Follow by Email

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Homo Transcendens

Is the future of our species to be gods? That's what Yuval Harari is saying in his new book Homo Deus. By "god" he means immortal life, unending happiness, and infinite knowledge. Heaven on earth.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari traced human evolution from the Cognitive Revolution at the beginning of the species as hunter-gatherers to the Agricultural Revolution and the rise of civilizations to the Industrial Revolution and into the Age of Information. In Homo Deus: A Brief History of the Future, he takes up the account and suggests where it may be going. It is a great story he is telling. A lot of it isn't new, but how he gathers the research and findings and tells it, is new, instructive, and suggestive for our personal and collective consideration.

Prelude it with Stephen Hawkins Brief History of Time, or an update by Lawrence Krauss (The Greatest Story Ever Told--So Far) including his story of the quantum fluctuation that birthed the Universe, and with Richard Dawkins the Selfish Gene, and we have a good rendition of the overarching myth, the extended metaphor, which gives meaning and direction to all us residents of the world in late modernity.

Cooperation among many became the crucial strategy for survival that humans shared with many other species. The genetic change that provided humanity with the ability to fashion and use images to identify, classify, and anticipate things and events in the world led to a most efficient means of cooperation and control of the environment. The exercise of thinking, communicating, and acting through categories and analogies, starting with mimetic and verbal gestures or language is the cognitive revolution that distinguishes homo sapiens. Knowledge through thinking and sharing thoughts intersubjectively through language and symbols gave humans power over their environment. Fo good and for ill. Such knowledge requires shared meaning among the members of the cooperating group. As Harari states, "meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories."

A clan or extended family has its own network of stories giving the origins, traditions, admonitions, and rules that hold the clan together for life's needs and survival of the group. The move to agriculture and civilization requires mass communication and an overarching story that underlies all clan and village traditions. Such a story provides the basis for order among various groups and classes of people by occupation and by function in the formation and preservation of the civilization. Industrialization is compatible to that story. And now advanced technology along with artificial intelligence is our history of the future.

Or is it? Might we create a different story than the one laid out by Harari and his technical informants? Are we willing to accept the increased inequality that would occur as those with means afford the designer babies and added implants to surpass those who could not or would not?  Do we want immortality, infinity, and eternal life?  If the old do not die, will creative innovation be killed. Will denying and overcoming death lead to stopping new birth and possibility? Are we substituting a boring commonality, a matrix or hive, for a vital and dynamic community? Instead of "weaving together a common network of stories," are we restricting ourselves to one story? If imperfections and limits are conditions for individuality, distinctiveness, and even relationships, will we sacrifice them for eternal bliss? How blissful will that eternity be? By denying death and our existence as being-towards-death and so becoming homo deus, do we lose our existence as homo transcendens?

And is that the final Faustian Devil's bargain by which the human experiment is ended?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Faith in the Republic

Faith, Aquinas said, is a virtue, i.e. a habit of my being, a voluntary attitude and activity. I will not confuse it with my beliefs, the doctrinal content or expression of faith. Beliefs are given, provided by my upbringing and culture. Faith I will when I will to be. I do not need to hold any thing I have been told to have faith. I do not need to have a religion, to believe in God, in holy books or church teachings. I do not need to believe the priests, the theologians, the politicians, the philosophers, the deal-makers, the scientists, the successful. Faith has me listen and explore their thoughts, words, and actions to develop my own beliefs in dialogue with them and others. I do not have a faith, i.e. a particular belief system. I choose faith when I choose to grow my soul. Faith is the habitual attitude and act of being open to experience, of listening to the past, engaging the present, and intending the future. Faith in the past, hope in the future, and love here and now--but the greatest of these is love. Faith is not the words we profess or the rites we enact. Faith is the  expanding of consciousness even to the transcending consciousness of all, the Spirit of the Universe. I am faithful and hopeful when I abide in love.

And this is why the Republic must separate Church from State by declaring freedom for and from religion. The unity and cohesion of the Republic is not religion, not a set of beliefs and customs, not a culture and ethnicity. The unity of the Republic is in faith which is made possible in the public space--a safe place set aside for all persons as equals to speak and act in concert, to grow their souls and expand their consciousness in intercommunion. It is a place of power, freedom, and transcendence. Religious life and institutions can help, but cannot substitute for that public place. And they hinder when they attempt to do so.

The virtuous faithful act in the Republic is the political act of organizing safe places for the love of neighbor to emerge and flower.





Monday, August 7, 2017

Three thoughts on theology

I had three thoughts while running today that I must write down to go past them.

1. Earlier, I was returning to the thought of John Courtney Murray for some guidance.  I read an article by a Jesuit theologian about Murray in Theological Studies (a periodical I haven't read for about 40 years). The article was very well informed, reasoned, and written, citing many theologians including Augustine, Aquinas, Rahner, Lonergan and others. Much to my chagrin I understood it--but only by putting on a now distant thinking cap. I realized in my running meditation that this was a language game that I was no longer playing, nor had I any wish to play.

2. Thinking of Thomas Aquinas, I remembered the legend that had been told about him. After he finished the Summa Theologica, the sum and summation of all theological inquiry, he threw it on the ground and said: "it is all grass." I thought of three interpretations: 1) Even grass, though low on the food chain, nourishes. Think of all the great books inspired by his work. 2) Thomas had the postmodern insight that there is no certainty and that all scientific inquiry is at the beginning of infinity (David Deutsch). 3) Thomas has a glimmer of vision into the Beatific Vision of God and realized how inadequate were words, symbols, and all human expressions. (That's the interpretation of most Thomists and is not unlike the second.)

3. Thinking of God, I recalled and sang my favorite verse from John: "God is love and we who abide in love, abide in God and God in us." And I asked myself: Do I love enough to let all my images, names, thoughts, and beliefs of gods and men go? And do I love enough to let all of my self go, immortality and distinctiveness, reward and punishment, fear and anger, grandeur and puniness, possessions and even relationships? Do I love enough to be absorbed totally by love? No god, no self, only Love.

Francis's Church and Trump's State #4

What makes up a person?  What makes up a people? Stories.

We are our stories. Everything and all reality are relationships--from the tiniest atom to the universe as a whole. And so are we. A person is a complex of all the events of her past, the present relationships she now enjoys, and the future relationships she intends. This includes the relationships she remembers and those she doesn't. Relationships within her being and relationships between her being and others--even to the transcending consciousness or spirit of all reality.

An absolute implies total self-sufficiency, an absence of relationships. I refuse to believe in absolutes. I affirm the totality of relationships--which is love. I identify myself and others by our relationships. I declare my vocation to discover, create, and maintain relationships. This begins by sharing stories with one another. It proceeds by creating safe places for all to share their stories and create new ones together. It culminates in love of neighbor and faith in our shared abilities to live, have meaning, and respect one another without absolutes. And it never ends.

Stories are the accounts of events of our relationships. Remembering and telling them gives us a sense of belonging or meaning: our meaning on earth and in the universe, our meaning in society and in history, meaning in our clan, our state, our civilization, our world. And we are meaning-driven beings. Narrating of stories requires interpretation. And interpretation is colored by perspective, interest, values.  An interpretation derives from one's faith in, hope for, and ultimately love of others.

There are two narratives vying for national identity in the American Republic. One is more exclusive and thickens the boundaries between relationships. Another is more inclusive and loosens those boundaries. This is life we know where if a cell to protect itself, tightens its outer membrane to prevent any foreign newcomers including nutrition, it dies. But if it loosens it membranes so much that it admits toxic substances, it also dies. In ancient and medieval times, cities and states built walls to provide safe spaces for people to live. And in republican times and places, to act in concert.

But the closed boundary narrative dominating American life today is that of nationalist populism (The Bannon-Trump story) will I believe destroy our Republic. It divides us into warring factions of the deserving and unworthy, of us and them, of believers and unbelievers, of acceptable and an unacceptable beliefs, customs, religions, languages, life styles, sexual orientations, professions, and standards of success. This narrative is critiqued at length in the above referenced essay in compliance with the thought of Pope Francis. This narrative is discerned to be a manifestation of "apocalyptic Manichaeism," the "gospel of prosperity," a perversion of religious liberty, and a fundamentalist ecumenism between traditionalist Catholics and dominionist evangelicals that promotes fear and anger, crusade and terror, xenophobia and spiritual war.

The second narrative, consistent with Francis and Vatican II, is a clear distinction between culture, religion, and politics. "Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church. Spirituality cannot tie itself to governments or military pacts for it is at the service of all men and women. Religions cannot consider some people as sworn enemies nor others as eternal friends. Religion should not become the guarantor of the dominant classes. Yet it is this very dynamic with a spurious theological flavor that tries to impose its own law and logic in the political sphere."

The first narrative places the unity of the Republic in culture and religious observance. The second places the unity of the Republic in political faith guaranteeing yet beyond private beliefs. The authentic spirituality in all religions, that which supports inclusion, compassion, and love of neighbor serves that political faith without dominating it.

And so while not yet a spiritual war or a Manichaean apocalyptic moment, we are in crisis--that is, at a point of decision. Which narrative is correct?  Which will win out? It's a crap shoot--a wager. One like Pascal wrote about. But not so much as a Faustian Bargain or a game theory exercise. It is our collective decision that will put the weight on one side or the other. We the People will write our story.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Francis's Church and Trump's State #3


Here is an expression of the American Principle: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Called the American "idea," it is also a Unitarian Universalist and mainline American Protestant idea. And thanks largely to John Courtney Murray, it is a Catholic idea adopted at Vatican II. The principle has many other expressions outside of diverse cultures and religions. Can this principle be a source of unity and consensus for America and indeed for the world? Yes, indeed it can, I affirm.  Does such unity and consensus exist in America? The answer is No. And we are more divided than ever, a state that threatens the American "idea."

But allow me to consider the American principle as intentional as opposed to this principle as literal. That is the difference between human existence as experienced in action and human existence as expressed in words, stories, and other media. 

For example, take the expression above. Taking this principle literally could mean that I believe in a supernatural entity, a Creator God, and creationism over evolution as the explanation of life? It could mean that I agree that all persons are in fact equal, that there is no oppression, domination, or slavery? It might mean that I affirm that all persons have the same qualities, opportunities, advantages, gifts, and intelligence? 

Rather I take this statement to get to the principle it is intending. What this statement is getting at is not an accomplished, static, objective fact of equality, freedom, and justice in America, but rather an aspiration that I experience in my own intentional existence, in my desires and drives for wholeness as a human person in America and the world. 

The ancients identified three fundamental drives or desires: the desire to live, the desire for meaning, and the desire for recognition which correspond to the economic, cultural, and political dimensions of humanity. Others cut it differently. For example, the psychologist Abraham Maslow identified up to 7 human needs towards self-actualization. But the point is not the number or label or even rank of these needs or desires, but the dynamism of human beings, personally and collectively, to be all that we can be. 

This returns us to an earlier distinction between faith and belief. Faith is the dynamism that impels us to critique and transcend the beliefs that are expressions of faith. We can share the same faith while expressing different beliefs--which theologians call the content of faith. When the symbols of our faith are confused with our faith as transcending existence, e.g. wearing flag lapel pins, hanging a cross, saying "Merry Christmas," carrying guns, praying, singing the national anthem or hymns, these symbols become idols of worship.

The American Principle, however expressed and lived, is intentional and so perhaps doomed to be disappointed in certain concrete times and places. It is a political principle, not cultural content. The principle is power, the ability to act in concert, creating safe public space, which defines our human being in the world. That dynamic principle can unite us. It makes us a nation.  It makes each of us citizens of the nation and citizens of the world. 

John Courtney Murray teaches that this principle is founded on "natural law," by which he means the nature of humanity with all our needs, drives, and desires. Natural law transcends any particular national, religious, cultural, economic, or even political expression. It is this law which we as citizens try to live out and act by even within our inadequate expressions. 

Natural law stands in judgment of our behavior and expressions. Even natural law is not absolute but develops as our species develops. And how we understand natural law develops as we grow in knowledge and wisdom.

In your religion, you may hold that natural law was promulgated by God when he created nature. Or you may not. But, in any case, nature is accessible by humans through observation, reflection, and verification. Faith, whether religious or not, is the drive of human existence to transcend. And whether religious or not, we humans can share that faith and become one even as we are many. That is the American idea. 


Next: In Francis's Church and Trump' State #4, I will try sum up by showing why the Trump-Bannon policy based on assimilation beliefs threatens human being and Francis's policy based on pluralism in faith that transcends cultural beliefs. 



Francis's Church and Trump's State #2

Metaphors matter. It's how we set up categories and analogies to organize the environment we confront. In other words, it's how we think. And how we think influences how we act.

Pope Francis's stone soup or rainbow pluralism which is taught in Vatican II and which is founded in Thomas Jefferson's teachings on religion in America leads to a much different policy approach than does the Trump-Bannon melting-pot assimilation approach. Which is true and right? It will be the one we choose based on our experience and understanding of human existence and transcendence. We the people will make the difference.

As I ended my preceding blog: Whether we choose melting-pot assimilation or rainbow pluralism will make a tremendous difference for the future of the nation and the world. Thinking that choice through requires some distinctions: one being between public and private related to politics and culture; another being between principles as literal and principles as intentional.

Hannah Arendt is the expert on the public/private distinction. The public realm is the space where citizens gather as equals to speak and act to decide the shape and boundaries of the polis--the ancient Greek city-state from which our word "politics" derives. It is the space of power (over force or oppression) which is defined as the ability to act in concert. It is also the space of freedom where citizens leave the realm of necessity and coercion determined by life's needs. 

That realm of necessity is the household (Gk economia) from which is derived our word "economy." The political realm supports, protects, but also regulates the private realm of family life and industry which is subject to the public realm or common good. 

In ancient Greece and Rome, there were the state gods celebrated in the public temples in the stories of Homer, Virgil, and all the myths. There were also the household gods, those that were celebrated in private by families and tribes. Religion thus was a means of both unity and diversity. Unity of the state through the public religion and of diversity through the household and tribal ceremonies. Religion, therefore, also became a point of conflict within and between civilizations and nations. 

In Jeffersonian America, all religions belong to the private sphere. Religions, their expressions, practices, and institutions are chosen and practiced in private. As are all cultural styles, attitudes, and fashions. The public sphere and the major institution of that sphere, government, protects privacy and its institutions. At the same time, the public sphere ensures that religious or other cultural practices and institutions do not dominate. They are not allowed to reduce the ability of persons to choose and celebrate their own personal affairs, styles, and expressions in private--whether at home, business, church, or marketplace. 

Nor can any citizen be restricted from entering the political arena as equals to debate and deliberate the contours of public space. In fact, that is the nature of citizenship. A citizen is a person who takes some time to relinquish his privacy to appear before others to speak and act for the common good, i.e. for the public space itself. A citizen is a person who, for a time, surrenders and subjects her own cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexual, financial, and professional preference to the public space in order to discern the good of others and of the whole. 

What unites citizens in the public space is not culture, religion, language, or fashion. It is a principle to which citizens adhere--a principle expressed in different and changing words and rites, like liberty, happiness, justice for all, That principle is the public space itself and derives from our very human existence. 

But I'll try to explain that in the next blog.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Francis's Church and Trump's State #1

The essay in La Civilta Cattolica by two of Pope Francis's confidantes has drawn a line among American Catholics. Once considered to be settled through the deliberative process of the Second Vatican Council, the breech between the religion of traditionalist American Catholics allied to fundamentalist evangelical religions that support Bannon-Trump and the solution brokered by Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray at Vatican II has been exposed. (See for instance Ross Douthat's column and comments in the NYT.) 

The essay representing Francis's thinking and negative commentators representing Trump-Bannon thinking not only help American Catholics understand their choices, but also all Americans of every religion or of none at all. 

1) We can choose a "melting pot" or assimilation policy approach which assumes a right culture and religion and, I would add, economy. Or 2) we can choose a "stone soup" or "rainbow" pluralism policy approach. 

1) The assimilation metaphor shapes Trump's latest plan to restrict immigration to those who speak good English, have wealth and education, and can fit into American society. It is also the dominating image for the white supremacist language of many of Trump's followers. It is the choice of those like Attorney General Sessions who fight against affirmative action which they call "reverse discrimination." It is also the choice of those evangelical fundamentalists who preach that the USA is a Christian country with the Judeo-Christian God at its head and the revealed word of God in the Bible as the ultimate arbiter for law and morality and even scientific truth. It is also the choice of constitutional literalists like Mitt Romney who believes that the words of the constitution were inspired by God and of many jurists who do not understand the metaphoric nature of speech at all. 

It is also the metaphor of traditionalist Catholics (like Douthat, Ryan, and Bannon) who are nationalists, who promulgate the America First rhetoric, who place America's exceptionalism in its past or present achievements, rather than its aspirations for the future, and those who focus their attention on opposition to abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism which they consider to be cultural perversions and religious depravities caused by a permissive society and liberal education.

2) The pluralistic metaphor is traced back to Thomas Jefferson who, desiring to avoid the religious wars that ravaged Europe, made a clear distinction between the private sphere of culture, including religious behavior and expression, and the public sphere of politics. Jefferson promoted what became known in the 1950's as the "civil religion" which stood apart from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other confessional religions that people professed in their churches, temples, and holy books. 

In the 1950s, sociologist Will Herberg wrote that one could be an American by being Catholic, Protestant, or Jew because these religions had accepted the American social contract in their own professions. In describing the status quo, he spoke of a triple American "melting pot," thus legitimating becoming American by participating in one of these three religious ways. This conventional wisdom underlined President Eisenhower's council that America is founded on a deeply-felt religious Judeo-Christian faith "and I don't care what it is." 

This is not exactly the pluralism of Jefferson who, while attracted to the morality of the Jesus in the gospels purged of their supernatural superstitions, also accepted Muslims, non-religious Deists, agnostics, and even atheists as Americans. Many of the founders of the USA were not Christian but Deists (George Washington) or Unitarians (John Adams), who did not profess the divinity of Christ and other Christian doctrines and indeed dismissed all religious doctrines. The right of religious freedom that was inserted into the Constitution meant that a good citizens could practice any religion they wanted or none at all.

And since that "golden age" of post WWII, which contemporary reactionaries nostalgically reconstruct, a lot has happened. The US has become global in all spheres; the cold war against Soviet and Maoist communism has ended with a new one against Russian and Chinese expansionism beginning;  Mormonism, Buddhism, Indigenous Spirituality, and especially Islam are on the American scene; the women's, the civil rights, and the LGBT rights movements have achieved general acceptance in American society.  All of which have had tectonic effects on American culture and even the economy. Including the reaction of the Trump-Bannon base.

Whether we choose melting-pot assimilation or rainbow pluralism will make a tremendous difference for the future of the nation and the world. Thinking through that choice requires some distinctions: one being between public and private related to politics and culture; another is principle as literal and principle as intentional.

But I will deal with that in my next blog