Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Our Dark Side

"Man is not truly one, but truly two," Dr. Jekyll in Stevenson's famous novella discovers. I am re-reading this in preparation for a course this week I am teaching on Scottish writers, and I am intrigued by the dark side of the personality that this story explored just at the time, or a bit before, Freud's theories of the id and ego were published.

If part of us is indeed wild, uncivilized and violent like Hyde, potentially evil, we are saved from becoming savages (in this primitive summation of both the story and the psychology) by the better angels of our natures, or by what Freud called the Ego; others would call it the rational mind or the conscience.

Even before reading Maureen Dowd's column in the today's NYTimes, I see a connection between all this and the current political scene, with Romney and Santorum, most prominently, saying things they might regret, as if the Ego of the GOP establishment has lost control over their candidates.

Romney's gaffes show a lack of careful thinking; he embarrasses himself and his campaign by referring to his own wealth in a way that a more thoughtful man, like Obama, hardly ever does; in fact, I can't recall hearing any uproar over any gaffe Obama has made. He thinks before he speaks, even in spontaneous, unscripted interviews.

This does not prevent his many virulent critics, of course, from unleashing their attacks, calling him a Muslim, a socialist, an elitist "with a Kenyan anti-colonial worldview" (Gingrich), even a Nazi, all the while the President himself (as E. J. Dionne aptly observes in Commonweal) lives the life of the ideal family man who got ahead by hard work and education. His critics insist, however, on denying him this identity and portray him as an alien, somehow different.

Santorum calls Obama a snob perhaps because the President speaks in complete, coherent sentences, unlike his predecessor, or because he supports public education, which Santorum does not. Santorum doesn't believe in a real separation of church and state and declared after reading JFK's famous statement on the topic that "it makes me want to throw up." I suppose the Sanctimonious One would rather live in the 17th century or earlier. He seems ill-informed about many things, including the past, and expects Catholic voters to support him!

It is the same Santorum who said that universities are "indoctrination mills." You can't take such a man seriously as a balanced, sane candidate for any office, much less the presidency. His dark, aggressive side, which seems to appeal to the Tea Party people, has taken over, and maybe the only response is to laugh at the madness that passes as public discourse in recent weeks.

Comedy, indeed, is what Andy Borowitz makes of Santorum's dicta (Feb. 28 It's no wonder that so many younger people get their news from Comedy Central and Jon Stewart. Yet the ignorance of so many of these Tea Party politicians is serious, even tragic; it reflects not only a lack of thought but a stubborn refusal to consider the facts of history. And we know what Santayana said about those who are ignorant of history. And we know what Plato said about ignorance: it is the greatest evil.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A different spiritual journey

On the first day of Lent, I suppose I am expected to focus on penance or self-denial or at least something resembling prayer, yet I cannot escape memories of a film we watched this week, "Milarepa" by the Bhutanese director Neten Chokling.

The subject is the leading Tibetan Buddhist mystic named Milarepa (c. 1052-1135), who lived during what seems like a world-wide surge of spiritual energy that touched Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.

Perhaps the appeal of Tibet is its remote beauty and strangeness and the purity of its culture and religion, despite what China has tried to do in this Himalayan kingdom at the top of the world. So, though I know relatively little about Tibetan Buddhism, I am drawn to films like this with their prayer-flags waving in impossibly beautiful alpine reaches.

The film, made in Northern India, is memorable for me because of its haunting, visual beauty, enhanced by a slow pace and the wailing hymns that alternate with the silence. The main disappointment is that this 2006 movie is (I found out at the end) only Part I; Part II, not yet released, was made in 2009 and completes the story of the young mystic in his search for peace.

In Part I, Milarepa has learned that revenge against his greedy, evil relatives will accomplish nothing nor will the lessons of a sorcerer help him. He must travel and meet wise guides to the inner life, including masters of wind meditation that enables Milarepa to travel great distances using internal air. But the full, mature mystic that this great poet, yogi, and saint became is not seen in Part I.

"Any ordinary man can do as I have," he concludes, suggesting that the great discipline of the solitary journey to enlightenment is available to many. For people like me in the Christian West, there is a reminder here of the need for more and more cultivation, in silence and solitude, of the God within, if we are achieve anything resembling individual peace and freedom.

So this story from 11th century Tibet has given me an unexpected suggestion about Lent as a time that is less about repentance and more about trying to hear the still, small voice of God somewhere within me. To hear this, I must let go of my own desires in that spirit of self-denial that has long been part of the Lenten tradition.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Politics and the Catholic Bishops

The editorial "Bad Reaction" in the current issue of Commonweal is must reading for any thinking person (especially Catholics) concerned, as I am, about the right-wing alliance between the U.S. Bishops Conference and the evangelicals to protest anything related to "Obamacare." (See for 2-26-12.)

At issue now, of course, is the recent compromise offered by the President on the contraceptive issue that the bishops have rejected out of hand, with apparent haste and with little thought. Even before the details of the president's proposal were known, says Commonweal, the bishops were opposed; they are now demanding that no employer be required to offer free contraception coverage to its employees.

What bothers me is what upset me in 2004, when the same coalition of the religious right contributed substantially to the re-election of G. W. Bush. Now the USCCB is urging priests to speak out in churches across the land, during an election year, indicating that the president is either opposed to religious freedom or is inherently anti-Catholic, both of which are nonsense.

As the editorial asks, why were the bishops not opposed to the Bush administration's use of torture? Why is it only the issues involving women and sexuality that inflame them? Do they not see that their political activism is counter-productive, playing into the hands of abortion-rights advocates who will claim, understandably, that (in the words of the editorial) "the church's opposition to abortion is motivated by a larger disregard for the health of women"? Anyone seriously opposed to abortion should be in favor of contraception, which lowers the rate and risk of abortion, among other things, as thinking Catholics have known since the unfortunate 1968 encyclical of Paul VI banned contraception.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote this week, "I find the protectors of child rapists preaching to women about contraception to be a moral obscenity." Garry Wills has a more thoughtful and lengthy response, "Contraception's Con Men," in the New York Review of Books ( for 2-29-12). Wills notes that contraception is not a religious matter but a matter of arguable "natural law" rejected by most Catholics.

The bishops do not see that people attend church for many reasons, but these do not include listening to veiled messages that support the Republicans, whop are more than happy to attack Obama as anti-Catholic. I have heard these messages in my own parish and protested, and I will do so again.

The public perception of religion as divisive and judgmental, with negative views of human sexuality, will only be reinforced, and more church-goers driven away, by more political activity by the bishops. Milton attacked the "blind" bishops of his day (1637); thinking Catholics should do the same today.

Of course, to mention "thinking Catholics" may be a stretch. I am reminded of what Adlai Stevenson said to a supporter of his presidential candidacy in 1956 when she told him, "Every thinking person should vote for you."

He replied, "Madam, that would not be enough; I need a majority."

Monday, February 13, 2012

How valuable is a college education?

I noticed in President Obama's talk today on education and the economy the following statement, which I assume to be correct: Tuition at U.S. colleges and universities has been rising more than health care costs.

Along with problems of student drop outs and admission policies, the high cost of higher education is a major problem, especially in these hard times when getting a job is difficult, often impossible, for graduates, even in many "vocationally practical" areas, such as engineering. But the value of a college degree can't be limited to its job-earning potential.

A December letter by Ryan Walker in The New Yorker pointed out that enrollment at colleges between 1993 and 2007 increased by 15 percent and academic hiring of faculty by 18 percent. But what about the high-salaried administrators? Their ranks grew by 39 percent.

Walker, citing a recent study, notes what has been obvious to me as a university professor from the late sixties until 2003: that universities have changed into corporations that build expensive management structures with a swelling corps of high-paid deans, associate deans, assistant vice presidents, et al., most of them far removed from the world of students and learning.

If institutions of higher education would put less emphasis on management and more on the academic core--faculty and students--there might be more quality that's worth the price tag, and the tuition could be lowered if the swollen ranks of the administrators were trimmed.

When I joined the University of Central Florida faculty in 1970, it was a student-oriented school of about 8,000 students; now this same school has an enrollment of 58,000 students, with a largely disenchanted, underpaid and overworked faculty (reliant on many part-timers and exploited graduate students) who are urged to use distance learning whenever possible since classroom space is at a premium; so is attention to the individual student. And the tuition grows each year, sending many students to competing community or state colleges.

No wonder morale there is low--except among the highly paid administrative staff, which continues to grow. But does the student body grow in quality to match the increased numbers of administrators? The answer is obvious. Numbers drive funding, and money is always the chief, often sole, topic at faculty meetings with deans and provosts.

Last year, Anthony Grafton wrote a valuable article on the declining quality of college education in America. The problems he cited are alarming: students, who pay too much, are generally bored by what they are taught. They want to be entertained or amused in classes that will prepare them for a job market that keeps changing or shrinking. Few of the students are intellectually curious enough to open themselves up to new ways of thinking--unless forced to do so.

Gary Gutting of Notre Dame, in a New York Times op-ed piece, suggested that our support for high-priced education makes sense only if we define a college as a place where intellectual culture, what Newman called the life of the mind, is valued and nourished. Otherwise, we as a society should send our young people to vocational and trade schools.

So we have to ask ourselves if institutions dedicated to supporting the work of philosophers, physicists, and historians should continue to replicate themselves all over the land. We must find, Gutting says, instructors who do more than "make a subject interesting": they should be able to move students beyond their own limited interests by opening them up to new interests. The purpose of the teacher is not to fit his or her speciality to interests students already have but to stimulate the minds of those eager to learn to explore new paths.

In other words, we have to return to greater quality. A leaner administration, a creative faculty dedicated to creating enthusiasm for ideas, and students with open minds who want to learn, irrespective of future job prospects. This is, of course, a plea for a solid liberal arts curriculum, which educates rather than trains, which opens the mind rather than catering to everyone who has been convinced that the only way to succeed in America is to have a college degree, no matter how academically sound it is.

If we continue on this quest for universal higher education, the public will refuse to pay the growing tuition costs and demand answers to the all-important question, What is a college education for?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What Good is Religion?

"God will reveal himself to you in the depths of your soul," says the Abbot of La Grande Chartreuse in the documentary Into Great Silence. He is speaking to two newcomers to the ancient monastery in the French Alps, but he could be speaking to anyone who seeks ultimate meaning with an open mind and heart.

It takes a contemplative experience to find God, not formal theology or the study of doctrine; it is not a matter of the head but of the heart and head. This point is what Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and the recent writers on atheism cannot fathom.

Roger Scruton, in "The Sacred and the Human," a 2007 article in Prospect magazine even goes so far as to say that religion is not really about God but about the human need for the sacred. If the discovery of God is personal and interior, the study of God and the need to have religion is a primeval human need, one that precedes an experience of God.

At least that is what Rene Girard and other anthropolgists of religion have shown. Religion, so often mocked by outsiders, is really about the place of the sacred in human life and the kind of knowledge and understanding that come through experiencing sacred things, such as the rituals that connect the isolated individual with a broader community.
The essence of religion, Scuton shows, is not in myths or theology or doctine, but in moments that stand outside time, "in which the loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome through immersion in a group...."

Religion, then, is an antidote to alienation and is the solution to violence. Whereas the atheist attacks on religion simplistically argue that religion is the cause of violence, Girard says that the opposite is true: religion is the solution to violence, which comes from another source. There is no society without violence since it comes from the attempt people make to live together.

Out of the conflict at the heart of society, Girard says, violence is born--along with a need for the sacred. Thus the need to experience the sacred comes not from an irrational body of primitive fears, nor is religion a superstition that science will replace. It is a solution to the aggression that lies at the heart of human communities. The solution involves renewal.

Girard, and Scuton, conclude by asserting that religion is not primarily about God but the sacred and that this experience of the holy can be suppressed, ignored or attacked but never destroyed, for there will always be a need for the ongoing renewal that comes from what religious experience offers: communion and awe as we look at the world from the edge. This is the mystical moment outside of time, which can lead the individual to the loving presence of God.

The basic point of all this is that those, like Hitchens, who have written profitable diatribes against religion have never explored the anthropology of religion in thinkers like Girard, and so their arguments are inevitably inadequate. They do not know what religion is.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What is Wisdom?

This is an impossible question to answer, of course, because as Shakespeare and many others have said, the fool thinks he's wise and the wise one knows how foolish he or she is.

I am not trying to define "wisdom," just to react to something I read by Richard Rohr in his book Simplicity: Many people, he finds, already care for others and have love in their lives in various ways, but what they lack is not love but wisdom, the sense to love rightly.

Too often, he goes on, we in the Church (Rohr is a Franciscan) "have taught people to think that they're right or that they're wrong. We've either mandated things or forbidden them. But we haven't helped people to enter upon the narrow and dangerous path of true wisdom."

What he says about Christian leaders is true in many other areas. So many people think that acquiring knowledge and degrees will be sufficient. They end up forgetting the wisdom of the heart and rely entirely on logic and reason.

I can think of several people I have known who, despite their advanced degrees, are not wise parents: they do not really understand their own children from within. Being overly busy, they do not take the time to listen and see their own family members as they are, as a whole. They impose dictates, as the church does, punishing and rewarding, finding external remedies-- medications and counselors and tutors--when things do awry instead of providing loving care.

So wisdom has to do with understanding, not knowledge. It has to do with seeing the Big Picture, which is the product of maturity and reflection. People who do not learn, grow, or think are not likely to become fully human and so will never be wise. People who do not take risks and are afraid of pain will not become wise.

Aristotle is worth quoting: A wise person knows why things are as they are. He or she looks beneath the surface to the underlying person beneath the behavior pattern and comes to understand the human heart.

As I think of the writers I have encountered over the past ten years, only a few strike me as having achieved the kind of spiritual insight or wisdom that comes from contemplative living: Thomas Merton is one. Rumi is one of several mystics who come to mind, along with David Steindl-Rast, Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, Ron Rolheiser...there are many more. These are people who understand human behavior from the inside and are able to put it into a religious or spiritual or historical context so that what they say changes lives.

The wise ones speak from the heart to the hearts of those who read them. They know, as do their students, that no one on this side of eternity can ever penetrate the mystery of things, so we remain humbly aware of our limitations, however wise others may find us.

Monday, February 6, 2012

How valuable is time?

I am not a patient shopper. My approach--totally opposite of that of most women--is to get the job over quickly. As a result of rushing, I make mistakes, as when this week I bought the wrong type of cheese, failing to see the "jalapeno" listed on the label, or bought green beans that my wife immediately saw, upon their arrival home, as long in the tooth, to use her quaint phrase. And so I had to make a return trip to the store and thus "waste" some time.

I talk and write about the importance of slowing down. I keep reminding myself of the power of the present moment and that the little, ordinary things I do around the house are meaningful, ways of being centered in the reality of the now. Yet in practice quite often, old habits of hurrying persist, perhaps because I live in a fast-paced world.

In a recent article, Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist, reports on some recent research into why we feel pressed for time. Why do people in affluent cities like Tokyo and Toronto walk faster than people in Jakarta and Nairobi? The reason seems to be that, as incomes grow in such cities, time seems increasingly scarce.

It would seem that the fast pace of life is related to an increase in working hours, but apparently this isn't the case: there is very little evidence, says Dunn, that people are working more and relaxing less than in earlier decades.

Rather, the old "time is money" correlation seems to be involved. When time is seen as worth more, as it becomes more valuable, we feel we have less of it. So, according to the researchers, those with more income report feeling more pressed for time. Much of the studies in this area deal with people's perception of the value of their time, even if they are not highly paid individuals.

Dunn mentions that several companies, in an effort to reduce stress and burnout, recommend that employees volunteer some of their time to good causes. Giving away our time to help others is a good way of reducing the impression that our time is incredibly valuable, so valuable that we must rush from one task to the next, bragging about our abilities to multi-task.

Dunn's brief article in Edge focuses on the relation of the way feelings of time pressure have risen in North America to increased incomes. But I wonder about people like me, whose retired income does not increase much, for whom making money is not important. Is my time more valuable because I know at some conscious or unconscious level that I am running out of it?

I enjoy giving my time to others, and I should do more volunteering. For people in my "senior" situation, the value of my time is not related to money at all but to saving my energy and spending what time I have each day doing enriching, fulfilling things, like reminding myself to slow down and savor the present moment.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Art of the Witty Put-Down

The U.S. political season thus far has not produced any memorably witty insults, nor is it likely to, the kind that Terry Eagleton calls "tumbrilisms."

A tumbril, as you may know, was a farmer's cart used to haul manure; it was also, more famously, used to carry prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Either denotation will suffice for what Eagleton calls the "cavalier, let-them-eat-cake put-downs honed by the British aristocracy." Think of Maggie Smith in "Downtown Abbey," the current PBS sensation, or the ripostes used in most of her other roles (as in Gosford Park).

Eagleton's essay is a tribute of sorts to the late Christopher Hitchens, who called Prince Charles a "morose, bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in consorts." It takes a certain amount of polish (wide reading and an Oxbridge education) along with Hitch's upper-class British roots (not to mention a gifted mind steeped in equal amounts of vitriol and alcohol) to utter such literary insults.

I could never forgive Hitchens for his blind hatred of religion and his sloppy (and highly profitable) attacks on God, or rather his limited idea of God. But that is a topic for another time.

The fine art of the tumbrilism is seen in many of Winston Churchill's witticisms. Referring to Clement Atlee as a modest man, he added: "he has much to be modest about." Churchill could sometimes rise to the level of Oscar Wilde, as when he said, about another political opponent, "he has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."

I can't imagine any of the pols this side of the Atlantic rising to this level, or even to that of Adlai Stevenson, who ran unsuccessfully against Eisenhower for the presidency in the 1950s. Said he: "Accuracy is to a newspaper what virtue is to a lady, but a newspaper can always print a retraction."

Kennedy had a self-deprecating wit, put to best use in his press conferences, and Reagan made quips, some spontaneous, most of them scripted. Since then, it has been pretty tame and cautious on the national political front. Maybe U. S. presidential candidates avoid political jokes because they know how many of them have been elected--on the other side, of course.

The Brits retain a flair for public put-downs. It has a lot to do with the class system, I think, and their appreciation of cleverness. Most of those who run for office over here are unable to be clever: they are either dim-witted and carefully scripted or afraid to be thought brighter than the average voter. And we know how ill-informed or ideologically retarded most American voters tend to be.

The dismal state of the American electorate brings me back to Adlai Stevenson. When a supporter congratulated him on one of his speeches in the 1950s, she said, "Governor, every thinking voter in America will be voting for you." He replied, "Madam, that won't be enough. I need a majority."