "slave of Christ"***).  And there can be great meaning and value in that kind of understanding when used with discernment.  But our Indian -- Hindu/Jain/Buddhist/Sikh -- neighbors clearly have something to teach us here. Something beyond commerce, beyond ownership, beyond one-upmanship.
       Perhaps something about who we might want to be?


*Yale, 2011.
**Willie and I were at Duke together in graduate school.  Two classmates in two weeks from different periods of my life -- but both addressing much the same issue!
***Romans 1.1, Galatians 3.10, etc.  some English translations "prettify" the Greek doulos, turning it into "servant".  Regardless, the meaning is still one of subservience/subordination.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Start from the place where you are.*

      Earlier this week, the University of Denver was privileged to host Tom DeWolf and Sharon Morgan, authors of Gather at the Table:  The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slaver and a Son of the Slave Trade.**  Tom and Sharon spent time in classrooms, lunchrooms, and community halls.  They spoke compellingly about a journey they had undertaken.  They had met at a conference on justice and peace building.  They learned quickly that Tom was descended from the largest slave-trading family in American history, and that Sharon was the descendent of slaves.
      After some fits and starts, they decided that, in order to advance the reconciliation of their own traumas of being heirs of the slave trade, as well as to help the American people come to grips with, and begin to reconcile itself with, its past, they needed to spend weeks traveling from Rhode Island to Mississippi to Oklahoma to Virginia to Illinois. They learned from one another things that they would never have imagined; they learned a bit about how to see through the other's eyes. Their story, and their presentation, is gripping, and sparked many questions, comments and critiques.
      One question I heard several times in private was something like, "It's great that they can travel together for weeks to write this book, to have the time to be able to do so.  And it's a great cause they're addressing.  But I don't have those kinds of resources, and, truth to tell, not being an heir to slaves or slave-holders, it's not really my issue.  So what can I do?"  'Tis a wonderful question in general. And, in Tom and Sharon's last "event" at DU, an open lunchtime conversation, that question was directed at them.  I was certainly curious to see how they might answer.
       Their basic answer was "Start where you are.  Do what you can do, with the justice issue that grips you."  Certainly they were interested in advancing racial reconciliation, but they also both know that that is not the only important matter before us.  Even that large issue has many compelling sub-issues, from issues of the over-representation of blacks in America's prisons, to inadequate resources for inner-city schools, to (unstated, but no less effective) color-bars in corporate America. Any of those, plus a multitude of other problems demand attention and resources.
       So, their answer was one that wouldn't let the audience off the hook.  It was a challenge to all of us to engage with the many and various problems that face us, and to do something.  It was a summons to engage someone of different background or ideology in respectful conversation, to learn from one another, and to seek a way forward.  Even though, as we learned, Tom and Sharon's own journey was not without disagreement, they were able to model a different way of encounter, and, in the process give a bit of hope.
       The challenge, or summons, remains to all of us:  "Start from the place where you are. Address your passion, your concern. Find a discussion partner with whom you may initially differ. Seek common cause. And work together to achieve it."  Among Christians, that might be called "bringing in the realm of God." For Jews, tikkun olam, or "healing the world." For just about every religious tradition, it's a sacred endeavor, for the place of true encounter with the other is often a place of true holiness.



* A clear "tip o' the hat" to Michael Stipe and R.E.M.'s song "Stand".
** Beacon Press, 2012