Saturday, November 27, 2010

A return to the Ethics of Anabaptism with James McClendon

This first personal introduction to James McClendon was a return to my roots. Having been raised in an Anabaptist family and tradition, I was able to appreciate as never before how the ethics of this community coincides with the universal ethics that I now incorporate as my own life’s perspective. Many might shy away from a book that is not technically a part of “their worldview”, but I am at the point where I not only appreciate where I’ve come from, but I also want to learn more about how religion, atheism, humanism, secularism, philosophy, science, etc… all strive for what we consider to be the “good” or “truth”.

Theology is seen by McClendon as a “drive for truth”. So, theology (and Ethics) by his definition does not have to be inherently religious. He does say, however, that theology is a NARRATIVE. It is a way of living, and is not reducible to a single moral principle or value. Only through the course of a lived life can we see a specific moral pattern and place it in its context in time, place and community. That according to McClendon is what makes “Christian ethics” Christian, and, even though he doesn’t mention it, what would make “Muslim ethics” Muslim, etc… Where I find McClendon’s verbiage a bit misleading is that he seems to discard the universality of ethics. He downplays the importance of our basic relation to the “other” for the sake of elevating Christianity. I understand that in order to consider one’s self Christian, then it can only be done by the “Christian narrative”. However, I found his emphasis on the specifically Christian to be a bit too focused. The ethics of Christianity ARE present in other belief systems, but it will not be displayed in the “Christ narrative” or by acknowledging the supremacy of Christianity. However, is that what is ultimately important when we are considering the hungry, the weak, the oppressed and the poor?

I am appreciative of McClendon’s prophetic leaning Christianity in that we are to practice the high principles of that tradition (social justice, compassion, love) in the here and now. I just wish he would have looked for that common ground (which is there) in the other traditions a bit more, but that is my issue, and he clearly was out to show what it means to live the CHRISTIAN life vs. anything else. Although, I consider this recommended reading for its great insight into the Anabaptist tradition (including examples of lives such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day), which is one that will resonate for anyone pursuing the causes of justice, universal truth and the guiding force of love.

A review of "The Next Christendom" by Philip Jenkins

“Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears” says Philip Jenkins as he ends this important book on global religious trends. Whatever might be the presence of religion in one’s life, the numbers cannot be ignored. Christianity has gone through its largest boom period in history over the last 100 years, and the pace is only quickening. Due to an often patronizing Eurocentric viewpoint, this fact is usually overlooked in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the new Christians reside in the global Southern Hemisphere, and Jenkins points out that that half of the world is experiencing a Christianity that is inconvenient and uncomfortable to the modern beliefs of Northerners.

This becomes a touchy subject as the very term “modernity” or “post-modernity” is called into question. “Modernity” according to whom? The increasingly smaller percentage of “enlightened” secularists or religious pluralists in the North? Or “modernity” as it relates to pure numbers of people? If we are looking at numbers alone, then Christianity and Islam HAVE to be understood and incorporated into any complete understanding of the world. Jenkins lays out the case that these trends are not going away, and that this century should see even greater growth in both religions than the last.

Jenkins does a decent job of staying as neutral as possible on a very passionate, charged topic, although his political conservatism does come through at times…as in the reasons for the existence of the Jewish state, and his downplaying of Islamic intolerance in the Western media. Where he is right on point is in his description of the “new” Southern Christianity looking nothing like what the North has experienced in recent decades. Parts of this new Christianity focus on the teachings of Jesus concerning oppression and poverty (in the North considered progressive socially), while remaining ultra-conservative on issues of gender and sexual orientation. There is undoubtedly multiple arguments to the effect that this trend cannot last when the “Southern Hemisphere gets more educated”, but there is a danger in looking down one’s nose through this line of thinking.

This book struck me in a number of ways. First, it was humbling. While I try to be as well-informed as possible, I realized how much I lacked empathy when it came to the reality of religion in the world. Second, I realized that my continuing quest to identify with a constantly changing world was to re-visit the teachings of my youth…even if I no longer subscribe to that religion (or any religion). If I am to relate to future generations of world citizens, I need to understand the various new forms of “Southern Hemisphere” Christianity just as much as I attempt to learn as much as possible about Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. Re-visiting new ways of looking at old Christianity is just not trendy in Europe and North America. However, to ignore those forms of Christianity is to ignore what are the largest current forms of religion on the planet, and an incarnation of Christianity that is on an unbelievable upswing. No, religion is not disappearing anytime soon, as much as those in the West depict its demise. We can either learn more about how these others think, or slowly become more and more uninformed and ultimately out of touch by burying our heads in the sand.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Rifts in Time"

Many of you have already heard this story presented elsewhere, so don't feel the need to indulge me again :)  I am posting this blog as a reminder to myself of the unique perspective I've gained through studying with Dr. Christian Early at EMU.  This essay was the result of a midterm assignment.  

A 34 year old man experienced a cataclysmic event that seemed to slow the passing of time. The hours, the minutes, the seconds had not changed their eternally fixed durations, but something had changed in the man. A “rift in time” (Connolly, 2002) had occurred that had altered the man’s perception of speed. No longer was the man’s conscious mind filled with disposable thoughts that were used to merely exist; to function, as it were, in a life filled with absurdity. Now, the man had come to an awareness of. This awareness is the profound realization that each moment of the eternal past meeting the eternal future - the ever present now that constitutes the very makeup of time – is a moment that can never again be composed of exactly the same amount of life experience, maturity, perception, spiritual development and assemblage of mental images. Nor can this “ever present now” (specific to our subject) be experienced by any other person. Those closest to the man in physical and conscious proximity could only see the external manifestations of what had become an internal layering of culture, neural maps, evolutionary conditioning, and genetically designed modes of thought.

That man was/is me. The “cataclysmic event” that caused the “rift in time” was a near-fatal car accident on July 21st, 2009. Through lenses provided by Antonio Damasio and William E. Connolly, I am able to see certain fence posts that this event created around the borders of my mind. Damasio and Connolly have taken steps to fill in the space between those posts, thus marking an artistic work in progress. My hope is to partly articulate the color and design of this ongoing creation to you, the reader. It is as Damasio has stated in his search for emotion and feeling through philosophy: “Spinoza was still the same, but I was not” (Damasio, 2003).

A new paradigm involving the universal had taken a hold of my mind. When Damasio refers to Spinoza’s idea of salvation, he mentions this universal. To me, the universal is God. When I say the universal, I don’t mean just the world as perceived by the senses. It is not even something that one can completely bring into consciousness, though it is something that is a part of us all. Damasio says when describing salvation according to Spinoza: “When you are less than kind to others, you punish yourself, there and then, and deny yourself the opportunity to achieve inner peace and happiness, there and then. When you are loving to others there is a good chance of achieving inner peace and happiness, there and then” (Damasio, 2003). Spinoza’s code of ethics resonates with my own, and I fully believe resonates with anyone. It is an ethic that is about love, and love represents unity. There is a part of you that is the same as me. Therefore, harming you would be an affront to my own being. Ethics evolves, first, out of a love for the self. This is not a narcissistic obsession, but an acknowledgement of the eternal essence that makes up all of us. Spinoza believed in this essence not as an actual being, but as BEING itself. God to Spinoza was all there is. To accept life, to acknowledge and face death, to work on the intellect, to be as present as possible, to be charitable, to take equal care of the mind, body and soul is to go with the grain of the universal. Spinoza would consider this to be a move closer to happiness, because it is in step with God.

Connolly would describe whatever one does to attain this happiness as an “artistry of the self” (Connolly, 2002). Connolly states: “You began to experience meaning less as something to be discovered and more as an investment you make in selective activities and events” (Connolly, 2002). At the risk of sounding cliché, it is a practice in the game of life. Connolly talks about “loyalty to thought”. The conscious mind works with what is contained in the unconscious, and the artistry of self is a process of repetition and reflection on that which is agreeable with the universal. To go against this universal, or God, is to engage in self-destructive behavior. It is to deny reality, to attempt an escape from becoming. It is to ignore feelings, and to allow emotions to enter a state of anarchy. Or, it can be a process of counterfeiting emotions and feelings through the use of drugs, sex, work or any of a number of intoxicants.

I have now established the fact that by the “universal” I mean “God” and by “God” I agree with Spinoza that “God” is all there is. It can then be understood why I also agree with Connolly’s idea of “rifts in time” as being a more accurate description of the life process than the linear predictability that is common to the theo-teleological view of philosophy articulated in the Aristotelian tradition. That linear view of life is too narrow, and too defined. It can stifle individuality just as much as the cold scientific view evolving out of Copernicus and Newton. If I was to live by the teleological viewpoint, I would find no reason to engage in my own artistic process as everything I could possibly imagine has already been planned outside of time by an omniscient being. If I was to live by the scientific viewpoint, I would find myself in an existential black hole of insignificance. Both viewpoints could very well lead me to ask the question: “Why am I here”? Either way life would lose its significance, its individuality. With my “universal” view there is more than enough “room” in my God concept to allow for these rifts in time. Paradigmatic adjustments in life are the moments where bursts of growth happen. It is that state of flux described by Connolly as “becoming”.

I don’t believe that we’re meant to arrive, but to appreciate the movement that carries us along. It is a movement that has evolved out of a homeostatic machine infused with culture and the vitality of one’s humanity. To be human is to be an individual part of the universal. It is to engage with the other “parts” of this universal through the methods of love, and recognition of the validity of voice, character, and the view from that place on which the “other” stands (i.e. empathy).

The homeostatic is the machine that evolution has designed to allow us to regulate this life process (Damasio, 2003). This process gets to the very root of what it means to be alive by acknowledging action at its base. Life is energy, energy is action. Action is what affects the biological organism and that “affect” is what Damasio would call an “emotionally competent stimulus” that produces a reaction in the organism. This “reaction” is what we mean when we refer to “emotion”. The emotion then produces a feeling that is a mental image. Emotion produced feelings are the ink on the paper of the neural map. The neural map is the score for the music of life. What we compose is up to us. To go with the grain of the universe is to compose in the major key of joy. To go against this grain is to go against our very essence, and is unpleasant and painful to listen to. This would be akin to making a composition in the minor key of sorrow. Anything joyful, according to Damasio’s interpretation of Spinoza would not harm the “other” (Damasio, 2003). I will go a step further and say that true joy is an engagement with the essence that is common to both ourselves and the “other”. That engagement is what we call love. It’s not necessarily a physical engagement, but a mental one. The “essence” with which we engage is also love and therefore it is unity and “God”. God is love. This is what I mean, and what I believe Spinoza means when he says that God is all there is. Therefore, salvation comes through love, because it touches the divine.

The rift in time that happened at the exact moment of my car accident allowed me to touch the divine. I realize this with the advantage of hindsight, and to summon a reference to Connolly, the moment of consciousness that I attained after waking from the accident is “colored” with a variety of emotions and feelings. Initially, I was unaware of what my body felt due to the state of shock that I was in. Then the layers of perception started to make things clear. I was apparently in a car. I heard nothing at first. All I felt was an incredible peace that (literally) infused the color of white into my memory. However, I mean more than this when I refer to color. The peaceful feeling in my mind was the color of that first moment of consciousness. Then with ever increasing rapidity, the layers of perception started attacking my senses, adding texture to the color. Someone was calling my name. How did he know my name? I knew that this was impossible; I had been driving by myself. Instant panic. Memories of a lifetime told me that this was not right; in fact is was more than not right, it was drastically wrong and deserving of fear. The pain started to hit me, and the fear became stronger. This man also appeared to be upside down (actually it was I who was upside down). Clearly, the somatic markers of my mind eliminated the need to rationally process every detail of this dire situation. Even with the additional coloring of a surreal haze, I knew that my life was in a precarious situation. The sounds of the jaws of life and the fireman coming through the passenger side door with a knife to cut my seat belt off of me only pulled up more unconscious layers and further colored the entire scene with extreme anxiety. If firemen were involved, I knew that this was an accident. The man that was saying my name confirmed this, and the fear reached its peak. Accident. That word. It was a somatic marker. Panic now occupied every part of my body from my injured foot and shattered knee to my inability to catch my breath and the flood of thoughts that instilled the messages of bodily emotions into feelings of my consciousness. Panic was all that was in my consciousness at that moment.

When I read Connolly’s references to the Hitchcock movie Vertigo and his reading of Bergson, it brought greater clarity to the memories of that accident. Connolly’s entire account of perception is well summarized in those two examples. In Vertigo, we hear Connolly describe the juxtaposition of the woman falling and the feeling that something was off from the timing of the woman’s scream (Connolly, 2002). This creates that familiar feeling of uneasiness (the feeling itself a result of memory layering). We have a certain sense from experience of how things “should be” in our world. The seemingly upside down paramedic was akin to the woman’s scream for me. I knew that his position, outside the car, on the road, and standing still, did not make sense to a man (me) who seemingly seconds before was driving at a speed of 55 mph. Connolly masterfully incorporates cinema to illustrate these kinds of moments in life, and uses Bergson to shape his descriptions.

It is quite difficult to fit all of my experiences of the initial seconds, minutes and hours after the accident into some sort of organized explanation. Enter the idea of naturalism, and specifically immanent naturalism. More than anything I’ve read in Connolly, I appreciate this attempt to “fill in the gaps” as it were. This is the third element comprising the trilogy already containing the Aristotelian theo-teleological and the scientific. Connolly defines naturalism as “the idea that all human activities function without the aid of a divine or supernatural force” (Connolly, 2002). Immanent naturalism would contest the idea that we have it “all figured out” through theology, philosophy and science. This makes perfect sense to me. There has been no universal “system” or “idea” that is as authoritative in its clarity as to explain everything to everyone. Countless interpretations of the “transcendent” or “supernatural” dot the landscape of humanity. The world we are a part of, our lives, our individuality all are in a state of flux. Seemingly universal laws could be subject to change. This is the constant process of becoming. Immanent naturalists contend that nature is more complex, indefinable and incomprehensible than any god that the human mind could conceive. Connolly has perhaps given me the most realistic “textbook” description of the reality of life that I have ever seen. The “gaps” in life are where the substance lies, and they are what Connolly attempts to explain.

As I sum up where I was and where I am now as a result of my car accident “rift in time”, I would like to call on the ghost of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s “underworld” of conscious layering that is a part of his immanent naturalism would work well as a form of explanation.

I was born a human, like billions of others, but I am an individual, unique and unexplainable by a set of pre-defined laws. To be sure, I have characteristics, both physical and mental that are similar to those other billions. I carry the same essence of humanity that is common to all, while retaining my individuality. I would go so far as to call this essence a “natural inheritance” from being human. My brain and body are hard-wired from millions of years of evolution to strive for my own survival. I am constantly fighting a natural fear of the unknown. Unfamiliarity has genetically instilled the idea of danger into my mental wiring. Nietzsche and Connolly would both state that these natural tendencies to fear the unknown (including “unfamiliar” fellow members of the human race) can be overcome by self artistry. We work on our unconscious by working on our conscious. We practice those moral principles which go with the grain of the universe. We ignore cultural messages of hate, division, racism, sexism, materialism, homophobia, nationalistic exceptionalism, individual inferiority and external status symbols. Instead, we practice love, mutuality, nonviolence, empathy, dialogue and acceptance.

Before my car accident, I was in a state of culturally conditioned mental distress from a disintegrating marriage and radio career. After the accident, my mind was re-programmed. Some of that came from those cultural items that were still worthwhile to me. This included literature, knowledge, and all that marks the achievements of humanity in the process of becoming aware. I quit clouding my mind and disrupting the messages of my emotions and feelings with substances such as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. I refused to listen to any message from society that went against the universal. I returned to nature, as it were, in my drive to survive. Life to my naturally and culturally conditioned mind was not worth living unless I was “happy”. So, I took it upon myself to determine what it meant to compose the music of my life in the major key of joy. This process involved looking inside my mind, bringing to my consciousness more and more of the elements of my unconscious, and reconciling, acknowledging and accepting the contents of the dark corners. The more I acquired from my interior, the less I required from the exterior.

This to me is what it means to live the “good life”. This process has brought a degree of clarity that I never thought was possible. It has brought me to this place in life, to this university, and to the writing of this paper. Antonio Damasio, William E. Connolly, Spinoza and Dr. Christian Early have helped me to see even further. I am grateful for these additional moments of clarity, and am always conscious that each new experience is one that is irreplaceable.