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Monday, April 28, 2014

Smith on Myth

Smith on Myth   (Just couldn't resist the title)

Myth is usually contrasted with truth or reality in common sense language. And so does calling the story of The Resurrection of the Christ a "myth" label it an untruth or fantasy? What about the stories of Krishna or the Buddha? Then I am also delighting in the writing of Terry Pratchett and his stories of Discworld resting on four elephants standing on a giant turtle. Myth is associated with religions. Are any of them true? Is there a universal religion true for all humankind?

There are many good scientific thinkers who have studied the role of myth in human society and find myth an alternate way of perceiving reality and even a foundation for other ways of perceiving reality, including science. Among those thinkers I count Ernst Cassirer, Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, John Campbell, Karl Rahner, and numerous contemporaries in communication with evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.

Myth is an imaginative narrative that gives meaning to a clan or society by expressing its sacred origins, destiny, place in the world, relationship to others, reason to be, and rules to survive. It is an expression in story form of the human reach for life beyond death and our pursuit of infinity. Myth requires an understanding of the self or consciousness acting in a particular environment through the use of symbolic artifacts that can permit both planning for the future and memory of the past for guidance. I consider it an expression of human transcendence.

Culture is a basic element of being human, being associational, preserving life, using language and other forms of symbolic expression to pursue and make meaning of our life and action in the world. The story telling of myth founds that pursuit and making of meaning in all it's forms including art, religion, common sense, and science. Even the "Big Bang" is a highly metaphorical way to describe a model for the origins of the universe--or at least one of them, ours.

So is there a universal story to which all can agree for all time? I think not. I think that would actually stultify our search for meaning and our transcendence. Art, religion, common sense, and science are progressive--and sometimes regressive, depending on your own story and the ethical principles that arise from that story. Nevertheless for the compassion and unity of humanity, we must try to share our stories, interpret them to one another, learn from each other's stories, critique our own stories or others' when they are used to dominate and disrespect, and include everyone in the unfolding story of the universe.

Does that relegate the belief that Jesus rose from the dead to be assumed into Heaven as the Christ and source of eternal life as a mere myth? A myth, yes, but not a "mere" myth. It is an expression of the human relationship to infinity, for our transcending spirit, for our faith in our Future, and for our ongoing pursuit of truth through science that both shapes and is shaped by our images and myths.

Is there or can there be a universal religion? The answer is yes if it is an inclusive dynamic sharing of narratives that give meaning to diverse groups with diverse languages and cultures. The answer is no if you try to take one story and freeze it in time, elevating it above all the other stories that give people meaning. The universality is not in the expression, but in the drive for meaning that we all experience as we encounter each other, our world, and our universe.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why Y?

Following is an excellent comment in regards a SA article on the evolutionary demise (or stability) of the Y chromosome. It tells me that a new definition for ethics is "thinking ahead."  Who do we really want to be when we grow up? There are ethical principles that can guide us in nature--our own human nature. And only there [unless you believe in supernatural revelation that needs no human interpretation and mediation through language and other human artifacts which I cannot.] But do we want to change nature and it's principles? Maybe. But we at least need to think about it. To think seems to be the most important and primary of our ethical principles--springing from the capacity that most defines our species. But who are "we" doing the thinking? And for whom are we thinking?

Writing people's genetic code runs into a minefield of ethical issues if we're not careful. While gene therapy may be able to cure some diseases of people alive today or in the future, it is nearly impossible and extremely dangerous to change the genetic code of someone after they're older than a zygote. As such, we run the risk of making "designer babies" possible where parents who can afford it can try to give their children the musical talent of Mozart and the athletic talent of Usain Bolt. Meanwhile, those that cannot afford these treatments will be stuck in a permanent underclass with economic inequality much worse than we see today. The movie "Gattica" explored some of these implications a lot better than I'm describing them here.

And since the y chromosome surprised us with how essential it is to human biology aside from sex determination, trying to radically revamp the human genome and reorder millions of years of evolution will be a tough nut to crack. Add in all the surprises that epigenetics is giving us and trying to "improve" the human race through genetic engineering becomes a monumental task.
Sure, let's get rid of the genes that serve no function aside from contributing to horrible diseases. But lets say we identify all the genetic components of Autism for example. Would we want to eliminate them as well even though some of history's greatest thinkers may have been on the autism spectrum? And if we take it further, "improvement" is in the eye of the people making the decisions of which genes to keep and which ones will be eliminated going forward. If there aren't strong ethical safeguards in place, what's to stop the genetic gatekeepers from deciding which ethnic / racial / gender groups will be taken out of the gene pool?

There are tremendous opportunities to improve the human condition through genetic engineering, but they need to be tempered by ethical principles. And since technology can move way faster than our ethics, we need to think long and hard ahead of time to keep potential disasters from happening.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter 2014

How does one who does not believe in a supernatural entity (god), place (paradise), time (eternity), or event (miracle) celebrate the resurrection of Jesus? Especially me who considers myself a companion of Jesus whose resurrection is basic to my faith.

[By not believing in god, heaven, miracles, and eternity, I don't mean that I oppose these beliefs. They just don't fit into my belief system. My own faith has left them far behind. I do oppose beliefs vigorously when they are used to work against people and values I hold dear. But not the people who hold them as a part their own tradition and meaning in life.]

But back to the question. Resurrection is an expression of my faith in transcendence--the ability of us, me and you, to do better to and for each other, which I interpret is the meaning and mission of Jesus and of all true revolutionaries who followed and even anticipated him. I construct my meaning in the lineage, tradition, and thrust towards transcendence. In my own little way, I am living and acting the Jesus way--the way of constructive, world-transforming revolution towards social justice.

My meaning, my relevance, my transcendence are my link to my past in the tradition of Jesus and the other true revolutionaries. And they are my link to the future of us all in the generations of revolutionaries to come. But that link is here and now--present. In resurrection I celebrate  the renewal of the Universe, the Earth, and her most recent, and risky, progeny--humanity. I pray and commit myself to continue renewing myself, my community, and my earth.

Jesus is risen indeed! Vain is a faith that is not engaged here and now in the act of transcendence.

Happy Easter.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Education for Revolution

I had a Jesuit education--a long, long Jesuit education. The Jesuits championed a "liberal" education which, prior to George H.W. Bush condemnation of the "l-word," was a good word. It meant open, tolerant, broad, and inclusive. We read John Henry Cardinal Newman's "Idea of a University" which brought together many disciplines and a community of learners connecting with the great mentors of the past, with new scholarship, and with each other in a search for truth. We read Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" of antiquity and modernity--the classics of philosophy, literature, and science.  We were steeped in the "humanities." We learned ancient and modern tongues so we could appreciate them more. Liberal education meant seeing truth from many viewpoints and learning how to think critically, that is, raise questions concerning all positions, trying on new forms, seeking evidence for our conclusions, and understanding that expression related to the time and space in which it was uttered and could only be understood within its historical context.

We were taught that any specialties we attempted could only be mastered on the base of a broad, liberal education. We fully embraced the "Enlightenment" and the new science. And even when certain church authorities condemned certain propositions of science, we were taught that there could be no contradiction between faith and reason. We were taught to follow our faith in reason and to use reason to interpret our faith. Yes, at times we had to give in to an uneducated, authoritarian bishop and avoid certain formulations and practices that they deemed heretical and forbade; but we never give up our conscience, our search for truth, our attempt to make the ancient faith compatible with contemporary thinking. If that were impossible for us or somehow violated what we considered our duty, we could leave the religion because thankfully society had adopted a liberal approach to religious practice and expression unlike the old days of the Inquisition.

Because we learned the art of critical thinking, because we were exposed to contemporary science and philosophy, we began to realize that the "liberal" education we were learning was often resting on unchallenged assumptions that preserved the present political economy that was working well for some of us and hold backing many others. The Civil Rights struggle, urban decay and riots, and the War in Vietnam forced us to re-examine what we were learning and doing. While liberal education was much better than government or corporation produced mass education, it was reenforcing a liberal economics and social order that was driving terrible social inequities and injustices.

I taught at a Jesuit High School. It was a wonderful experience, working with wonderful colleagues and students. But I began to see how that high school functioned in the social order of Detroit. It was a way to bring upwardly mobile middle class descendants of immigrants into the dominant economic system in which success would be measured by the accumulation of riches--the American Dream. It was this experience that led me to a new type of education. The challenge for the next revolution is to move from liberal to "liberating" education.

This education still uses books and articles, lectures and seminars, teachers and colleagues but only in relation to real action in the world, experiments that can be tested, and, in my case action for social change. I learned before I read about it that it is only in the act of making things and changing the world that liberating education occurs.

The principle of liberating education is that we are most human (and divine) when we are creating our world together. Education is the process of developing the desire and the skills to do that. Liberating education is education where the student (which literally means "eager one") is not a passive receiver of knowledge, but an eager pursuer of truth, a subject not an object of the learning process.

The liberating education process treats students as agents, not recipients in the learning community. Even in literacy education, the way of learning to speak, read, and write, students start with facing and questioning their day to day realities. They are exposed to the traditional narratives of the culture, the creation stories, the founding myths, the tribal and national histories, but in a way that they can participate in their on-going evolution. They learn alternative stories, myths, and histories. And they learn how to question them all and tell them in their unique ways.

As students learn the skills of getting along in the world as they confront it through language, literature, mathematics, art, sports, and science, they also learn to experiment and create based on the questions that are raised by them about their world. The teacher of liberating education sets the framework for exploration around the questions that students raise in their inchoate worlds. All education involves a practicum or type of internship in real life situations whereby the students are following their own interests. While vocational or job education involves apprenticeships to masters, the expectation is that students will come up with their own masterpieces rather than simply being trained for a particular job that will soon be extinct.

Liberating education does not have core curricula and does not teach to tests that some outside agencies fashion. The teacher in liberating education is learning with the students, exploring interests and questions along with the students and considers herself a perpetual student as well. She does not teach the same content or syllabus every year. Her lesson plan begins with the setting of questions for exploration based on the interests of the students and allows for individual students setting their own goals in pursuit of the discipline. A liberating education sets forth the expectation and situation for innovation at all levels and for all students no matter their IQ or social situation.

Information is no longer an issue. The new technology puts all information at our finger tips. Students are learning the techniques of accessing this information worldwide. But what all of us students need to learn is the right questions to ask and how to use the information we are given. The task is not so much accessing the information but assessing it. This is a wonderful new challenge for liberating education: 1) making sure that information is readily available to all and 2) using information to confront and compete with the information we are constantly provided especially by those who have the most control of that information.  The liberation of the human spirit from the technology it has created is by using that same technology judiciously and boldly, again as agents beyond recipients of information.

I question whether any of the school reform programs, designed to help students make it in today's world, are liberating student's to create tomorrow's world.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Easter Reflection

I had a dream last night. Again. Four of us were speaking at a retreat; or was it a conference? My topic was Resurrection and the Way of Jesus. I had a five part outline but can only remember that the first had to do with "the specific and the general" and the third or middle was entitled "facticity" and dealt with the fact of resurrection. Dreams are muddled workings of the brain combining memories of things and the figuring out of those things. I woke with a brain still firing and sat down to jot what was going on.

My reflection on Reserrection and the Way of Jesus has five parts: 1) general: big thoughts and mighty teachings, 2) specific: a personal experience, 3) facticity, 4) immediacy: the fact and personal experience, 5) mediacy:  the fact and its lessons in big thoughts and mighty teachings. Need I point out the circular nature of my reflection? No, I thought not.

1. We were born into a world constituted, yet changing. Big ideas dominate around which everything else is organized. The world into which I was born was Christian-Catholic, modern-postenlightenment, scientific, democratic, capitalist, Eurocentric, English-languaged, and white male privileged. As I met others, read, and studied, I realized that there were variations on my world but generally accepted the big ideas around which my world was organized and used them to interpret all my experiences.

2. But then I had experiences of events that did not fit my interpretations and of people who questioned those big ideas and so challenged the organization of my world. I met women, persons of color, science writers, philosophers, film makers, foreigners, and others who rejected the big ideas by which my world was organized. And there were novelists and theologians in particular who undermined my beliefs. In particular, I was introduced to Jesus of Nazareth in a new way. Jesuit spirituality to which I was introduced uses the imagination to enter into the life, times, and ways of Jesus.

A "person" I learned, is not a fixed core or unchanging entity. A person is a process of discovery, a particular attitude, a practiced role, a specific style that emerges from a past and is intending a future. And so I experienced through my imagination the person of Jesus. I admired him and became his disciple and companion. He was considered a revolutionary in the mind of the establishment because he challenged the big ideas and the social organization of the times and incited a liberation movement. He identified with the culturally disrespected, the economically left out, the politically powerless and took issue with the patronage system of Rome and Jerusalem. He was also an atheist in their minds because he denied their gods and their icons of divinity. So they killed him--not the Jews, not the Romans, but the plutocrats, the patrĂ³nes, the patriots, the believers because Jesus was a danger to their way of life.

3. One articulate, fervent, but flawed follower of Jesus was Paul, an organizer who built communities taking on the attitude and role of Jesus. He spoke and wrote, as did Jesus, as do we all, using the language and ideas of our times and places. He preached faith, hope, and love among all persons in the spirit or style of Jesus. He based this faith on the "resurrection" of Jesus from the dead, a resurrection which he experienced and lived. "If Jesus was not resurrected from the dead, vain is your faith" and hope and love. It is this fact--the fact of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection--on which Paul's whole enterprise and that of Jesus is based.

A "fact" of course is something made up. The very word (from the Latin facere) says this. Scientific facts are formulas or models (theories) made up by imaginative thinkers that explain diverse phenomena or experiences by showing a consistent relationship. These theories are facts when they are proven by evidence that is accessible to all.

4. What is the immediate experience that offers evidence for the fact of Jesus and his resurrection. For Paul it was a fall from a horse after interacting hostilely with Jesus disciples and then a vision, I suppose not unlike my dream that started all this. But it was also the change in his own life and the lives of those budding small groups of dissenters with whom he worked and sometimes fought with.

For me it is similar. It is sharing the lives of many who are living and acting in the style of Jesus, the revolutionary and atheist. Some are notables like Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter, Oscar Romero, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela; and many are uncelebrated family members, friends, fellow travelers, colleagues, companions on the journey towards justice. There are also many who live and practice the Jesus way without using Jesus language and are hostile to any religion that sanctifies what Jesus was opposing. They too are direct evidence for the continuation of the person, the way of Jesus.

5. How mediate the Jesus style today? Our media of communication are not those of antiquity or even modernity. Our common sense shaped by a new developing cosmology and psychology employs images, ideas, and forms far different. I for one cannot accept a supernatural entity or a disembodied consciousness or a place without time. I know that a dead body that has not decayed can be resuscitated and return to consciousness through medical procedures; and perhaps scientists and engineers will learn how to resuscitate or ward off brain death and loss of consciousness for longer periods of time. But that is not what I mean by "resurrection."

Others may still find solace in the ancient cosmology and psychology of gods, ghosts, and souls that go in and out of bodies. But whether people do or not is beside the point. All our doctrines, beliefs, idolatries, and conventional wisdom are transitory. The one fact, however we express it, is the resurrection of the Jesus way to bring power to the powerless, respect to the disrespected, freedom to the captives. That fact does not belong to the ecclesial bureaucracy but to a congregation attempting to live the Jesus way. It does not belong to the Nation of patriots, but to publics organized for social justice. That fact does not support service to a divine king or patron, but does stimulate the breath of Love with others. Resurrection is not a doctrine of the Christ or the Prophet, or God, but living and acting the way of liberation, the way of Jesus.

Happy Easter. He is risen indeed.