Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why Go To Church?

Many churches are half-empty much of the year, except on Easter, as I was reminded today when I encountered throngs of people, some with babies, crowding our parish church.

I wanted to ask some of them, especially the younger crowd: Why are you here?  What motivates you to include Easter Mass as part of your holiday--especially if you come only once a year? Is it simply a cultural expectation, something to do, a place to show off your finery?

I suspect that for many it is the unspoken, because unconscious, awareness that there is a loss in their daily lives of some experience of the sacred, some contact with a spiritual reality greater than their daily lives of work and play. They somehow need to be with others as prayers are said and sung and new life proclaimed, even if the Biblical story of the Resurrection is a bit vague to many of them, because there is something missing in their inner lives.

I like to think that in a world that is full of violence and the fear generated by terrorists, in a world that seems meaningless, the churches provide a reminder of something larger and more meaningful and hopeful.

Richard Rohr and other mystical-global thinkers would probably add that, whether we know it or not, we sense the need for a connection with others. We need to move beyond isolation into solidarity with others since everything in the universe is connected.

The independent self is hopelessly limited; it cannot see the whole picture. Easter is about the cosmic reality of life overcoming death and providing a pattern of hope.  We have to be part of a community that is hopeful.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The paradox of hate

In a recent internet article, Charles Mudede asks an important question: Why do so many white Americans, mainly working class, support the billionaire Donald Trump?  What do they get out of it?

His answer, also important, is that doing so gives these people a platform in which to openly enjoy their hate.  He goes on to Spinoza for philosophical answers to the idea of hatred as the feeling you have toward a person who makes you unhappy, that is, who diminishes your power to act.
Hate is more than this, I think: it arises from the emotional life, from fear--often leading to anger--that others are a threat because they are outsiders or because they have something the hater wants.  Hate energizes, giving powerless people a reason to live. We see this in studies of white supremacists, people at the bottom of the social order in terms of education and income who feel powerless; hatred of those in government or of minorities or immigrants or gays or whoever gives them a target for their deep-seated resentment and a source of pleasure, of superiority, as if they can overcome their fear of change and injustice by racial hatred.

I remember a retired neighbor ten years ago whose hatred of Bill Clinton still raged years after his presidency. Clinton was a convenient target for resentment. By hating him, my neighbor felt stronger, more in control of his own life.  Many single out Jews for hatred because of their successes in business and many other fields, suggesting that envy is at work.  Envy comes from the Latin invidia: a form of hatred slightly different from jealousy, which I see as a fear of losing what one loves (see Othello, whose enemy, Iago, is a figure of pure envy in Shakespeare's play).

Many people, lacking a sense of history, sense that the world is such a total mess that only someone outside politics (Trump) can possible save what's left of the system they grew up with (white-dominated society). They fear losing control of their lives because of "big government" and "crooked politicians."

They fail to see, as Mudede  points out, that in turning to the Republican party, they turn to a colossal failure, whose leaders have refused to provide working-class whites a real opportunity to enjoy their hate. 

A man I met today who supports Trump says he does so because Trump is non-political, self-financed. Is that all, I wondered. Doesn't he see the dangerous race-baiting and mob violence (seen today in St. Louis) that attends Trump's rallies?  Of course not. He doesn't want to admit his own hatred (racism).

Why aren't more thinking people angry at Donald Trump and what he preaches? Because they are not thinking, but reacting emotionally, based on fear; and because they want to enjoy whatever superior pleasure they derive from hating.  Very sad, very troubling.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

From Suffering to Boredom

Zadie Smith is an interesting writer. In the recent (March 10) issue of the New York Review of Books, she comments on the film "Anomalisa," using Schopenhauer to suggest how we seek pleasure as a release from suffering, only to find a vicious cycle of restless desire and boredom.

Of course, these are enormous topics, which she is only able to touch on. The examples from the film, which I have not seen and may never see, are revealing: room service in a luxury hotel offers pleasures people hardly know they want, like chocolates on their king-size beds and carefully chosen artisan water. I remember a New York City hotel offering five types of pillows (they had a pillow concierge), leaving no possible area of comfort unaccounted for.

Except, of course, that, as the old song says, "After you get what you want, you don't want it." Schopenhauer wrote that desiring lasts a long time, but "demands and requests go on to infinity; fulfillment is short and is meted out sparingly. . .the wish fulfilled at once makes room for a new one."

He went on to theorize that we humans deliberately intensify our needs so as to intensify our pleasure, all of which leads to a kind of boredom, something he says animals do not experience, whereas for us, "want and boredom are the twin poles of human life."

As soon as the luxury hotel supplies the film's characters with some delight, apparently, they are bored: hotels exist to meet and fulfill all our needs and desires, and fulfilling the desire itself leads necessarily to disillusionment.

Of course, these desires are not spiritual, even though the movie's characters are told that they are incomplete as individuals: we are all one in some vaguely Eastern transcendental sense. But, says Smith, the characters cannot accept this, or the lesson of compassion. And she doesn't develop this point, which is all-important. It relates to what I would call the mystical dimension of religion, which offers an escape from suffering more reliable than pleasure and desire.

This point has been made beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2008 book, Things Hidden, being excerpted now in daily email installments from his Center for Action and Contemplation.  I sum up his lengthy comments in a  few basic points about moving from the self to the Other:

  1. If we cannot find some deeper meaning in our suffering, to "find that God is somehow in it" (in the Christian sense), if we don't see that there is some good, some purpose in our suffering, we are doomed to become shut down emotionally (spiritually) and to pass along to the next generation our bitterness and negativity.

 2.  Mature religion deals with transforming the individual (and history) into a meaningful  pattern that involves love. We see our connectedness to others; we make our contribution to the world's suffering by "participating in the Great Sadness of God."  Rohr, following St. Paul, is referencing the idea of Christ as the Suffering Servant and the role that believers play "in Christ," in the universal drama that leads from pain and suffering to transformation.
This brings us, of course, far from what Zadie Smith, using Schopenhauer, is saying about the film she analyzes; but it shows, for me at least, the extra dimension we need if we are to move beyond the endless cycle of desire and boredom as escapes from suffering--if indeed that's what pleasure is all about.