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Monday, January 14, 2013

Entitlements

Nothing seems more polarizing in our political discourse than our discussion of "entitlements."

Gun ownership is an entitlement. So is social (health, income, shelter) insurance. Property is an entitlement and so is education. Safety and mobility are entitlements. So are privacy and profit. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seem to be at the root of all entitlements in the US.

Most of us recognize that freedom, even to exercise rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, can only be maintained within boundaries. Boundaries both protect and limit rights that are never absolute. What those boundaries are should be worked out in civil society and expressed in law that is enforced by the police power of the state. That is the essence of politics. Conservatives err when they deny the boundaries to guns, property, exploitation of nature, corporations, hate, and money. Liberals err when they deny the boundaries to health services, education, welfare, speech, mobility, government, and protest.

In the discussion of entitlements and their boundaries, I've noticed that people often project their own feelings and values on other people. If they think that most people cheat and take advantage of others, it is probably because they would cheat and take advantage of others given the opportunity. If they think that most people are not out to hurt, steal, or otherwise take advantage of them, it is because they are that way themselves. Often we complain of the very faults and vices of others that we neglect in ourselves.

I love the story of the old man (probably my age?!) sitting by the side of the road as a car with an out-of-state license drives up. The driver rolls down the window and asks: "what are the people in this town like?" The old man responds: "well, what are the people like where you come from?" The driver responds: "they are most pleasant, always ready to help you out, have a great sense of humor, participate in neighborhood affairs." "Well," says the old man, "you'll find the people here are the same way." The driver smiles and goes into town.

Another car drives up. The driver asks the same question. The old man asks: "what are the people like where you come from?" The driver says: "They are mean and selfish. They don't take care of their kids or their property. And you can't trust them." "Well," says the old man. "You will find the people here are the same way." And the driver frowns and takes off.

Yes, of course, there are people that take advantage and use their "entitlements" unrestrainedly and irresponsibly. It is important for society, us, to put limits on entitlements to encourage their responsible use. But if we think most people are irresponsible so we should cut entitlements altogether, I think we are saying something wrong about ourselves.

The NRA member who fights all limits on gun ownership is probably a fearful, defensive little minded person who has a bad opinion of people, society, and himself. The persons who think that most people are "takers" who want to take advantage of the system and taxpayers are probably that way themselves. Let's not let them represent the "American people" (as the politicians like to say) in our discussion of entitlements. We are much better than that.




Sunday, January 13, 2013

Universal Love

Another interesting opinion in the NYT on the impossible ideal of universal love. The writer, a research fellow, takes on philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer for his abstract utilitarianism and Jeremy Rifkin for his notion of global empathy. He denies the practicality of the Christian or Buddhist ideal of unlimited compassion. We humans have evolved to relate to and identify with those who are proximate, family and friends who can do us good or ill. That's the best we can do. He quotes Graham Greene that we can only love people, not humanity.

My interpretation of Greene is that he is arguing that love is concrete, between and among real corporeal persons, not an abstraction. Greene's novels I think do portray the possibility of unlimited love one that would agree with St. John's gospel that Love is the transcendent, universal principle which has been traditionally called "God."

But that of course is a "myth" but not in the way the writer uses the word. It is a story and metaphor that points at a possibility in persons, even if it is not yet fully actualized. What Rifkin and Singer, John and Paul, Jesus and the Buddha are pointing to is a dynamic capacity that most of us have acquired--a capax infiniti--for knowledge and for love, an intimate relationship with everyone and every thing in the universe.

As the very argument of the writer shows, that capacity is not self-evident. One can easily show evidence for the meaner, more selfish tendencies in our scramble for the tools of livelihood. In this more utilitarian view (I think it strange that the writer calls Singer a "utilitarian"), people are loved because it is to our self-interest, i.e. basic life needs. (Please refer back to my note on "happiness" and "meaning.")

As Rifkin and Singer point out, there is evidence for a more universal love that rests on a higher capacity than economic self-interest. Perhaps a capacity that is an "accident" of evolution, but nevertheless realizable. It is a capacity pointed out by the great mystics including the Buddha and Jesus.  But I think the best evidence comes through contemplation, that is, the direct experience of one's consciousness that is in tension and in tendency to the infinite.  That experience is found in meditation (some call it "prayer" though I do not) and in action with others, even strangers, towards greater meaning.

The writer is correct in so far as that capacity is born and nourished by a person's relationships to family and friends. In that sense, the capacity to love is a "grace," given by others. But that capacity, once appreciated, can extend to the universe. Universal Love is perhaps more of an ideal or myth than a reality as the writer says. But the capacity for universal love is real and its exercise is the hope for all of us.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Community Organizing and Politics

My friend and colleague, Arnie Graf, has been engaged by UK Labour Party chief Ed Miliband and the Party leaders to train them and 200 new organizing staff in the art of community organizing. (See the Guardian article.)

In so doing Arnie is somewhat anathema to some others in the Saul D. Alinsky Industrial Areas Foundation, which he helped lead for 30 years. The IAF discourages its organizers from getting involved in party politics recognizing that all political parties, including government and business officials, must be held accountable by a vigorous acting citizenry organized in local publics.

What Arnie and the Labour Party are doing is far different than what the Obama campaign is doing through its "grass roots movement" Obama for America. OFA is a national campaign directed by Obama that got him elected and is kept mobilized to assist him achieve worthy national goals in job creation, immigration reform, tax reform, health and other social insurance, climate control, and now gun control. It will last as long as Obama does.

Labour under Arnie's tutelege is building a permanent democratic mechanism at the local level working not on electing Labour officials (though that would also be an desirable outcome) but on solving issues and creating services that local people have identified through a listening and organizing process. A parallel, but without the religious and ideological underpinnings, might be Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood which had created extensive local relations and services and was ready to act to replace Mubarak. Maybe a better parallel is the town hall democratic structure in British America that was ready to replace King George with President George.

Localism, a long term learning process of democratic leadership and participation in local publics, is the essence of community organizing. This process focuses on educating people to act on local concerns and build an autonomous, sustainable public, and then wield the power of those publics into action on national and global issues and institutions that affect localities. Arnie is not promising that the Labour Party will elect the next Prime Minister. That is not his goal, though he knows that this could be an outcome of local service and action sponsored by the Labour Party. Rather, he is motivated by the possibility of the Labour Party developing an ongoing, democratic infrastructure for progressive social change. Hopefully the New Democratic Party in Canada is watching and experimenting as well.

I really see no parallels in the US except for the thousands of young community organizers working in a plethora of institutes slugging it out in local churches and communities on issues of affordable housing, urban agriculture, safe neighborhoods, homelessness, clean air and water, new economy experiments, school accountability and more. However, the only national interaction among them, if any, was probably in the Obama campaign which really does not have knowledge or interest in their bottom-up and uncontrollable organizing.

In the Clinton administration HUD Secretary Andy Cuomo started a "community builder's" program and a "faith-based" program to turn HUD to a field based operation; but this was seen as a threat by DC bureaucrats, the Public Employees Union, and many Republican Congress members who effectively blocked it. In the last few months of the Bush administration, new HUD Secretary Steve Preston with an MBA from the University of Chicago was also trying to move the organization to the field under resistance of many old time bureaucrats simply as a way to do business better. But that move was not carried out by the Obama administration. There are some local experiments among government, party people, and community organizations. But in general, neither government, nor US Parties are really ready for democracy.

Big questions remain: Can a national party, unlike government and business, look past the short term to build a long term outcome? Can a national party espouse broad ideals, but eschew narrow ideological positions, in order to listen to local people and help them see how their problems tie into broader issues.  Can it sustain the growth and development of autonomous inclusive publics that can challenge government, business, and the Party itself?

And can local publics keep their own distance from, instead of giving away their power to, political officials, monied interests, and talk show hosts. The way the Tea Party did. Remember, Hannah Arendt described the betrayal of the American Revolution as political representation and partisanship.

Labor Party Leader Ed Mileband and Community Organizer Arnie Graf are leading an experiment in direct democracy that has many potential pitfalls. But this is an experiment worth watching, supporting, and engaging.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Happiness and Meaning

There has been lots of talk about happiness these days.

One of the latest articles I read used Viktor Frankl (Man's Search for Meaning) to insist that the pursuit of meaning is much more important than the pursuit of happiness.

Well, yes, if you define happiness as simply satisfying carnal desires. But Hannah Arendt taught that Jefferson's phrase "the pursuit of happiness" primarily referred to "public happiness"meaning the fulfillment of the human capacity for action in concert with others (also her definition of "power" over control or force or influence). She also taught that the trivial life was a life without thinking.

My own approach to happiness (eudaimonia, well being) is more inclusive. I am perhaps influenced by Mazlow's hierarchy of human needs that starts with basic survival needs of life and moves up to self-actualization. One cannot pursue meaning as well if that person is starving and does not have health or adequate shelter even though Frankl demonstrated how it could be done even in a Nazi concentration camp. That is why it makes sense for a society to ensure that all its members have the means of livelihood, even if that means risking that some people, limiting happiness with satisfying carnal desires, will not move on from there to productivity and meaning.

My approach is holistic. The pursuit of happiness weaves bodily pleasure with meaning in life and action. It is the experience of transcendence, which, once again, does not mean a transcendent entity or realm, but does mean hope, an openness to the future, to progressive change, the pursuit of personal and public happiness itself.

Joy to the world!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Return (2)

Yesterday, I discussed my revisit of Christian Theology and discussed three kinds of theology. My encounter of the first kind (beyond grade school catechism class) was at the top of Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Sun near Mexico City. At the summit I fell into a group of black-cassocked gringo seminarians from some Opus Dei associated seminary in the US midwest who I discovered in conversation thought that Karl Rahner, Hans Kung (theologians of the third kind), and of course me were flaming heretics. For them it all stopped with the Fathers of the Church.

I started this return to Christian Theology with the question of the need of a theology for the new political-economy. I read O'Meara's Vast Universe and find that, like those seminarians, he has the truth (i.e. Revelation) but uses the new science to further understand it. The question he asks about how that Revelation might deal with the probability of extraterrestrial life doesn't really interest me.

I read O'Murcho who positions himself in his Christian tradition, but in this context is pushing his understanding of what the new science might mean for further understanding of the world and humanity. He seems to be open to newness beyond what has been given and so I find him much more interesting. Perhaps this is why the Spanish Bishops condemned him. And so he follows in a great tradition of Christian thinkers.

But my question is: to face the challenges of the present and future towards a new sustainable economy and world, do we need a new theology or do we need to go beyond theology, to a post theological world, a world without supernatural beings that give us the agenda for salvation or that rescue us from our follies.

I would very much like to think that "there is a vast Reality that we have no way to perceive and that is actually bearing down on us now and influencing everything." Well, okay. Call that Reality God or Necessity or Meaning or Being or some other capitalized Word. My question is do you start with the attitude that you have the truth because it has been give to you or that you do not have the truth but are in search. Do you think that meaning is given from outside or that we have responsibility for creating it? Fides quarens intellectum or simply querens intellectum querentem. 

This is a not a trivial scholastic distinction. It's a big deal. A real crisis in our human development that most people don't see. I'm not an ardent atheist and really don't care if people believe or not in supernatural entities in their private lives. But I see what gives such verve to the new skeptics and atheists. I do care whether we abdicate responsibility believing we have some pipeline to the truth without testing it with experience and each other.

Nor do I care about preserving the Christian tradition except as an historical phenomenon among others. I really do appreciate the Catholic thing and how it contributed to my own development. But at the same time I am so glad I am not there anymore. But then again I hope that tomorrow I am past where I am today. I think that the best way to be faithful to and appreciate one's tradition is to let it go

Belief seeking understanding is a worthwhile pursuit and provides understanding of human history and nature if the beliefs are truly under question. Humanity progresses through problem-solving that criticizes and transforms the undergirding belief-systems. There are many Christian scholars who excelled at this discipline. Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade were masters of this pursuit in relation to non-Christian religions. Mind seeking faith by transcending beliefs or, better, human existence discovering and creating meaning is the post-theological enterprise of human knowledge and action.

As I read O'Murcho, Chardin, and Merton, I think they are trying to get to the post-theological moment, and certainly helping those of us in their tradition. And the same for great minds of the other religious traditions. We are all trapped in, but freeing ourselves from and within, our history and situation. And so I think I now disagree with Korten and my friend Bob. It is not a new theology we seek, but a post-theology--a world without gods.

Is a world without gods even possible? Might such a world be a ruse of hidden malefactors that are still operating their hold on our minds without us knowing? Isn't it better to peg the tricksters that are exerting power than pretend they are not present?

A more important question to me: Is a post-theological world, a world without gods, also a bleak world without marvels and magic and miracles?

No, I answer, not at all. In fact such a world could be more magical and miraculous because we have abandoned a transcendent or supernatural realm in wonder of the natural universe including us now in transcendence. But that will depend on us and our collective willingness to dump our beliefs to keep the faith--our willingness to discover and create, find and make meaning in us.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Return

Revisiting a place you've left long ago stimulates contrary emotions: a sense of security in the familiar, the nostalgia of retouched images of a simpler past, and gratitude, "I'm so glad I've moved on from here."

My friend Bob brought me back to a long left place. We were discussing the consciousness necessary for socio-economic change and talked about establishing a team to deal with the "theology for a new economy." I said that the insights of the new science would be important. He introduced me to Vast Universe by Thomas F O'Meara and Quantum Theology by Diarmiud O'Murcho, both Christian, indeed Catholic, theologians well versed and enthused with the new cosmology. I picked up and am reading both works.

So after a long absence, I return to the familiar terrain that I inhabited in a Jesuit theological school for five years and then University of Chicago Divinity School for two years. Not without some nostalgia, but mostly with the sense that I am glad to be out of there and do not want to go back. I explain.

"Fides quaerens intellectum" or "faith seeking understanding" is the classic definition of theology. There are (at least) three kinds of Christian theology--with parallels, I bet, in other religious traditions.

The first kind of theology, that of pastors, preachers, and congregants, is simply fides--meaning the beliefs which have been passed on verbatim (in the same words) as though they were literally given from on high by God or his messenger, usually written in holy scriptures by directly inspired scribes, and possibly interpreted and affirmed by authorities under divine inspiration. Theology of the first kind is mainly accepting the revealed teachings as given and learning how to apply them to present situations. Catechetics, Pastoral Theology, and Apologetics are names given to this endeavor. So it is not really theology in the classical sense at all and often puts pastors and authorities in tension with theologians.

The second kind of theology is "fides quaerens intellectum" whereby the very meaning of the traditional doctrines are questioned in the light of new understandings of the world and humanity. There  is no intent to change the revealed doctrines but simply to deepen the understanding of these beliefs and re-express them in the idiom of contemporary humanity. A philosophy is often used to further the understanding of humanity's place in the world and how revealed truth complements that understanding. Thomas Aquinas is the best example of this in his effort to treat the inquiries of the new science of the Muslim intellectuals in dialogue with Aristotle through a method of disputations, that is, logical weighing of alternative answers, under the authority of the teachings of Augustine and the Fathers of the Church interpreting Holy Scripture. Even in that, his orthodoxy was often suspected by thirteenth century authorities because of the use he made of natural reason and pagan inquiry. But now that he is officially approved, Neo-Thomism as taught in seminaries best represents this theology as a basis for Catechetics, Pastoral Theology, and Apologetics.

The third kind of theology is "fides quaerens intellectum querentem fidem" or "faith seeking the mind that is seeking faith." This theology is influenced by the modern philosophy of mind, led by Kant and Hegel, dialogues with contemporary existentialism, pragmatism, and science, and uses the methods of historical criticism and hermaneutics to understand the context and meanings of traditional teachings. It starts within the faith tradition assuming its historical teachings. But it interprets those teachings for contemporary humanity by both uncovering the developing context of those teachings and by discovering the human mind, its drives, its potentiality, its limits, its intentionality, as the subject and the receptacle of those teachings. Catholic theologians of the third kind to gain acceptance in the past tried to show their consistency with the development of Thomistic theology. Their triumph occurred in the Second Vatican Council which brought Catholicism into full dialogue and integration with the contemporary world in order to deal with the issues of the contemporary world from a Christian perspective, but not pretending to have all the answers.

Since then it seems that theology has consisted of either a further unfolding of the third kind especially in response to new science or a reactionary throw back to the other two kinds because of a perceived threat to orthodoxy and the confusion of the faithful.

O'Meara and O'Murcho both situate themselves in third kind theology though O'Meara in his uncritical acceptance of Catholic doctrine seems to veer more closely to the second kind. O'Murcho, I feel, is reaching beyond Christian theology but is held back by his mission to the Church.

More on this next time as I pursue my recent journey in nostalgia.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Soul That Remains

I just read an article in the Atlantic that moved me: Amnesia and the Self that Remains when Memory is Lost.

I promptly wrote a comment to the author:


This is an excellent, and consoling, reflection.

I do not believe that I have an immaterial soul that can separate itself from my body. I am my body. But I know that my body is more than just the sum of its organs, and more than the most important organ, the brain.

I also know that the "self" is an illusion, yet an important one and only a delusion if believed as an independent and eternal entity apart from the continually developing and deteriorating body.

Memory is what gives the sense of self some continuity and permanence. I watched my father slowly die of Alzheimer's and so know I possibly have the genetic predisposition for this disease. Who knows? My present name and word forgetting may be early signs of the disease and are certainly signs of advancing age. My father at times was NOT himself--often did not know me, with angers, with judgments I never saw before. And yet at other times his "real" character was there. The pattern of speech and behavior, his attitude towards life and others, his kindness, generosity, and love were very much in evidence. I was saddened when he died, but also relieved for him, for me, and for the family as I hope my loved ones will be when I die.

Character or, if you want, the "soul" of a person is not a thing at a particular time and place. It is the creative design that a person chooses and becomes through many times, spaces, and encounters with others--a design in a continually emerging universe that goes on and on learning and teaching.