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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Ethics and Religion in a Post Christian Age

(Note: I must like to start over. I keep writing new introductions to my work. Maybe my work just consists in introductions. Here is another one.)

Ethics and Religion in a Post Christian Age

Intro 1: Post-Christian! Who says so?

Am I implying that the Christian tradition has ended and that Christianity no longer has validity or influence? Not at all. I could just have easily talked about Post-Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or whatever. None of these have lost validity or influence. Religion is very much a part of culture and I think will always be. But that's just it. We live in a very pluralist society with many different religions--even religions within religions. And we face some very momentous decisions in confronting huge trends that are threatening our very existence. We need to reach deep in our differing traditions and beyond their sometimes opposing expressions to find and affirm the humanity that is common to us all at a time when that humanity is fundamentally challenged. (One could argue that it is always that time, that to be human means to be in crisis; but more on that later.)

I speak of post Christianity because that is the tradition from which I emerge; and it is to the people of this tradition that I address these thoughts. I'll let others address their own traditions as indeed many are so doing.

But there is another meaning of being in a post-Christian age. The Judeo-Christian western culture itself has developed many traditions and expressions. And many of us have left our old-time religions and are accepting, even welcoming, the secular humanist and post-modern society without beliefs in supernatural entities or events which formerly defined religion. Some may say they still have these religious beliefs and even fight to enshrine them. But if they are honest, they acknowledge that they generally set them aside in their work-a-day life.

So not only do we have to find common cause with other religionists, but also with secularists, agnostics, skeptics, and atheists if we are to live, work, and especially act together for our common good.

What are those megatrends that are confronting us and threatening our existence? There are at least four that almost everyone recognizes 1) urbanization, 2) wealth creation, 3) earth change, 4) transhumanism; and you can put the word "global" in front of all of them. The question with all of these is not whether, but how. Can we find some universal standards to guide us in all our expressions within these megatrends? Is there a universal ethic that can stand over, within, and above our religions and their moralities? I think so. I think that ethic is easily discoverable by most of us who have not suppressed it because it is our human existence itself--that which make us most human. (I will have to explain that I know.)

But it is less easily expressed because once it is put out there with all the other moral and religious expressions, it is just one more contribution to the rich diversity of our pluralistic culture. We have seen that starting a new religion or morality with its own holy book, creed, and ritual can be quite lucrative. But usually a new religion and ethics are started not for profit reasons, but because their founders think they have been given or stumbled upon the answer to all our problems, war, poverty, health, and everlasting life. And indeed they probably have. And just as often they and their followers, in rationalizing and concretizing their insights, develop a school, a cult, a movement, a priesthood, a territory, and a truth that has consequences destructive to our common human being together.

So unless we want to start a new religion or a new morality (and I don't!), we cannot pretend to lay out a new revelation or insight or truth. All we can do is use our language and other human artifacts or symbols (I'll explain that later) to point to what is already there in all of us before it is expressed or, better, while we are expressing anything in our interaction with each other and our world.

And if it is difficult to express that universal ethic, it is even more difficult to apply it to the current megatrends that are putting our human existence at risk. But that is exactly what I am trying to do--for myself in my solitude and with you, especially those of you in the "west" emerging within or out of the Judeo-Christian culture into an age of post-Christian and post-modern experience and expression. I hope to clarify those megatrends, how they are putting us at risk, and how we might explore and exploit these megatrends to continue our adventure in human being.

First a note on my language. When I use the word "ethics," I usually mean the same as morality, that is, the formal and informal rules of behavior that are legitimated (law) or sanctified (religion) within the culture of a particular society. However when I use the word "ethics" as a discipline of social philosophy or behavioral science, then I mean the inquiry into a particular morality or of ethics in general. I reserve the word ethic (without an s) to the fundamental dynamic structure of human existence before, within, and beyond its many expressions and ethics, i.e. that which can only be pointed to so people can recognize it for themselves within their own expressions.

That language presumes my own philosophical orientation and style which will not be compatible with yours. (See my earlier blog on style which will be inserted here).

Okay let's review what I have promised you so far in this introduction usually between the parentheses:
1) a notion of human being that is always in crisis and finally cannot be expressed.
2) a clarification of four global megatrends that confront us and put our human existence at risk.
3) the meaning of symbol in language and other human artifacts to define our human way of being.
4) how ethics and religion are part and parcel of culture.
5) a universal ethic which belongs to the notion of human existence that we can use to explore and exploit these megatrends.

All without advancing a new ethics (morality) or religion (though perhaps critiquing our old ones), without arguing to any absolute truth (though hopefully pursuing truth), in a circular redundant style of discovery, and without diminishing your responsibility and effort to think things out for yourself and join the conversation.

Now if you want to go on, and I hope you do because I need the conversation, you deserve to know a little more who I am, my own interests and values, and the actors and thinkers who have made me who I am. So I proceed to my second introduction.

Intro 2: The Philosophy Stone (to be inserted)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

God is a Verb

Universalists and Unitarians in America (2011) by John Buehrens is excellent background to the church we have been attending: All Souls UU in DC.

Unitarians and Universalists: All-American denominations, one more out of rural, the other more out of urban areas. Both emerging from Christian tradition but one more tending to a spiritualist dimension beyond any religion; the other more tending to a rational transcendentalist dimension beyond any religion. Both considered liberal (and almost came together as the Liberal Church of America) in reaction to Calvinist evangelicalism. Both with strong history of social justice action beyond faith and works. And cradle for many great leaders, known and unknown, for social, racial, and economic justice.

Their concept of God varied from spiritual principle to loving parent, but totally opposed to God as the mean Father or punishing Judge of the evangelicals. And their concept of humanity was certainly different from mainline Protestant and Catholic traditions which saw even infants with original sin requiring the sacrifice of God Himself in human substance and unity of believers with that sacrifice in baptism. For Unitarians and Universalists, sin or evil exists in the world, but within each person is the divine spark that can grow to fight and overcome that evil--as was demonstrated by Jesus of Nazareth and other great spiritual persons.

"Unitarian" may once have referred to the one rather than three-in-one doctrine of God, but now means that we are all one together against racial, sexual, and class divisions. "Universalist" may once have meant the belief that all persons are saved, but now means we are all universally related on a voyage to human progress. "Transcendentalist" may once have been the belief in a universal Divine Spirit, but now means the ability of the human spirit to transcend--that is, to advance past the prejudices, injustices, and inequalities of the present.

Is there a place for God in this liberal humanist tradition? God, whether conceived as principle of personal unity or personal agency of Love, is not a proposition to be affirmed or denied. Neither ardent theists nor principled atheists, neither true believers nor holders of absolute truths allow for transcendence. Transcendence, often referred to as the spirit of life and the spirit of love, is not a being or state of being, not a place or a time, not an idea or belief. Transcendence is an act, a passing, a voyage, a going beyond the normal, the ordinary, the status quo, beyond beliefs and creeds and the world-as-it-is towards the world-as-it-could-be.

In scholastic philosophy, at least the neo-Thomist kind, God is defined not as matter (though the font of all matter), not as form (though informing the whole), but as Pure Act. God is not a noun; God is a verb.

Transcendence is all of us living and acting with each other, with our earth, with our universe to co-create our selves and our world. Transcendence is the ethical and political activity of achieving freedom and justice for all. No more, no less.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Le style, c'est l'homme même

A lawyer acquaintance who was reading my stuff told me that my style of composition is very confusing. He said I should simply lay out my position and the arguments for it.

Now that might be fine in a courtroom where you have a position, guilty or non-guilty, true or false. But I don't have a position I am trying to prove. I don't have an argument to win. And truth for me is not some objective formulation that is either right or wrong, but rather a convergence of positions of  many thoughtful people. In fact, truth for me is not in the formulation and who or how many hold it, but in the search.

That makes no sense to him. He has a very different epistemology, spirituality, and style than mine. But I'm not saying he is wrong (how could I?); and his comment did urge me to consider different styles of getting positions, putting forth positions, and advancing positions--i.e. composition, exposition, and imposition.

Every person has her own style or as the French naturalist Buffon said: le style, c'est l'homme même. Style is a good definition of personhood. In reflecting on my style, as in these blogs or the work on ethics that I am writing, in relation to others, I have identified five generic style types--though there are as many writing and presentation styles as there are persons.

1. Explanatory. The first is linear like a legal brief. You have a conclusion. You argue for it, presenting evidence and reasoning. You consider the arguments against it and rebut those arguments. You sum up and repeat your conclusion. Apologetic and didactic treatises as well as  commission reports are examples of this.

2. Scholarly. The second is what most academics use. It too is quite linear though it refers to the discovery method. You pose the question and lay out its status--e.g. how it fits with other questions. You give the results of a comprehensive search of the literature that relates to this question. You provide data from any experimentation that you or others have done. You lay out the findings and conclusion. You suggest questions for further research. More comprehensive and leads to further discussion. Rawls, Sen, Crossan, Dewey, Merleau-Ponty and most books from the academy are thus.

3. Reflective. The third is what activists whether on the streets, the board room, the counseling office articulate. They interview people and enter into situation which they observe. They take notes and write down their memories. They narrate actions. Then they mull over all they have observed and written down and discern patterns and meanings. This engages the reader by bringing her into the process of discovery. I think of Ernst Goffman and his observations while living in prisons and mental institutions and monasteries to identify the characteristics of total institutions. I think of Alinsky reflecting on his own community organizing to write the rules of radicals whose first rule is that there are no rules.

4. Thoughtful. The fourth is a series of thoughts or essays or meditations or dialogues on topics that may build up to conclusions but without finality. It engages the audience and encourages them to think for themselves. It involves the reader in the circular and redundant mode of discovery. I think of Hannah Arendt reflecting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem as well as her essays Between Past and Future; Karl Rahner and his forays into the histories of certain religious rituals; Christopher Hitchen's Essays; Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, and Bach; Pascal, Descartes, Badou.

5. Poetic and prophetic. The fifth provokes and shocks the reader to think out of the ordinary. It uses exhortation and rhetoric, stories and drama to push a different way of looking at reality. Neitsche, Kafka, Camus come to mind--as do many dramatists and film makers.

When I reflect on my style I find that I have large element of #3 because I have been an activist and do reflect on what I have learned in pursuing affordable housing, new urbanism, racial and economic justice.  But also #4 because I read, meditate, and write almost daily on topics of the day that interest me trying to weave them together with some consistency, but always questioning any positions I come to. I love #5 and at times try to write poetry and stories to point to ways of pursuing truth. No wonder I am confusing; but confusion is a way of being for me. My style.

So, dear reader, if you want consistency and invariable positions, if you want straight lines to the truth, if you want to be sure, do not associate with me. I am on a voyage and want to be with fellow wayfarers who are also searching and finding pleasure not in a final destination, but in the journey itself.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ethics and the Law--A Socratic Dialogue

The scene: Starbuck's Coffee House, Silver Spring. Socrates walks in. Plato and Solon sitting at a table see him.

~  Solon:   Socrates, good to see you, c'mon over and sit down. Have a frappuccino. We're celebrating.

~  Socrates:   For sure! And what are we celebrating?

~  Plato:   Solon just got word that he passed his bar exam.

~  Socrates (giving Solon a high five):   Congratulations, Solon. So what does it mean to pass that exam?

~  Solon: It means that I can now practice law in the courts of the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia. I could even be a judge some day and dispense justice.

~  Plato:   Now you've done it, Solon, you should never use the j-word around Socrates.

~  Socrates (laughing):   And what is justice, Solon? Was that on your exam?

~  Solon:   Justice is what the law says it is. Prosecutors prosecute, defenders defend, and judges decide justice based on the law.

~  Socrates:   And where does the law by which justice is dispensed come from?

~  Solon:   From the rulers. And in a democracy that is the people. They adopt constitutions many of which are based on common law or the usual practice of a society or commons sense, what people believe their practices should be and codifying what they believe their morality is.

~  Socrates:   What about in a state that is not a democracy?

~  Solon:   O Socrates, always asking questions! You know that Weber defined a state as a monopoly of the means of violence. So any ruler that commands the means of violence makes the laws. That's why an unenforceable law or an unenforced law is no law at all. Even in an aristocracy or a monarchy, the rulers have to provide laws that can be enforced.

~  Socrates:   Defining the state as a monopoly on the means of violence is a whole other discussion; and I won’t start that one here. Nevertheless, if most people don't accept the law and it is still being enforced….?

~  Solon:   Well, then they change rulers. In a Parliamentary government that means one government falls and another is established. But even dictators and plutocrats have to persuade most of the people that they have their best interests at heart.

~  Plato:   But in a good society, the rulers are those who choose what is best for the people in general.

~  Solon:   Yes, of course.

~  Socrates:   But that's the point! What makes it good? Is there a standard of justice that makes some societies, their laws and their legal professionals good and others not so good? If the rulers think the law is just, does that make it just--it could be good for them and their faction but not others.

~  Plato:   Some people speak of a "higher" law--like the law of the gods or of nature. And that's the source of "positive law" or stands in judgment above it.

~  Socrates:   And how would we know that higher law?

~  Solon:   Priests or religious ministers say that it’s in their Holy Books as revealed to their prophets and taught by their priests. God tells them what to write. So you have Mosaic, or Sharia, or Canon Law. However no pluralistic society in today's world can be run by an appeal to Divine Law.

~  Socrates:   Why not?

~  Solon:   Every religion has its own prophets, priests, and holy books. And we have all kinds of nuts running around saying that God has talked with them and pushing different things. So in today's world, people and their rulers have to decide what is best for all and make laws accordingly.

~  Plato:   But they have to base their decisions on something! And that, I argue, is natural law--which is identified with Reason. If people still want to be religious, they can say that natural law was given by God. But actually it is the natural reason common to all of us that is the source of ethics and the law.

~  Socrates:   Who tells us what natural law is? If it is the priests and ministers again, aren't we back to the same problem? Or can we count on the common folk to use reason?

~  Plato:   It has to be philosophers who have the latest science at their disposal--the educated people in the know. That why rulers should be philosophers.

~  Socrates:   With so many people denying science as a way to understand reality whether its evolution or climate change, that doesn't give us much hope, does it? Nor do all the philosophers agree with one another. I was told by the Oracle that the wisest of philosophers was the one who knows that he does not know. And philosophers are certainly not read, nor understood by most legislators. 

~  Solon:   Legislators can consult with philosophers and scientists, but really the only philosophy and science legislators claim is common sense, which is what they believe to be the best for people and themselves. So they make laws that they think fit with the customs and mores of their constituents, i.e. the people who will support them with money and votes.

~  Plato:   Then let the laws be formed by common law or the mores and customs of the general population—but of course guided by reason.

~  Solon:   That might be ideal. But is there a general population in a pluralistic society? All US politicians of all stripes say they speak for the “American people.” And even if so, there are some customs and mores repugnant to others and they are forever changing. And you can’t count on anyone being reasonable when their interests are at stake.

~  Socrates:   And the mores and customs or the morality of the so-called general population often needs to be called into question. So are you are saying ultimately neither the gods nor reason define justice. Nor the mores and customs of the general population?

~  Solon:   Right. Though legislators say that their laws are based in divine will or natural reason or the mores and customs of the people, really they are written to support the interests of the people who support their power. And whatever you say that they are based on, justice is defined by laws enforced by the police power of the state.

~  Socrates:   And whether its natural law or divine law or common law, once it’s written down, doesn't it become human law? We recognize now that language is a cultural artifact and it’s meaning is always subject to context of time and place.

~  Solon:   Yes, that's why we have judges to interpret the law. And we know from experience that the political orientation of the judges influences their interpretations. You can claim that the laws come from gods or nature or common law, but it is the written law of the state that is the measure of justice.

~  Plato:   Whoops, there's that j-word again.

~  Socrates:   Can there be unjust laws?

~  Solon:   By definition, no.

~  Socrates:   What about the laws, some say even divine laws, which encouraged slavery? What about the laws that enforced segregation? Were abolitionists protecting runaway slaves acting unjustly? Was Martin Luther King Jr. practicing civil disobedience acting unjustly? Did Daniel Ellsberg in revealing classified material about how citizens were being lied to about the Vietnam War act unjustly? Would Adolph Eichmann have been unjust if he disobeyed his orders to send the Jews to their extermination in Nazi Germany? Was Nelson Mandela acting unjustly in rebelling against the laws of Apartheid in South Africa?

~  Solon:   Civil disobedience and rebellion are illegal by definition and so must be prosecuted by legal justice system.

~  Socrates:   So are there no unjust laws that should be resisted whether or not legislators claim they come from natural or divine law? Can civil disobedience or rebellion ever be justified?

~  Solon:   I know this bothers you Socrates, because you have been accused of perverting youth by questioning the authority of certain laws. But if people don't like a law, they should get rulers or legislators to change it through whatever means are available by the law. Sometimes people just have to go along with a law for the main purpose of the law, i.e. order.

~  Plato:   Sometimes we speak of social or economic or racial justice over legal justice.

~  Solon:   But that is usually people just saying they don't like the law because it doesn’t serve their interest. And it is the same as appealing to some higher law as we said before.

~  Plato:   Socrates, how do you permit your civil disobedience?

~  Socrates:   I agree with Solon that civil disobedience and rebellion is not legitimate and so subject to prosecution. So a person rebelling or practicing civil disobedience will have to take the consequences of that. But I also think there is a difference between an action being legitimate and an action being justified.

~  Solon:   If an illegitimate action can be justified, that means there is another justice outside the law.

~  Plato:   Doesn't this just bring us back to the problem of a higher law? And we've already established that higher laws if they exist are expressed by humans, priests or philosophers, and so can also be unjust.

~  Socrates:   Yes, so I ask myself if an illegitimate action be justified. I ask myself whether I have not only permission, but also responsibility to disobey what I consider an unjust law. I ask myself if I have the responsibility to question the laws of a society that I consider unjust. Also there is a growing consensus concerning crimes against humanity over and above the laws of nations. And I ask myself where that comes from.

~  Solon:   Where does it? You sometimes speak of your daimon. Is that it?

~  Plato:   But that sounds like a god and we are back to divine law.

~  Socrates:   No, my daimon is not a god, nor does it come from a god.

~  Plato:   Unitarians speak of the "divine spark" that everybody is born with. For them a child is not born with sin, original or not, but in sin, the sin of the world that they inherit in culture and history; but they have a divine spark that can grow to counter that sin.

~  Socrates:   That’s a good metaphor. A spark has to be fanned to grow. If it is neglected and allowed to grow cold, it goes out. But I think this spark is very human, not divine.

~  Plato:   Then it’s what philosophers call the "light of reason."

~  Socrates:   Except reason seems to mean understood, having support of arguments, rationalized. Science is the height of reason with its formulas and laws.

~  Solon:   And we know scientific laws are tenuous. They can appear to be opposed to other scientific laws and need to be incorporated in a new higher law, and that can go on and on.

~  Socrates:   Yes, and again, I think it is more of a feeling, a sense of what is just and unjust that goes along with everything I do, not a matter of reasoned argument.

~  Plato:   That’s what we mean by conscience. It’s the kind of non-rational knowledge that goes along with other kinds of knowledge. That’s why we call it con-science.

~  Solon:   That doesn’t explain what this daimon or spark or conscience is and how it is superior to the laws.

~  Socrates:   I’ve told you that whenever I have a conversation like this or one with adversaries, I go home and in my solitude confront the biggest adversary of them all, one that questions every position I’ve taken or advanced with others.

~  Plato:   I know that’s what you mean by thinking and why you say you know that you do not know.

~  Socrates:   yes, and why I keep coming back to you guys and anyone else who will engage me.

~  Solon:   And that’s why you keep questioning the laws. You have a feeling that is not expressed by laws but by which you can challenge laws. That can be pretty dangerous. You are putting feeling above the law.

~  Plato:   And feeling over against rationality.

~ Socrates:   But not if I am willing to keep questioning and let others question my thoughts. Isn’t the real danger when people don’t question their thoughts, including their laws? And the feeling I am talking about is the experience of thinking and acting with others.

~  Plato:   So your daimon or spark or conscience is really yourself, or maybe your other self?

~  Socrates:   I think it is a non-rational sense of what it means to be human, a thinking and acting being, not a thing that is used by others, not an object in the world out there. When I am thinking for myself and acting in community, I sense the measure that should stand against every formula, every proposition, and every law. But when I put it in words or rules, it eludes me.

~  Solon:   Still sounds pretty dangerous to me. It can lead to anarchy.

~  Socrates:   But if I bring my thoughts to the public for others to discuss and think about?

~  Solon:   Then we are back to where I said that the legislators take what people are thinking and make the laws accordingly.

~  Plato:   And it all comes down again to politics.

~  Socrates:   Yes, but the important thing is that people are not only discussing and deciding, but also thinking—in touch with their daimons and fanning the flames of their sparks. And above all other interests is the desire to be fully human, to be treated fully human and treat others as fully human. The products of their thinking and acting are never hardened into sure things.

~  Solon:   I’m confused. I am not sure where we are.

~  Socrates:   That is not a bad place to be I think. Plato, you are a good writer. How about you take what we discussed here and put it down on paper. Then you can e-mail it out and we can think about it.

~  Plato:   OK. I will either send it out as the dialogue we had or I will write a sort of treatise and call it, Ethics and the Law.

~  Socrates:   Great. Thanks and congratulations again, Solon.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Jesus again

Pat asked me to take a look at a book he is writing on the moral doctrine of Jesus. He indicated that this was an enterprise that Thomas Jefferson had started and never finished. He identifies five rules that Jesus taught which are antithetical to the evolutionary tendencies of humanity towards exclusiveness, violence, acquisitiveness, domination, and vengeance. They are good rules and I am all for them. But I'm not sure they are rules that Jesus pushed--and really don't care.

Because I've been educated in theology, thanks to my long Jesuit upbringing, I know enough to know how tentative conclusions in academic (as opposed to apologetical) theology are. I also know that a lot of scholarship has gone into the study of Jesus of Nazareth, but that we really can't know who he was or what he taught definitively. I don't base my own ethics and politics on religion or on what the Christian Church through its canonized gospels or doctrines say Jesus taught. In fact I no longer see value in theology except as a critical inquiry to relativize religion and its products.

But because Pat turned my head that way, I began reviewing my previous studies about Jesus, those of Raymond Brown, Joe DeVault, Oscar Cullman, John Bligh, Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg. Then I heard of the newly published book by Reza Aslan, Zealot, and read it. He retells the gospel story with knowledge of the place and times of the subject and telling of that story. He writes for non-experts, but his notes portray his own expertise within the community of Biblical scholars. It's a good read.

Some say that what he presents is not very new. Perhaps. But I think he sums up what the scholarly community agrees to and also make his own choices on some of the controversies that remain. But Aslan presents his evidence without being dogmatic while recognizing possibilities for different conclusions. I personally found his description of the Paul vs. James controversy intriguing and new for me.

Aslan interprets the historical evidence to discover Jesus as a peasant zealot--not of the Zealot Party which was organized well after he died and which led to the war against Rome and the destruction of the Jewish homeland. But following the Baptist, Jesus preached the sovereignty of the Hebrew God over Rome, enlisted others to contradict the Roman overlords and their Jewish priestly allies. He probably saw himself as the messiah or at least preparing for the messiah--a Jewish king in the line of David. This was okay when he stuck to Galilee; but, when he hit the Roman centers, the authorities crushed him as they did so many others who claimed the new Jewish order.

Marcus Borg also sees Jesus as a kind of revolutionary in opposition to the patronage system which rewarded the rich and enslaved the poor. And Dominic Crossan sees Jesus more as a Jewish Cynic constantly moving, no one place to lay his head, with all his belongings in his backpack, inviting people to a different way of life outside of the Roman/Priestly patronage and purity system.

Interpretation is objective and subjective. It uses the hardest evidence it can find, but at the same time interpretation is a creative work of the interpreter with her viewpoint, her questions, her motivation to know the truth. It is not the failure, but the richness, of historical enterprise to find many interpretations of an era or an event. The truth is not in any one of them, but in their conversion as they take each other into account.

And so it is with interpretations of Jesus. After much study, but with no claim to singular expertise, I have my own interpretation but realize that it may be saying more about myself than the historical Jesus event. I do not think Jesus was a moral philosopher like Plato or Aristotle, or as Jefferson would have.  Jesus did not preach a moral code with well argued propositions or well defined rules. More like Socrates before Plato, Jesus before Christianity was a critic of the prevailing morality.

While he was not a moralist, he did have an ethic, i.e. a life style, an approach to his world, a way of dealing with others that we can try to articulate. He lived in a way that was not complicit with the current practice or conventional wisdom. By traveling around with his possessions on his back, by never staying in once place to pay taxes or obeisance, by associating with the dispossessed, the poor, women, the abnormal, he totally opted out of the system of economy, of culture, and of politics that was oppressing the people he most cared about.

I agree with Aslan that Jesus probably accepted the Biblical code of morality, i.e. the Law, as did his brother James the Just who followed in his footsteps to lead the gathered disciples. What Jesus did not accept (and here I agree with Borg, Crossan, and Aslan) was the patronage system that Rome set up with the kings and priests of Israel, nor the purity system that oppressed the peasants, nor the use of the law and religion that sanctified that oppression. His main message was: the Kingdom of God that was coming and that was already here. This was a revolutionary and dangerous message which other messianic zealots had preached and for which they were executed because it was opposed to the sovereignty of Caesar. Give Caesar back his coins, but the land belonged to the God of Israel (and I trust he meant the peasants).

I think with Aslan that Jesus knew that this message would provoke violence which is why he avoided the centers of Roman and priestly power and promoted the "messianic secret." But with Crossan and Borg, I do not think he counseled violence. Jesus was no fool. He knew his ragtag following was no match for the Roman legions. But I think, as he began to assemble followers, he knew he needed to confront more directly the domination of the evil alliance of Rome and High priests even if that would unleash their violence.

At least that is how I, as a companion of Jesus on the way, like to see and encounter him. Learning as we go, not giving into the morality that extends the division between the rich and poor, choosing a lifestyle that least contributes to that morality, discovering what we are to do next even if that choice may be dangerous, never settling in, always in transition, pushing beyond beliefs and rules that are part of an oppressive society, seeking justice beyond the kingdoms of any king, general, president, priest, pope, rabbi, imam, court of law. That is my Jesus ideal and why I proclaim to be his companion.

Jesus was an agitator--i.e. he incited people to think and act. Socrates, Buddha, Lao-Tsu were agitators in this sense. They didn't present answers but stimulated persons to seek their answers apart from the ones that the authorities laid on them. He was more a rebel (in the Camus definition) than a revolutionary (in the Lenin definition). He was more like Nietzsche than Heidegger, not laying out a complete moral and political philosophy, but challenging people to think. Like a Zen Buddhist monk or a cosmopolitan, ascetic cynic, he used questions and riddles to shock persons out of their comfortable and conventional way of thinking.

Eventually his followers saw him as a way to go beyond the normal, ordinary, mainstream beliefs and rules; therefore as a way to transcend, and therefore a way to the divine. It was when the organization made him the Way, the Answer, the Divine that the Jesus movement lost its transcendence. The Christian Church and Christian morality with its priesthood and dogmas betrayed the Jesus event. The Grand Inquisitor knows that he must destroy the Jesus ethic to maintain the world order controlled by the new Roman empire and its patrons that the Christian morality and its messaging sustain.

But the Jesus rebel style of life and action continues--even within the Christian Church (I see it in my friend Al Fritsch, S.J.) and certainly outside. I hope it continues at least a little bit in me. So that I can be with others in my community a re-presentation of the Christ and a sign of his resurrection.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Meditation on Evil

Bernie and I just experienced two movies: Act of Killing and Hannah Arendt. Both deal concretely with the fact and meaning of evil. They both do what art at its best does. They so involve us that we are no longer mere spectators, but participants with our whole being, emotion and reason, heart and mind, body and soul.

Adolf Eichmann in his routinized indirect participation in the killing of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany and Anwar Congo in his direct personal killing of thousands who were considered communist because of opposition to the military coup d'état in Indonesia are worthwhile subjects of these movie mediations on Evil in today's world.

Then yesterday we metroed to the Corcoran Art Gallery and surveyed its compelling, sobering exhibit on War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath. There was a meditation room at the end where you could write a postcard and pin it to the wall. The messages were sad, yet hopeful. Aghast at our inhumanity, yet yearning for a peaceful and just human cosmos.

What Hannah Arendt, who has been my intellectual heroine for over fifty years, discovered in Eichmann was not a grand Satan, not a grotesque monster, not even an anti-Semite, but a man who sacrificed his own humanity on the altar of order and the prevailing morality. We discover with her a normal bureaucrat following orders without thinking. She called it the "banality of evil."

It is the "normality" of that evil that upsets us when it is named--as it did for many of the Jews who opposed Arendt's characterization. Because without thinking, without challenging our own morality and that of our religion and our nation, without questioning the beliefs and the rules by which we are behaving, we are complicit in the evil of dehumanization that is surrounding us daily in our cities, in our worship, in our economy, and in our politics.

What we discover with director Joshua Oppenheimer as we ride along with Anwar Congo and his colleagues, as they celebrate and are celebrated for the brutal slaughter of thousands of "communists" in pools of blood, are men who consider themselves free-men (their translation of "gangster") using the methods and morality found in American westerns and gangster movies. Anwar is a kindly grandfather excited to show his grandsons the movie he is making about his exploits in killing.

Only once, when he was acting the part of one of his victims, did Congo suddenly "feel" what his victims must have been feeling and question himself. That was a telling moment because it showed a diminished, suppressed, lost capacity asserting itself: empathy. Congo and his colleagues are like the Nazi soldiers who, carrying out the orders that Eichmann processed, jammed whole families into box cars and carted them to the killing fields, furnaces, and mass graves of camps--without daring to feel any connection to those they were slaughtering.

The capacities to think for oneself in solitude and to feel with others in community are linked. It is our ability to feel with persons dying on the battlefield, roasted by napalm, thrown from helicopters, lined up and shot, tortured in prison camps, wasting without limbs in hospitals, as portrayed in those photographs of war, that we question the policies, the orders, the morality that permits this.

Thinking and empathy are also the capacities (or are they the same?) that define human existence and that connect us to the human in all persons without boundaries. These inheritances, gifts of evolution or graces from God, however you want to conceive them, are what make us a "little more than beasts and a little less than angels." They are our way to transcendence, the act of passing beyond the beliefs that constrain us where we can move from the meditation on Evil to the contemplation of the Good.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"What is Truth?"

"What is Truth?" Pontius Pilate's question echoes down history. 

Today I read Chris Hedges' account of Assange and Wikileaks "The Death of Truth."

He ends his article thus:  

The world has been turned upside down. The pestilence of corporate totalitarianism is spreading rapidly over the earth. The criminals have seized power. It is not, in the end, simply Assange or Manning they want. It is all who dare to defy the official narrative, to expose the big lie of the global corporate state. The persecution of Assange and Manning is the harbinger of what is to come, the rise of a bitter world where criminals in Brooks Brothers suits and gangsters in beribboned military uniforms—propped up by a vast internal and external security apparatus, a compliant press and a morally bankrupt political elite—monitor and crush those who dissent. Writers, artists, actors, journalists, scientists, intellectuals and workers will be forced to obey or thrown into bondage. I fear for Julian Assange. I fear for Bradley Manning. I fear for us all.

For the naive realist, the question of truth is easy.  Verum (the true) and Ens (reality) are Unum (one). Truth is what is really already our there. If mind mirrors reality, it is true. If the person says the words that match that reality, s/he speaks truth. If not, it is a deception or lie.

Not so easy for us "constructivists" who have studied neuroscience, cybernetics, and scientific method; that is, how the brain works, how language works, how science works. Some constructivists see truth itself, including its search and achievement, as a dangerous deception. But most of us see it as an interaction between the embrained human organism and its environment out of which both mind and world are born. Truth we think is a social construct having varying degrees of veracity. 

There is the truth of commonsense or conventional wisdom (usually pretty close to or starting with the naive realist concept of truth). This is a truth undistinguished from language that works in the day to day world. This is the truth of the sun rising and falling and no change under it, of everything coming to him who waits and fortune favoring the bold.

There is the truth of artistic (and religious) expression in which aficionados who, by entering and reliving the expression of artists, experience the sentiment, emotion, feeling of the artists.  Art pulls its audience out of the day to day world to encounter the imaginative value structure "behind" and giving meaning to that world and its truths.

There is the truth of science in which formulations are not meaningful unless they can be falsified, in which formulas are tested by experiments that can be replicated by peers also trained in science, and in which presently verified models can be modified within a larger more inclusive model. The truths of science often conflict with the truths of common sense, art, and religion.

We constructivists appreciate and recognize the interrelation among all these "truths." We also think that truth is never fully expressed in words, expressions, or formulas but is discovered in the never-ending pursuit. Truths are provisional. They are what the society speaking a common language, the culture sharing common values, or the scientific community communicating experimental results agree to at a certain time and place. 

Philosophy is the examination of truth by the study of the human behaviors (commonsense living, artistic expression, and scientific inquiry) that discover truths. Because it is a study of human behavior (i.e. knowing and acting), philosophy culminates in or boils down to ethics and politics; that is, to the examined life both personal and collective. Thus philosophy becomes a guide to the perplexed; that is, to those of us in daily living, artistic appreciation, and scientific inquiry searching for truth. Yes, it is foolish to ignore the commonsense of social leaders, the expressions of great artists, the collective knowledge of the scientific community. But it is also foolish to accept their pronouncements and especially their directions uncritically as we shape our personal lives and public policy.

So to respond to Pontius Pilate and Chris Hedges, what is truth and has it died? Truth is neither absolute as the naive realists would have us believe, nor owned by those who dominate the social order whom the naive realists often unintentionally support. Those who assume that truth is what they believe, those who assume that the truth is what the authorities (whether in government, academia, or religion) think and say, and those who object to putting "truths" out there for the public to examine are indeed killing truth by blocking the ongoing communal search for truth. 

George Orwell in his "1984" described the state in which the search for truth had ended and so truth was dead. It is the state of telescreens, social creeds, doublespeak, memory holes, newspeak, and endless war by terrorists. It is the state where those who question and dissent are considered enemies of the people to be punished or are mad and need treatment. Pontius Pilate relativizes and absolutizes truth by making it the province of the mighty as well as a dangerous deception. Chris Hedges, I think, is Orwell challenging that newly prevalent notion and action by returning truth to the public. Where it belongs. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Urbanism and the New Ethic

A few blogs ago, I discussed Detroit and the need for an urban policy. Urbanization is one of the fastest growing global trends and probably one of the most watched along with the warming of the earth and gross national product.

Asia, especially China and India portray the greatest percentage of rising urban population with North American and European population already reaching about 85%.

With urbanization come great social problems: slums, tribal conflict, crime, massive infrastructure requirements for water, energy, transportation, and communication. But as the great former governor and urban planner of Brazil, Jaime Lerner, instructs: "The City is not the problem; it is the solution."

Urbanization creates wealth, opportunity to cross oppressive boundaries, mobility and communication, and safety. It is a major solution to global warming, resource destruction, ignorance, population growth, inadequate food production and distribution, health and wealth inequity.  The City is not the problem. It is the solution.

Or can be, say the New Urbanists, depending on how it is designed. And there we are: urbanizing, yes; but how? Is it assaulting or nurturing the earth, the very condition of our existence. Is it transforming our species and, if so, to what? And who decides how and what? On what grounds? Let's think about that.

And that's where ethics and politics enter the fray; and the call for urban policy.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ethics and the Science of Knowing

In my last blog, I suggested that the new ethics and politics to deal with the central issues of today require a new (or renewed) spirituality and new (or renewed) epistemology.

Let me deal a bit more with the latter since I find that many intelligent people today have not read much in philosophy, much less "radical or non-dualistic constructivism." Most people and many professionals--especially those in religion, law, accounting and finance, politics and punditry--are naive realists in philosophy. They are prone to believe in natural laws, inspired books and constitutions, unchanging truths, infallible judgments, final words, complete language, whole rational numbers, sacred principles, past unencumbered by memory, perfect interpretations, and fixed ideologies.

In naive realism, you get what you see. Just look. Truth is when the word corresponds to the real-outside-there object and when the mind mirrors reality. Such realism is considered empiricism (but not the "radical empiricism" of William James) when the right idea comes from things out there; that is, the object sends its form to the mind. It is considered idealism (but not neo-Kantian idealism) when the idea comes from the mind or from some transcendent Mind to fit the real object. But both empiricism and idealism are manifestations of the same split between mind and reality.

The participants in naive realism declare their pronouncements as self-evident. Their commonsense is not the reality that most people agree to, it is what most people would know if they would only look without bias. Naive realism separates the word and the object, the idea from the reality, the knowing from the known, and then attempts to link them. That is its source of duality or what Daniel Dennett calls the Cartesian theater.

What is my problem with naive realism? 1) Its pronouncements are non-verifiable, non-falsifiable and so meaningless. 2) The consequences of naive realism are deadly. They lead to the two issues we have cited: the assault on the earth and the stultifying finality of human existence. And this is why naive-realism is important to ethics and politics.

Radical constructivism or what Stephen Hawking calls "model-based realism" is the alternative to naive realism and closes the Cartesian gap between mind and reality, body and world, word and object. For the commonsense person who sees the sun go around the earth and that his breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast have nothing to do with symbols, it is somewhat difficult to grasp.

There are ancient roots to constructivist thought, but in modern times, many cite child psychologist Jean Piaget and his study of language learning as a new beginning. Piaget in his observations and reflections pointed to words in the inherited language as the media for objects in the world to be present. Then Benjamin Whorf and other cultural anthropologists observed and reflected that language made a difference in how a community encountered its world. Einstein and Heisenberg in the physical sciences and others especially in quantum theory observed and reflected how much human imagination and intervention contributed to the determination of what is real. And now neuroscientists are demonstrating through brain scans and experiments how the brain forms images, uses models and analogies, and constructs and assimilates ideas through language and other symbolic forms.

I do not intend to make the case for a radical constructivist epistemology. There are so many others who are making that case and all I can do is encourage people to get into the conversation. But I do intend to show that such epistemology (and its corresponding spirituality) is important for our ethics and politics dealing with the critical issues of today.

To the naive realist I say that, yes, the breakfast that you ate today is the result of the symbolic capacity of the human species. Note that I am not saying that eggs, bacon, and toast are mere symbols. They are objects in your lived world because of your and others symbolic action. The eggs you ate cannot be separated from the words you inherited and the constructed images that formed the plan to raise hens and collect the products of their ovaries. The bacon you ate cannot be separated from the imagination to raise and slaughter pigs for eating. The toast you ate cannot be separated from the imagination to name, to plant and cultivate wheat, to make flour and bake it into bread.

Objects in our world are what we name them in the language in which we grow and to which we contribute. Our world reveals itself through our symbolic forms; and our symbolic action constructs that reality. Knowledge is an interaction that creates both mind and object--a symbolic interaction with others that makes a world, our world.

I know that my last sentences are not understandable to the naive realist, just as quantum theory is not understandable to the classical physicist, much less to the commonsense observer. But I do beg you to try to understand, to try to engage with Hofstadter, Pinker, Dennett, and Deutsch or the philosophers I cited earlier, to try on the constructivist hat. It is a new thinking cap that I invite you to wear. And if you do, I feel sure you will see your religion, your politics, your economics, your life quite differently. You will have a new awe of the freedom that awaits you and your responsibility for our collective future.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Inferno and the New Enlightenment

I just finished Dan Brown's Inferno. It was fast, fun, and formulaic. Very predictable in its unpredictability. This is the third book of his that I have read and they seem to all follow the same formula. But why not if it works for him?

It deals, but not very deeply, with what I think are the central ethical issues of today. These are 1) the human alteration of the earth--and so the destruction of the very condition of human existence and 2) the human alteration of the human species through genetic modification (which was what Inferno was about) and through mind-machine interface or alternative intelligence. (I just picked up a new piece of fiction, Memories of Maya, which may signal more of the latter.)

Today these issues are instanced by the assault on the earth by over-carbonization leading to climate change, by over-landuse and thoughtless planning leading to hunger and conflict, by over-population and resourcing leading to stark divisions in wealth and war. They are also instanced by the need to prepare and adapt to the negative results of a changing earth by a transhumanism through genetics and technology.

Ethics and politics that do not deal with these two issues or at least provide the foundation, tools, and context in which to deal with these two issues are severely lacking in relevance. The cultural, economic, and political patterns of human behavior and their trajectory need to be examined in relation to what humanity is doing to the earth and to itself. These include patterns of industry, technology, scientific experimentation, urbanization, mobility, education, social interaction, health care, aging, child bearing, family life, wealth distribution, and so on.

Both of these underlying, overarching, and central (to use all the spatial metaphors) issues arise from our very special human capacity to adapt and to adapt to our environment through constructible, renewable forms, i.e. what philosophers and neuroscientists call the symbolic capacity. I claim that the resolution to these issues comes from that same capacity. And it includes a new spirituality and a new epistemology that will be the basis of a new ethics and politics to guide human personal and collective behavior.  The new epistemology will be a re-understanding of "presence" (or "reality") in human knowing. The new spirituality will be a re-understanding of "transcendence" (or "faith") in human acting.

Happily, both are underway.

My friend Bob Toth with David Korten and the Contemplative Alliance, to which Bob introduced me, are dealing with the spirituality of this ethics and politics. We need to transform our religion from an otherworldly legitimization of this-worldly-destructiveness which measures success as the accumulation of consumptive power, i.e. money. And transform it to a reverence of life and of the condition for life in a living earth. Our transcendence is here and now through our constructive and collective action that goes beyond the beliefs that separate us and drive us to acquire an over abundance of resources, to fear and violate others, to resist thoughtful planning and change, to hold on to an ideology that leads to the destruction of the earth and our human existence. This spirituality is the alternative or, hopefully, the means of renewal of contemporary religions that claim absolute truth and legitimate our destructive behavior. (PS we just saw the Book of Mormon which was indeed the relativizing of religion through art and humor.)

The new epistemology is underway in philosophy in what is now called "non-dualistic constructivism." In the US, CS Peirce, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty represent this stream of thinking. In Europe, it has been pursued by Martin Heideggar, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Alain Badiou (among many others). Bernard Lonergan was my guide when I was studying  re-constructed Thomism as a Jesuit. And recently I came across a treasure in Radical Constructivism at the University of Vienna ( and the writings of Ernst van Glassfeld, Josef Miterer, and many many others. This philosophy is allied with the new science of information and is the alternative to the simplistic and reactionary philosophy of naive realism, of the empirical-idealist split, of "common sense" and "conventional wisdom." (Perhaps science fiction will make these concepts easier for the public.)

The challenge to those of us who are involved in both these movements (which are two sides of the same coin) is to inculcate it in our culture--our new common sense and conventional wisdom (recognizing that these formulations will need to be critiqued and modified as well by our successors). Once again, I suggest that the role of art and humor have key roles to play in that endeavor.

Just as new thought in science and philosophy and as alternative spiritualities from the Reformation expressed in artistic experimentation led to what we now call the Enlightenment, maybe we are on the cusp of a New Enlightenment. The Old Enlightenment radically changed our culture, politics, and economy not without struggle and pain. And it took generations for the ideas of the Enlightenment to be understood and take root. The New one needs to do the same, but hopefully more quickly and with less pain.

Or must we always need to go through the inferno to reach paradise?