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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Saving Souls in Silence

My meditations on Soul Building are not complete without one on saving souls. And what I have to say on that subject is said so much better in Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence. Therefore, all I will do here is point to that film and suggest that you experience it. I do not intend to review the film for its cinematic artistry (which I found lush and compelling) but rather for its message.

The film is a rendition of Shusaku Endo's novel regarding two Jesuit priests, including the main character Rodriguez, one hundred years after their founding by Ignatius Loyola, going to Japan to administer to the Christians in hiding and discover what happened to Father Ferreira, their former teacher, who is rumored to have apostatized and became a Buddhist. Which, we find out, he has--as will Rodriguez.

The Jesuits considered themselves companions of Jesus. They start their religious life in a thirty-day retreat in which they walk with the master as they imagine his life. They are trying to take on his character, his attitude, his way of acting in the world, his very consciousness, his soul up to and including his death and resurrection. They especially try to take on his mission to the poor, the "little ones," the neglected and despised, the nobodies of the world because it is out of nothing that creation comes.

This makes them "missionaries" in native and foreign lands among all peoples of the world. In service, in teaching, in pastoral care, in building communities, and in establishing institutions, institutions of learning and social justice, they try to teach and exemplify the way of Jesus. And build a society of Jesus. They began to establish missions in all the territories being discovered.

Silence recalls the attempt of Jesuits, in the century of European discovery, before the peak of the Enlightenment, to establish missions in Japan which were at first welcomed and then suppressed sometimes ruthlessly. Christianity in this century was caught up in the religion of sacrifice, including martyrdom. It believed in the essence of God and man as spiritual entities, separate or separable from matter. It held to the literal inerrancy of the Bible that was word for word inspired by God. It believed that persons were born in sin that had to be removed by baptism into the Church or their souls would be condemned to eternal punishment.

The theory of mission, missiology, has changed radically since that time culminating in the decree of mission in the Second Vatican Council. And so has the notion of religion. What I experience in Scorsese’s film is what they and we had to learn about Christianity and saving the souls of ourselves and others. For me the film itself was a religious experience of growing the soul. As Pope Francis who discussed the film with Scorsese at its Vatican showing wished it would be.

Here we learn with Rodriguez the common value base of all religious traditions that lead us to transcend ourselves and our products. We learn the importance of listening, of entering the language and culture of other persons, especially of different communities and nations, before we assert ourselves. We also learn how religion in culture is what holds civilizations together and that a foreign religion is often used as a means of dominating others economically and politically.

Early Christianity was not centered around the crucifixion of Jesus. It departed from the sacrificial nature of the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures. Only after the Fathers of the Church, the Roman persecution, and then the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Dark Ages, suffering became an ideal. Jesus became the sacrificial lamb and the meal of Christian fellowship became the Sacrifice of the Mass. His death was interpreted as a sacrifice to appease a wrathful Father Creator by His Son, the Christ, whose divine status made it possible to atone the sin of Adam carried by all humanity.

Rodriguez learned from Ferreira and his own imagination of Jesus that people matter more than ideology. He was prepared to suffer to death, but not to sanction the needless suffering of the people whom he imagined Jesus if he were living in his world as a man would never countenance. He could step on the Christian images that he was asked to trample realizing that to make an image a matter of belief and a source of violence is idolatry.

To make a dogma or system of beliefs an absolute good or evil is also idolatry. Yes, to save my own soul, I must act to save the souls of others. But the soul is not a finished or separate entity. It is the human person—a body with consciousness which is transcending itself in union with others. Violence, whether rationalized or sanctified or merely condoned is the route to losing soul. Nullus salus, extra ecclesiam is sometimes translated as “you cannot be saved unless you belong to my church”; rather it needs to be translated as “you cannot be saved alone, but only with others, as we act together to be better persons for a better world.” That is, to grow our souls.

Fidei defensor, promotor fidei, propaganum fidei are terms the Roman Catholic Church used often, usually defined as defender, promoter, propagator of the faith. But remove the article. We must defend and promote faith in ourselves and others by transcending all the faiths or belief systems that divide us and hold us back from repairing the world and encouraging a transcending consciousness or growing soul in all of us.

Some Christian commentators have criticized Scorsese for his moral ambiguity, for putting faith and love at odds; and they see his acceptance of apostasy as unbiblical. I agree that his message contradicts some of the teachings of the Bible. But of course, that is just the point. It is less a moral ambiguity he is dealing with, but an ambiguity of faith. Faith as consciousness that is transcending the products of humanity including words, doctrines, and beliefs. And faith as belief—a belief that may be useful for a time and place, but can only be faith insofar as it encounters others and transcends the obstacles of our own making. Including our words, scriptures, rituals, and institutions.

Faith is the theme of Silence. Silence is the essence of faith. In the silence, out of which come words, images, institutions, the artifacts of our behavior, transcending consciousness or, if you want, God, exists. Rodriguez had railed against the silence of God as he watched the hidden Christians suffer needlessly in torture. But it was by retreating into the silence of his imagination where he heard Jesus, the man, the spiritual master, the transcending one who is always there with and beyond many names. Yes, including Buddha, and all growing souls.

The most poignant scene for me in the film is when Kichijiro, the Judas figure, who has continually apostatized, comes once more to Rodriguez the apostate to request forgiveness for his weakness. Rodriguez puts his hand on Kichijiro and embraces him; and instead of reciting the magic words of absolution, he thanks him. Why do you thank me? Kichijiro asks. Because you came to see and be with me, Rodriguez replies.

At this moment, I see Rodriguez most like Jesus, the Jesus of the good Samaritan, the Jesus of the woman in adultery, of the man born blind, of the hated tax man, of the little ones, and, yes, the Jesus of Judas. Here Rodriguez is a Jesuit—a man walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Against Empathy

Psychologist Paul Bloom has written a book on empathy. He is against it.  He claims it has immoral consequences. He demonstrates how people acting with empathy by giving some food to a starving person or a dollar to the cripple on the street corner get a feel-good buzz. The brain gets a shot of oxytocin with an empathetic act even though that act blindsides the person from doing something that will make the world a better place for all people. He contrasts “selfish moralizing” with “effective altruism.” The former gets in the way of the latter.

His title is a provocative way to sell a book and perhaps get some paid appearances. It opposes our usual way of understanding the Greek derived “empathy” and its Latin translated “compassion.” But that’s what makes it provocative. 

My wordplay would make empathy a characteristic of the human organism interacting with its environment through symbols by which we become conscious of ourselves in relation to other selves and distinct from objects or symbolized things in the world. Empathy then becomes socially interactive consciousness from which both "selfish moralizing" and "effective altruism" are possible.

I prefer the distinction between charity focused on “doing for” and justice which is “doing with” others to create a social order in which all of us have the capacity to do for and with. Most of us would call a just world a compassionate world.

I think Bloom is in fact distinguishing acting out of emotion (fast thinking) and acting with deliberation (slow thinking--that weighs consequences). He is also distinguishing non-effective from effective action. But that's not acting for or against empathy. He could just as well had argued for effective empathy over against ineffective empathy. 

The subtitle for his Book Against Empathy is "the case for rational compassion." I'm for them both.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Rise of the Zombies


While I am very excited by the advances humanity is making, * I am very concerned that our species in this anthropocene age is gaining the world, but losing our soul.  

A grand transformation is taking place in our culture which radically affects our economy and politics. Because we use economic standards for success (those things that preserve, extend, and aggrandize our organic life), winning the human race means strengthening the body and growing property and wealth. And we neglect the strengthening of mind and the growing of soul. 

Men without souls. Zombies are rising who, focusing on preserving and expanding life without character, consciousness, and compassion, are considered the winners of the human race.  We are becoming numb to greed, violence, and lying. This is evident in many of the leaders we choose to follow (I discern this above all in the election of Donald Trump), the how-to-succeed books we buy, the TV series we watch that extols winning through physical strength and deception, and how we are spending our time on things rather than people. 

The crisis we face is primarily religious or spiritual. In premodern times religion was identified with culture, politics, and economy. Its stories and rituals gave meaning to the tribes and societies and to the persons within. In modern times, religion was privatized, routinized, and separated from politics, art, and science. And the earth became disenchanted and ready for exploitation. Now in these postmodern times in which reality is understood as socially constructed through media and science is demonstrating uncertainty and indeterminacy in the very fabric of reality, we are said to be in a post-truth world without religion. There are two responses: return to earlier times of absolutes and true belief, a reaction that usually ends in oppression and violence. Or settle into a nihilistic, individualistic relativity where all things are permitted (if you can get away with it). 

But I argue that it is by celebrating our postmodern world, including its science, philosophy, and art, and by rediscovering and growing our soul that will transform our culture with its economy and politics in a way that will ensure our future. We have many exercises to develop our muscles, our bones, our brains, and our management of weight and wealth. In this little book, to complement those physical exercises, I am reflecting on exercises for the soul. And I try to advance a political economy that is thoughtful and soulful.

This book consists of memoirs and meditations that I hope you find helpful in developing your own style and regime of soul-growing.  If you would be willing to look at it and offer me some advice on how to make it more helpful, I would appreciate it. Send me your email and I will send you an e-copy. 

Rollie (


*Some examples of advances in the past few years: 1) We are solving the problem of energy with solar/renewables now cheaper than coal and oil. 2) We can project the end of cancer and disease, and have made great progress on extending human life. 3) Autonomous vehicles, drones and flying cars are being designed and manufactured. 4) Artificial intelligence is expanding exponentially. 5) Tremendous strides are being made in physics and the exploration of space. 6) The connecting of humans will expand by 2025 to include every human on earth (approaching 8 billion). 7) Before long we will be able to share the same space virtually at light speed everywhere on the planet and in space. This is not science fiction. The virtual is becoming the real and vice versa.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Aging and Dying as Spiritual Exercise

My brother-in-law recently died of ALS—a miserable disease of gradual degeneration and incapacitation of nerves, muscles, and bones for which there is no known cure. As he lost all bodily functions until even the muscles of his heart and lungs gave way, he retained full consciousness including his ability to remember, to emote, to think, to pray, and to desire. Even when the capacity to talk and write, except through a machine, was gone he retained his sense of loss of organic capacity. But he also miraculously retained a sense of humor. His body was shutting down and he knew it acutely. But his mind stayed whole. And his soul.

Dick had retired from his paid job at 65, but he did not retire. Like my own father whom he idolized, he stayed active in the community—helping build houses for Habitat for Humanity, volunteering as a financial director for a community center, and helping with the local food bank which my father had been a founder. But most of all he was a family man devoted to and by his many children and grandchildren.

He did not choose this disease unto death. It chose him. Yet he walked with it until he could no longer walk. He breathed with it until he could no longer breathe. It chose him and then he chose it. He made dying with ALS his vocation. And my sister’s as well. This was a vocation chosen not just by him but by his life’s partner, by his children, and all his caregivers.

Dick was a practicing Catholic but a very liberal one. His Catholicism was an expression of a much deeper faith than any dogma or ritual. As are the religions of most persons with faith. It was his faith, not his religion, and the love for and by his family and community that emerged from that faith by which he chose his new vocation. And he taught us all well.

The second law of thermodynamics, entropy, ultimate dissolution could be depressing if we so choose. We do not choose to age and to die. They choose us. We can’t escape aging though many futurists with the aid of science are trying to. We can try to endure aging because there is no alternative just yet, and ultimately, as far as we know the laws of nature, not at all. I do see unhappy people merely enduring. And, feeling my rising quirks and pains, my shrinking frame, my declining sense of balance, my inability to run as long and as fast as I once did, my rising forgetfulness, I do not judge.

A vocation is considered a calling from a higher power. It is a calling from beyond us. It is also a calling to beyond us. Not by or to some supernatural entity or place or time, I conjecture. But to the future of others starting with my own children and theirs, the future of friends and family, the future of community and the earth, and the future of humanity and of the future itself. A true future not just some extended current fate. Choosing one’s condition transcends it. Therefore, faith beyond religious, scientific, political beliefs engenders hope and love.

But it is our perception and our choice that makes a compulsory condition a calling. Instead of being a necessity that drags us unwillingly, it becomes a decision that makes us free. A condition of necessity becomes an opportunity to grow the soul. It becomes a stimulus to transcend through action. But that step into freedom from fate takes a little help from our friends. To answer the call is much more than personal faith, it is communal faith in action.

And thus, aging to death is not a lonely event. Aging and death are culminations of life and action in community.

As the saying goes: aging isn’t for sissies. Presently I live, eat, work, play, laugh, and cry with aging people in a Continuing Care Community. I did not want to come to what I joke as the “old folks home” and be daily reminded of aging and death. But Bernie did and I chose her. We have become close to people here. When we listen to their stories, we find them quite amazing. We journey with them as they move from independent living to assisted living and then on to the nursing home and to death. We constantly realize that we are on that same journey.

I remember in Hawaii thirty-five years ago working with a seniors’ organization led by Doc Gibson and Myrtle McConnell. They were learning and teaching computers at a time when many young people were not familiar with the digital revolution. They were political activists fighting for social insurance for the aged (and everyone else), against prejudice towards seniors (and everyone else), for equality of the elderly (and everyone else). They were my introduction to the Raging Grannies and Grey Power. I told them often that when I grow up, I want to be just like them. The other day, I received the greatest compliment I could receive from a young activist who said to me: “when I grow up, I want to be just like you.”

Bernie and I know how fortunate we are to be able to afford to live in Asbury Methodist Village thanks to our social security, our government pensions, and our tax deferred IRA that was matched by previous employers and of course our government-supported health insurance. I am grateful to a nation that made this possible for us. I am grateful to a previous generation including my ancestors that made a good education and therefore occupations possible. I am grateful to a nation and families who provided the means to create and sustain our Village.

Here in my “old folks home,” I have hundreds of friends, I have access to public transportation to downtown, walking distance to a top of the line county library, contact with local city and county leaders with whom I can interact to maintain my life’s vocation in community organizing and development. We also have all the amenities of gym, pool, and fitness coaching staff. We have our own university and great connections to universities, think tanks, foundations around us. We have computer centers, music halls, a theater for movies and plays, numerous meeting and class rooms, our own park with duck and fish filled ponds, and a meal plan with great food.

I only wish that all my fellow citizens were afforded this opportunity. It takes a village not only to raise a child, but also to sustain citizens, junior and senior. Those without soul, those caught up in an individualistic objectivist up-by-the-bootstraps mindset, would not appreciate that. Indeed, even the Republicans who live here are progressive, maybe because they are older and lived in a time when most Republicans were progressive. *

Here a competent, considerate staff, the “associates,” educated in the needs and idiosyncrasies of their aging charges, are aware that they work for us the residents. They are conscious that the residents to be happy need to participate in major decisions concerning the development and management of the Village and, most of all, need a sense of purpose in their personal and communal lives.

I am fond of antiquity’s enumeration of the three desires that define the human being: the desires for life, for meaning, and for respect. All three of these desires are fulfilled in an adequate plan for aging.
The first defines animal economicus. We desire to preserve and enhance our organisms, to survive and thrive. Well-being is understood as self-detemination and wealth in economic man.
The second defines animal rationalis. We desire to learn and to know, to attain the meaning of and in life. Well-being is understood as truth and wisdom in cultural man. The third defines animal socialis. We desire the esteem of our fellows, friendship and community, caring and love.  Well-being is understood as respect and freedom in political man.

To have all the needs of organic life provided, e.g. healthcare, nourishment, shelter, entertainment, makes it possible to expand one’s existence through education. When a person stops learning, including taking on data, renewing formulations, and making new judgments, he has already died. And growth in truth and wisdom makes possible the participation and action with others that makes for a progressively better life and community. It is in our nature to do and be better. When we stop the quest to be, to know, and to do better, we stop life itself. If our families, our community, and our nation value their elderly, they will guarantee their capacity to live, to learn, and to act.

But this is for now. Scientists are envisioning a time when aging and death will be deferred indefinitely. Futurist Peter Diamandis states that the rate of human evolution is accelerating as we transition from the slow and random process of “Darwinian natural selection” to a hyper-accelerated and precisely directed period of “evolution by intelligent direction.”  Already experiments in BCI (body/brain computer interface) and AI (alternative intelligence) are being advanced. This and the development of an integrated cloud, storing vast quantities of memory, could lead to a new global consciousness or what he calls a “meta-intelligence” and, with the opening of the space frontier, to a multiplanetary species beyond what even science fiction imagines. What this transformation retains of our present humanity, what values which we have developed for good and for evil will be maintained, and how the polarities in our existence between individual and society, past and future, space and time, interior and exterior life, body and soul, organism and spirit, will be resolved—these are the questions we must deal with now as we move ahead.

How can a life that is not “towards death,” one that does not maintain the tensions of existence, one that is in continual quest for life, meaning, and love—will such a life be human? Will the transhuman life be worth living?

Diamandis states: “All of us leaders, entrepreneurs and parents have a huge responsibility to inspire and guide the transformation of humanity on and off the Earth. What we do over the next 30 years – the bridges we build to abundance – will impact the future of the human race for millennia to come.”

I have arguments against immortality and its quest, not that it isn’t possible, but that it isn’t worthwhile. The first is more psychological and philosophic. The self we now know is a social construction, not a permanent entity. What I experience as “I” is a continuing accumulation of habits, attitudes, and beliefs. It is also a node of relationships with many others and their habits, attitudes, and beliefs. It is a point in space-time, not a sort of rock removed from the changing forces of time that grind it down. Yes, there is a continuum—but the “I am” today is not identical with the “I am” of 1945. So, take me out of this space-time, out of my present relationships, make my organism last forever, put me in some eternal paradise, retain the memory and consciousness of all the “I am’s” I ever was, and I am still not immortal. To be who I am here and now, I am aging and dying.

But my second argument is a bit more utilitarian. Jonathon Swift imagined a place of Gulliver’s travels where there was no death.  It was terrible. Not just because the immortals kept aging, getting feebler as they went on, but also because nothing changed. Bernard Lonergan cites Max Planck testifying that a new scientific position gains general acceptance, not by making opponents change their mind, but by holding its own until old age has retired them from their professorial chairs. Progress in knowledge and all human endeavors requires the passage of time, as well as the birth of new persons with different viewpoints and biases to challenge the old.

I heartily agree with Diamandis that we now live during the most exciting time ever in human history. Which I suppose makes me a progressive, an optimist. And I say this even in my late 70s when I can see and feel the looming dissolution of my organism. I do not know if our transhuman existence will eliminate aging and death or extend it indefinitely. And if it does, I hope that it does not eliminate the adventure and creativity of being alive. It is being towards death and choosing my vocation in aging and in dying that makes my life now so exciting. It makes me want to experience, learn, and act more. And it makes me want to express more so that I do experience, learn, and act more.

There is a time to die. It is our nature to be “towards death.” But there is a difference between death as a culminating act of life, i.e. a choice, and death as a fate or condition of necessity. To let go of organic life may be the supreme learning and teaching event for others and an opportunity for the empowerment of humanity. Aging and death as a vocation then becomes a moment, perhaps the moment, of the diminishment of ego and the growth of soul personally and collectively.

I hope I can let my ego pass on, so that soul will grow. I hope my family and community will have the ability to accelerate the dissolution of my organism including consciousness when I am in fact already dead, that is, no longer able to experience, learn, and act into the future. Just as my brother, Dick, did in his final act to the future. **

*By “progressive,” I am not espousing any political party agenda or ideology. I only mean an attitude that we can always be and do better, that we need not get stuck in any ideology or set of beliefs, that we can honor the past and at the same time look to the future. Both conservatives, those who honor institutions that have worked to hand down important lessons, and liberals, those who want to remove obstacles that hold us back, can be progressive. I contrast progressive with oppressive and regressive. I think it is unfortunate that so-called conservative pundits many new Republic Party members have distorted the meaning of progress and oppose the attempt to seek progress through social justice. Their sense of reform and justice is putting things back the way they were, in other words, reaction. Republicanism was once a party of reform to abolish slavery, stop uncompetitive business, promote internationalism, and preserve the earth and its resources. But that was before their “southern strategy.”

**Future is a very complex concept. Like the past it is experienced only in the present, in the tension of our existence thrusting from before to after. Neuroscience demonstrates that our conscious present is in fact already past. The human capacity for knowing and acting in the world through symbols (i.e. artifacts) is also the ability for culture, for history, and for planning the future.

In physics, Einstein demonstrated time’s relativity to acceleration and motion with the speed of light as a limiting factor. Physicists speak of the “arrow of time,” that is its directionality, e.g. from the Big Bank to the Big Crunch or Big Spread, as a factor of the second law of thermodynamics as well as the laws of gravity which haven’t yet been understood at the quantum level. In any case, time is still mystery and may remain so forever since it cannot be objectively accounted for. Certain physicists are even taking time out of their formulas for the “theory of everything.”

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann, taking up the notions of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, defined God as the one whose essential nature is the future. This is more than the Whiteheadian God of Process, sort of Nature working itself out. Philosopher Sartre following Heidegger makes human existence constituted by temporality. We put time into nature. Heideggar’s Dasein (existence) is “being unto death.” So, without death there would be no existence. Or without existence there would be no death. Or perhaps time, as a passage from past to future in presence, is the conscious dimension of all Nature. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would like that.

But our topic is soul-growing. And the growth of soul for us mortals seems to be intimately tied up in time and death.