Friday, October 31, 2014

Know? No!?

      A long time ago, at a university far, far away, I taught an course that sought to provide historical context for some thorny contemporary issues. On the first day of class, I handed out a questionnaire that asked that the students locate themselves on continuum lines regarding some of those contemporary issues (e.g. abortion, capital punishment, legalized marijuana, etc.). I took those responses and prepared a chart of where they, as a class, "stood" on those issues. As might be expected, the class members extended both to the right and left from the mean. My purpose in conducting the exercise was two-fold. First, I wanted the class to recognize that not everyone enrolled was in agreement about certain issues, i.e., that not everyone was a "liberal" of "conservative". Second, I pointed out that where folks might place themselves would most likely depend on their personal experience with, or investment in, the issue. For example, Jean might philosophically be opposed to capital punishment, but when dear Aunt Sadie is the victim of a fatal mugging, Jean might say "Fry the murderer!" In other words, our heads and our hearts are not always in agreement.
      This seems to me to be pretty apparent in all of the hubbub about Ebola. President Obama and the Center for Disease Control stress that our response to the outbreak should be informed by science, not fear (i,.e., "head", not "heart"). On the other hand, once the general quarantine guidelines had been suggested, Nurse Kaci Hickox in Maine (who had returned home from treating Ebola patients), claimed that science asserts that she is not contagious until she shows symptoms, and shouldn't be subject to a quarantine (which, at the time of this writing, had just been imposed by a judge in her state). So, whose science are we to believe? Whose motives are we to question? Is "caution" the same as "fear"? Does knowledge "solve" the problem?
      Well, in some cases, I suppose, it might at least help. I heard an interview yesterday with Robert Jones, of the Public Religion Research Institute. He was discussing the P.R. problems facing the Muslim community in the United States. He pointed out that a recent poll showed that only about 40% of Americans had a "positive" view of Islam/Muslims -- lower on the polling scale than atheists. But, he also pointed out that a large proportion of Americans knew very little about Islam, and only 38% say they know a Muslim. He thought that if folks knew MORE about Muslims and Islam, the favorability rating might go up. And, I believe, polls on other issues would support his conclusion.
       On the other hand, mere knowledge can just as easily be turned into a weapon. And, here I think of some of the "new atheists" who want to turn "science" into a means of ridiculing folks who don't place "facts" at the pinnacle of human experience. Yet their so-called "knowledge" seems frequently based on fear, insecurity, caricatures, or incomplete (if not completely incorrect) understanding of those they oppose. Their attitudes, I believe, are as much as product of their experience as their book-learnin'.
       I work at a university. I am a fervent believer in the pursuit of knowledge. I would hope that I have helped contribute TO knowledge. I stand reminded, however, of the ancient Delphic maxim "Know Thyself" (inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi). There is a humility suggested by rigorous self-knowledge which could lower the temperature of our heated debates. Arguing "facts" seems to get us no place. Comparing experiences and 'fessing up to our hopes and fears, the other hand, might help move us forward.
      So, is it all about what we "know"'? I would say, "No." But knowing that we don't (or can't) always know everything is a start. 

Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 24, 2014

Untied Nations

      Those readers who also "follow" me on Facebook or Twitter will know that I regularly post the various holidays of the world's religious traditions (along with a link to a website that describes the holiday).  Those same readers also know that, in addition to religious observances, I also will add in some national holidays as well as days that the United Nations have set aside for special observance.  Today (October 24) is no different!  Today, according to the United Nations is "World Development Information Day" as well as the beginning of "Disarmament Week".  The links will explain those days, of course.  But today is an even more significant day for the UN.  It was sixty-nine years ago today that the United Nations officially came into being.  (While the Charter was signed in June of 1945, it wasn't ratified by a majority of the signatories until that October).
      The United Nations has four main purposes (according to its 
  • To keep peace throughout the world;
  • To develop friendly relations among nations;
  • To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
  • To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.
I believe that the UN has tried to live up to those ideals.  We can certainly see some evidence of those efforts in their published statements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the more recent Millennium Development Goals.  That said, it is clear that it hasn't always been as successful in some arenas as in others.  And there are (at least in America) some folks who think that the UN is some kind of satanic cabal that will chain us all up and force us to eat cockroaches.  
       I believe that the UN was created with the best of intentions, emerging from the ashes of the failure of the League of Nations and the horrors of World War II.  And I am sure that its structure was developed as well as it could be given the competing agendae of the major powers at that time.   But, as time has gone on, it seems that the structure has required change -- and that has been realized, and acted upon (in some ways), by the UN itself.  Changes in the composition of the Security Council is one example.  But, when "permanent" members of the Security Council want to exercise their veto, things stall.  And/or, when the UN-as-a-whole leans in one direction, initial signatories can chose to withhold funding, the overall effectiveness is compromised.

       Let me be clear, I am NOT a International Studies student/major/expert; my knowledge of the UN is what any attentive person might have gained over the last decades.  And so I am NOT making sweeping policy critiques or suggestions!  I would like, however, to return to something I suggested above, i.e., that the structure of the UN was a compromise because of the competing agendae of the earliest designers.  Where the UN has succeeded, it is because the "competition" of the majority has taken a back seat to a compelling need.  Where it has often failed, it is often partly due to one country's self-interest running rough-shod over the good of the whole.  In different language, children don't always play with other children.
       Earlier this year, 
it was reported that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres met with Pope Francis, and suggested that the UN had out-lived its usefulness; an alternative might be a similar organization with religions coming together rather than nation states.  A good, but somewhat naive, idea, Minister Peres; it has been suggested before, by the former Episcopal Bishop of California, William Swing.*  He worked tirelessly to form a "United Religions" and learned a lot.  What developed out of his efforts was the United Religions Initiative, a wonderful organization that recognizes that acting from top down has major draw-backs -- self-interest of the "leaders" (assuming they can be identified) being primary.  Working from the grassroots, dealing with real problems on the ground, with people of good faith, is the way to go.  It may not be "flashy", but it has not run afoul of as much as has self-interest.
      "Self-interest".  I know the concept.  It is part of who we are, as individuals and nations.  We want to survive; we even want our children to survive.  But how far out do the ripples go?  Are "nations" the best way to define self-interest?  Are "religions"?
      What does tie us together?  In what are we "united"?  Over what are we "untied"?  I do believe that our religious traditions--at their best, or at their core--provide the best answers to those questions.

Chaplain Gary
* Full disclosure:  I have known Bp. Swing for over thirty years.  He confirmed me as an Episcopalian, and baptized my daughter.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Treatment is not healing

     I became acquainted with the phrase "Map is not territory" when reading a book by historian of religions scholar Jonathan Z Smith of that name.  The phrase itself predates Prof. Smith, coined in 1931 by Polish-American scholar Alfred Korzybski, who held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. We, of course, often look at maps, at dotted lines on paper suggesting "borders", and forget that many of them are quite arbitrary.  This realization was partly behind the formation of the United Religions Initiative -- an initial idea being that religious concerns transcend physical borders.  Clearly we are face-to-face with that reality as we try to comprehend the confusing sets of "cross-border" alliances in the Middle East, borders set not by the locals, but by foreign powers decades ago.
     Another distinction, "Training is not education" appeared in my inbox earlier this week (and reminded me of the "Map" quotation).  The author, Rachel Naomi Remen, writing out of a medical context, points out that "The goal of a training is competence and replicability. Uniqueness is often discouraged and may even be viewed as dangerous."  On the contrary, Remen writes, "The root word of education -- educare -- means to lead forth a hidden wholeness in another person. A genuine education fosters self-knowledge, self-trust, creativity and the full expression of one’s unique identity. It gives people the courage to be more."  That latter insight describes well what I hope students have experiences when they leave college/university.**
      A third distinction was also suggested to me by Dr. Remen's blog, and is, in some ways, just as appropriate to her field of work.  And that is:  "Treatment is not healing".  I think that most of us can recall receiving a band-aid for some scratch or scrape -- something that kept any blood from staining our clothes, as well as keeping the wound clean.  What was usually more healing than the band-aid treatment was the hug and/or kiss from mom or dad that accompanied it.
      All three of these distinctions point at the same phenomenon:  we are often VERY willing to seek simple solutions, or simple answers to questions that demand a whole lot more.  Many of the sound-bites about how to deal with Ebola ignore huge complexities, not only of the disease and its treatment/cure, but of how international travel occurs, the distances between the stricken areas and parts of the US, cultural health differences, etc.  And the airwaves become filled with fear-mongering, finger-pointing, and line-drawing . . . to hardly anyone's advantage.
       It is my hope that we can all go deeper with the difficult issues facing us:  to figure out the territory, to become educated, to engage in healing.  I was recently called to task for criticizing a popular entertainer/commentator.  Those who questioned me thought I didn't care for his ideas.  Wrong.  I don't care for how he simplifies and over-generalizes complex ideas and, in the course of doing that, limits the possibilities for true learning, dialogue, and progress in solving problems.  He may think he's "treating" an ill, but he's really only rallying his troops.  He is certainly not leading to any sort of healing.       That, to me, is our real task.  It is the task at the root of all religious traditions: seeking and employing wisdom, creativity, healing for the benefit of all, not just those on our "side of the line" on the "map".


Chaplain Gary

* The full blog post can be found here.
** Put another way, knowing how to do something doesn't necessarily get at the essence of why it happens.  I learned how to scramble eggs many years ago, but I didn't quite understand the physics/chemistry of what happened until much later; knowledge that then I was able to translate into other cooking arenas.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Not to worry

    My son recently needed to take some food to school for a sort of "cultural potluck"; he chose potstickers--which, of course, need to be cooked.  The morning of the event, he got up, came downstairs, and immediately asked whether the potstickers were ready to go.  His mom and I were in the process of making breakfast, and knew that the potstickers would get ready in time.  And, even though we tried to reassure him that things would be okay if breakfast occurred first, it was clear that, until those potstickers were packed and ready to go, he felt that there was cause for worry/concern.
        In reflecting on that morning's tableau, I concluded that what mom and I had was something he, at his age, lacked:  perspective.  In his thinking, things needed to happen quickly, concretely. There was little room for uncertainty or ambiguity; the consequences (either being late, or not having a contribution for the potluck) were too great.  And I understand!  I remember clearly feeling much the same way when I was his age.
       But wait. . . .
       I don't think that concern over uncertainty is something we outgrow. I know I can't claim that I have outgrown it, and my impatience with him that morning testified to that!  But also, the increase in diagnoses of anxiety disorders, or the prescription of anti-anxiety medications, would suggest that "worry" is not one of those things that has gone away with evolution.  Certainly, worrisome questions abound on a university campus:  "Can I afford tuition?"  "What if I don't get into THAT graduate program?"  "If I don't get that article submitted before the deadline, what will happen with my tenure application?"  "Will we meet our admissions goals?"  "One of our key players is out with an injury; how can we be competitive this tournament weekend?"  "What will I write for my Friday reflection?"
       Neither news, nor social, media help matters.  Whether the reports are of Ebola, the latest atrocities brought about by ISIS/ISIL, failing infra-strucure in the nation's roadways, unethical politicians, crime on the streets, or "shared" Facebook posts, the old journalism adage seems to reign true:  "If it bleeds, it leads."  And that cliché runs hand-in-hand with another (from marketing):  "Create a need, and then meet it."  The "causes" for worry are all around us.
       I certainly don't want to minimize any of those threats (well, maybe some of them deserve minimizing!)   I have to wonder, however, about the question of perspective, that is, what is the "need" that is being created, and then filled?  The uncertainties that we face are subject to manipulation by others for their purposes.  Comparing the reporting on almost any event by Fox News, CNN, Al Jazeera or the Huffington Post reveals clear differences  . . . . with associated (desired), different, responses from us.  The "void" created by the uncertainty can be filled by someone else's answer, probably addressing that person's fear/need. But should that be OUR response?
      An answer to that question seems be well-illustrated in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.  A mugging victim is left by the side of the road.  Two passers-by leave him there, socially "conditioned" to worry that something "bad" may happen to them if they were to help.  An unlikely third potential helper steps beyond such social conditioning and gives aid.  Compassion compelled him to leave worry/threat/fear aside.  His perspective was different -- a fortunate difference for the mugged victim.
      Fortunately, for my son, Mom's immediate perspective was little different than mine. She had compassion, set aside concern for the "necessity" of breakfast, cooked the potstickers, and sent him on his way.


Chaplain Gary

Friday, October 3, 2014

To Tell the Truth

     Catherine McLeod is an investigative reporter for a major Denver newspaper in a relatively new mystery-novel series by Boulder author Margaret Coel.  In the opening scene of the first book, Blood Memory, Catherine is almost the victim of a serious crime, and witnesses the shooting of a friend.  After a harrowing night, she goes into her office the following day, to be met by applause from her co-workers.  Then she is summoned into the boss's office where, after some "comforting" words, she is given into the hands of another investigative reporter who proceeds to grill her about her experience.  I couldn't help but wonder whether or not Catherine would, subsequently, change the way she went about her job after being subject to the same kind of treatment she was accustomed to meting out.  (And I haven't read enough of the books to know!)
        A couple of clichés sprang to mind:  "What's good for the goose is good for the gander" and "The shoe's on the other foot, now!".  But what I also felt was some sympathy for Catherine; she was in a VERY difficult situation and wasn't being allowed to deal with it on her own terms.  What I saw was an age-old and constant phenomenon:  someone gets so entangled in the various webs of their life that they cease to see them, or even realize that they are entangled.  It may take a "knock upside the head" to get that person to wake up to their predicament.  Waking up is one thing, however, and acting on the realization is something different.
        "Wake up and do things differently" is a theme of the Hebrew prophet Hosea, which I've been reading the last few days.  As was the case with many of his prophetic colleagues, Hosea rails against the complacency of his compatriots.  He points out that they had adopted the conviction that certain rituals and practices were all that was really necessary to be faithful to God. He accuses them of ignoring the more central concerns of their religion:  justice, compassion, mercy, etc.  And he asserts (on behalf of God) that they will soon receive their just desserts.
         Hosea was not alone, as I've suggested.  Not only did his prophetic contemporaries make similar accusations, but many of the Hebrew prophets in centuries to follow also criticized this pattern.  Turning a sympathetic eye towards the "people", I can't imagine that they consciously decided to ignore the "weightier matters", but that habit, and a desire for doing the easy things, simply led them down an, ultimately, problematic path.  But correction didn't -- and doesn't -- come easy.  The prophets often suffered for telling the truth, and the people suffered for not listening.
       I don't believe that any of us willingly choose to adopt erroneous ideas, or choose to take the wrong road.  As fallible humans, however, we often find ourselves caught up in "wrong-thinking" without realizing it.  Sometimes it's habit; sometimes it's simply incomplete knowledge (that we assume is complete).  But what both Catherine McLeod (or Margaret Coel) and Hosea have reminded me is that sympathy is often a good thing to extend to the one in "error", as well as that listening to the correcting truth may be a life-giving action.
        What's that you say . . . . . ?

Chaplain Gary