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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pass this on!

To stop this madness, to continue to resist the authoritarianism of the new administration, how about we work with students, labor unions, and churches on a general strike and boycott? Unless the plutocrats and oligarchs of the US feel the heat, the swamp will continue to grow. Protest and march, yes. But let's build the coalition of workers, students, and progressive religious. Now. 

We know how to do this. We have all the connections to make it possible.

There are thousands of churches, synagogues, mosques organized through CO networks, PICO, IAF, Gamaliel, DART, etc.
AFL-CIO: SEIU, ILWU, Auto Workers, Electrical Workers, etc.
Colleges and universities--all of them. Let's get it together. Forget who gets the credit! Let's get the results.

You want to save democracy? You want to save civil society? Here and throughout the world?

Let's get together.  I believe that Bernie Sander's campaign identified most of our issues. Health care for all, living wage, full employment, comprehensive immigration reform that keeps families together, housing affordable to all, free public education, rights for women and minorities, and of course save the planet as the condition for the life of our children. 

Transcend but use the political parties. We can do this. I'm ready. Are you?

Saturday, January 28, 2017

La La Love

La La Land. I knew it would be fantastic as in fantasy. And escapist as in let me out of this political morass that has become this country. I feared it might be reactionary--back to "Singing in the Rain" and "Oklahoma" when America was Great Again. 

So why did I enjoy it so much? The music and choreography? The acting and cinematography?  Nope, it was the love story. It recalled me to love.

The risk and uncertainty of love. It's idiosyncrasy and serendipity. Only in retrospect do we feel that our love was meant to be. Mia and Seb have an accidental encounter. Like my meeting with Bernie when I, without any foresight, happened to take a summer off from studies to play at community organizing in an area of Chicago which I had never heard of. I met and worked with her. The rest is history. Love is first a fluke. It is our commitment that makes it fate.

It is maddening to think that this was not the plan of the Universe or of the Creator; that it was coincidence, unwritten in the stars. Perhaps like the universe itself. A random emergence, a quantum fluctuation. But then in the process we change our love from chance to destiny. We take responsibility. We choose to respond to one another.

Alain Badiou, a moral and political philosopher, wrote a small book In Praise of Love that, Damien Chazelle, the director of “La La Land” might well have read. Badiou dismisses love as merely the ecstasy of the encounter or as a contract or as an illusion—a sort of cover for sexual desire. He discovers love as a quest for truth. Not the intellectual, academic, disinterested truth-quest of philosophy and science. It is discovering and making a world from the perspective of two, not one. “What is the world like when it is experienced, developed, and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?”

Two unique individuals, with their own special identities, do not become or intend One whether in themselves or in some transcendent place or person. They are and remain different but together make their one world. They see things from the other’s point of view; they listen; they accommodate; they join in a common adventure, contribute to and share a common language. Yet they create their own persons, follow their own dreams, and grow their own souls. With each other’s help, critique, accountability.

And so it was with Seb and Mia who after the ecstasy of the encounter pushed the other to follow his or her dream to become what they wanted to become together, each within the limits of who they are. Remember Mia saying: I don’t like jazz which was anathema to Sebastian who then taught her to like it. (PS his description and illustration was awesome to this jazz-lover. In fact, jazz became the analogy for love as an asserting of the individual artist in creating a common world).

In Badiou’s understanding of human being, there are four elements—though “elements” implies separability. Better maybe “aspects” or “facets.” 1) There is the bodily behavior, the organism interacting with its environment through expressions. 2) There is bodily awareness, a sense of identity, personhood, self-consciousness. 3) There is the expression that defines things in the world, words, models, propositions. And 4) there is the world being framed, shaped, carved, discovered in the environment.

Love is two persons sharing the adventure of making and discovering the world. Yes, indeed they are part of a wider community and draw on many other expressions and even enjoy other activities and awareness as they go along. But in love there is a declaration, a commitment, an effort of two to share the adventure and discover their one world.

In the process of love as a quest for truth, Badiou identifies 1) the event which is the encounter and its ecstasy—Remember the bar in which Mia first hears Seb play, their meeting in the coffee shop, the party, the dance at the top of LA. 2) the declaration, the kiss, the “I love you,” as a commitment to one another, the risk of joining in an adventure which may go wrong. As when Mia left the dinner to join Sebastian waiting at the theater and then their fantasy of dancing the universe. 3) The baring to one another, being naked and vulnerable, much more than sexual intercourse which never appeared in the film directly, though they were clearly living together. 4) Points along the way like having a child, like a struggle of misunderstanding, like a success or failure, even of separation and death—all points that recall the initial event, the declaration, and the commitment as were his new job, her attempt at one woman show, her running away, and his bringing her back to successfully audition.

For Badiou and for Chazelle, love is corporeal. Two bodies entwined in the dance of life exploring and shaping the universe. Sexual, yes, but not just a satiation of desire, an orgasm, where the twoness is lost and each becomes preoccupied with his or her own pleasure. They do not satisfy or become one flesh. Again, there is no explicit sexual intercourse in the film.

Some commentators say that Badiou forgoes transcendence for immanence in love and politics. Love is not religion. And religion is not love. We act collectively and we love as two not for some transcendental state or person. I would rather say that Badiou and La La Land brings the transcendence of love into immanence. In other words, our very corporeal existence is in process, intentional, intending the growth of the whole person. Love (and politics) is in and for this world, not for some other one.

Love is a long-term project. Most love stories describe the initial encounter, the struggles that got the lovers together, and the ecstasy of the joining and then “they live happily ever after” even when that living becomes more commonplace, even boring, and without the initial passion as in War and Peace with Natasha and Pierre.  But as the ending of the film portrays, love is eternal, beyond separation even that of death.

Some viewers we’ve heard say don’t like the ending. Or that it is a sad ending. Mia and Seb meet again at his club after five years both having fulfilled their dreams. Again, by chance. She has an extravagant, yet delicious, fantasy as to how it could have ended and as we film-watchers expected, hoped it would end. Seb and Mia, the two together living happily ever after. But no, she has her family and her work. He has his band and his work. She walks out of the club with her husband, but turns once more to look at him. He nods and smiles, as does she.

And we know that this is a love that will never end. Even as the movie does.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Saving Souls in Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Against Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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