Friday, September 26, 2014

Co-option should be no option

      The news from the Jefferson County schools has gone far beyond the borders of that county.  It has been reported nationally, both on television and radio.  For those readers who have not heard, hundreds of high school students are walking out of classes to protest some proposed policies of the Jefferson County School Board.  One of the issues that they're protesting has to do with teacher compensation.  The one, however, that is gaining the most notoriety has to do with curriculum changes in teaching U.S. History (specifically Advanced Placement U.S. History).  Proponents of the changes want greater emphasis placed on the "positive aspects" of American history, and less on the "more regrettable" side of our past.  Increased "patriotism" is one of their objectives.
      The students, of course, believe that the definition of "patriotism" that the school board is asserting is NOT the only possible definition, and that the board is promoting a particular political agenda.  The students are adopting a form of civil disobedience that has been part of American history for some time, but that, according to the new curriculum, might receive little attention in future courses.  Their action, the students believe, is truly patriotic.  In short, the students are refusing to "buy in" to (a) the school board's agenda of "cleaning up" American history and/or (b) a particularly narrow definition of "patriotism".   They are doing us a favor, I believe, in reminding us of the temptation to give in to someone else's vision of how things should be.
      I've been thinking about this larger issue over the last few days -- not because of the protests in the next county over, but because of a meeting with a very different group of students, the DU Interfaith Advocates.  This group of students is passionately committed to creating a better world/future by bringing folks together, despite any religious differences, to achieve common goals.  Whether by serving together, studying together, eating together -- their belief is that we're "Better Together".  And that belief flies in the face of a culture that seeks to divide us into ever smaller groups, all in competition over (supposedly) limited resources.
      The passion and the energy those students bring to this enterprise is amazing.  The meetings start at 60 mph and accelerate from there.  Ideas fly around like crazy.  "Should we send students to this conference or that one?"  "Who should we get to cater this event?" "I think we should visit that house of worship!" "We need to get signatures on the application now!"  "Let's partner with one of the Greek organizations to provide community service!"  "We should devote a part of each meeting to watching?learning something about another religion!"  And on it goes.  It's like a feeding frenzy; the hour-long meeting passes in seconds.  It's great.
      This "style", however, mirrors a wider cultural phenomenon of "busier, faster, louder".  And we're all subject to that allure; it's so much a part of the "air" that we breathe that we hardly notice it any more. And so I challenged us at the last meeting to consider what kind of change we are trying to effect.  If our meetings are as frenetic and un-reflective as the society around us, aren't we selling out to a system that, ultimately, will wear us down?  Do we get to know each other, appreciate each other, while we're so busy talking around each other.
      I suggested a "protest", an act of "holy disobedience":  let's start the meetings with a minute or two of silence so that we can bring our whole selves into a different "space" (to create a "holy space") for our time together.  As a partial result of more a more deliberate way of being in communion with one another, we might, ultimately, be able to offer a viable, even more attractive, alternative to those forces that would divide us one from another.  Not business-as-usual, but community-as-optimal.

Chaplain Gary

Friday, September 19, 2014

Independence rejected . . . .

      This morning, as I was riding into work, I was listening to an interview with two scholars of the Muslim world (Reza Aslan and Graham Wood); the topic:  ISIS/ISIL and it's declaration of a "caliphate".  In the course of the interview, the question was raised as to whether some central learned "authority", such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, could have any influence over ISIS.  The answer was basically "No, ISIS is anti-clerical, anti-scholarly.  They are firm believers in an individual's ability to read and interpret the Quran for one's self."   In short, they act independent of any authority but their own; they want no connections they can't control.
      Earlier in the morning, I had learned that Scottish voters had voted not to separate from the United Kingdom; they rejected independence.  The reasons for a "no" vote were certainly varied.  Some folks thought that severing 
political ties would mean financial difficulties (e.g., what would happen to Scottish universities' research funding from London?).  Others saw potential European and/or global consequences if the United Kingdom dissolved.  And certainly others simply felt that emotional ties that bound Scotland and England were tight enough that severing them was undesirable (voting data showed, for example, that older voters opposed independence more than younger ones).  In short, they valued connections, even those over which they had only a little control.
      Questions of dependence, independence and inter-dependence have swirled around us for centuries -- probably from the dawn of any sort of human society.   There clearly is a tension there.  On the one hand, we celebrate the increasing "independence" of children as they grow older.  And we celebrate the independence of countries (such as our own) from tyrannical overlords.  On the other hand, we can hardly survive as entirely "independent" entities.  Humans depend on others for many necessities; countries depend on international trade.  As much as we might like to hold up autonomy or independence as an ideal, it is more of a useful fiction than reflective of reality.
       Interdependence is a constant theme in the writings of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.  I particularly love his "Tangerine Meditation" in which we are invited to hold a tangerine, and meditate on its origins, on everything that it took to bring the fruit from the earth to our hand.  Sunlight, rain, nutrients in the soil, insects to pollinate, human hands to pick the fruit, package it.  Trucks, trains, planes to deliver it -- as well as people to pilot and maintain that machinery.  Civil engineers and construction workers to build the road-beds.  Shop-keepers to sell the fruit.  The list goes on.  As Nhat Hahn writes:  "You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine."*
       Interdependence is also a theme of some of John Donne's most famous lines:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."**

Donne's words have, for many years, had an impact on me.  And while he was writing from a 17th-century Christian perspective, it is easy to hear the resonance in the 20th-century Buddhist ideas of Nhat Hanh.  It is not difficult to find similar perspectives throughout the world's religious traditions.  We are connected--interdependent--in so many ways . . . and those connections can serve to temper our beliefs and actions, as well as increase our compassion . . . . even when we are dealing with those with whom we disagree.
       Amid strident calls for "independent action" -- personal or international, may we take a moment to peel a tangerine, or recall the tolling of a bell.

Chaplain Gary

Peace is Every Step:  The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam, 1991), 22.
** Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, "Meditation XVII" (1624).

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dawkins' logic

    A couple of weeks ago, at worship, I was seated behind a family, one member of which was a young woman in a wheelchair.  I'm no physician, so I can't assume to name her condition, but she was fairly contorted; she was almost supine in her chair.  She seemed a bit agitated as well; there were a couple of times a family member felt it necessary to take her out of the service.  It was abundantly clear, however, that her family members loved her, and were not "put out" by her condition or the potential disruption she might have caused.  I was very happy to see them there.
     Last week, at the same house of worship, I was sitting on the opposite side of the building, and behind another family.  This one was more "conventional" -- a mom and a dad and their baby boy, as well as a set of grandparents.  The boy slept in his carrier through most of the service, and, when awake, was the "perfect angel" (i.e., quiet, but alert).  
He was taken out of the service, too, but for a very different (diaper-related) reason.  Again, the family was clearly very loving and attentive to the boy.  I was equally happy to see them there.
     At both services, sitting behind both families, one of the main things that kept running through my mind was the recent firestorm created by Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist and noted "new atheist").  He responded to someone who was wondering about potentially being pregnant with a "kid with Down's Syndrome".  Dawkins' response was "
@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
"*  As might be imagined, this tweet "went viral" and created a HUGE backlash against Dawkins, especially from the Down's Syndrome and the Right-to-Life communities.  Dawkins subsequently tried to justify his position by pointing out how many Down's Syndrome foetuses are aborted already.  And he questioned whether or not the foetuses could suffer.  And, then, finally, he published a more complete response, suggesting that if he weren't limited to the 140 characters of Twitter, he would have given a more nuanced, logical, rational, answer.  The gist of that more "complete" response was that aborting the foetus would be a mercy to the foetus, preventing it from experiencing future suffering.  He also states that the choice to bring to term a child with Down's Syndrome would "condemn" (his word!) the parent(s) "to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child".
      Now, I can take issue with Prof. Dawkins for any number of reasons.  Clearly, his position as one of the spokespeople for the "new atheists" puts him and me at odds over some fundamental theological issues.  The question of abortion in such a circumstance is certainly problematic on a number of fronts.  I am not choosing, here, to step into those troubled waters.  I have, however, two other thoughts stemming from Prof. Dawkins' assertions.
      First, I can't imagine that he could assert that a life without suffering is possible.  According to his Wikipedia biography, he is currently in his third marriage.  I don't know the circumstances, but if he had not experienced some level of suffering because of the dissolution of his first two marriages, I'd have to wonder about his humanity.  I bring that up only to suggest, as have many throughout history -- perhaps, most notably, the Buddha --  that the very fact of living includes some level of suffering.  If that is the case, then Dawkins' logic would compel us to abort every pregnancy.  Hmmmmm.
      Secondly, I'm not sure "caring" for someone is a "condemnation", unless one is driven by a totally selfish motivation (Dawkins DID, on the other hand, write the book, The Selfish Gene.  Just an observation.)  This question derives from my experiences over the last couple of weeks at worship, my own experience as a parent, indeed, my experience as a human being.  Suffering -- our own, and that of our children -- is basically inevitable (unless we've been able to achieve enlightenment as suggested by the Buddhist tradition).  
The circumstances or troubles we face may be visible or invisible to others.  They may have been the results of bad choices, or problematic genes, or freak accidents of weather.  The reasons matter not. The question of our response to that condition, it seems to me, is the critical issue.  What I saw in the faces of those family members of those two (VERY different) children was compassion.  Love.  It was not "logical" resignation to being condemned to care.
      It was, I think, an illogicalirrational choice of commitment to care in the face of real life.  Of course, those attitudes are what our religious traditions would commend.  Sign me up.

Chaplain Gary

*Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

After the light goes down

    Earlier this week, my wife and I went to the Denver Botanic Gardens for an event that also gave us the opportunity to see the David Chihuly art installation.  For those unfamiliar with his work, Chihuly “sculpts” in blown glass.  He has exhibited, and has pieces in museums, all over the world.  The installation at the Botanical Gardens has been fabulously received.  I was anxious to see it.
    We arrived just after 6:00pm; it was still daylight (although a bit dim because of overcast skies).  As we walked around the gardens, the lighting was such that we were able to see reflections of some pieces in the ponds.  Other pieces simply were so well-integrated in their setting that they looked both otherworldly and natural at the same time.  The evening wore on, and, between the clouds and the setting sun, darkness descended on the gardens . . . and an (almost) entirely different set of artworks appeared.
    Lit from beneath, above, within, and/or behind, the glass shimmered and shown in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated during the daylight hours.  Objects in the background framed the sculpture in a different way.  In some cases, the individual pieces of art stood on their own as the surrounding plants disappeared.  I was captivated by the change.
    Our visit to the gardens came during Orientation Week here at the University.  As always happens to me during this week-before-classes-begin, I spend a lot of time thinking about what it is we do at colleges/universities, what it is that these new students will find.  And, sometimes, in years past, I’ve thought of our educational enterprise as being one of “turning the lights on” so that what was once “dark” or poorly understood might become apparent. What occurred to me last night was that such pre-academic-year reflections were instrumental. That is, the “turning on of the lights” would enable the student to do something different with the information.  And that’s a good thing; If firmly believe it!
    There is, as I realized last evening, possibly something even more.  The change in the light clearly revealed something different about the art.  But there wasn’t anything different that I could DO with what I’d seen.  I could only appreciate it differently.  What changed was not the art, but rather me.  And, maybe that’s what we at the university are really about.  Sure, we’ll teach, explore and analyze facts and data. We’ll seek new ways to put that information to use, hopefully (I would assert) to the betterment of our fellows and our environment.
    At the end of the day/quarter/year/degree, however, may we all be changed.

Chaplain Gary