Category Archives: truth

What Cuba Taught Me About My Faith

For many reasons, I have been interested in Cuba for the past dozen years or so. With Fidel Castro’s death a few days ago, all sorts of memories and thoughts have flooded back. The standard news coverage has been of the “Miami Cubans” dancing in the streets and celebrating, various political figures noting the passage of a repressive dictator, and speculation about how soon capitalist markets will start influencing Cuba’s socialist economy. My own experiences with Cuba brought me to very different attitudes about our neighbor 90 miles to the south, as I described in my article entitled “Shattering the Myths About Cuba,” included in one of my college’s publications in the Spring of 2004 . . .

The story is told that Augustine used to get annoyed at his students when, as he pointed toward something that he wished them to consider, they focused their attention on his finger instead. Anyone who is–or ever has been–a teacher will understand Augustine’s frustration. As a philosophy professor, I know that the most crucial, yet most difficult lesson to teach is the lesson of learning to “see beyond seeing,” of discovering what russellBertrand Russell called “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.” In its most practical applications, this lesson shows us that often what we believe we “know,” what seems most self-evident and obvious, is an opaque barrier that prevents us from being open to the possibility of better knowledge.

I traveled to Cuba last summer for a week-long visit as a member of a 12-person delegation of professionals, nine of them from Rhode Island. There were a number of interrelated goals for our visit, including visiting the Latin American Medical School in Havana (where a number of American students are studying at the invitation of President Fidel Castro, free of charge), learning firsthand about Latin American School Of Medical SciencesCuba’s admirable universal health care system, visiting a number of multicultural centers to learn about Cuba’s commitment to education and cultural development, and laying preliminary foundations for educational exchanges between Cuban and Rhode Island institutes of higher education.

The greatest impact of this trip on me, however, was that it shattered everything I “knew” about Cuba. This shattering has made it possible for me to reflect ever since my return on what the undermining of these “truths” might reveal concerning deeper human issues.

I was born in the 1950s, in the middle of the Cold War. One of my earliest memories from the nightly television news was the failed bay-of-pigsBay of Pigs invasion; I was 6 years old during the perilous days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My attitudes concerning Cuba were fashioned during those early years and remained largely the same ever since. I did not claim to know much about Cuba, but there were several things that were clear and beyond question. Cuba is an enemy, aligned with everything our country despises–a likely terrorist state, a repressor of religious and secular freedoms, a violator of human rights, an embarrassing challenge to what is most near and dear to us, a mere 90 miles off our coast. Not that I, as an educated, independent thinking adult would ever consciously allow that I carried these largely unchallenged assumptions around with me; I’m not sure that I knew of my preconceptions until I visited Cuba. elian-gonzalezI never even thought about Cuba except when some event deemed newsworthy, such as the Elian Gonzalez case, brought the island to my attention.

When, before the delegation’s trip to Cuba, I was asked what my expectations of the visit were, I continually said that I had no expectations–I was going with an open mind, the classic case of the tabula rasa, the “blank slate” that John Locke claimed all human beings are born with. Little did I know just how much would have to be erased from my slate before I could truly see. I, for instance, thought that I “knew” there was very little, if any, religious freedom in Cuba. After all, Cuba is a Communist country whose official stance on religion, in the style of the former Soviet Union, is atheism, right? Imagine our surprise when we discovered that religious faith is not only alive in Cuba, it is flourishing.

On a bright and sunny Father’s Day morning, our delegation’s first full day in Cuba, we attended services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao, ebenezer-baptistone of the many economically impoverished neighborhoods in Havana. In a hot and stuffy auditorium packed with persons of all ages and colors, we observed the most active and vibrant church service that I, a lifelong churchgoer, have experienced in years. The worship was filled with contemporary liturgical dance, congregational singing and participation, and testimonials (including a touching tribute to fathers from a young girl around 12 years of age, read in Spanish and English, that brought tears to the eyes of many of the fathers present). After this, the pastor and one of his guest ministers from Colombia delivered brief talks about the need for men to overcome “machismo” and open their minds and hearts to the voices of women.

Uncovering false “truths”

Two days later, more “truths” about Cuba were proven false when our delegation had the opportunity to return to Ebenezer Baptist and its accompanying Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in order to meet withpastor-suarez Rev. Raul Suarez, the pastor of the church. When the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959, 90% of the pastors in Cuba fled for other countries, believing that religion and belief in God would no longer be tolerated. Rev. Suarez and a few others stayed, however, He explained, in his own words, “If Communism is the big bad wolf, we need to protect our sheep.” By staying, he realized immediately that the lives of the people in Cuba were being improved by the Castro government’s commitment to 100% literacy, to universal health care and education, to true socialist principles, and to equal access to and excellence in sports and the arts.

Rev. Suarez described for us how the Cuban Revolution caused him to rethink his faith and evolve from a conventional Southern Baptist minister to a proponent of liberation-theology“liberation theology,” from advocacy of spiritual wealth in the next world to a vision of radical social change in this world, and from silence to active leadership in the struggles against racism, poverty, and other societal ills. He described that he had been taught what Christians supposedly could not have (they could not smoke, dance, drink, etc.), but “no one taught us that poverty is a sin. That ignorance is a sin. That racism is a sin. That economic inequality is a sin. The Revolution taught us that.”

His church, once a largely white church in a predominantly black neighborhood, is now a powerful instrument for social change and improvement, dedicated to the betterment of human lives as they are lived in this world as well as to the tending of spiritual needs.

Church and State dialogue

So how do things stand between church and state in Cuba? Very differently than U.S. citizens are led to believe. Over the past 20 years, there has been a continuing dialogue between Cuban ministers of all faiths and the Cuban government. At the first of these meetings, the ministers told Fidel Castro that the official position of atheism was hurting the Cuban people and that Christianity is a religion meant to help the people, not to be enclosed within church walls. Castro said to the ministers: “You work in your churches and help them to understand us better, and I’ll work with my people and help them to understand you better. And my work will be more difficult than yours.”castro-and-pope

Incrementally, things changed so that by 1991, atheism was eliminated as a requirement for membership in the Communist party, all reference to Marxism/Leninism as the official philosophy of the Cuban government was eliminated from the constitution, Christians were allowed access to all professions, were granted full access to all means of communication to spread the good news of the Gospel, and were allowed to establish new congregations across the country. The congregations of all denominations in Cuba are continuing to grow rapidly to this day.

This is but one example of how the truth about Cuba turned out to be quite different than what I believed it to be. I could have written a similar article about the political process in Cuba, human rights violations in Cuba compared to such violations in this country, or how our “free” press in the United States regularly distorts the truth about what is occurring in Cuba.

As a philosopher, I find an important lesson beneath these different factual issues. As human beings, our frequent natural tendency is to assume that we know the truth about a given thing, then to selectively interpret the “facts” to fit our preconceived piece of knowledge. Whether in religion, politics, social structures, interpersonal relationships, or simply regular day-to-day existence, this is a tendency that must be actively and consciously resisted. bonhoefferThe truth, for human beings at least, does not come in bumper sticker-sized, “sound bite” form. To believe that it does leads to rigidity, absoluteness, and blindness to the evolving nature of our interaction with what is true. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th-century German Protestant theologian murdered by the Nazis in the final days of World War II, wrote, “The responsible man has no principle at his disposal which possesses absolute validity and which ha has to put into effect fanatically, overcoming all the resistance which is offered to it.”

In a world of ideology presented as self-evident certainty, the following warning from Albert Camus is worth taking seriously: “On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything . . .”

Fixing and Healing

My doctor says that I am his most boring patient, because there is never anything wrong with me. I show up for my yearly appointment, my blood pressure is good, my weight fluctuates within a five pound range, my blood work is always fine—my only complaints are spring allergies, for which he says Claritin“take Claritin,” and occasional sciatica problems, for which he suggests that I should stretch more. I have never been in a hospital overnight except when I was born, and I don’t remember that. But Jeanne has had a number of things that have needed attention over the years, including back problems. One time as she suffered with excruciating back pain, a co-worker suggested that she get in touch with his father, Peter, who runs a chiropractic/acupuncture/Eastern medicine establishment within an hour’s drive of Providence. Peter’s business card says “Japanese Body Balance Shoppe and Acupuncture Clinic.” Jeanne has always been far more adventurous when body balanceit comes to medical treatments than I am, so she immediately made an appointment and I went along for the ride.

Peter’s treatment was so successful in just one session that he has become our “go to” guy for just about everything. I even started getting “tune ups” with Peter after which, although I went in feeling fine, I came out feeling a lot better than fine. When I fell walking my dachshunds and jammed my shoulder badly a couple of summers ago, I am convinced that a session with Peter is what saved me from surgery. Jeanne and I revere Peter’s almost-mystical abilities so much after several years we talk about him as if he would have been a great healing partner for jesus healingJesus had he lived two thousand years ago.

Peter is a child of the sixties as Jeanne and I are; over time we have learned a lot of his life story, including how he as a Westerner became a trained practitioner of Eastern healing arts. He told us once of a horrible automobile accident he was in during his twenties that he barely survived, with dozens of broken bones and damaged internal organs. Skilled doctors and surgeons were able to fuse and stitch him back together, but he lived in excruciating pain until on a friend’s advice and with nothing to lose he tried some “alternative” Eastern treatments. And they worked—so well that subsequently he lived with his Japanese wife in Japan for several years training as an apprentice, tSotaihen becoming a master of “Sotai,” a method of treatment I can only describe as a mixture of acupuncture, chiropracty, and aroma therapy. Peter puts his journey this way: “Western medicine saved my life, and Eastern medicine gave me my life back.” Western medicine fixed Peter, in other words, and Eastern medicine healed him.

This business of “healers” has been on my mind a great deal for some time, but is particularly pressing in the aftermath of the recent election. People are hurting, and for some it is difficult to even imagine how to move forward. I am reminded of a course that I team-teach regularly with a colleague from the history department–a course that we will be repeating next semester. The last time we taught the course two years ago, my teaching partner and I spent all of final exam week running half-hour oral examinations for the thirty-seven sophomores in our “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium—a marathon of conversations that both wore us out and  were well worth the time and energy commitment. oral examI’ve often said that I can learn more in a half-hour oral exam about what a student knows and what that student will take away from the class than from reading a twenty-page final paper or two-hour written final exam. This round of oral exams was no exception.

We provided the students with four comprehensive questions ranging across topics and texts we had considered throughout the semester and told them that we would begin each oral examination conversation with the question of their choice, with the caveat that we might intersect with any or all of the remaining questions by the end of their half hour, depending on how the conversation developed. One of the questions focused on a passage toward the end of The plagueCamus’ The Plague, a conversation between two characters–Rieux and Tarrou–that we had frequently referenced throughout the semester. In this conversation,  Tarrou says that

All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it is up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences . . . We should grant a third category: that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. . . . I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace.

With this passage in mind, one of the four possible questions a student might choose to begin their oral exam was

Throughout this semester we have been witness to the truth of Tarrou’s words that there are only pestilences and victims, and in a few cases, healers.  In your opinion, what exactly constitutes a true healer and in looking back over the materials you have read or viewed, who would you identify as a true healer and why?

Probably a dozen or so students chose this question as the starting point for their exam, and their thinking about it produced a range of fruitful and interesting possibilities. As various persons from our semester’s work—trocmesAndre and Magda Trocme, Sophie and Hans Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximillian Kolbe—were mentioned as examples of healers and an informal list of characteristics shared by healers was generated, several questions were raised. What human problems or maladies are a healer’s energies directed toward? Is a person born a healer, or is “healer” something to which all of might (and should) aspire? If the latter, what might be the beginning steps in the direction of becoming a healer?

In the midst of fascinating and insightful discussions, students often focused on a personal story that my teaching colleague Ray used during one of my lectures early in the semester to illustrate the importance concept of “attention” from Simone Weil. Ray and his wife Pat are intimately involved with the SSVPSociety of Saint Vincent de Paul, a Catholic relief society whose members are described on the Society’s website as “men and women who strive to grow spiritually by offering person-to-person service to individuals in need.” Pat and Ray frequently make home visits to such individuals and families in need. Ray described to the students that the typical home visit often consisted of making the client aware of the various services the Society has that could address various needs and problems, including health care, food and clothing assistance, directing people to other agencies with needed services, and so on. With the best of intentions, such services were often offered without knowing in detail the history or story of the client and his or her family.

Then, as Ray described, after becoming aware of Simone Weil’s concept of “attention,” in which Weil says “The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth,” he and Pat tried something different on their next home visit. Instead of immediately describing what they, as representatives of the Society, could do for the person in need, Pat and Ray asked the client “What would you like to tell us? What is your story?” And for the next hour, they listened to the woman tell her story without interruption. And this completely transformed the dynamic both of that conversation and of future home visits. Through listening without interruption and projection, simone attentionRay and Pat had established an atmosphere of healing rather than of one of fixing.

“Attention” for Simone Weil is the skill of seeing, of attending to the reality of something other than oneself without the filters of the self being in the way. It is a task of love that requires constant practice, as illustrated by Pat and Ray in their home visit. Pat and Ray had moved from considering the woman in front of them as a problem to be solved, or something broken in need of fixing, to a healing activity of seeing her, as Weil describes, “not as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate,’ but as a person, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.”

And this transforms everything, for, as Weil continues, “those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. Love-Our-Neighbor-Hub1The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” But it is a miracle each of us can learn to perform. Being a healer begins with simply listening, for “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’” It begins not by asking “How can I solve your problem?” but rather by inviting the person in need to answer the question “Who are you?” No task is more difficult, and these days, no task is more important.

t-v-h

Life After Tuesday

facebook-friendA Facebook friend, who has helped the traffic on this blog increase exponentially over the past few weeks by sharing my posts on various Facebook pages that she administers, challenged me in a Facebook message the other day:

If you don’t already have your topics set for the next week, I’d love to see something that addresses the effect that this election time is having on relationships—family and friends—and, maybe how to move through and past it . . . to “healing.”

I responded that my posts for the coming week were written and scheduled, but I would take a shot at something shortly after the election. It has turned out to be one of the most challenging posts to write of the hundreds I’ve posted here over the past four-plus years, for reasons I’ll describe below. t-v-hBut it strikes me that it is worthwhile for all of us to think today—the day before the election that will (hopefully) put an end to one of the nastiest and most divisive Presidential campaigns in American history (certainly in my lifetime)—about how we will move forward after tomorrow. Regardless of the result in tomorrow’s presidential vote, more than forty percent of those who voted will believe that voters have made a horrible mistake, our country is swirling its way down the drain, and life as we have known it will not continue. But believe it or not, no matter who is elected President tomorrow, the apocalypse will not be triggered, Wednesday will dawn, and we will have to figure out what to do next. Good luck to us.

The philosophy department on my campus, of which I have been a member for twenty-two years (and which I chaired from 2004-08), has over the past two or three years earned a college-wide reputation for being one of the most dysfunctional departments on campus (only one or two other departments are serious competitors with my department for the title). Three weeks ago our dysfunction was on full display in an important meeting—without revealing confidential matters, I have told various people since then that the fault lines at the meeting were so deep that something like the following was regularly on display, at least by some colleagues:idiot “If you don’t agree with me, then you either didn’t take the time to become aware of the facts, you are stupid, or you are immoral.” No fourth option, such as “we have all done our homework, are familiar with the facts, have made a principled decision, and we just happen to disagree,” seemed to be available. I am always dismayed by such “discussions,” believing that the prohibited fourth option often happens to be the truth. But in thinking about that meeting, I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the almost-completed Presidential campaign, I have often found myself thinking of those persons likely to vote for the major candidate other than the one I will vote for tomorrow in precisely the same ways as were on display at the recent department meeting: If you vote for that “other person,” you must either be ignorant, a moron, or dangerously lacking in moral principles.

I doubt that I am alone in having effectively constructed a political echo chamber over the past several months in which I hear only voices that I want to hear. I only listen to radio and television stations likely to lean toward my own political and social beliefs and commitments. When such stations, in the interest of “balance,” include voices from the other side of things, I mute the machine or turn it off. When my candidate is having a good week or the opponent is not, I’ve been known to watch or listen to 2-3 straight hours of talking heads on my preferred stations. But when my candidate has a bad week or stumbles in some way, game-showsI would rather watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” than news analysis. My 650+ Facebook acquaintances have been carefully culled on several occasions to weed out persons who might have the audacity to post materials and arguments supporting the other side. It’s not just that I don’t want to hear arguments intended to challenge my own—I know that such arguments are out there and I reject them out of hand. It’s also that listening to more than a minute or so of representatives of that other candidate’s perspectives literally starts making me ill. I am one of those people who has said that if my candidate’s opponent wins, we’re moving to Canada. Enough of this shit.

I should know better than this. The other day in my General Ethics class, I reminded my students of a passage from an interview that was part of the day’s assignment. Toward the end of the interview, the interviewee said that “A sense of responsibility about one’s beliefs, a willingness to defend them if challenged, and a willingness to listen to the reasons given by others is one of the guiding ideals of a civil society.” The interview focused on the often fraught dynamic between atheism and theism, but the interviewee’s comments have direct application to our lives as citizens of a democracy. As we discussed the interview and accompanying article, I reminded my students that when someone presents an argument whose conclusion is something you disagree with strongly, the proper response is not “that person is an idiot,” or, slightly more charitably but just as illogically, disagree“I disagree, therefore that person is wrong.” In philosophy, you have to earn the right to have an opinion, I often tell my students—and earning the right to an opinion involves careful reasoning, argumentation, and above all cultivating the ability to listen, even to those with whom you disagree most strongly. But I, along with just about everyone else during our current political cycle, have been doing none of this. Consequently, we no longer have a civil society.

No matter how things turn out tomorrow, the apocalypse will not happen, the sun will rise on Wednesday morning entirely oblivious to what happened on Tuesday, and we will all be faced with a huge question: Now what? Forget the ruptures in our national fabric; for many Americans, the problems are personal. This election has divided friends and families in ways that might seem impossible to repair. civil-war-brothersI heard someone the other day liken the problem to members of the same family fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War a century and a half ago. That’s an extreme comparison, but it is difficult to imagine these divisions healing with the simple passage of time. Truth be told, I’m not sure that I’m ready to do my part in helping with that healing. I don’t even want to imagine the feeling in my house if our candidate does not win tomorrow. If our candidate does win, self-satisfaction and relief may well overwhelm concerns about healing for a while. But there will be life after Tuesday–and I do have a recent personal example of how people with very different convictions can coexist in peace and love.

Earlier this year, Jeanne and I had the opportunity to spend some time with my cousins and their families for the first time in many years. They know us to be dedicated liberals and we know them to be committed conservatives—the-cousinsthese differences spread across social policies, politics, and religion. Yet a wonderful time was had by all, and nary a discouraging or inflammatory word was heard.When we left to head for home, as he helped me put our luggage in the car my cousin said, “This is amazing—you’re a liberal, I’m a conservative, and yet we haven’t argued once.” We gave each other virtual high-fives over that amazing development. How did we manage to spend several evenings together without spouting incompatible talking points? Not simply by avoiding minefield conversations by talking about the weather and sports (although we did talk about both of those on occasion). We had a wonderful time because we continually sought out what we share in common—histories, faith, pets, kids, and more. We shared decades of stories, many of which were new to some of those present, talked about common interests, and were reminded that what truly connects human beings together is far more important, with the long-term in view, than what divides us.

I need—we all need—to remember this as we look forward to our shared lives past Tuesday. Don’t define people by what they post on social media. important-issuesDon’t assume you know anything about someone simply because you discover that they do not share all of your most important beliefs. Don’t get me wrong—this is going to be very difficult for all of us. It’s not as if the issues that have divided our country so sharply are unimportant; they are crucially important. But even more crucially important is our shared humanity and the fact that we all must find ways to share our nation, our communities, our circle of friends, and our families while believing very differently on issues that matter. Perhaps a good place to start is to replace the time spent on social media and listening to radio or television analysis with spending time in the company of real human beings. We might be amazed to discover how much we share in common.

Two Plus Two Makes Four

In J. M. Coetzee’s strange and fascinating novel The Childhood of Jesus, the precocious child David has a difficult time understanding numbers. Oh, he knows their names but is not inclined to put them in the order that the rules of mathematics specify. Nor is he inclined to accept the rules guiding any accepted human behavior—he wants to live in a world in which things are valuable and right to the extent that he likes them, and he is not willing to arrange numbers in the proper sequence that everyone agrees upon. After one too many patient attempts to steer David toward conformity, his guardian Símon sputters coetzee“The answer to all your Why? questions, past, present and future is: Because that is the way the world is. The world was not made for our convenience, my young friend. It is up to us to fit in.”

This business of knowing when to fit in and when to creatively resist expectations is a lifelong challenge that all of us grapple with on a daily basis. At the heart of that challenge lie questions so fundamental that they literally shape our reality. Is the search for truth more like a treasure hunt or a creative, artistic process? Is meaning something to be found or to be made? Tentative answers to these questions frame one’s encounter with both oneself and the outside world. As Plato famously suggested, it is difficult to imagine meaning as the target of an open search, since I won’t know if I’ve discovered the goal of the search unless I already have a sense of what I’m looking for. But if meaning is something that each of us creates throughout the process of our lives, what hope is there for shared meaning, for truths that are not just mine but everyone’s in common?

Although both by nature and philosophical preference I am more of a “creative process” than “treasure hunt” sort of person when it comes to engagement with meaning and truth, I spent a recent semester exploring a seminal text in philosophy written by one of the most eloquent advocates of the “treasure hunt” model in the Western tradition. Plato’s Republic is, among many other things, an extended development of the idea that Truth is objective, that meaning is something to be found, not created, and that enlightenment is a life-long process of being freed from the clutches of our ego-driven subjective “truths” in order to slowly discover what “Truth” really is. plato geometryPlato’s paradigm for Truth is mathematics, a discipline that with its objective principles and rules exposes the truth-seeker to a world in which what is true is not up to me but is available to those who are willing to commit themselves to “the sight of the Truth.” Plato makes an extended argument that moral values and virtues properly understood exhibit the precision, certainty and objectivity of mathematics. Indeed, mathematics is Plato’s exemplar of the nature of truth; he insisted that only those who love geometry could enter his Academy, because it is through study of mathematics that one becomes accustomed to the nature of all truth.

If my students in this class—actually, over the past twenty-five years—are an accurate sampling, Plato’s commitment to the objectivity of truth is strongly opposed to our contemporary intuitions. As I often do, I introduced the problem early in the semester with a simple question about a couple of basic truth claims. I wrote two sentences on the board,Mona_Lisa

A. Two plus two equals four.

B. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting.

then asked for observations about what makes these truth claims different. Within short order the students point out that A is objectively true (as are all mathematical truths), while B is subjectively true (as are all aesthetic claims). If someone denies the truth of A, we assume that either that person doesn’t know the basic rules of arithmetic, is deliberately being a contrarian, or simply is nuts. If someone denies the truth of B, however, no problem—there’s a reason why we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all.

Then I move to the point of the exercise by writing a third truth claim on the board.values

C. X is right (good) and Y is wrong (bad).

X and Y can be anything that people are inclined to make value judgments about. I simply ask “Is C more like A or like B?’ When we venture into the realm of moral truth claims, in other words, have we entered a realm more like mathematics or art? Objective or subjective? Finding or creating? In twenty-five years of teaching, students have overwhelmingly given the same answer—moral truth claims and judgments are more like B than A. Morality is subjective rather than objective, in other words. In my Plato’s Republic class last semester, only two students out of twenty-five present claimed that moral claims are objectively true—and they were both Catholic seminarians.

moral-disagreementWhen I asked the other twenty-three students—many of whom were the products of Catholic primary and secondary education—why they bundled moral and value truth claims together with aesthetic claims as subjective, most zeroed in on the problem of moral disagreement. Essentially their argument was that since people disagree significantly across the board about every moral issue imaginable, and given the apparent absence of any authoritative perspective from which it could be judged who is right and who is wrong, moral disagreement looks a lot more like the Mona Lisa squabble than whether two plus two equals four or five. The real problem is that, unlike mathematics, there is no working and accepted objective standard to which one can appeal when trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong in a moral disagreement. Rather than do the difficult and challenging work of seeking objective standards, it is much easier to assume there are no such standards in morality (except perhaps extreme tolerance) and place moral truth claims in the subjective category. We get to create them ourselves without being answerable to an objective standard—because there isn’t any such standard. Let the discussion begin.

the plagueIn The Plague, a central and early text in another one of my recent classes, Albert Camus raises the possibility that despite the apparent subjectivity of moral claims, there comes a time when one must hang on to moral commitments with the tenacity of two plus two equals four.

Again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.

Here the narrator of The Plague is commenting on the “sanitation squads” in the novel who, rather than hiding from an apparently random and incurable plague that is sweeping across their city, taking the lives of hundreds of their fellow citizens per day, choose to embrace the basic moral task of facing the danger head on, putting their own lives at risk in the service of making the suffering of others slightly less intense and their environment slightly less dangerous. When asked why they have taken on such a thankless task, the members of the sanitation squad always answer with mathematical simplicity. Some things just need to be done. And sometimes what needs to be done is as obvious as the truth of two plus two equals four. the white rose“But what you are doing may very well lead to your death,” someone might object. “So be it.”

Camus’ point is strengthened significantly when considering that The Plague is not just a powerful work of fiction but is also a multi-layered allegory. Published in 1947, the bulk of the novel was written during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, with the various characters in the novel representing the different reactions of French citizens to totalitarianism, the loss of their freedoms, and the extermination of undesirables. kolbeThose who, as did the sanitation squads, chose to address the Nazi plague in the face of overwhelming odds of failure are those who recognized that even in a moral world turned upside down, sometimes the truth and what is right are as obvious as a simple sum in arithmetic. We studied a number of such people during my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium; many of them—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the members of the White Rose, Maximillian Kolbe, and others—lost their lives for daring to insist that two plus two makes four, just as Camus described. But that doesn’t change the fact that even in the world of morals and values, some things are as clear as mathematical truths. Sometimes it really is that simple.

Disturbing the Peace

Last Friday I attended a talk on campus by civil rights lawyer and and law professor Greg Lukianoff on issues of free speech, trigger warnings, and a related host of matters on college and university matters that are regularly in the news. He is the co-author of an article in The Atlantic a bit over a year ago that raised a lot of eyebrows and generated a lot of conversation. I wrote about it in the early weeks of my sabbatical last August: 

I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace Baruch Spinoza Spinoza

One of the lead articles in the most recent edition of The Atlantic magazine is “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Lukianoff and Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind

Co-authored by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, the teaser blurb for the article in the Table of Contents says “How a new strain of political correctness on campus is damaging higher education—and may be threatening students’ mental health.” It is an interesting read. Given Donald Trump’s current more-than-fifteen-minutes of fame, concerns about political correctness are in the news, safe spacebut in this article Lukianoff and Haidt are drawing our attention to what might be called “political correctness with a twist”:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. . . . It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.

The authors’ argument is largely anecdotal, relying either on their own experiences or on recent anecdotal stories and essays from various campuses across the country. seismic shiftThere is a great deal of speculation about the causes of this perceived seismic psychological shift among students over the past couple of decades, although virtually no data is provided to substantiate many of the authors’ claims.

In the first column of the article readers are introduced to two important terms that “have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance: Microaggression and Trigger warnings. Microaggressions “are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.” Examples provided include asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that she or he is not a real American. Mrs. DallowayTrigger warnings are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response”; examples of texts deemed as needing trigger warnings on various campuses include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault). The many examples of these and related problems in the article are chosen and presented with the clear intention of “triggering” the reader into concluding “well that’s just stupid—political correctness, like a hydra, rears a new ugly head.” One of the authors’ primary concerns, repeated frequently throughout the article is that such attention to words and actions that might possibly somewhere, somehow offend someone will leave students unprepared to live and work in a world that doesn’t give a crap about what makes them feel uncomfortable.

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of a doubt?

Even though I have twenty-five years of college teaching under my belt,pc my experience on college campuses is deep but narrow, given that I have taught at my current college home for twenty-one years and have shaped my teaching and professional life within the confines of its “105 acre, park-like campus.” Serious conversations about the negative power of language on students in various groups defined racially, economically, by gender or by sexual preference have been ongoing on my campus for some time now. In my own philosophy department regular, continuing, and often heated debates occur about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate language in the classroom, in job candidate interviews, and in basic conversation with each other. What strikes some as obviously benign, scholarly, and insightful strikes others as ill-advised, insensitive, and downright offensive. That said, the tsunami described by Lukianoff and Haidt as drowning campuses nationwide has escaped my notice where I teach—at least in my classrooms. Perhaps this is because I have included this general “trigger warning” in every syllabus for every one of my courses for at least the past fifteen years:

Ine this course we will be considering some of the most important questions a human being can ask. Perhaps the most important feature of our considerations is learning to ask these questions clearly and precisely. Only then can possible answers be considered fairly. Although I have definite positions on the questions we will be addressing, my role as professor is not to tell you what to think. My role is rather to get you to think. Expect your assumptions to be challenged and comfortable ways of thinking to be disturbed. As the great 17th century philosopher Spinoza once said, I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.

During an oral final exam a couple of semesters ago a student told me that “This class really messed me up—but in a good way!” Mission accomplished.mission accomplished

The new fall semester is just three weeks old–here’s a bit of advice related to safe spaces and learning for the incoming freshmen:

  1. Free speech dictates that everyone has the right to their opinion, but not all opinions are equal. right to an opinionOne of the purposes of a liberal education is to help you become skillful at using the tools of lifetime learning; some of these tools, used properly, will help you learn how to distinguish a good argument from bullshit—even when it is your own argument. I often say that a liberally educated person earns the right to have an opinion. The process of earning that right begins with realizing that your opinion is not special just because it is yours, and without challenge and analysis it means nothing with regard to whether it is true (or even a defensible position).
  2. In the life of learning, comfort is vastly overrated. comfort zoneExpect to encounter people, ideas, situations and expectations that are both unfamiliar and well outside your comfort zone. You should be looking for these rather than trying to avoid them. If you manage to make it through your undergraduate college career without changing any opinion, belief, perspective or attitude, then your tuition dollars have been wasted.
  3. The world of adulthood into which you are making your first, tentative forays can be a tough, nasty place. The world out there is full of people, ideas, things, and events that couldn’t care less if they lie within your current comfort zone.it is what it is As my wife would say, the world is what it is. Your years in college are not so much about your landing a well-paying job after you graduate as they are about the construction of a powerful and flexible moral and psychological framework of belief and commitment, from within which you will engage with what’s “out there” on a daily basis. It is not the world’s responsibility to provide you with comfort and security. It is your task to create and maintain a moral and psychological home for yourself in that world using all of the resources available to you, resources to sustain you on a life-long journey. By the way, you’ll be making significant renovations and additions to this home your whole life. Your professors are here to assist you in the construction of that home—good luck!

A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match. Christopher Nelson

The Fruit of the Blackberry

A few years ago, Jeanne returned from a weekend with a friend in Vermont with a little plant in a box—a Vermont blackberry bush. It has been trying to take over our back yard ever since. It has also recently been the source of a fascinating, ongoing conversation that Jeanne and I have had about fruit, growth, and how to bring what is greater than us into the world.berries

Our new family member looked innocent enough, but it actually had delusions of grandeur and designs on the spaces occupied by its plant neighbors. After surviving its first winter, our new blackberry bush awakened to spring by busting out all over with new leaves, shoots that grew so quickly that I could almost hear them doing it, and random offspring (officially called “suckers”) sticking their little unwanted green heads up as far as ten feet away from the mother bush. In the middle of another, well-established plant, in the middle of the lawn—these new blackberry bush suckers had neither regard for my plans and lawn design, nor respect for the personal space of their neighbors. At school and at church I would occasionally report the shenanigans of our bossy bush; I discovered in short order that more experienced gardeners than I have known for a long time that berry bushes are aggressive bastards. “You think that’s bad, you should see what my raspberry bush is doing!” was a typical response to my complaints.pruning

It’s been a few years now. Every spring I pull up random shoots from the blackberry bush in the lawn, but have allowed two or three new shoot to stay in the flower beds—shoots that now are as large as the original. Left untrimmed, each bush would sprout stalks taller than my six feet and branch out a few feet in every direction. I learned from a Google search how to prune blackberry bushes; blackberries only flower on stems that are two years old, and once a stem has flowered, it will never flower again. The prudent pruner cuts two-year stems to the ground after flowering and fruiting, channeling energy toward the one-year shoots that will flower next year.

I took great delight in ruthlessly cutting our bushes down to size. They currently look very unhappy post-trimming and going into the fall, but in the spring they will revive with new vigor and obnoxiousness. It doesn’t help that for some reason, this plant is Jeanne’s favorite of the dozens of items in our back and front yards. If it were up to her, our back yard would contain nothing but our blackberry bush and its offspring. While I am annoyed with its aggressiveness and the work I have to put in to keep it under control, she sees nothing but its beauty and productivity—that this plant, as unruly as it is, regularly produces wonderful fruit. I marvel annually at the methodical, predictable, and completely miraculous way in which plants emerge from the ground, grow,blackberry-flowers produce buds, then flowers, all the time “neither toiling nor spinning,” as Jesus pointed out.

A couple of years ago Jeanne paid special attention to how her favored bush does this, expressing the same wonder and amazement on a daily basis as she did the first time she petted a real cow. A blackberry bush first sends shoots up, then out, and in the midst of its out-of-control spread it sprouts a number of little white flowers at the tips of many of its branches. These little flowers are very pretty and last a couple of weeks; when their petals fall, the tiny center of the flower remains, looking rather lonely and naked. But these innocuous petal-less buds are what grow into blackberries. Slowly they turn from green, to light red, to darker red, eventually to deepest black, growing larger and larger in the process. Ripe blackberries from our bush have a taste so fabulous that it can’t be described. ripening-blackberriesWe have only experienced this a handful of times, because we both tend to get impatient, picking berries that appear to be ripe (but really aren’t) before their time. Even with a plant trying to take over the yard, patience is the key.

Jeanne and I happened to be talking about our blackberry bush, which finished producing berries for this year around the end of July, as we drove a few miles north to our usual Cineplex to catch a movie for the first time in a while (we saw “Sully”—and so should you). Jeanne expressed, as she often does, her amazement over how these little flowers turn into delicious fruit. It is something that has to be seen and experienced to be believed. Then she made a connection to another conversation that we occasionally have, about “the fruit of the Spirit” as described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “I just realized something for the first time,” she said. “The fruit of the Spirit is not something the Spirit brings us; the fruit of the Spirit develops in you as the natural process of a person living in tune with the Spirit inside them!” Tkjvhis is a great insight, since many of us who have heard about the fruit of the Spirit from the apostle Paul our whole lives tend to think of it as something describing what the Spirit produces for us. Rather, the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (pardon my King James Version)—are the natural fruits produced by those who live their lives energized by the Spirit within.

The natural activity of our blackberry bush, its ebb and flow, its dormant as well as active seasons, and its frequent need for tending and pruning, are all directly comparable to the life of the Spirit. There are seasons of nothing happening, as well as seasons when exuberance causes us to extend our resources in ways that need eventually to be cut back. Sending out “spiritual suckers” into territory for which we are not prepared or equipped, only to have our well-intentioned forays foiled by what knows better, is an experience anyone who seeks to live faith rather than just think about it is familiar with.big-ass-berry

So often we get impatient with ourselves because our natural American results-oriented energy has little or no place in the plant-like processes of the Spirit. We differ from plants because we can choose to cooperate with or resist the Spirit within us—a plant just does what it is fully equipped to do without worrying from day-to-day if it is doing it right. Patience and confidence go hand in hand as we proceed from the first signs of fruit to full maturity, then cycle back to do it all over again. As Paul writes elsewhere, “he who began a good work in you will see it to its completion.” I’m glad that the cosmic tender of the plants has more patience with me than I have with our blackberry bush.

Embracing the Barbarian Invasion

Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them “children.”  Hannah Arendt

One of the wonderfully gratuitous features of my early years as a college professor was the opportunity to teach regularly with a couple of master teachers. During the first decade of my teaching career at Providence College, I taught on an interdisciplinary Honors Development of Western Civilization team every year with two such colleagues. images[6]Rodney was a teaching icon from the English department who now, a few years after his untimely passing, has a tree on campus, a seminar room in the brand new humanities building, and an annual lecture named after him. One of the most dynamic and engaging pedagogues I have ever encountered, I remember telling Jeanne shortly after meeting Rodney in the middle nineties in my first year at Providence College that “when I grow up, I want to be Rodney.”

rays[1]The other member of our teaching triumvirate, Ray, is an extraordinary professor out of the History department. He is also one of the flat-out finest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This coming spring Ray and I will be teaching a colloquium together for the third time the past four years, and class fondly referred to by students as “Nazi Civ.” I am a far better teacher and human being for having spent so many years in the classroom in the company of these outstanding colleagues.

Because we spent so much time together in and out of the classroom, the three of us got to know each others business over the semesters a bit more than is typical between professional colleagues. We often spoke of our children; Rodney’s and Ray’s were young adults at the time, while mine were in high school and junior high. One morning before class as we were getting coffee in the break room, Rodney was bemoaning the fact that he had returned home from work the previous day at 5:00 in the afternoon at the very same time that his son, yowl-380x190[1]a twenty-something who was still living at home, emerged bleary-eyed from his basement bedroom for the first time that day. As we compared notes about the shortcomings and failures of our respective offspring, Ray, who I had always pegged as the perfect father and husband, grew reflective. “I’ve heard so many parents talk about the wonders of parenthood, how raising children is such a privilege, how their children’s growing up years were the best years of their lives,” he said. “I guess I must have missed that.” Preach it, Ray. For all of our politically correct claims about the wonders of child rearing, all parents know that Hannah Arendt’s “tiny barbarians” comment is absolutely true. Civilizing barbarians is hard work.

Conan-the-Barbarian[1]The word “barbarian” is from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), the term Greeks used to refer to anyone who was not Greek. To the refined but xenophobic Greek ear, the sounds coming out of a non-Greek speaker’s mouth sounded like “bar, bar, bar”—hence, “barbarian.” We would call such persons “blahblahblahrians.” The wider connotation of “barbarian” is simply someone or something that does not fit into the expected categories, abide by the accepted rules, or behave according to agreed-upon standards. That description certainly fits children and a lot more—I frequently call our 196834_112520205494582_3062546_n[1]dachshunds barbarians when they pee or take a dump in the middle of the floor, just as I would probably call a human being a barbarian (and worse) if they did the same thing.

And yet there is something exhilarating about having barbarians in our midst. A world without barbarians, without unfamiliar hordes pressing against the outer walls of our holy-of-holies comfort zones, is a world that eventually would stagnate into a smug status quo. I realized this past semester, as I do in varying degrees every semester, that one of the regular features of what I do as a teacher is to let the barbarians loose on the civilized yet unexamined thought processes of my students. conan-barbarian-04_510[1]Philosophy is an inherently barbarian discipline because it’s entire raison d’etre is the challenge to consider that one’s most cherished beliefs might indeed need improvement, that the doors and windows to the inner sanctum might regularly be opened to allow the smelly and scary barbarians in.

Several years ago, when I was still an untenured assistant professor and should have been keeping my mouth shut, I recall being involved in a conversation about this feature of philosophy during a philosophy department meeting. We were in the process of crafting a new “mission statement” for the department, an exercise guaranteed to generate disagreement. Title[1]One of the older members who had been chair of the department for a couple of decades before my arrival, a Dominican priest, proposed that our mission statement read that “The mission of the philosophy department is to teach the Truth.” Period—and make sure that it’s a capital “T” on “Truth.” I, along with several others, suggested that this would presume that we possess the Truth with a capital T, a presumption that is directly contrary to the very spirit of the philosophical enterprise. In a condescending tone (or at least so it sounded to me), another priestly colleague said “Vance, some of us around here think we have the truth,” to which I replied “And here I thought we were a philosophy department.”

So how does one keep the pursuit of truth alive without it being sidetracked into defense of the Truth? Over the past several years in my teaching and writing this question has been directed more and more toward the arena within which Truth rears its ugly head most often—religious belief.collegeville-lecture-31[1] During my sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute five years ago I described my original book project as follows: “Is it possible to live a life of human excellence, of moral focus and spiritual energy, in a world in which the transcendent is silent, in which God is arguably absent?” As I led an afternoon seminar based on my early work on this project with a dozen fellow “resident scholars,” one of them—a Lutheran pastor—asked “But Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” To which I replied, “I don’t know—do I?” I had been wondering that for many years, but this was the first time I had said it aloud. And it was liberating. What would a faith that in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred, look like?

As I’ve dug into these questions with new energy and focus over the past few years, several matters have begun clear, beginning with the fact that the transcendent is not silent after all and God is definitely not absent. They just show up in entirely different places than where we have traditionally looked for them. And I am finding that, for me at least, a vibrant faith requires little in the way of defending the Truth, but rather a willingness to welcome the divine even when wrapped in unexpected packages. JCarse3YT1.2c_000[1]As James Carse writes,

This is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

Such barbarian incursions are not to be feared or defended against. They are to be invited and welcomed. Just as the millions of tiny barbarians who invade the world every year are actually the way in which the human species is renewed and regenerated, so the regular introduction of barbarian ideas into our civilized and supposedly completed belief systems will keep those beliefs from turning into idols. What would a faith in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred look like? It would look a lot like Faith–the real thing.

You Are Free, Therefore Choose

Each of us can point to a time (or several times) in our past when we made a decision that, in retrospect, significantly shaped our lives going forward. Such decisions for me include getting married at one month past twenty, choosing to leave law school for a masters program in philosophy, and deciding to commit for life in my early thirties to a person whom I had known for six weeks. I could have chosen differently in each of these cases, and my life would be much different now than it is. DarwinBneuroscienceut could I really have chosen otherwise? The answer of many “experts” from psychology, science, philosophy, and more is “no.”

I wrote about how the “experts” have gradually but inexorably come to this conclusion a week ago, describing how evidence from Darwin to neuroscience supports the conclusion that everything about me, including all of my choices, is fully determined by both biological and environmental causes beyond my control.

They Will Never Take Our Freedom

I undoubtedly, the experts admit, will continue to believe that some of my choices are free in the sense that I could have chosen otherwise, but that belief is based on an illusion. illusionMy choices may feel free, but they really aren’t. If true, the news that free will—the foundation of what most of us believe concerning morality, reward, punishment, praise, blame, and responsibility—is an illusion cannot be taken lightly. Nor, I would argue, need I either as a philosopher or a human being believe that the “experts” are right about this. Free will is only an illusion if one accepts the starting assumptions that energize the argument against human beings having real free will, assumptions that include the belief that everything that exists is made of physical matter, that physical matter is governed by inexorable physical laws, and that we generally know what those laws are. These assumptions are so entrenched among the “experts” that challenging them is as uphill a battle as trying to argue that the earth is flat. But I’ll give it a shot.

I often tell my students that each person, among her or his beliefs, has a small handful of what Aristotle called “first principles.” Aristotle knew as much about cause and effect as anyone;ō indeed, he arguably invented our familiar system of logic that is built on the belief that we live in a world governed by cause and effect relationships. These relationships shape how our beliefs hang together as well. Consider the following conversation:

Me: I believe A is true.

You: Why?

Me: Because A depends on B, and I believe B is true.

You: Why?

Me: Because B depends on C, and I believe C is true.

You: Why?

There’s a pattern here. We all seek to support our beliefs by referring to connected and deeper beliefs on which they depend. There’s also a problem here, though. The chain of cause and effect has to end somewhere if we are to avoid the dreaded “infinite regress.” So eventually we get this:

Me: I believe that X is true because X depends on Z, and I believe Z is true.

first principlesYou: Why? (you’re getting really annoying, by the way)

Me: Because I do.

In Aristotle’s terminology, I have just identified “Z” as one of my first principles. In order to avoid an infinite regress, eventually we arrive at a belief for which we seek no further justification than that we believe it. Such first principles vary from person to person–some common ones include “Human life is intrinsically valuable,” “Human beings are fundamentally equal,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For many, including myself, “Human beings have the capacity to choose freely, choices that are not entirely determined by matters outside their control” is another first principle which, if true, stands in direct opposition to what the “experts” claim the truth to be. And like it or not, no one wants to hear that a first principle is an illusion.

When I choose freely, I deliberate between available options, weigh the evidence supporting and against each, and choose the option that best satisfies my operational criteria. I cause the choice, in other words, influenced but not determined by any number of factors. This simple idea—that a human being can choose without the choice being fully determined—violates assumptions so prevalent among the “experts” that it is tantamount to heresy. uncaused caused 2And to be sure, this simple idea is indeed a radical one, for it claims that the freely choosing human being is an exception to the inexorable laws of matter, capable of starting her or his own chain of causation that would not have happened without the choice starting the chain. There are few beings in the annals of philosophy with this power. Aristotle called his creating force—what we might call “God”—the “unmoved mover” or “the first cause uncaused,” the place where the chain of causation begins (or ends if one is going backwards). In short, human beings act “in loco parentis,” with the causal power of the divine itself, when we make free choices. If one wants to go religious, it is this very creative power of free choice that the sacred texts are referring to when they claim that human beings are “created in the image of God.”

The position that truly free choices step meaningfully outside the laws of nature has been called “metaphysically peculiar” by some philosophers, simply “bullshit” by others. Free will deniers assume that any human capacity that purportedly steps outside the laws of physical matter must be an illusion, since we all know that everything is made of matter and that matter is governed by deterministic laws. more thingsTo which I respond, as I often do, in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Presuming that everything in heaven and earth can be reduced to the confines of our current understanding of reality is hubris of breathtaking proportions. When a fundamental and definitive human ability is defined out of existence because of narrow assumptions, I choose to question the assumptions rather than the reality of the fundamental human ability. When answers to a question do not square with our strongest intuitions and beliefs about ourselves, change the question.

None of the above is very philosophical of me, at least not in the contemporary sense. I freely (J) admit that human free choice might be an illusion, but I see no reason to believe so based on an argument with questionable assumptions. I choose rather to embrace the mystery and miracle of being human and believe, until better contrary evidence is provided, in keeping with the intuitions of billions of human beings that at least some human choices make a difference—such a great difference that they make the world a different place than it would have otherwise been. SartreAnd human beings are not just vehicles of that change—their choices cause that change. Maybe we just don’t know enough about reality to rule out abilities that don’t square with our current understanding of things. Maybe human beings are truly the crowning glory of creation, endowed with a spark of the divine that reveals itself in our most basic capacities. Maybe all of the above. Take your pick. As Jean-Paul Sartre used to say, “You are free, therefore choose.”

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

Four years ago this month, I finally followed the advice of several people whose opinions I respect and began this blog. Almost 100,000 visits from 160+ countries later, writing here regularly has provided me with more joy and opportunities for growth than I could have possibly imagined. Thanks so much to my regular and occasional readers–your support and comments keep me going! As is my annual custom, today I am marking my blog’s birthday by reposting my very first post from August 2012–enjoy!

I have unexpectedly fallen in love with a real bitch. She’s cute, with dark brown eyes and medium brown hair. Although I generally prefer long hair on a female, she wears her hair extremely short and it works. She tends to bite me when she gets overexcited while we’re playing, but I still find her pearly white teeth very attractive. Although she’s willing to allow a ménage à trois when my wife is home, she prefers it being just the two of us in bed. Her name is Frieda.

This is a new experience for me. No one has ever looked at me with a gaze that says “you were put on earth just for me.” No female has ever marked me as a love interest and dared me not to love her back. This is the first time I’ve been chosen before I knew I was even being considered. And it’s not as if Frieda doesn’t have lots of options for love interests. Everybody loves Frieda—she’s extroverted and assertive, yet can be warm, demure, and submissive. She can take over a room just by walking into it, yet is happy to spend hours being quiet doing whatever you’re doing. She is fluent in both English and German. Her profile would be a killer on eharmony.com.

I never thought I’d fall in love with a dog. I’ve always been a cat person; there’s been at least one cat in my life consistently ever since I was ten years old. A cat is a perfect pet for an introvert; they clearly would prefer to be left alone most of the time and will only socialize when it is their idea. There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. It takes time and effort to get to know a cat—time and effort on the human’s part, that is. The cat couldn’t care less. Self-reliance, independence, confidence, a sense of mystery and aloofness—I find much to admire in a cat.

Dogs are a different story; not so much to admire. Dogs are so obsequious, as if canine completeness requires human approval.. But Frieda didn’t and doesn’t need me—she chose me, out of the blue. Frieda is part of the four animal menagerie who arrived when my son and daughter-in-law moved in, joining the two geriatric animals already in the house; she decided early on that I was going to be hers. I’ve seen animals attach themselves to a single human before (usually my wife, a dog person). Not to me, though. So the “click click click” of toenails behind me everywhere I go, an enthusiasm when I come home so over the top that I worry about her health, having a canine jammed in next to me everywhere I sit, a 10 ½ pound dachshund trying to spoon with me in bed—these are new and sometimes disconcerting experiences.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” Not me—that’s too much pressure. No human being could possibly deserve the rapturous upside-down look Frieda occasionally gives me when she’s laying next to me or on my lap, just making sure that I’m still there. Of course such reverence is easy for Frieda—she doesn’t know about all the ways in which I am unworthy of unconditional love. That’s one of my great fears—what if they (my wife, my sons, my friends, my students—anybody) knew the truth about me? Frieda doesn’t know the truth about me, and that’s why she’s attached to me at the hip. She doesn’t know any better.

I learned as a kid in Sunday School that grace is “unmerited favor.” Divine grace is something I don’t deserve, a gift I cannot earn, bestowed simply “because.” Over the years, grace has evolved for me into “God knows that you’re a shit and a loser, but chooses to forgive you and to love you anyway.” Today I’m thinking that grace is more like Frieda. The miracle of grace is not that “you are unworthy but I choose to treat you as if you are worthy,” but “you are worthy.” Not “I love you in spite of,” or “I love you because of,” but “I love you.” If there is, somewhere in the universe, a transcendent grace and love like that, I am in awe.  That’s something worth believing and having faith in. That’s a thread of possibility that should be followed in order to see where it leads. Of course, Frieda’s just a simple dog and doesn’t realize that her standards are ridiculously low. But as Leonard Bernstein wrote in Mass, “Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.”

Believing What I Think

Last week at the Republican National Convention, the Republicans nominated as their candidate for President of the United States a person so outside the norm, so iconoclastic in every way, that even the most experienced observers of American politics—insiders and outsiders alike—are scratching their heads. trumpHow did this happen? I suspect that it will take years for answers to fully develop, but there is one contributing factor that I have been hearing both through traditional and social media on a regular basis. Supporters of this candidate often say something along the lines of “He’s saying things that many of us have been thinking for years but have, for any number of reasons, not been able to say. He speaks for us.” Which raises the question—How much of what we believe to be true is simply a projection of what we want to be true? After all, as a bumper sticker I saw the other day insightfully pointed out, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”believe

Fall classes begin in a few weeks and I have started planning my two sections of General Ethics in earnest. Over my twenty-five-plus years of teaching, ethics has always been my favorite course—because of administrative duties, then sabbatical, this will be the first time in five years that I have taught it. I chose several weeks ago to make the class as contemporary possible—with two exceptions, every assigned text was written within the past ten years. One of the exceptions will come early in the semester from one of my three or four favorite philosophers—Michel de Montaigne. massacre[1]Montaigne lived in a polarized religious world that reminds me strongly of our current equally polarized political situation. Sixteenth-century France was not a pretty place—in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, Christians were killing each other with regularity and abandon, all in the name of Christ. Catholics and Protestants each were certain that they were right; energized by such certainty, each was willing to kill the other in the name of truth and right belief. When I heard delegates in Cleveland last week regularly chanting that the soon-to-be-official nominee of the other major political party should be locked up or worse, I thought of Montaigne’s constant efforts to convince his readers that certainty and unwarranted conviction can be deadly.

In the second week of classes, my students and I will be working on perhaps Montaigne’s most famous essay—“On Cannibals.” Reflecting on the visit to France of several Brazilians from cannibal tribes, Montaigne notes that just as cultured Europeans of his day were appalled by various Brazilian tribal practices, so the visitors were just as confused and appalled by certain European cultural norms. michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Stepping back, Montaigne argues first that a stronger case for barbarism could be leveled against the Europeans than against the cannibals, then puts his finger on an issues that is remarkably relevant to our contemporary world.

We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed, we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions and customs current in the land where we live. There we always see the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything.

Our own myopia and parochialisms are usually defined by something other than national borders, but Montaigne’s point is clearly as true now as it was in his day. We tend to believe that what we are most accustomed and used to is true, without ever wondering how we came to be accustomed and used to these things in the first place. We resonate most strongly with those who mirror back to us what we are already thinking.

Parochialism and attachment to what we think we know is not a problem exclusive to any particular set of beliefs or experiences. All of us, from conservative to progressive, from atheist to dedicated religious believer, assume that the way that we think is not only the epitome of common sense, but also the standard of reason well used. Yet as Adam Etinson, a contemporary commenter on Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” adam etinsonobserves,

Moral reasoning is generally something we use merely to convince others of long-held beliefs that we are unwilling to abandon . . . often, no amount of persuasive reasoning, clear argument or exposed contradiction can shake us from what we already believe.

Why are we so inclined to hang on to our most entrenched thoughts, even in the face of evidence that our most deeply held beliefs are rooted in anything but experiential evidence supported by logical reasoning?

The most obvious answer is that adopting the thoughts and beliefs of one’s culture and family is easy, while critically challenging one’s default settings and perhaps even changing them is hard work. Cultural centrism is evidence of both our intellectual laziness and our fallibility—the ever-present possibility that our beliefs might be wrong. One effective way that I have found to bring the randomness of our deepest convictions to light is to simply ask my students the following: “How many of you think that you would be a very different person today if you had been born in rural Tibet instead of where you were actually born?” All hands go up. “Why?” Because, as everyone knows, we are shaped early and often by features of our existence—our society, family, location, social status—that we do not choose. ethnocentrismYet we often wander unreflectively through life relying on these foundations that we did not choose, as if we had magically been given the universal truth about all important issues at birth. The fact that our deepest held beliefs would be different had we been born elsewhere on the planet (or even, sometimes, to different parents farther down the street) should disconcert us. In every course syllabus I include Spinoza’s observation that “I do not know how to teach philosophy without disturbing the peace.” The “What if you were born elsewhere?” exercise is one of the more effective peace disturbers in my teaching arsenal.

Of all the things I deeply believe, those that I have come to through challenging preconceptions and previously unchallenged assumptions are the ones that are now most definitive of who I am. All of us should regularly reexamine our beliefs and practices, become alert to weaknesses and inconsistencies in our own thinking, discover something plausible in another’s point of view and in so doing, become better than the parochial and myopic creatures that we naturally are. After all, none of us needs to believe everything that we think.